For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver. (Martin Luther)
I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines. (Thoreau)
The love of trees is a mysterious thing: some people have it, others don’t. Some people notice individual trees they pass and even stop to behold them, delighting in their shape, their color, or the texture of their bark; others never notice trees unless there is some practical problem associated with them, and see only “trees” generally and not as species, let alone individuals. I have a friend who, housesitting for another friend, had been told to give extra water to the fruit trees but then admitted that he couldn’t tell the difference between the fruit trees in the garden and other trees. I confess that like Thoreau, I am one of those who develop great fondness for individual trees, will walk miles to see them, and rejoice to be in their presence. I know how their branches flow, how their leaves sound in wind and rain, and what birds or animals frequent them. Consequently I also notice if the authors I read relate to trees like I do. Some of my favorite writers seem indifferent to them: Austen, Dostoievsky, Orwell. Others are as smitten with them as I am: Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Chekhov — and in the East, Zhuangzi and Basho. Each of these writers seem to have “special” trees. Among the few fantasy writers that I have read, there is the same divide. Alan Garner and George R.R.Martin both have a strong feel for trees, but it is Tolkien who loves them as only a poet can.
Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy there are episodes that evoke Eden — a time before time, and beings who reach back into a golden beginning. The Tom Bombadil and Lothlorien chapters were essential thematic motherlodes in the Fellowship, and in the Two Towers the same functions are satisfied by Treebeard and the Ents, who are shepherds of the trees, primordial gardeners and nature-guardians like Tom Bombadil. It is these sections that elevate the trilogy from a narrative of cosmic war to a kind of hymn to nature, giving a spiritual background to the struggle of good and evil. When we meet Treebeard, somehow we know that in the end everything will be okay, and that even though there may be tremendous destruction in the wars the spirit of nature will outlast it all just as it has already outlasted eons of wars: if Tom Bombadil and the Ents preceded all the Saurons of past ages, how can the Sauron of this age have strength to vanquish them? The Nature-spirits of Middle Earth create in the reader a deep faith in the underlying order of life, so that the epic tragic tales all take place in the quiet embrace of a divine comedy that cannot be hurt by any of the conflict.
An Ent is what a tree would be if it could perceive, think, and speak as a human being: it is both tree and person, a hermaphrodite, embodying both ways of being.
They found that they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating. They were brown, shot with a green light. Often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impression of them.
‘One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground-asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between roof-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.’ (66-67)
The second paragraph of this could only have been written by someone who has spent time gazing on a particular tree for hours, watching the light play on every part of it, and meditating on its life from top to bottom. We cannot seize the essence of a tree as quickly as that of a bird, whose movement can say everything about it: a hummingbird at a trumpetvine, the sudden fluttering of pigeons disturbed in an attic. A tree needs more time to be grasped, and the slowing of our minds to contemplate it gives us a glimpse into the long epochs of a tree’s perception.
‘Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see,’ said Treebeard. ‘I am honoured by your confidence; but you should not be too free all at once. There are Ents and Ents, you know; or there are Ents and things that look like Ents but ain’t, as you might say. I’ll call you Merry and Pippin if you please – nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.’ (68)
What we take to be an event is, for a tree, a moment in a much longer event, which cannot be named until it is completed. We name things according to our own scale, which may not be the things’ own scale — and the naming of a thing on its own scale might mean nothing to a creature that lives on an incomparably smaller scale. What sense would the idea of a solar year make to a being who lives less than a day?
Between trees and Ents the boundary seems to be porous, as if they were really two phases of the same being — asleep or awake:
‘The trees and the Ents,’ said Treebeard. ‘I do not understand all that goes on myself, so I cannot explain it to you. Some of us are still true Ents, and lively enough in our fashion, but many are growing sleepy, going tree-ish, as you might say. Most of the trees are just trees, of course; but many are half awake. Some are quite wide awake, and a few are, well, ah, well getting Entish. That is going on all the time.’ (71)
Tolkien emphasizes one aspect of trees that is obvious to all: they stand. Their standing inspires health practices such as Qigong standing meditations, in which you stand still for long periods with arms held in various positions. To do so effectively, your alignment and posture have to be balanced and stable, such that there is minimal expenditure of energy and maximal muscular relaxation, and both breathing and heart rate slow down naturally. There are numerous passages of great beauty in which Treebeard is described as just standing, drinking in the elements, bathing in rain and light:
‘Those were the broad days! Time was when I could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of my own voice in the hollow hills. The woods were like the woods of Lothlórien. only thicker stronger, younger. And the smell of the air! I used to spend a week just breathing.’ (72)
For a moment Treebeard stood under the rain of the falling spring, and took a deep breath; then he laughed, and passed inside. A great stone table stood there, but no chairs. At the back of the bay it was already quite dark. Treebeard lifted two great vessels and stood them on the table. They seemed to be filled with water; but he held his hands over them, and immediately they began to glow, one with a golden and the other with a rich green light; and the blending of the two lights lit the bay; as if the sun of summer was shining through a roof of young leaves. Looking back, the hobbits saw that the trees in the court had also begun to glow, faintly at first, but steadily quickening, until every leaf was edged with light: some green, some gold, some red as copper; while the tree-trunks looked like pillars moulded out of luminous stone. (73-74)
He strode to the archway and stood for some time under the falling rain of the spring. Then he laughed and shook himself, and wherever the drops of water fell glittering from him to the ground they glinted like red and green sparks. He came back and laid himself on the bed again and was silent. (77)
Merry and Pippin climbed on to the bed and curled up in the soft grass and fern. It was fresh, and sweet-scented, and warm. The lights died down, and the glow of the trees faded; but outside under the arch they could see old Treebeard standing, motionless, with his arms raised above his head. The bright stars peered out of the sky, and lit the falling water as it spilled on to his fingers and head, and dripped, dripped, in hundreds of silver drops on to his feet. Listening to the tinkling of the drops the hobbits fell asleep. (81)
Such passages contrast with the rapid action of the book’s war episodes and also with the painful onward effort of Frodo’s journey, and it seems appropriate that it is the two hobbits Merry and Pippin who encounter Treebeard first, since they themselves are good at staying put, albeit while sitting and eating. In one of the loveliest passages, the Ent Bregalad delivers to these two hobbits an elegy on the rowan that turns into an elegy for the destruction of all trees at the hands, beaks, or blades of the quicker beings that fuss around them and are heedless of the life in them:
‘There were rowan-trees in my home,’ said Bregalad, softly and sadly, ‘rowan-trees that took root when I was an Enting, many many years ago in the quiet of the world. The oldest were planted by the Ents to try and please the Entwives; but they looked at them and smiled and said that they knew where whiter blossom and richer fruit were growing. Yet there are no trees of all that race, the people of the Rose, that are so beautiful to me. And these trees grew and grew, till the shadow of each 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. I came and called them by their long names, but they did not quiver, they did not hear or answer: they lay dead.
O Orofarnë, Lassemista, Carnimírië!
O rowan fair, upon your hair how white the blossom lay!
O rowan mine, I saw you shine upon a summer’s day,
Your rind so bright, your leaves so light, your voice so cool and soft:
Upon your head how golden-red the crown you bore aloft!
O rowan dead, upon your head your hair is dry and grey;
Your crown is spilled, your voice is stilled for ever and a day.
O Orofarnë, Lassemista, Carnimírië!
The hobbits fell asleep to the sound of the soft singing of Bregalad, that seemed to lament in many tongues the fall of trees that he had loved. (87)
Although there are noble, heroic trees in Tolkien — for example, the white tree of Numenor, the Mallorn — such trees are icons noticed and revered by characters who view themselves as epic heroes. To them, ordinary trees are nothing, unless there is something of epic scale about them. It takes hobbits to relate to Ents in an intimate, affectionate way, because hobbits — content in their smaller scales — are more accepting of the different living things in the unheroic world. Thus Pippin and Merry simply notice more trees than Aragorn or Faramir would. It is simply because they don’t need anything bigger.
In this way they came at last to what looked like an impenetrable wall of dark evergreen trees, trees of a kind that the hobbits had never seen before: they branched out right from the roots, and were densely clad in dark glossy leaves like thornless holly, and they bore many stiff upright flower-spikes with large shining olive-coloured buds… It was smooth and grassclad inside, and there were no trees except three very tall and beautiful silver-birches that stood at the bottom of the bowl. Two other paths led down into the dingle: from the west and from the east…At first Merry and Pippin were struck chiefly by the variety that they saw: the many shapes, and colours, the differences in girth; and height, and length of leg and arm; and in the number of toes and fingers (anything from three to nine). A few seemed more or less related to Treebeard, and reminded them of beech-trees or oaks. But there were other kinds. (83)
There are two aspects of the Ents that remain undeveloped in Tolkien’s work. The first is the germ of moral judgment in them, whereby they see themselves as the anti-Saruman, or rather, they see Saruman as the enemy of nature.
‘Saruman is a Wizard,’ answered Treebeard. ‘More than that I cannot say. I do not know the history of Wizards. They appeared first after the Great Ships came over the Sea; but if they came with the Ships I never can tell. Saruman was reckoned great among them, I believe. He gave up wandering about and minding the affairs of Men and Elves, some time ago – you would call it a very long time ago: and he settled down at Angrenost, or Isengard as the Men of Rohan call it. He was very quiet to begin with, but his fame began to grow. He was chosen to be head of the White Council, they say; but that did not turn out too well. I wonder now if even then Saruman was not turning to evil ways. But at any rate he used to give no trouble to his neighbours. I used to talk to him. There was a time when he was always walking about my woods. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave (at least when he met me); and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told. me anything. And he got more and more like that; his face, as I remember it – I have not seen it for many a day – became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside.
‘I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.‘ (76)
To Tolkien via the Ents, Saruman breathes the breath of the modern age; he is the technologist, the maker of engines for the domination of nature — but in time he himself has been taken over by the Engine: He has a mind of metal and wheels. In such an interpretation of Ents and Saruman as antitheses to one another, it is allegorically fitting that the Ents the ones who will bring down Saruman with contemptuous ease; he has no chance, because the Ents wield all the might of nature when once they decide to act. I think Tolkien was aware that there was something inherently perfunctory and anticlimactic about this, and this is one reason why the battle of Isengard cannot be any kind of culmination but acts as a kind of prelude to the main action that follows.
The other undeveloped thread concerns those enigmatic creatures, the Entwives, whose disappearance has left the Ents with an ancient and uncomprehended wound:
‘I remember it was long ago – in the time of the war between Sauron and the Men of the Sea – desire came over me to see Fimbrethil again. Very fair she was still in my eyes, when I had last seen her, though little like the Entmaiden of old. For the Entwives were bent and browned by their labour; their hair parched by the sun to the hue of ripe corn and their cheeks like red apples. Yet their eyes were still the eyes of our own people. We crossed over Anduin and came to their land: but we found a desert: it was all burned and uprooted, for war had passed over it. But the Entwives were not there. Long we called, and long we searched; and we asked all folk that we met which way the Entwives had gone. Some said they had never seen them; and some said that they had seen them walking away west, and some said east, and others south. But nowhere that we went could we find them. Our sorrow was very great. Yet the wild wood called, and we returned to it. For many years we used to go out every now and again and look for the Entwives, walking far and wide and calling them by their beautiful names. But as time passed we went more seldom and wandered less far. And now the Entwives are only a memory for us, and our beards are long and grey. The Elves made many songs concerning the Search of the Ents, and some of the songs passed into the tongues of Men. But we made no songs about it, being content to chant their beautiful names when we thought of the Entwives. We believe that we may meet again in a time to come, and perhaps we shall find somewhere a land where we can live together and both be content. But it is foreboded that that will only be when we have both lost all that we now have.’ (79-80)
Even these majestically powerful beings are thus riven with incompleteness and yearning, and Tolkien deliberately never resolves this: “I think,” he wrote in one of his letters, “that in fact the Entwives have disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance.” The guardian forces of the natural world are already broken before our wars have even started, so even though they may win victories over the likes of Saruman, primal harmony can never be restored. The trees may be protected, but their protectors cannot be happy.
Part of the poignancy of the Ents is that they are fantasy and we all know it: in our world there are no Ents, no natural giant protectors of the forests, no Ent army to come and save them. Our trees are on their own, vulnerable to all who choose to take or not take. The triumph of the Ents over Saruman is on the surface a gesture of hope, but deep down it is a confession of fragility. This is partly why Tolkien does not allow the Ents to be fulfilled and self-sufficient like Tom Bombadil, who is an unfallen, invulnerable Adam.
In conclusion, to me the Ents are for the most part a wonderful blend of lyric, comic, and elegiac: lyric when they sing of nature an allow the play of light, air, and water on their bark and leaves; comic when they march uproariously into war and give reassurance to the whole world of the invincibility of nature; and elegiac when they mourn the death of trees and The loss of their other halves. They do not work as epic figures, when they are drawn into polar opposition to Saruman; and when, representing Nature, they start to shade into the allegorical, which Tolkien claims to eschew. They work when they are irreducibly themselves, as a unique fusion of lyric-comic-elegiac, and they would have been well portrayed in film by a genius like Miyazaki, who understands the spiritual dimension of nature. But Treebeard has power to move us only if we know trees intimately, if we have some sense of the life of a tree in all its myriad breathings, turnings and swishings, if have taken time to enter into its long rhythm and understand what it is to stand on the wooded earth amid its congregations. We care for Ents only if we love trees. A reader who wants a tree with superpowers but who has no love for trees would be content with Groot.