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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

Post #1 of 10 (6465 views)
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


May 2 2008, 11:56pm

Post #2 of 10 (4956 views)
Lewis' voice [In reply to] Can't Post

You can hear a snippet of (one of) his lecture(s) on Charles Williams here at You Tube.


"an seileachan"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled.

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May 3 2008, 2:42pm

Post #3 of 10 (4974 views)
The evolution of tree(beards) [In reply to] Can't Post

Treebeard finds his first mention in the drafts during Frodo's awakening in Rivendell, where Gandalf's explanation for his delay is that he was held captive by the "Giant Treebeard". A note from July 1939, written in a calligraphic script, details a later meeting of Frodo and Treebeard ("...don't tickle my leg!"), with the note in Tengwar: "Fragment from The Lord of the Rings, sequel to The Hobbit. Frodo meets Giant Treebeard in the Forest of Neldoreth while seeking for his lost companions: he is deceived by the giant who pretends to be friendly, but is really in league with the Enemy." He is just one more obstacle in Frodo's path.

But a month later, as Tolkien was deciding who was to set out from Rivendell, he began to have a change of heart: "If Treebeard comes in at all - let him be kindly and rather good? About 50 feet high with barky skin. Hair and beard rather like twigs. Clothed in dark green like a mail of short shining leaves. He has a castle in the Black Mountains and many thanes and followers. They look like young trees [?when] they stand...The tree-giants assail the besiegers [of Ond] and rescue Trotter &c. and raise seige."

Sounds a bit like the Jolly Green Giant - and unfortunately, that commercial icon first appeared in 1928, before even The Hobbit. You don't suppose that Tolkien had a "thing" about canned peas...? But he was looking ahead to viable plot devices, and Treebeard, at this point still more "man" than "tree", provided a needed deus ex machina. Although the thought that Treebeard was Saruman's jailor would still exist in further rewrites for the next year, once Tolkien began figuring out the story beyond Moria he speculated that Merry and Pippin get lost trying to find Frodo and Sam, and "fall in with Treebeard and his Three Giants", who help Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli break the seige of Minas Tirith.

At their departure from Lórien the company is told to "beware of Fangorn Forest upon the Ogodrűth or Entwash. He is an Ent or great giant." CT's notes state "Here the name Entwash clearly implies that Treebeard is an Ent, and his is specifically so called (for the first time) in the outline just given; but since Treebeard was still only waiting in the wings as a potential ingredient in the narrative this may be only a slight shift in the development of the word. The Troll-lands north of Rivendell were the Entish Lands and Entish Dales (Old English ent 'giant'); and only when Treebeard and the other 'Ents' had been fully realised would the Troll-lands be renamed Ettendales and Ettenmoors".

The chapter "Treebeard" was one which "wrote itself", with a page of curious notes, which include: "In some ways rather stupid. Are the Tree-folk ('Lone-walkers') hnau that have gone tree-like, or trees that have become hnau? Treebeard might be 'moveless'...Difference between trolls - stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, stone-giants, and the 'tree-folk' [Added in ink: Ents.]" (Note the Lewis connection.)

Ents had finally "evolved".

A curious poem, "Kat Godeu"! It's too bad that the translation into English loses the rhyme scheme, because that makes it quite, ah, "comprehensible", as an ancient fantasy. (And as a fun sing-along in the mead hall.) It also carries a bit of the flavor of Summer is ycommen in.

The writer's prologue about his own smallness among the larger things in life implies his understanding of what it's like to be a part of the greater whole, and brings to mind that seeming silliness in White's Once and Future King, where Arthur becomes a bird, a fish, etc. But it also recalls Tolkien's statement about Frodo (Letter # 246) "...gaining a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness".

I wonder if this could have been a source for Shakespeare's Birnam wood? I can see Tolkien being delighted by the idea of how the different kinds of trees would react in battle!

"I desired dragons with a profound desire"

"It struck me last night that you might write a fearfully good romantic drama, with as much of the 'supernatural' as you cared to introduce. Have you ever thought of it?"
-Geoffrey B. Smith, letter to JRR Tolkien, 1915

N.E. Brigand

May 3 2008, 10:19pm

Post #4 of 10 (5105 views)
"pretends to be friendly, but is really in league with the Enemy" [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien considered that idea for Treebeard. I can't think of a single character in The Lord of the Ring who Tolkien presents in that way. Characters may fall to their own weaknesses, but no seemingly good character is revealed to be a servant or ally of Sauron. (It's almost true of Saruman, but the exposure of his deception comes almost as soon as he is introduced, and within a tale where Gandalf is explaining how he it was that he was imprisoned.) Why is that?

We're discussing The Lord of the Rings in the Reading Room, Oct. 15, 2007 - Mar. 22, 2009!

Join us Apr. 28-May 4 for "Treebeard".


May 5 2008, 12:26am

Post #5 of 10 (4888 views)
sounds very clear [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm surprised that Lewis pronounces his words so clearly in that snippet. I imagined him, based on Treebeard, grumbling and rumbling a lot, with "hmm, hooms" and a sort of "burarum" clearing of the throat. You can tell that Lewis has a strong voice, though.

Thanks for the link!


May 5 2008, 12:49am

Post #6 of 10 (4908 views)
good question! [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm trying to think of someone who "pretends to be friendly, but is really in league with the Enemy." Grima? The only person really fooled there is Theoden, I suppose. Sauron in the Akallabęth? Oh, wait -- Sauron is the enemy there! Did the ruffians in the Shire pretend to be friendly at first? I think Saruman is the strongest case -- he doesn't fool the reader, but in the story he fools people for many years while hatching his plans.

Do you have any ideas on why this is so?


May 5 2008, 1:08am

Post #7 of 10 (4895 views)
Welsh sources [In reply to] Can't Post

Working hard not to pun on the title of your thread, I can only say that you've assembled an impressive array of possible sources. I wanted to ask you about Welsh literature -- I don't know anything about it; what would you recommend as a good introduction?


May 5 2008, 1:39pm

Post #8 of 10 (4878 views)
Wonderful! Thank you! :) [In reply to] Can't Post

That's about as good an example of RP as I've ever heard. I was also surprised not to hear hemming and hawing (or hming and hooming). Perhaps it's because he was simply reading in this clip, as opposed to extemporizing in a classroom.

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, 5


May 5 2008, 1:47pm

Post #9 of 10 (4853 views)
Some scholars think so [In reply to] Can't Post

I wonder if this could have been a source for Shakespeare's Birnam wood? I can see Tolkien being delighted by the idea of how the different kinds of trees would react in battle!

I found a few results – though mainly conference papers, it appears – at the intersection of Shakespeare and Celtic studies. Peruse a few of them yourself, here, if you like. There seems to be room for more work on the subject.

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, 5


May 5 2008, 1:56pm

Post #10 of 10 (4918 views)
Like the Eddas ... [In reply to] Can't Post

... there is a poetic and a prose tradition in the medieval Welsh literary corpus (and like the Eddas, the poetry is older). There's a lot to explore, but as a start, look for a serviceable translation of the Llyfr Taliesin ("Book of Taliesin") and one of the Mabinogion. Unless you intend to study them seriously, the particlar translation you get is probably not terribly important, but if you want some more specific recommendations, let me know (on or off the boards).

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, 5


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