Friday, November 03, 2006


Priory Tree, Lewes. Photo: John May. For more Lewes pictures see Lewes Light

One of Tony's other great loves was the works of Tolkien. He was the author of the best-selling book 'The Tolkien Companion' (revised and updated twice as 'The New Tolkien Companion' (1979) and 'The Complete Tolkien Companion' (2002). Featured below is the piece he was kind enough to write for Tree News, the magazine I edited for five years. Having settled the commission on the phone, I had cause to call him some 30 minutes later about some second-thoughts I'd had about the piece and he told me he'd already filed the copy - the fastest turnaround I'd ever come across. Sure enough, there was the copy which, barring a couple of tweaks, went in unedited.

‘A lovely morning dawned on us... Leaves are out: the white-grey of the quince, the grey-green of young apple, the full green of hawthorn, the tassels of flower even on the sluggard poplar.’
- Letter to Christopher Tolkein, 18th April 1944 (‘The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien’ [Unwin, 1981] )

All his long life J. R. R. Tolkien was in love with trees. It has been said that the leading character in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is not one of the many elvish, mortal, dwarven or hobbit personalities, but its landscape; its mountains, rivers and particularly its trees. They grace nearly all his descriptive passages, and in several places play a major part in the tale itself.

There are the gentle ‘ English’ woodlands of the Shire, where the adventure begins; the deep, scented pine woods that surround the enchanted valley of Rivendell, the ancient and beautiful holly trees that mark the borders of a vanished elf-kingdom, and the Golden Wood of Lothlorien, where the silver-barked golden-flowered forest giants are of a genus (mallorn) unknown elsewhere in Middle-earth— these trees are so tall and strong that the Elves build their houses in them.

In fact, trees of one kind or another are nearly everywhere in the Ring landscape, and when they are not, it is because something terrible has happened there— like the Brown Lands, or the desolation before the Black Gate of Mordor. These are evil deserts, shunned by all life.

Tolkien’s view of trees was by no means confined to a benign sentimentality. In Middle-earth, you hug some trees at your peril. There are enormous, dark, coniferous forests where evil creatures thrive while ‘the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.’

There is the
Old Forest, where the hobbits have their first real adventure, a terrifying encounter with sentient, malevolent and limb-lithe trees, ‘ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords... But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow.’

Most memorably, there is Fangorn, as old as the Old Forest and far greater, though, as Elrond of Rivendell reveals, in the deep past the two were parts of a single immense primaeval wood. ‘Time was when a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard’ (i.e. over a thousand miles).

Fangorn is the last abode in Middle-earth of creatures called Ents, and to explain Ents we must invoke Tolkien’s own cosmogony, his ‘alternative Book of Genesis’.

Middle-earth is not really an imaginary world. As Tolkien was always at pains to stress, it is our world in an imaginary time, and comes fully furnished with creation myths, ancient history and legends— an enormous mass of material which represents his life’s work.

In this myth cycle, the world (Arda) is created by The One (God), but in all matters of detail is embellished, shaped and added to by delegated angelic powers (Valar). Yavanna is the name of the Vala who peoples the earth with growing things, including trees, at the beginning of Time before either Elves or Men have appeared. But her foresight tells her that her creations will be in danger--mainly from things that go on two legs, armed with axes--and so she obtains, as a dispensation from God, the power to send spirits to dwell in, and with, the trees, to act as their shepherds and defenders.

These giant creatures (something like the Green Man of English myth) are the Ents. Treebeard is their chieftain and, at the time of the Ring adventure, the oldest of all living things. At Treebeard’s instigation, the Forest of Fangorn itself— or a good part of it— arises in anger (at centuries of axe-abuse) and marches to war, like Birnam Wood in ‘MacBeth’ but in a far more terrifying manner: an entire goblin army is annihilated by the vengeful trees, while the Ents overthrow the citadel of their master, the wizard Saruman.

But the War of the Ring is fought, not only to defeat the eponymous evil Lord, but to restore the rightful King of Gondor to his throne. As a reader gradually discovers, the history of Gondor is very ancient, the kingdom having been founded three thousand years earlier by survivors from NĂ¼menor (Atlantis).

The symbol of this ancient and high royal line is a White Tree, itself a descendant of the White Tree of the Valar in
Paradise. It is therefore the holiest of trees (cf. The Glastonbury Thorn) in the world and its recent death was thought to presage the fall of the kingdom. Luckily, after all is done and the victory won, the restored King of Gondor finds a surviving sapling growing in a high mountain-pasture--the symbol of a direct continuity with the deepest past, and the best of all omens for the future.

The most poignant tree-moment of all in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ occurs near its end, when the hobbits ride home to the Shire--to find it horribly vandalised in their absence by Saruman’s agents. When Sam, in many ways the most heroic of all the hobbits, discovers that a particularly beloved tree in the field behind his home has been wantonly cut down, he bursts into tears.

Later, of course, after much labour, most of the damage is put right and the fallen ‘Party Tree’ is replaced by a single Mallorn, the only one in the world ‘West of the Mountains and East of the Sea’. So the trees win— this time.

But despite the heroism of its protagonists, and the success of their quest, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is, at bottom, a sorrowful book; and when one of the characters asks Gandalf that, even if they should win the victory, ‘may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful may pass for ever out of Middle-earth?’, the wizard has no words of comfort for him.

Tolkien himself was far from sanguine about the ability of trees to defend themselves against ill-wishers. Writing in 1962 to his elderly aunt Jane Neave, he recalled ‘a great tree--a huge poplar with vast limbs--visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs... and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.’

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