Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tolkien: He Speaks for the Trees

In class we briefly touched upon the concept of The Green Man that Flieger uses as a common denominator between The Green Knight of the Gawain story and Treebeard. I wanted to expand on this concept. Accepting that both Treebeard and The Green Knight are Green Man-figures I wish to look at the important points of similarity as well expand upon the issues that are brought out only when such characters are considered within the context of The Green Man.

As Flieger explains, The Green Man is a recurring pre-Christian symbol found prominently in medieval religious architecture and recurring throughout time into the modern day (if Swamp Thing doesn’t qualify as a Green Man, I’m not sure what does.)
Swamp Thing looks pretty green to me
Yet, strangely The Green Man is lacking a narrative from which it originates. In other words, it is exactly the kind of thing that Tolkien would seize upon and appropriate for his Legendarium. Flieger suggests that The Green Knight from the Gawain story is properly viewed as a type of Green Man-figure and that his connection to vegetation imbues him, and by extension the poem, with additional meaning, meaning that cannot be gleaned if one was “to divorce the Green Knight from the green world, to take him out of this context and all it implies” (The Green Man, The Green Knight, and Treebeard p.92). Particularly the motif of the beheading game, not uncommon in English and Welsh tradition, takes on new meaning when The Green Knight is seen as a nature protector. The challenge to take a swing at a man’s neck in exchange for a swing in return at a later date can be seen as the kind of reciprocity generally denied to nature. The trees are cut down but do not get to return the swing of the axe. One that is situationally similar to Treebeard’s attack on Isengard. The comparison is completely lost if one does not acknowledge The Green Knight’s connection to nature. Additionally, in Gawain, The Green Knight will return the swing of the axe in a year’s time. The delay suggests the seasonal cycles of plants, which as we discussed in class has strong associations with rebirth. We can then see how the nature symbolism reinforces the rebirth sequence of the quest for Gawain.

Looking beyond Gawain's knight to Tolkien's use of The Green Man, why is it important that neither The Green Knight nor Treebeard are simply personified trees, as the True Cross is in The Dream of the Rood? Tolkien makes it explicitly clear that Ents are not trees saying “Some of us are still true Ents, and lively enough in our fashion, but many are growing sleepy, going tree-ish, as you might say” (Part III Chapter 4). Tolkien then separates Ents from Trees. Similarly, The Green Knight is a bewitched man under the spell of Morgan le Fey. The aspect is not mere happenstance, Tolkien gives us a clear point of comparison in The Old Forest, where the trees are alive but lack a Green Man to tend to them:

            There used to be some very dangerous parts in this country. There are still some very black patches.'
            'Like the Old Forest away to the north, do you mean?' asked Merry.
            'Aye, aye, something like, but much worse. I do not doubt there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north; and bad memories are handed down. But there are hollow dales in this land where the Darkness has never been lifted, and the trees are older than I am.  (Part III Chapter 4)

Here the trees come to life and are dark, twisted and vengeful, confusing travelers by moving the paths and, once in Hobbit history, actually attacking Buckland at the edges of the forest. So then, why is it critical that these Green Man-figures are at once apart of and divorced from nature? Put another way why do trees need a Lorax? Why not just speak for themselves?

I purpose that this has to do with Tolkien’s view on the proper interaction with nature. Even within the narrative the trees cannot truly speak for themselves, they are still tended to by others. That the Ents are referred to as shepherds is hardly accidental imagery. One can use the aspects of nature in the same way one utilizes the wool of sheep, but sheep must be cared for and looked after. The separation of Green Man-figures from the aspects of nature they look after may be important because we are meant to emulate these natural protectors. If the trees themselves are given agency it might be problematic to assert control over them, the take away would then present a man far more removed from nature. Instead, Tolkien uses his Green Men, Treebeard in particular, to show an interaction with nature that is codependent and involved, almost paternal. The nature of Tolkien is not wholly a thing that can look after itself. It must still be looked after and treated correctly.



  1. Dear JH,
    Thanks for your post on the Green Man imagery, which moves engagingly from question to question and takes us from the general imagery to Tolkien’s use of it as a lens with which to see Tolkien’s view of nature. I think the Swamp Thing certainly belongs here, but Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing certainly does raise some unique questions.

    You raise a good point on the Green Man’s (specifically Treebeard’s) role of speaking for the trees. He is not a tree, but associates and cares for them, as you pointed out. Now I wonder if we can connect this view to the theme of the Elf-friend, earlier, who mediates and relates to others the adventures in Fairie? Does Treebeard play this kind of role or is that incidental to Treebeard’s role?

    In bringing in the Old Forest and the need for a cultivator or shepherd for the wakeful trees, we raise the question of Bombadil. Tom seems to have some qualities of the tree-herd. Is there, do you think, flexibility to apply this view of the paternal, advocating tree-herd to Tom or is that a mistake?

  2. I thought the argument that Tolkien clearly separates trees from Ents as Ents are ones who, as you describe, in Lorax-ian fashion "speak for the trees." The question I have a lot more interest in exploring is why - you mention Tolkien's views of interaction with nature. I wonder if we can fit Entwives and gardens into this too, though. One thing we covered in class was the notion of wildness, and the Old Forest vs. Fangorn vs. gardens. Perhaps part of separating Ents from trees is to give Ents some powers of cultivation? Maybe trees in their natural state are far worse than we would expect?

    That's the concern I would have with associating Tom Bombadil with Ents or Entwives. The Old Forest is a wild, dangerous place, and Tom only rescues the Hobbits from Old Man Willow after they sing for him - he's not really "cultivating," so much as he is just wandering around. Anyone who has ever had hedges or trees knows that pruning is vitally important, otherwise they can tip over or break. I'm not sure that Tom really engages in any "pruning," though it certainly seems like the Entwives and Ents (though the latter isn't explicitly stated, is it?) do.

    - Vidur Sood

  3. As per your final point on the stewardship of nature:

    I'm not sure that, in Tolkien's view, humans can have any sort of truly symbiotic relationship with nature - I think that man's presence, as Flieger said, might be in and of itself opposed to the will of nature, and its adversary. Man's lot is to make order out of nature - we, like the Entwives, are gardeners, not tree shepherds. Treebeard, like many of the old guard of Middle Earth, seems to represent (more than anything) a dying off of old things to make room for the civilization of man. The Ents, the elves, the dragons, the magic, even the hobbits - these will all soon go away. It's a very Anglo-Saxon, doom-y way to look at the world, but, having been a scholar of history who constantly read the testimonies of long-dead men, I really don't think Tolkien could've written it any other way. The wild, strange and magical things out there in the world are going away. Some, like dragons and trolls, we can do without. The passing of other things - big, dark forests and Ents included - is sad, and the world is worse and smaller without them, but that's the way of things. All shall fade.


  4. I think Robert’s question about the relationship between Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest is an interesting one. I might actually propose he occupies the opposite position that Treebeard and the Green Knight do; Tom’s not a Green Man he’s a People Man or a Man Green or whatever the opposite of Green Man is. When the Hobbits come around Tom protects them from the dangers of the forest (most notably Old Man Willow, but also from becoming lost or tired). In a sense this touches upon something J.H. mentioned in the OP, that forests can fight back (given the time and motivation). And if we acknowledge that the fight between Nature and people is a two-way street, then it makes sense for Tolkien to include someone in the role of defender against the dangers of the forest, especially against characters who most represent the goodness and innocence of humanity.
    -H. Goldberg