Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Tolkien, Ents and Imagination


Tolkien's Tree of Amelion

“I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual intention in mind at any point,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to W.H. Auden about his inspiration for The Lord of the Rings. [1]

Take the Ents, for example, I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’ from Treebeard’s first remark [chapter 4 in The Two Towers] was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on myself (apart from labor pains) almost like reading someone else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I dare say something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at time to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. [2]

He goes on to say that his passion for philology no doubt played a role. the Ents "owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone", in reference to a line meaning "the old creations of giants" from the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer”. And that his dislike of the depiction of Great Birnham wood in Macbeth may have fueled a subliminal desire to produce a more robust picture of trees going to war in a just cause.

As time passed, Tolkien reviewed how things arose from his “unconscious”. He allowed that his Ents may have had subliminal progenitors in the animate trees in the Fairy Land George MacDonald created in Phantastes, the book that Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis said had ignited his imagination. Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, following Tolkien’s son Christopher, has traced how Treebeard evolved in Tolkien’s sketches and drafts from a stumbling giant who sided with the evil Sauron through a kind of Green Man to an Ent. [3]

Some sources were very much above ground. Those who knew them both were well aware that Treebeard’s booming voice was inspired by the way C.S. Lewis spoke. [4]

Tolkien presents trees and tree-beings as complex living subjects. There are many woods.

Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees are loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two-legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the dominion of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story. [5] 

Tolkien drew and painted many scenes that he wrote up as stories. He does not seem to have drawn an Ent, though he created vivid word pictures. As he appears in The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard, the oldest of thes shepjherds of trees, is “man-like, almost Troll-like…at least fourteen feet high…with a tall head and hardly any neck. He wears “stuff like green and grey bark. " His is lower face "covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends," and having "large, knob-knuckled" hands.  He is "bound by use and love to trees." And his role is that of “shepherd of trees" [6]

Tolkien's Willow Man

He did draw other trees, including Old Willow Man. This tree being is emphatically not an Ent. The predatory, rotten Willow Man is the first hostile character the Hobbits encounter after they leave the Shire and enter the sinister Old Forest where forces draw them in a dircetion they do not wish to take.  Willow Man drugs and cages Merry and Pippin inside its trunk and tries to drown Frodo. Their situation is relieved by Sam, who stays awake, and then they are all saved by the mysterious Tom Bombadil.

Why Tolkien had it in for the willow is a mystery. In his early manuscripts, a huge willow becomes host to an evil spirit that is bound to it: “that grey thirsty earth-bound spirit had become imprisoned in the greatest Willow of the Forest.” [7]How and why Tolkien seemed unable to explain. In later drafts, tree and spirit are fused, and the creeping malevolence is of the willow itself. As he talks about it to the hobbits, Tom Bombadil sows the thought that trees might have reason to hate humans and humanoids:

Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth... None were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green, and … his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest. [8] 

Readers might recall at this point that Hobbits cut down hundreds of trees and made a big bonfire in the woods when they were planting their Hedge.

Tolkien’s son John thought he had modeled his sketch of Willow Man on one of the few pollarded willows that survived by the Cherwell river in Oxford.  Did Tolkien sense something off during one of his walks there?

In general Tolkien loved trees and wished to be a speaker for them against the constant assault of machines and human greed. He was often photographed sitting or standing with a tree. The last photo taken of Tolkien shows him standing companionably next to one of his favorite trees, a black pine, with a hand pressed flat against its gnarly skin.

Over many years Tolkien drew multiple versions of a tree which bore a variety of flowers and leaves. He called it the Tree of Amalion. It was his Tree of Tales. Each leaf and flower represented a story or poem that was growing in his mind, more than he could ever bring to fruition and deliver to the world. .

 Shifting the arboreal metaphor just a little, Tolkien described how a story or a whole legendarium  “grows like a seed in the dark  out of the leaf mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps”. [9]


1. Tolkien, J.R.R.,(2006)  Letters  ed. Humphrey Carpenter  with Christopher Tolkien. (London: HarperCollins, 2006) 211

2. ibid 211-2 n.]

3. Verlyn  Flieger, "How Trees Behave-Or Do They?," Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature Vol. 32: No. 1 (2013)  25-6

4. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York: William Morrow, 2000) 258

5. Tolkien, Letters: 419–20

6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 2nd edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004) vol. III The Return of the King, 463.

7. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow: The History of the Lord of the Ring s, Pa rt One. The History of MiReferencesddle-earth, vol.6. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988) 120-1 

8. Lord of the Rings vol. 1 The Two Towers. 130

9. Carpenter, Tolkien. 126.

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