‘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,
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
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
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
Most memorably, there is Fangorn, as old as the
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
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 Nümenor (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
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.’