Jun 4, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 45: Treebeard

Meanwhile, the hobbits went with as much speed as the dark and tangled forest allowed, following the line of the running stream, westward and up towards the slopes of the mountains, deeper and deeper into Fangorn.

Merry and Pippin have escaped both the orcs and the Riders of Rohan, and are now well inside Fangorn Forest. The air inside the forest is stifling, and as the hobbits stop for a drink by a stream, they exchange impressions. Pippin compares the woods to a room in the Smials of Tuckborough, where the furniture hasn't been moved for centuries; Merry points out that the forest doesn't feel evil, like Bilbo's description of Mirkwood. Perhaps oddly, the Old Forest isn't mentioned.

As they're talking, the sun comes out. Merry and Pippin make for the sunlight, and find a steep hill with something like a stair cut or weathered into it. It takes them to a high shelf with a single gnarled tree on it. As the hobbits look over the forest, Pippin luckily says that he almost likes it. Luckily, because what they had taken for a tree is, in fact, a fourteen-foot troll-like tree-creature that introduces itself as Treebeard the Ent. He admits that he almost took the hobbits for tiny orcs and smashed them, but a conversation is had where they establish that not only are hobbits not orcs, but that they have a mutual friend in Gandalf.

Treebeard carries the hobbits to one of his homes, where he gives them ent-draught to drink and has them tell their story. In return, Treebeard tells them all about ents. He describes them as tree-herds, tending to and protecting the trees of Fangorn, and protecting outsiders from dangerous trees. He recalls the old days, when a thick forest stretched from Fangorn to beyond the Shire in the north, but now there are far fewer ents, and many of them have become quiescent, almost trees.

Treebeard, in turn, is very interested in the hobbits' story, which they tell him, carefully omitting any mention of the Ring. As he puts it, he has stayed out of "the Great Wars":

I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.

Saruman, though, merits Treebeard's attention, as he realizes that he, too, has been deceived by the wizard. Treebeard becomes quite angry as he recounts Saruman's misdeeds, but calms himself down and begins to think about whether enough ents are left to resist him.

Before they go to sleep - apparently ents sleep - Treebeard tells the hobbits about the entwives, who the ents used to live with but lost. The next day, Merry and Pippin are taken for an extended walk through the woods as Treebeard summons the Entmoot: a huge and ponderous meeting of ents. The hobbits are soon bored, and Treebeard sends a young ent called Quickbeam to keep them company.

On the afternoon of the third day of the Entmoot, the Ents reach a decision: they are marching on Isengard.


Sticking with our Beowulf theme, last chapter we had the orcneas, and now the hobbits meet the eotenas. The Old English word eoten, meaning giant, gave rise to both the ettin of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Tolkien's tree-herds.

They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of "Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill": I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. (Letters, 163, footnote)

The phrase eald enta geweorc, old work of giants, is, unsurprisingly, from Beowulf, but the association with trees and their unique way of speaking seem to be purely Tolkien's, and they've given rise to a marvelously memorable character in Treebeard. There's something quintessentially Tolkien about the sad tree-herds vanishing into the mists of time, but coming together one last time to defend nature against wanton destruction and infernal machinery. Add their penchant for song and the complete absence of their women, and you could well argue that if any one chapter of the Lord of the Rings is a microcosm of the whole work, it's this one.

At 26 pages in my copy of the book, it's also a long one, and because I was very busy during the last several months, I've felt totally unequal to the task of writing about it. There's quite a bit of exposition here, with Treebeard telling the story of the ents and their relationship with Saruman. He also explains that the trolls were made in mockery of ents, harking back to the Boëthian idea that evil can't truly create on its own.

The Entmoot and the march of the ents are also one of the first big iterations of one of the key morals of the Lord of the Rings, and an expression of Tolkien's northern theory of courage, a notion he developed in his Beowulf lectures and that I mentioned in passing earlier: the idea that when evil is afoot, at some point you have to stand up and fight it, whether you think you're going to win or not, because it's the right thing to do. As Treebeard remarks, the march on Isengard may well be the last march of the ents, but a last hopeless battle is better than quietly submitting and wasting away.


All in all, though, this is a chapter that has even more to it than usual compared to my tiny blog posts. As I said, I've been very busy and subsequently exhausted during the time I've had to write this, and I'm afraid it shows. However, I felt it was important to keep this series of posts running, so this is what I had.

Next time: a wizard.

1 comment:

Leon said...

That's an interesting parallel that I've never considered: the ents paralleled with the Elves under Gil-Galad marching on Sauron with man, fighting for a world they will not be around to enjoy anymore.