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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reading Group meeting 26/3/11

Tolkien Reading Day 25/3/11

'Tolkien's Trees'

From 'The Two Towers', 'Treebeard'

''There were rowan-trees in my home,' said Bregalad, softly and sadly, 'rowan-trees that took root when I was an Enting, many many years ago in the quiet of the world. The oldest were planted by the Ents to try and please the Entwives; but they looked at them and smiled and said that they knew where whiter blossom and richer fruit were growing. Yet there are no trees of all that race, the people of the Rose, that are so beautiful to me.'


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Tolkien Reading Day + 1, and the topic for our meeting was the official TRD topic of ‘Trees’. Carol as always sent comments by email, some of which extended beyond our discussions, so these are added below as an appendix.

To celebrate the topic of TREES, Julie brought along her Green Man carving and Laura brought a number of pictures of Tolkien’s trees – including some of his own illustrations, and a copy of the Snowdon portrait. Laura had even brought some mini chocolate logs to keep up our energy for a rather intense afternoon’s discussion. Laura began this humorously with her suggestion for a production entitled ‘Under Mirkwood’, based on Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. We all enjoyed playing with the idea!

Ian reminded us then of his previous research in Taliesin’s ancient poem on ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Ian observed that Charles Williams had worked on a collection of poems which he derived from Taliesin, and proposed that Tolkien would have known the ancient Welsh poet, and that it seems very likely that Tolkien himself rewrites ‘The Battle of the Trees’ in the Fangorn episodes of LotR.

Mike remarked that there must have been considerable ‘cross-fertilisation’ between the Inklings.

I then asked the obvious question: what are your favourite Tolkien trees? Angela responded at once with the trees of Cerin Amroth, while Laura preferred the association between the line of kings and trees.

We all began tracing this back and Ian remarked that Isildur took the fruit of the tree of Numenor and this started to grow, which was taken as a signal to leave before the Drowning of Numenor.

Angela queried how the sapling of the Tree came to be on Mindoluin, and Ian thought this was sign of Isildur’s prescience again, as he had foreseen the downfall of Minas Ithil. I mentioned that I had seen a critical opinion that the finding of the sapling by Aragorn was sign of the end of evil. I was not persuaded that this was correct, and it was the general feeling that evil did not end with the return of the King, nor did Tolkien envisage such an end to evil.

Laura was on the side of Yavanna when she noted Aule’s grim comment that there would always be need of trees – typical of a smith. Angela remarked that the elvish smiths must have needed wood too, and the elves must have needed it for cooking (we didn’t discuss whether or not they needed to cook.) Laura observed that Cirdan needed wood for his ships, and Angela reminded us of the tension between Aldarion and Erendis when she protested over his using her beloved trees for his shipbuilding.

Mike noted that in Papua there is a belief that trees speak to each other, and the wood-cutters offer prayers to the trees before cutting them down. Vicky and Kathleen had both come across scientific reports that trees can communicate with each other.

Mike noted the social uses for trees such as the hanging tree, while Julie and Mike both told the group about their local ‘Healing tree’.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

I wondered why in the Ainulindale Tolkien does not create a tree like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis, but prefers to create the 2 Trees to give light (we didn’t investigate the connection between knowledge and light as ‘enlightenment’). Ian considered the possible separation into a tree of good and a tree of evil. With the 2 trees in TS there is no negative moral significance until Feanor mixes the light.

Mike then wondered why 2 trees of light? I remarked that this reminded me of Paradise Lost where more than one source of light is created.

We then considered the Party Tree. It was noted that one of Gandalf’s fireworks is described as being like a blossoming tree, and Mike wondered if the Party Tree was also the local Maypole. Laura thought it was huge, but Ian argued against this on the grounds that because it is a party tree for hobbits it would not be very big. Laura remarked that there would not be bonsai trees anywhere in Tolkien’s mythology because that would be cruel! Ian thought the Party Tree was just a tree in a field until the field was used for the party, and we thought that it gained its name only after the event.

Carol commented: “In old tales forests were places of dread because they were unknown territory where one could get lost and they housed wolves and wild boar. In the Arthurian cycles, when knights left Camelot on errantry, they invariably fetched up in a forest where they met evil temptresses or knights who'd challenge you to a duel as soon as look at you. Similarly at the start of LotR, the first 'scarey' place the hobbits enter is the Old Forest where the trees try to confuse them. Again as Tolkien says it is because of mistreatment in the past. If anyone's been following the recent history programmes on TV, the great forests of prehistoric England were cut down and clearings made for settlement and building. In LotR the trees are sensitive to this and almost sentient. Old Man Willow definitely doesn't forget old injuries done to the Old Forest.”

Laura too was sympathetic to the Old Forest from this perspective and suggested that the trees were only aggressive after being persecuted by hobbits. Julie, however, thought Old Man Willow bore a strong resemblance to the kinds of Tree Demons found in cultures all over the world. Laura remarked that in Madagascar people avoid going into the forests at night because of the cries of some lemurs, and Julie noted that ‘lemur’ is Latin for ‘ghost’

Ian thought Old Man Willow’s shifty aggression was caused by drinking too much Withywindle! We then considered where the river rises, and Julie thought it might be contaminated by bad magic from the Downs – its natural watershed. I wondered if some of the Witch King’s influence was still filtering through.

Angela wondered if the whole Old Forest was malicious, Ian picked this up and remarked that the ents look after Fangorn – except for the really bad bits – and there are no ents in the Old Forest. Laura wondered if Old Man Willow was actually a black Huorn.

We went on to consider various forest including the Chetwood and the woods on the Trollshaws, until we got to Hollin. There we noted the old twisted trees that burn on the ruined stone ring, and Angela noted the huge hollies by the Doors of Moria, as well as the mithril trees on the Doors. Ian then mentioned the stone trees IN Moria – the pillars carved by the dwarves. We did not spend much time discussing this aesthetic choice, but there must be more to be said.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Kathleen had been reading up on Treebeard and was rather moved by his statement ‘I called them all by name.’ But they were dead. We discussed how many trees were given names in the Fangorn episodes and then went on to consider trees in other stories. Julie mentioned the firs in TH, and Ian observed that a good deal of wood must have been used for Beorn’s hall, more for the barrels out of bond, and even more in the construction of Lake Town. Julie then reminded us of one of the most significant trees in the whole mythology – Hirilorn – in which Luthien is imprisoned by her father. I have no excuse for forgetting this one – there’s a 3-trunked beech tree right outside my window at this moment. Much smaller, of course, and not an elf maiden in sight!

Angela had also done a good deal of preparation and her list of trees included uses to which they are put:
 as prisons – not just Hirilorn, but Old Man Willow too.
 As safe refuge – for the fellowship on entering Lorien, for the travellers in TH
 As dwelling – in Lothlorien. Carol noted that the elves don't chop down Mallorns to build housing but live in them and with them. The most telling moment of Tolkien's opinion of trees comes at the close of the chapter 'Lothlorien' in LotR. 'As Frodo prepared to follow him [Haldir], he laid his land upon the tree by the ladder; never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree's skin and of the life within it. 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.'
 As a fighting force – the ents and Hourns
 As entities to be feared and/or revered
 As significant artefacts – Lebethron is used for the stick given to Frodo by Faramir and for the casket containing the crown which Faramir brings to Aragorn.
 As a sign of time passing – when Thingol and Melian first meet their love-trance lasts so long the trees grow up around them.

That was the end of our discussions, but Carol’s additional comments follow, adding more scope.

OUR TOPIC NEXT TIME will be the Kullervo episode in The Kalevala.
CAROL’S Comments
The first place I dipped when looking up JRRT and trees was his letters, just to get it straight from the horse's mouth, as it were, not that one needed to be told that he really love trees. In TS we get the graphic and heart-rending description of Laurelin and Telperion with Ungoliant draining their sap described as if she were sucking the life-blood of a human like a vampire. The first things the elves see at Cuivienen are stars and trees, plus the water, three things for which they have especial love hereafter.

In TH Mirkwood is the only tree-place where we meet trees close up and this is ambiguous. Mirkwood itself isn't very pleasant because of the influence of Dol Guldur. It's dark, dank, infested with spiders, and labyrinthine. But in northern Mirkwood the atmosphere is lighter due to the influence of the elves. And as Tolkien says in his letter, it is redeemed into Greenwood the Great after Sauron's demise.

Most Tolkien fans are aware of the story of Tolkien's going to see MACBETH in youth and being sorely disappointed when Birnham Wood didn't actually come to High Dunsinane, and so remedied this with the ents. Celeborn had warned the fellowship not to get entangled in Fangorn forest, a sentiment that Treebeard reciprocated about Lorien to Merry and Pippin. But by now the space between forests had become far vaster than the forests that once occupied the spaces, thus creating suspicion. However, Tolkien puts all his tree wishes into Fangorn forest: ents to defend the olvar and the olvar - huorns - to walk the earth and reek vengeance on Saruman and the orcs.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

In my opinion, one can never view trees in the same light again after reading Tolkien's works. And recent science has realised that trees are the lungs of the planet. But does that stop the trees being chopped down: NO! In this Tolkien was ahead of his time. The symbol of our society is two trees, trees that brought light to Valinor that enable things to grow. But the Morgoths of this world would destroy all trees.

Ancient man knew what he was doing when he used trees symbolically: Yggdrasil, and the tree of knowledge in Eden.

Native Americans call trees the Standing People. We draw up family trees: roots, trunk, branches. When Tolkien heard that C.S.Lewis had died in 1963, he wrote to Priscilla that while some branches had been falling off his tree of friends, when Lewis died it felt like some one had taken an axe to the roots.

THE LETTERS OF J R R TOLKIEN, edited Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, HC, 1995
p.220 'I am (obviously) 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.' Letter 165 to Houghton Mifflin c. 1955
p.321 Letter 241 to Jane Neave 8-9 September 1962 explaining how Niggle's tree came about - his neighbour chopping down a poplar because it cut off the sun. 'Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.'
p.342 Letter 253 to Raynor Unwin, 23rd December 1963. 'The SILMARILLION is growing in my mind (I do not mean getting larger, but coming back to leaf and I hope flower).'
pp.419-20 Letter 339 to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, 30th June 1972. '[In a leader in the DT of 29th June 1972, entitled "Forestry and Us", there occurred this passage: "Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings..." Tolkien's letter was the issue 4.7.72.]
30.6.72 Dear Sir, With reference to the use of my name as an adjective qualifying "gloom", especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of the trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien 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 domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
'It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compared with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetuated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing. Yrs Fly JRRT'

11:44 AM  

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