Archæology

The assorted finds of Artefact Publishing

Tolkien’s trees

Verlyn Flieger in Taking the part of trees: eco-conflict in Middle-earth (in J.R.R. Tolkien and his literary resonances : Views of Middle-earth) points out that Tolkien does not avoid the inherent conflict between civilisation and nature in The Lord of the Rings. Further she argues that Tolkien is inconsistent in presenting the Hobbits (who cut down hundreds of trees of the Old Forest) as good and the Orcs (who cut down many trees in Fangorn) as evil. She rejects the role that motive might play in distinguishing between Hobbits and Orcs (from the point of view of the trees), and between Old Man Willow and Treebeard. However, this dismissal is premature, given that Flieger does not account for much of the evidence which bears on the matter, and which undermines her view.

Flieger places much emphasis on the fact that when the result is a dead tree, motive does not matter, and that Old Man Willow’s rotten heart and malice is justified, in the text, by the peril trees face from all civilisation. The failure of this argument lies in conflating cause with justification. Old Man Willow may have cause to be malicious, but he is not justified in being so, and this is made perfectly clear in the text. Tom Bombadil explains that in the Old Forest live

the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice.... [Great Willow’s] grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all of the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs.

(The fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil)

To have pride, malice, power and dominion all referenced in the same passage provides a clear indication that the subject of such terms is close to the side of the Enemy. If that is insufficient, the following speeches by Treebeard should make the matter clear:

“When that happens to a tree, you find that some have bad hearts. Nothing to do with their wood: I do not mean that. Why, I knew some good old willows down the Entwash, gone long ago, alas! They were quite hollow, indeed they were falling all to pieces, but as quiet and sweet-spoken as a young leaf. And then there are some trees in the valleys under the mountains, sound as a bell, and bad right through. That sort of thing seems to spread. 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 where the Darkness has never been lifted, and the trees are older than I am. Still, we do what we can. We keep off strangers and the foolhardy; and we train and we teach, we walk and we weed.”

(The two towers, Treebeard)

”[W]e never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger. That has not happened in this Forest since the wars of Sauron and the Men of the Sea. It is the orc-work, the wanton hewing — rárum — without even the bad excuse of feeding the fires, that has so angered us; and the treachery of a neighbour, who should have helped us.“

(The two towers, Treebeard)

The Ents, even when they march, are angry, but they are not malicious — a fact which Legolas notes on entering Fangorn Forest (The two towers, The White Rider). And though the Rohirrim on occasion cut and burn trees from the forest, the Ents are only roused by events involving real evil. Even in the eyes of shepherds of the trees, then, there is a distinction to be made between Hobbits and Orcs. Furthermore the argument between Borlas and Saelon is contradicted within The Lord of the Rings — according to Quickbeam it is not entirely human-centred to say that it is worse to take a tree’s fruit to eat rather than for some other purpose not intrinsic to the fruit:

And these trees grew and grew, till the shadow of erach was like a green hall, and their red berries in the autumn were a burden, and a beauty and a wonder. Birds used to flock there. I like birds, even when they chatter; and the rowan has enough and to spare. But the birds became unfriendly and greedy and tore at the trees, and threw the fruit down and did not eat it. Then Orcs came with axes and cut down my trees.

(The two towers, Treebeard)

That is not, of course, to say that the killing of trees by Hobbits is seen as a good thing by either trees, Huorns, or Ents. However the conflict which leads to the destruction of trees is in the nature of Middle-earth, which is composed of loss, and Flieger is right to emphasise the mourning of that which is beautiful but doomed to pass. Tolkien makes clear that the proper response to this tragedy of the world is a certain sadness that leads neither to despair nor to hatred, both of which are paths of evil. That is true of Middle-earth as a whole, and is a significant moral message.

Posted by jamie on November 21, 2004 14:09+13:00

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