I’m currently reading The Lord of the Rings out loud. My 10-year-old says he’s read it but there is little as luxurious as being read to by your dad. We’ve just entered Fangorn Forest and met Treebeard. I can vaguely remember the narrative from when I read it a long time ago. I hadn’t then appreciated Tolkien’s environmental vision, his conception of forests and trees, and the feraculture (or wilderness stewardship) of the Ents.
Others have and there are fine analyses in venues such as the Tolkien Society, West Virginia University’s annual Tolkien Studies and the University of Kentucky’s Culture of the Land Series (the latter placing him on the same platform as Wendell Berry).
The descriptions of trees in literature are rife with anthropomorphism in various guises. Our projection might begin with the morphological similarities between humans and trees – both of us generally standing upright and having trunks, limbs and crowns in comparable locations. However, Tolkien saw this projection deriving from our wish to associate or communicate with other living things. Of course there’s a long tradition of trees ascribed supernatural characters and Tolkien was well versed in tree lore. For example, in the Classical tradition there are various tellings of Orpheus’s playing of the lyre. Ovid describes Orpheus retiring to Mount Rhodope, where his playing enchanted the trees to join him and provide shade. Ovid even provides an annotated species list of trees that walked or danced.
Trees then may be enchanted by others, may be inhabited by spirits or souls or may have their own souls. In Tolkien Studies, Cynthia Cohen explores the traditions of literary trees and suggests four categories — trees that do nothing unusual, appearing essentially as Primary World trees; trees that remain rooted in the ground but are able to talk, think, and/or feel; trees that remain rooted but can move their branches or trunks; and trees that can uproot themselves, physically moving from one place to another. She suggests that Tolkien’s conception of forests and trees is singular for its diverse characterisation of trees in all of these categories. His trees can sometimes even metamorphose as Treebeard explains to Pippin and Merry:
“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.”
These trees in Avebury, England reputedly inspired Tolkien’s Ents
As a linguist and philologist, Tolkien was acutely aware of the distinctions in language determining relationships. Treebeard admonishes Pippin and Merry for divulging their own names used for their race, the hobbits, and for themselves.
“Hm, but you are a hasty folk, I see … I am honoured by your confidence; but you should not be too free all at once. There are Ents and Ents, you know; or Ents and things that look like Ents but ain’t as you might say. I’ll call you Merry and Pippin — nice names. For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate … 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 … 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.”
Treebeard might well be critical of the poverty of Linnaeus’s plant taxonomy. The stories that can be read from both common and scientific plant names are rather one dimensional in comparison with the cultural taxonomies of Indigenous people and in the context of the narratives of individual trees. Tolkien recognises 141 plant species in Middle Earth and wrote to his publisher, “I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.”
So Tolkien’s forests and trees are important in presenting a perspective on trees beyond an anthropocentric view of trees as embodying only qualities that we value, such as endurance, timelessness, grandeur, beauty and seasonality. The vegetative soul may be well beyond our understanding. However Tolkien does masterfully create an alternative vegetal world and allows us to explore our relationships with our trees.
Tolkien isn’t alone in his endeavour to recreate forests and trees. While his taxonomy is unique, the representation of trees in literature and the arts and sciences is a rich lode. There’s a great deal more here that deserves attention – but that will have to wait for another issue.
For a very different perspective on our relationship with trees you might read Sophie Cunningham’s excellent essay on the river red gum that won The Nature Conservancy (Australia)’s biennial Nature Writing Prize announced in May. Her essay, Biyala Stories, is published online by the Griffith Review.