We discussed in class at length why trees might be scarier than monsters, a possibility that is highly interesting given the conclusion we came to of an ideal relationship of cultivation between trees and subcreators (elves, men, etc.). Trees are not very rare. Given the right climate, you can find them every few feet. You can’t really get rid of them, because they aren’t solitary. They can’t run, but if you run, there are always more of them. They’re taller than people, and they don’t die if you rip leaves off of them, don’t react visibly as though in pain as we would to a physical wound. It seems significant that Tolkien sets up trees as a kind of neutral-hostile force: as opposed to corporeal monsters, which function as animals rather than plants, and therefore behave in almost a more familiar way than trees do, despite their fantastic qualities, and are at the same time far less pervasive than trees. Accustomed to see trees more like ornaments to the backdrop of our everyday lives, as readers we are asked to pay new attention to them, as a present and powerful living force in Tolkien’s stories.
The idea that one should need mediators when dealing with trees – elves, ents – suggests something curious about how Tolkien seems to believe we should approach the natural world, as if we should not have direct contact with it, or it takes a certain kind of person to do so. Like Faerie, woods seems to need an elf friend of sorts. The idea of a necessary mediator seems to conflict with the ideal of the elves which we discussed in class, of harmony between nature and human art (as both a kind of art, in the context of created Middle-earth), and between humans and nature as both created things. A mediator being necessary between a pure forest such as the Old Forest and a people such as hobbits for them to get along and for each to exist in a most fulfilled manner seems a bit of a tall order – how does one create something like that? One cannot import ents and elves when needed. Cultivation was suggested as a solution to a wild forest, but I have an uneasy feeling that the Old Forest would not appreciate cultivation, and is beyond it in some way.
It also seems troubling to suggest that cultivation by men or elves is necessary for trees and forests. There is something conflicting between such a human/humanoid-centric universe and the sheer power of the natural world that Tolkien presents us with throughout the Lord of the Rings. That is to say, how can we say that a forest is not at its fullest and most beautiful without human (or elf or hobbit) cultivation, if we do not demand that humans (and elves and hobbits) be cultivated by forests to reach their fullness as beings/creatures? One might suggest that the difference is that the humanoids are exclusively subcreators in the world (and therefore have the status of things that make art rather than just existing), but I don’t necessarily buy it – beavers? Ants? Trees themselves, as things that reproduce? (We discussed in class that childbearing was a form of subcreation.)
I wonder if we can say that the humanoids of the Lord of the Rings are cultivated by the natural world. The elves and hobbits seem like good candidates, as they live close to nature, though of different sorts, and in harmony with it. Caras Galadhon seems like the best example of harmony between the art of elves and the natural world, but reading its description does not give the impression that the elves have been shaped by the forest. Celeborn and Galadriel are clad all in white (LotR, 354), all the worse to get covered with twigs and leaf-litter. The whole place is hung with lamps (354), a great fire-hazard in a wind – if there is wind there? Does removing aspects of the natural world for the convenience of humanoid inhabitants constitute real harmony, or domination? Is there a compromise here where the elves give up something of their nature?
Sam, at least, seems to think that the trade-off between the elves of Lórien and Lórien itself may be equal. “ ‘These folk … seem to belong here, more even than Hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say, if you take my meaning’ ” (360). But the hobbits, for all their enmity with the Old Forest, at least look like the earth they inhabit – rolling and sunny, green and brown and yellow. Perhaps, though, it is fair to say that Lórien is simply an example of one of the many different kinds of forest in the Lord of the Rings, and that it hasn’t become solely an elf-house and lost its character as a forest, but that its character as a forest happens to fit the character of the elves that inhabit it.
Be that as it may, Tolkien’s idea of living with and caring for the natural world, even wild forested parts (and not just fields and gardens), is one of the ideas that affects me most when I read the book. As a non-religious reader, it was not the fight against Sauron as evil or the problem of possessiveness or the characters’ moralities or (im)mortalities that mattered to me, but the great presence of the natural world, pitted against the destruction of Saruman and Sauron, and the fact that every second person is out to protect it. That the characters love Middle-earth as a natural world and interact with it constantly is what made the books magical to me when I first encountered them, and continues to do so. Everything – Athelas, the Falls of Rauros, the Old Forest, the mountains – is participating, every aspect of nature that appears in the books might as well be a character in and of itself. And perhaps, as a non-Christian, it is particularly easy for me to say this, but for me their doing so does not have much to do with whether they were created or not. In fact, Caras Galadhon, the best example, as we discussed in class, of harmony and cultivation between subcreative creatures and trees, seems to me rather an inactive and character-less landscape, as compared to the rich, wild, untamed Old Forest – creepy, bushy, bright green and darkly shaded and mysterious. If the Christian reading of trees as relating to jewels, things of light and craft, is there, a very different reading of trees seems also to be there to oppose it: a wood, and world, in its might and glory precisely when it is powerful and un-walked-in – one which has worth in and of itself, even if it will not tolerate travelers, much less inhabitants. Tolkien’s description of the Old Forest is full of details of nature that suggest wonder, fascination (113-15) – while his description of Caras Galadhon has more light, speech, and song than it has trees (353-54). In the presence of the great power and agency of elves, the trees of Lórien, despite what Sam might say about their forming each other and belonging together, have become the background.