J.R.R. Tolkien: The Living Tree

Posted by on Mar 21, 2020 in Unmowed Authors | 0 comments

“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.”

–JRR Tolkien

He didn’t see trees like the rest of us do. Most of us rarely notice trees—they’re just a greenish sort of background to our everyday lives. Tolkien saw them as living, breathing beings. He sensed the rich life that flowed through them; he saw faces in their corrugated bark; he heard their voices. And of all the beloved characters he wrote about–hobbits, dwarves, elves–the most bewitching of all his creations are the Ents.

Ents the earthborn, old as mountains,
the wide-walkers, water drinking

Tolkien was a professor at Oxford when he was writing The Lord of the Rings. He lived a quiet, orderly life, this erudite professor. Only a few people knew that inside his head he was building an entire world, which he called “my beloved and private nonsense.”

He lived in a claustrophobic suburban house with a small yard (which today is owned privately and is not open to the public.) But the inspiration for his writing, the model for the turreted castles of Gondor and the towers of Mordor and Isengard surely came from the ancient spires of Oxford.

Tolkien borrowed ideas from other stories, as all great authors do. He didn’t create elves or goblins, dwarves or dragons. But he did invent some of the most brilliant parts of his saga: the Hobbits, the evil Nazgul, and the big, ungainly, tree-like creatures that he called Ents.

Ents are among the oldest forms on life on Middle-Earth. They are treeherds, shepherds of the trees, responsible for the health and well-being of the forest. What was his inspiration for Ents? No one knows for sure, but they must have had their roots in the remembered trees of Tolkien’s childhood in the woods and meadows of rural England. Ents may also have sprung from some of the trees that surrounded him on his daily walks through Oxford.

England is a country of ancient trees. Tolkien was intimately acquainted with many of them: he knew oaks that were hundreds of years old. From their gnarled bodies he created his marvelous treeherds. Here is his description of looking into the eyes of an Ent:

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…I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground—asleep, you might say…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.

As he wrote in a letter late in his life, “In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies.” He once described the magical world he had imagined as “my own internal Tree.” He must have been describing his own feelings when he wrote about Frodo touching a mallorn tree in Lothlórien: “He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter: it was the delight of the living tree itself.”


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