Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Theoden and the Ents: The Dulling of the World

In a letter to a reader, Tolkien writes that the Third Age of Middle-earth "leads on eventually and inevitably to ordinary History" (Letters 186). This makes the time span of The Lord of the Rings particularly unique in the history of Middle-earth. The War of the Ring is a moment in time in which the myths of the past have become to fade from the world but have not disappeared completely. In this period of time between mythology and "ordinary History," the ageing legends still have the power to emerge and play a role in the present.

The theme of legends coming forward to disrupt the present exists in both Tolkien's short story "Farmer Giles of Ham" as well as in The Lord of the Rings in Theoden's encounter with the Ents. The former story, despite its pastoral setting, takes place at a time when the Little Kingdom is old enough to have lost some of its own history, embodied in the king's decision to inadvertently gift a mythical dragonslaying sword to Giles because he considers it out of fashion. The village parson, however, identifies the sword as Tailbiter, and the villagers "all knew the renown of Tailbiter. . . The songs and tales of [the dragonslayer] were many, and if forgotten at court, were still remembered in the villages." In the end, it is Giles, possessing forgotten knowledge and wielding a forgotten sword, who outshines all the king's knights and even the king himself to defeat and tame the dragon attacking the kingdom.

In Book III of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien explores a similar theme from the perspective of the Lord of the Mark. Upon learning of the existence of the Ents and their role in bringing down Saruman, Theoden tells Gandalf, "Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun" (LotR 550). As in "Farmer Giles," the legends of low peoples in society contain far more history than the noble people realize until those legends burst forth into the present.

However, Theoden's discovery of Ents is not an entirely wondrous affair. He also laments that "however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?" (LotR 550) With every Ent that has died in the fight against Saruman, the legends of the Ents have become less and less true. Eventually, if they all fade away, then the legends will no longer "walk visible under the Sun." The world will become slightly less wondrous. Theoden is expressing a preemptive feeling of loss felt by many others in Middle-earth. Galadriel, for example, knows that the destruction of the Ring will lead to the diminishing of her own power and with it the fading of the beauty of Lothlorien.

As Stuart D. Lee and Elizabeth Solopova discuss in The Keys of Midde-Earth, some characters acutely feel the loss of those things that have already disappeared into the past. They specifically reference Legolas's grief at finding the ruins of an Elf dwelling in Hollin and write, "One could even imagine a repetition of Legolas's lament, hundreds of years after the destruction of the Ring, as some unknown traveler comes across the remains of Rivendell, or even Minas Tirith" (137). The Third Age is a time of continuous loss. As Elves leave for the Grey Havens, as Saruman destroys the Forest of Fangorn, as the beauty of Lothlorien diminishes, Middle-earth becomes filled with ruined testaments to its former glories. Now, however, the legends and myths lose their power to emerge from the past and impact the present. When this happens, we arrive at "ordinary History," as Tolkien puts it.

This is not a particularly bright view of the future, and it helps to understand Tolkien's own lack of excitement for the process of globalization that unfurled in his lifetime. Unlike his peers, Tolkien did not appeared enamored with notions of technological and social progress. In a letter penned in 1943 to his son Christopher, Tolkien writes:
The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, U.S.S.R., the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hither Further and Inner Mambo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be. At any rate it ought to cut down travel. There will be nowhere to go. (Letters 65)
Tolkien feared that the future would bring a cultural flattening of the world, specifically the loss of languages as more and more people came to speak English. He invokes the curse of Babel as a means of keeping separate languages alive. What others see as human progress Tolkien sees as an unfortunate historical process playing out: the rounding of the world, the loss of power of mythologies, and the decline into ordinary History.

The examples given above from Tolkien's own writings would suggest that he sees the process of loss of glory as inevitable. He expresses a distinct bitterness towards "them," the Americans, expanding their cultural reach into the rest of the globe. The impact of this influence is the same as the impact of time in Middle-earth: the fading of glories and a dulling of the world.

If we are to take Tolkien's perspective on past, present, and future, then we will recognize that we can never again live in the age of living mythologies. Like Theoden, we will lament that we live in a time when the things that made the world wondrous are passing out of it. If languages and cultures are lost, then the legends that they hold will be lost as well. We must look for our Ents while we still can.

--I. Wink


  1. Tolkien would agree! Nice comparison between the lesson Giles learns from the parson about his sword and the lesson Theoden learns when he encounters Ents. Note that in both stories, giants figure as the carriers of legend, much as in the poem "The Ruin." Myths are giant stories, the stories of when the world was great? RLFB

  2. Another interesting angle on Tolkien's view of the "cultural flattening" he perceived in our world and portrayed in LoTR and Farmer Giles comes from how some of the dragons in Farmer Giles believe that knights are just myths (inverting the usual trope demonstrated in Middle Earth and many other fictional worlds). This isn't really built upon beyond a one-line joke, but I think its indicative how even parts of humanity (e.g. knights) eventually become parts of our history and exist in the public consciousness mostly as legends. Middle Earth may be losing its ents and elves, but slowly it will also lose its medieval warriors and the cultures that birthed them to progress, which I think Tolkien would believe to be almost as much of a tragedy as the loss of Middle Earth's more wondrous elements. As you point out, he despaired at the loss of human culture's split into many different diverse islands across the globe, and even though only the young dragons saw knights as myths in Farmer Giles, he seemed to worry that one day we too would lose touch with things like knights as they faded further and further into the past. I think it's possible to see part of Middle Earth as a record of some of those parts of humanity that he saw fading from our world, which also ties into how he saw Middle Earth as a part of "our world".