Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Good vs. Evil - Tree Lovers vs. Tree Killers

Our discussion on Monday led to some interesting conclusions about how and why Tolkien describes trees in the manner that he does in his many works. Trees, for Tolkien, are not just living creatures in the way that we think of them in our own primary reality. Rather, they are sentient with memories of past good and evil deeds that influence their manner and behavior, much like all the other peoples of Middle Earth. In seeing this comparison, we began to discuss whether the clash between Saruman and the Ents was really just a clash between industry and “the wild” but quickly realized that it actually has more to do with the clash of cultures and civilizations. It was this vein of thought that led me to think more about the manner in which Tolkien characterizes interaction between individuals in LotR and trees and how representative it can be of who these individuals are in the context of Good and Evil. 

Galadriel, among all other beings on Middle Earth, is probably the ideal example of a tree lover.  She uses her power to imbue Lothlorien with her love for nature, making the Golden Woods shine and thrive in a manner that is different from all other forests in Middle Earth. At the same time, she is also the wisest and fairest. As we have quickly discovered, Tolkien does [not] write or include anything in his works that is coincidental. In being this supreme and wise individual from the Elder Days, Galadriel understands the trees in a manner that few others on Middle Earth do because in a sense, she embodies the very thing that trees represent: fairness, beauty, wisdom, age and light. In Tolkien’s description of Lorien and Galadriel (LotR, Book II, Chapter 6 & 7), there seems to be a kind of flow between the two living beings such that both are imbued with a power and light that can be both frightening and nurturing. Upon her leaving, the woods of Lorien start fading, just as she fades into the West. There is a deep connection between the Lady of the Wood and her trees which is what marks her as one of the most supreme and powerful beings on Middle Earth in its fight against Evil.

It would only be right, then, to talk about Samwise Gamgee next. Arguably the most “good” character of the Lord of the Rings Samwise is, of all the ring bearers, the only one that does not succumb to the power of the ring. Galadriel herself refers to Sam as “little gardener and lover of trees” (LotR, Book II, Chapter 8) before gifting him the earth from her own land. This is an incredibly significant exchange because it is more than just a gift, but rather a passing on of a similar power and love of cultivation to one who she deems worthy of it. She describes how the garden that blooms may give Sam a view of “far off Lorien”. Sam is the one that supports Frodo through most of his travails and is the one that restores the Shire (LotR, Book VI, Chapter 9) to its original, if not greater beauty. Like Galadriel, Sam cultivates and loves nature in a manner that is different from the other Hobbits. His love for gardens and well maintained greenery is central to his character. While it is not the “wild” mysticism and power associated with the Golden Woods, it is his caring for things that bloom and grow that play a part in making Sam a symbol of hope and good much more so than many other characters in the Lord of the Rings.

However, this idea is not complete without referencing the other side of this coin. In Tolkien’s verse, Melkor, Saruman and Sauron are synonymous with darkness, ash and fire: all things that are evil and dangerous for trees. There are constant descriptions of smoke and fire rising from Mordor and Isengard with trees being cut down to feed these fires. Saruman, a wizard who seemingly loved nature and trees, is described by Treebeard to have a mind of “stone”(LotR, Book III, Chapter 4) while Sauron, in his lair in Dol Goldur, not only corrupted Mirkwood making it dark and dangerous, but also decimated Mordor into a barren land with fire and ash.  Melkor, possibly most evil, or at least the original evil being in Tolkien’s verse, stabbed and killed the Two Trees in Varda, beginning the cycle of war, loss and darkness that was the battle and quest for the Silmarils (Quenta Silmarillion). It is clear, in these descriptions, that Tolkien is condemning these individuals as evil, not because of some inherent bad quality in them, but because of their actions, particularly against the living beings of Middle Earth, including the trees. The paths of destruction and carnage that these three representations of evil leave in their wake remind me of Tolkien’s anger in his letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph. He states that “nothing… compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing” (Letter 339). In Middle Earth, it is not electric saws but axes that emphasize the darkness and evil of Sauron, Saruman and Melkor in their individual quests for power over good.

Tolkien does a wonderful job in showing a culmination of this idea in the march of the Ents against Isengard (Book III, Chapter 4). It isn’t a “hasty” decision but rather one that is thought out and discussed by the Ents. It might not be the most significant fight between the forces of good and evil in the Lord of the Rings, but it is certainly important, just in the fact that it is the primary example of nature’s civilization fighting back. The Ents, the tree-shepherds, march to war much like Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas march to war. Though not necessarily rooted in the same motivations, the cause for both these forces of good is the same: to overcome to darkness and evil that Sauron and Saruman have wrought on Middle Earth. In both cases, it is a clash of civilizations and cultures and different beliefs. Though this “last march of the Ents” could mean a potential end to cultivation of forests that are known and loved, it also represents the inevitable end of the dominion of the destroyers of nature. Treebeard is not fighting on behalf of Aragorn and Gandalf, but he is fighting the same enemy. So whether we categorize dark forces as a tree cutter or an Orc, Tolkien has crafted an epic where the civilizations and balance of good and evil in them is very carefully and purposefully interwoven with nature. 



  1. Dear AK,
    I think you put your finger on something of key importance: the correlation between characters’ treatment of trees and their general moral quality. The examples you give are compelling and well-spotted.

    I wonder, though, how far can one push this point. What are the limits to the correlation between a cultivating appreciation of growing things and a higher moral quality? Could one extend your argument to make it a kind of test or tell-tale of character? If we do press it that far, I wonder how one would deal with the possibility of dark or evil trees. Where would the Bucklanders fit here, those who chopped down the trees beseiging their village?

    I think you’re well developing the theme of ‘nature’s civilization’ (lovely, paradoxical phrase). If we find the tree having consciousness and memories, do we also find them with free agency and the power of choice? If so, we come back to our theme of the character of evil (especially the Ring) as controlling others’ wills. What kind of model does Treebeard the tree-herd provide in his care for the trees without depotism?

  2. I very much agree with your observations in this post concerning the thematic parallels between goodness and nature. I wonder why Tolkien chose to stress this connection so strongly. Are the trees something that are inherently good and righteous, more so than other beings? Or rather, do they stand for something? The trees seem to be a symbol of life, specifically life that is beautiful, but defenseless. The trees are much like the hobbits or human villagers of Middle Earth in that they cannot alone stand up to the evil and darkness of Sauron and his armies. As you pointed out, the same characters who care so strongly for nature also embody mercy, empathy, and compassion. These connections are definitely important to Tolkien and add a lot to the understanding of what it means to be “good”.