Among the hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and men in Middle-earth which readers now take for granted in The Lord of the Rings strides an even more curious figure: the guardian (‘herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’, as he’s referred to) of the trees of Fangorn forest, whose own name, synonymous with the woodland, translates as Treebeard.
How we picture him may owe much to the Peter Jackson film trilogy (2001-3) from the turn of the century, while older cinema fans may remember Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Treebeard (1978); but the fact is that however differently these image-makers have depicted him, even Tolkien himself wasn’t initially clear about either Treebeard’s appearance or even role.
So it’s a shock to find that he was first revealed to Tolkien as an evil figure in league with Saruman, and then when we first meet him in the published text to discover he may have an appearance which depends as much on the reader’s imagination as on film directors’ visions.
Here’s how Treebeard first appears in The Two Towers (published in 1954)¹: the hobbits Merry and Pippin see a
large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say.
“Almost troll-like”: at over four metres he would at first sight have been as terrifying to the halflings as the impression given by the cave-troll the Fellowship encountered in the mines of Moria, its arm with “dark skin of greenish scales,” its foot “flat and toeless”. When wounded the monster’s blood oozed out black. However further sight of the forest creature reveals no further resemblance to their ogre adversary: the skin of the torso, if skin it was, looks bark-like under the massive head. Yet, not having much of a neck it is definitely “man-like” more than resembling a perambulating tree:
At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each.
Here the arms aren’t dark green and scaly but more like human limbs, while in contradistinction to the toeless cave-troll the feet have digits, albeit more than the expected five.
The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating.The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter IV
Apart from very striking eyes noted by Merry and Pippin, Treebeard’s distinctly sylvan beard appears to be the feature that accounts for his name. But the particular name that describes him and his ilk, Ent, is one that specifically relates to his stature. The men of Rohan have to be reminded that Fangorn is known by them as Entwood for a reason: the Ents live there. The name derives from Old English ent, apparently related (perhaps through consonant metathesis) to Old English eoten, a giant or ogre. Eoten and the similar ettin are cognate with Icelandic jötunn, Swedish jätte and Danish jætte, and all are related to a linguistic root concerned with eating.
(Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s 1999 study Of Giants: Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages ² discusses in minute detail the deep-seated psychological association of gargantuan size with voraciousness. Unlike the trolls Bilbo encountered in The Hobbit Treebeard — luckily for the hobbits — has no cannibalistic intentions towards the two halflings.)
Tolkien’s editor, his son the late Christopher Tokien, draws attention to the evolution of Treebeard as outlined in his father’s preparatory papers for The Lord of the Rings. In notes made in 1939 the author sketches out reasons as to why Gandalf was held off visiting Frodo before the hobbit set off for Rivendell:.”Gandalf finds out about the Black Riders but is delayed, because the Dark Lord is hunting him (or because of Treebeard).”³ Christopher Tolkien comments that Treebeard is thus imagined as a “hostile being” who “held Gandalf in captivity during the crucial time,” as confirmed in further notes in 1940:
Saramund [later, Saruman] betrays him [Gandalf] — having fallen and gone over to Sauron: [either] he tells Gandalf false news of the Black Riders, and they pursue him to the top of a mountain […]; [or else] he is handed over to a giant Fangorn (Treebeard) who imprisons him?Christopher Tolkien 1992: 71
Luckily Tolkien later rethought the nature of Giant Treebeard: when Merry and Pippin find their way into Fangorn he plans for them to have an “adventure with Treebeard. Treebeard turns out a decent giant.” And so it proved when the second part of LOTR was published; but the Ent was to have a more decisive role to play, both in the defeat of Saruman and the deep history of Middle-earth, than merely being “a decent giant”.
Treebeard in his Fangorn forest forms what one commentator has described as the “spiritual core” of The Lord of the Rings. Stephen Morillo, an historian from Wabash College, Indiana, runs counter to the opinion of many Christian apologists who detect a Catholic, or at any rate a Christian, basis to Tolkien’s saga: he can’t see any religiosity or theology present in the text, but in a paper (for The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and ‘The Lord of the Rings‘) he does note some reflection of a spirituality.⁴ He argues
that a combination of the Norse paganism that [Tolkien] studied and the peculiar medievalism of Tolkien’s own imagination produced a spiritual sensibility in his works that is not notably Christian, but a sensibility focused on loss, pervaded by sadness, and haunted by the inevitability of fate, and in which redemption plays little role.Morillo 2011: 112
Morillo believes the story of the absent Entwives sums up this sensibility poignantly: the Entwives, after whom Treebeard sadly enquires from Merry and Pippin, “are lost. Not destroyed, killed, stolen, or turned evil, just lost. The Ents are deeply sorrowful about this. Yet the wild wood called.” This is the spiritual core Morillo refers to, an acceptance of fate modulated by a recognition of decline and loss.
Nor do the characters struggle against this decline and loss. Not only did the wild wood call, the Ents returned to it. They accept their decline, as Frodo, Bilbo, and the Elves accept that they must depart from the Grey Havens.Morillo 2011: 117
I wonder how personal this melancholy sense of acceptance of loss was to Tolkien, and whether it in part related to losing his mother when he was just 12. And of course C S Lewis, whose own mother died when he was nine, was to draw on a similar sense of loss when he wrote The Magician’s Nephew, except that here Digory Kirke was able to fetch the apple from Narnia that changed the outcome.
The connection the Ents have with the wild wood that is Fangorn Forest is part of a leitmotif that runs through much of the first half of The Lord of the Rings. Woodland episodes of course punctuate the narrative, along with the denizens hobbits meet there — Woody End, the Old Forest, the Trollshaws, Lothlórien, and now Fangorn is where the halflings encounter Wood-Elves, a Black Rider, Tom Bombadil, petrified trolls, Tree-Elves and Ents. (But no Entwives.) All are magical or dangerous places, very different from the cultivated spaces the hobbits were used to, epitomised by the saga ending with Samwise Gamgee the gardener returning to home, family and, doubtless, garden.
Treebeard has come a long way from the hostile being who was to capture Gandalf and delay the wizard warning Frodo, to a decent giant, a melancholy tree herder, and then a formidable adversary against Saruman and his army. If we recall that Tolkien himself was an enthusiastic gardener, and in his letters designated Samwise Gamgee as the “chief hero” of LOTR, then we can understand a love of order and growing as a counterbalance to the devastation caused by so much industry. But trees — whether beech, say, or quickbeam the rowan tree, and whether in managed woodland or more untidy forests — also had a place in his heart:
“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). […] I am (obviously) much 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.”Tolkien, Letters
We may imagine that, although Treebeard’s harrumphing was supposedly modelled on a mannerism of his friend Lewis, there will also be a lot of Tolkien himself in the treeherder.
- Tolkien 1954. I used the one-volume paperback edition from 1993, which included appendices.
- Cohen 1999. My review of Cohen’s study can be found here.
- J R R Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien 1992:71 and passim.
- Morillo 2011:112, 117.
- Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 1999. Of Giants: Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures Volume 17. University of Minnesota Press.
- J R R Tolkien, 1992. The Treason of Isengard: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Two. In Christopher Tolkien, editor, The History of Middle-earth, Volume 7. Grafton.
- J R R Tolkien, 1954. The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter IV
- Stephen Morillo, 2011. ‘The Entwives: Investigating the Spiritual Core of The Lord of the Rings‘. In Paul E Kerry, editor, The Ring and the Cross: Christianity in the Writings of J R R Tolkien. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 2011: 112-124