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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Treebeard — 5. ‘That is nothing to the old feeling of this wood’


May 2 2008, 5:59pm

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Treebeard — 5. ‘That is nothing to the old feeling of this wood’ Can't Post

Today, I want to broach some of the possible sources and antecedents for Tolkien’s Ents. I’m going to leave the Huorns out of it; there’s only the vaguest hint of them here in this chapter – much more for others to say later. One or two of these have been mentioned in the past several days’ discussion, but let’s bring these sources a bit further into the light.

1. What do we know about the evolution of the idea of the Ents in Tolkien’s imagination? Originally, Treebeard was to be a wicked giant. I talked a little bit earlier in the week about the Old English eoten “giant, troll, monster” (think Grendel) which served, in part, as Tolkien’s model. Why did Tolkien change his mind about cutting Treebeard from the same cloth?

2. What about the Old Norse myth of the creation of the first Man and Woman out of an Ash (Askr) and and Elm (Embla) tree? Read a little more about it here. There can be absolutely no doubt that Tolkien knew this legend (he admits to certain explicit borrowings from the Völuspá, at the very least). But did the legend inform the creation of the Ents? Or is it incidental?

3. What about connections to the medieval Welsh poem, “Kad Goddeu” (“Battle of the Trees”), attributed to Taliesin. At least one scholar of Welsh literature has called that poem “eminently incomprehensible” – just the sort of thing Tolkien might like! ;) Read some background on the poem and a summary of it, including how “Gwydion animates the trees of the forest to fight for him,” here.

There are plenty of lines that seem promising as inspiration for Tolkien. Let me give you just a little taste (I’ve been doing some research on this and other Celtic sources recently in connection to the paper I delivered in Vermont a couple weeks ago), then you tell me what you think.


If the Lord had answered,
Through charms and magic skill,
Assume the forms of the principal trees,
With you in array
Restrain the people
Inexperienced in battle.
When the trees were enchanted
There was hope for the trees,
That they should frustrate the intention
Of the surrounding fires.
The oak-tree swiftly moving,
Before him tremble heaven and earth,
Stout doorkeeper against the foe
In his name in all lands.
There shall be a black darkness,
There shall be a shaking of the mountain,
There shall be a purifying furnace,
There shall first be a great wave
When I was made
Of the blossoms of the nettle,
Of the water of the ninth wave,
I was spell-bound by Math
Before I became immortal.
It is long since I was a herdsman.
I traveled over the earth
Before I became a learned person.


4. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is another well-known source for the Ents. One can delve still further into Shakespeare’s own sources as well, but I don’t think we need to get into that (though feel free, if you like). Tolkien himself admitted that he found the Bard’s solution to the magical idea of a forest marching to war (“Fear not, till Birnam wood / Do come to Dunsinane.”) quite disappointing. Janet Croft has written at length on the subject, for example, here.

Do you find Tolkien’s solution superior to Shakespeare’s? Or just different but not inherently better?

5. Let me shift gears a little. For those who know C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, on which Tolkien’s own work clearly had some influence (despite Tolkien’s own distaste for the books), consider the Walking Trees in Prince Caspian. Lewis’s trees remind me of the Welsh Kad Goddeu also, and to a lesser extent to Macbeth – but Lewis thought very highly of Tolkien’s Ents and later wrote:

[C]ertain stories which are not myths in the anthropological sense, having been invented by individuals in fully civilised periods, have what I should call the ‘mythical quality’. [..] Such is the conception of [..] the Ents and Lothlorien [sic] in Professor Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (An Experiment in Criticism, 1961, pp. 42-3)

Is the most immediate source of Lewis’s Walking Trees to be found in Tolkien’s Ents?

6. We’ve also read the story of how Tolkien modeled Treebeard’s very particular way of talking – hm, hoom! – on C.S. Lewis. Evidently, listening to Treebeard was meant to evoke the feeling of being in the audience for one of Lewis’s lectures. Is this a compliment? Or a bit of an insult? Has anyone ever heard a recording of Lewis to know whether it’s even a good parody?

Jason Fisher
Lingwë - Musings of a Fish

The Lord of the Rings discussion 2007-2008 – The Two Towers – III.4 “Treebeard” – Part 1, 2, 3, 4

Subject User Time
Treebeard — 5. ‘That is nothing to the old feeling of this wood’ visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel May 2 2008, 5:59pm
    Lewis' voice a.s. Send a private message to a.s. May 2 2008, 11:56pm
        sounds very clear Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 5 2008, 12:26am
        Wonderful! Thank you! :) visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel May 5 2008, 1:39pm
    The evolution of tree(beards) dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn May 3 2008, 2:42pm
        "pretends to be friendly, but is really in league with the Enemy" N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand May 3 2008, 10:19pm
            good question! Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 5 2008, 12:49am
        Some scholars think so visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel May 5 2008, 1:47pm
    Welsh sources Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 5 2008, 1:08am
        Like the Eddas ... visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel May 5 2008, 1:56pm


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