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The Ents: Tolkien and the trees

Something which Tolkien succeeded in doing better than almost any other writer I have read (though we will meet a rival below) was to convey to his readers, and instil in them, his appeciation of the beauty of the natural world. It is unusual in novels, at least in English, that descriptions of landscapes, forest and trees go beyond mere scene-setting; but it is hard after reading the earlier parts of The Lord of the Rings--before the pace and bleakness of the second half begin to burn these riches away--to step outside without finding one's eyes newly opened to the beauty of tree and leaf. This is a profound change from Beowulf; the following would never have occurred in that poem:

They found that they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to 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. 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. 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. They were brown, shot with a green light.
[http://www.tolkien.ru/texts/eng/pbjrrt/] So Tolkien described the first meeting of the hobbits Pippin and Merry with the Ent, Treebeard. Attentive readers will already have noted the Old English adjective entisc ('of or belonging to entas') from the last page (if not, pop back and have a look!)--and it is from the Old English ent that Tolkien's word came. Much of what Old English was for Tolkien is to be found in the Ents: their slow familiarity, built to last, though not without its dark corners; and the pervading feeling of those who meet them of being in the presence of deep roots. It is no accident that the Ents' lists of the beings of the world (to which Pippin and Merry get hobbits added), are found in Old English poetic metre: 'Half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers'. But in Old English ent occurs mainly in passing, denoting the mysterious and long-past manufacturers of mighty weapons. For Tolkien's Ents and the medieval roots of his handling of the natural world, we must look rather to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

It was the custom of King Arthur's court that the meal of an important feast-day cannot be begun without

Of sum auenturus žyng . . an uncouže tale,
of some adventuring matter . . a strange tale
Of sum mayn meruayle, . . žat he my3t trawe,
of some great marvel . . which he might believe,
Of alderes, of armes, . . of ožer auenturus,
of ancestors, of arms, . . of other adventures;
Ožer sum segg hym biso3t . . of sum siker kny3t
or [until] some man sought from him . . a trusty knight
To joyne wyth hym in iustyng, . . in jopardé to lay,
to join with him in jousting, . . to take a gamble,
Lede, lif for lyf, . . leue vchon ožer,
?[a] man, life for life, . . each one to allow the other,
As fortune wolde fulsun hom, . . že fayrer to haue.
as fortune would favour them, . . to have the advantage.
The surprise of Arthur's court is, however, no less than Pippin and Merry's when both of these prospects arrive rolled into one: [http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/twomey/sggk/manuscript.html]
For vneže watz že noyce . . not a whyle sesed,
For barely was the noise . . over for a moment,
And že fyrst cource in že court . . kyndely serued,
and the first course in the court . . appropriately served
Žer hales in at že halle dor . . an aghlich mayster,
[when] there comes in at the hall-door . . a fearsome lord,
On že most on že molde . . on mesure hyghe;
the very most on the earth . . in stature high
Fro že swyre to že swange . . so sware and so žik,
from the neck to the girdle . . so well-built and stout,
And his lyndes and his lymes . . so longe and so grete,
and his loins his limbs . . so long and so big
Half etayn in erde . . I hope žat he were,
half-giant, for sure, . . I think he must have been,
Bot mon most I algate . . mynn hym to bene,
but the biggest man, at any rate, I . . reckon that he was
And žat že myriest in his muckel . . žat my3t ride;
and the handsomest of his size . . ever to ride;
For of bak and of brest . . al were his bodi sturne,
for although in the back and in the chest . . his body was forbidding,
Both his wombe and his wast . . were worthily smale,
both his belly and his waist . . were laudably slender,
And alle his fetures fol3ande, . . in forme žat he hade,
and all his features in proportion . . to the shape that he had
ful clene;
through and through;
For wonder of his hwe men hade,
And men were in wonder at his colour,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
plain to see in his appearance;
He ferde as freke were fade,
he proceeded as a man who was ?bold--
And oueral enker-grene.
and, all over, bright green.
Like Treebeard and his Ents marching on Isengard, the Green Knight brings the wild and dangerous green world before Authur's court, as an external adjudicator both outside the affairs of men and representing interests far older, to test its reputation for glory (or, as we might say, 'culture' or 'civilization'). This is not to say that either Treebeard or the Green Knight is wild himself: by contrast, no courtlier character is to be encountered in Gawain, nor for many pages in The Lord of the Rings. But the Green Knight is a representative of the wild, and that is enough. In treebeard, Tolkien wove these themes into a powerful creation, more polarised than the Green Knight, but owing much to him.

It will be evident that despite the preference for alliteration over rhyme in Gawain, we are, even around 1400, in a different world from that of Beowulf. Language has changed, and so has poetry. Besides the fact that Gawain is, on the whole, easier for modern readers to understand, the most striking difference [http://www.tolkien.ru/texts/eng/pbjrrt/]linguistically is the slew of French vocabulary, most of which we still have in our language today: meruayle, armes, auenturus, joyne, iustyng, jopardé, fortune, cource, court. It will be noted that, for social reasons, most of these French loans deal with courtly matters--dining and jousting--but that when it comes to describing the unearthly Green Knight, English (and Norse) vocabulary comes back to the fore. Moreover, with the French loan-words and the many cultural developments and influences which they represent, there has been a revolution not only in attitudes to the natural world, but in how it should be described--developments of which Gawain is, for the medieval period, the pinnacle. In their edition of the poem, first published in 1925, long before The Lord of the Rings (1967 [1925], xxi), Tolkien and E. V. Gordon mentioned how

the Gawain poet with such evident relish describes luxuries of dress and entertainment, the excitement and expertise of the hunts, the grim grandeur of winter landscape. In his eye for colour, light, and movement, his ear for the delicate nuances of cultivated talk, and above all his warm and quick appreciation of mind and motives, the poet utterly transcends anything we know that could have served him as a source.
As I have discussed above, if Beowulf had included anything like the elaborate description of the Green Knight, it would have done so only by implying it in its dense poetic nouns and repetitions. Both the Gawain-poet and Tolkien, on the other hand, favour full and detailed description. In Gawain we find the scene set for the eventual emergence of the modern novel, of which is an example. While I would not suggest that Tolkien ever transcended his own source's ability to convey the experience of the natural world, his writing shares with it the ability to send us back into our own world with eyes newly opened. No doubt we owe this quality in Tolkien to what he learned from passages like those which I have quoted, or passages like this:
[http://www.tolkien.ru/texts/eng/pbjrrt/] Bi a mounte on že morne . . meryly he rydes
On a steed the next . . morning merrily he rides
Into a forest ful dep, . . žat ferly watz wylde,
Into a forest full deep . . that was wonderfully wild
Hi3e hillez on vche a halue, . . and holtwodez vnder
High hills on either side . . and forest timber below
Of hore okez ful hoge . . a hundreth togeder;
Of grey oaks full high . . a hundred together
Že hasel and že ha3žorne . . were harled al samen,
The hazel and the hawthorn . . were tangled all together
With ro3e raged mosse . . rayled aywhere,
with rough, ragged moss . . draped everywhere
With mony bryddez vnblyže . . vpon bare twyges,
With many unhappy birds . . upon bare twigs
Žat pitosly žer piped . . for pyne of že colde.
That sang there piteosly, . . for suffering from the cold.

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