Whose Side is Treebeard on?

Whose side is Treebeard on in the War of the Ring? That is another way of asking the question, whose side is nature on? Treebeard himself is undecided. “I am not altogether on anyone’s side because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.”

Treebeard is on the side of the forests of the earth and since time immemorial he has been their shepherd. And what he has witnessed over the years has been the long slow defeat of the forest. Even the hobbits have not been on the side of the forest. You may remember how Merry  told his companions of the battle between his people, the Brandybucks, and the Old Forest early in their journey; of how fires had been lit by the Brandybucks to drive the forest back and a great hedge planted to withstand any further attempts at encroachment. You may remember too, how the Old Forest tried to trap the hobbits as they attempted to journey through it by forcing them down to the Withywindle and the clutches of Old Man Willow. The Forest had a long and bitter memory of Merry’s people and only the arrival of Tom Bombadil saved him and his friends from disaster and a speedy conclusion to the great Quest of the Ring. The Old Forest was not on their side.

And there is a sense in which even Treebeard’s world is divided against itself because the Ents, the shepherds of the wild forest, have long been separated from the Entwives, the tenders of the cultivated gardens of the world. In this world the untamed wilderness is the masculine principle, the animus, while the cultivated world is the feminine principle, the anima and as Treebeard says to Merry and Pippin, the Entwives “would like your country.”

Tolkien never answers the question of whether the wilderness and the garden, the masculine and the feminine, can ever live in peace together although he does seem to say that the final healing of the world will only come when they are finally reconciled. But one thing is sure and that is “there are some things, of course, whose side” Treebeard is “altogether not on… these Orcs and their masters.” For Saruman the wizard has betrayed the trust bestowed upon him by the Valar, the angelic lords of the earth, the task he was given to aid the free peoples of Middle Earth in their resistance to Sauron and that he has long been plotting “to become a Power”. Treebeard declares that Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

And in saying this Treebeard challenges us to declare whose side we are on in the War of the Ring, whether we, like Saruman, use growing things for our own purposes, plotting to become little powers. Whether we, like Saruman, have given way to despair, believing in the inevitable victory of the dark lords of our own times, seeking only to find some accommodation with them, some way of surviving in a world that they rule. If we do then we will find that all who become, or seek to become, dark lords will have little regard for our loyalty seeking only their own ends and we will find something else too. Nature will be against us and will have its revenge upon the dark lords and all who for their own ends choose to be their allies. In our own time we are already rousing the anger of nature and would do well to find a way to make peace before it is too late.

3 thoughts on “Whose Side is Treebeard on?

  1. This has been much on my mind lately – nature, the wild, the domestic (garden) and our attitudes to them. This preoccupation has been growing over a number of years, but recently it has become far more pronounced and your post touches on a number of live nerves for me.
    As you would expect this whole issue has driven me to the biblical texts. Initially I have tended to view them rather as hostile witnesses and read them with a certain amount of suspicion, but (as always) there are too many voices and some call for a much stronger relationship between us and nature.
    To be honest, I have tried to resist this process as it is an area about which I cannot remain detached, rather I find myself reacting very emotionally (and subjectively) to these texts and the issues they raise! I cannot read them academically, only painfully.
    You mention the dichotomy of garden and wild forest; Ent and Entwives. I know we have talked before about this duality of wild and tame/civilised that runs through so many of the ancient myths. It seems to say a lot about our attitude to wild nature and by extension how we perceive God’s attitude to it. Perhaps it is not surprising that, in Genesis, God should plant a *garden* (gan) in Eden – a taming of the wild, bordered by the wild. Perhaps we also should not be surprised by the division of animal life into tame and untame, clean and unclean… and yet, where does that place the wild, the untamed, the chaotic and uncontrollable? By the time of P’s writings it seems to be expressed in terms of outright warfare.
    I can understand how Mark might depict the wilderness into which Jesus is driven a place of godlessness (the haunt of demons), but we now see the wilderness through very different eyes – many go there to find God as if it were the last true and authentic place untainted by human hand and manipulation. I too feel that pull of the transcendent in those places and understand the draw of the newer expressions of ‘Celtic’ Christianity with its emphasis on the natural world. The recent deaths of those drawn to the storm waves over Christmas suggests this magnetic pull to the wild is very strong.
    I am also struck by the way the divine is increasingly (at least I think it is increasingly) associated with the wild. Notably, CS Lewis’ assertion that ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’, but also in numerous other instances. Wild animals (and their assumed) wisdom are frequently found within books relating to spiritual and life issues (Women who run with Wolves is just one example).
    We appear to be no longer seeking a God of the garden, but a God of the wild who is also untamed. This must have an influence on our perception and attitudes to nature.

  2. We have talked about this before, haven’t we? I think for me what is new here is the longing for the union of the wild and the domestic, the animus and anima, that the search of the Ents for the Entwives expresses in The Lord of the Rings. It takes all thought about the relationship between men and women beyond the question of rights. Of course every action that is just must be pursued as far as possible but to reduce all our relationships to justice is to diminish them. I wonder where we go when we try to re-imagine our relationships with one another (and also between different aspects of our own pysche) in terms of the the relationship of the wilderness and the garden, the wild and the domestic? As to the bible on this I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that fascinating passge in Hosea, surely a song of a heartbroken lover. The lover declares that he will “allure her…lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.” He promises to return her vineyards to her (the cultivated relating to the feminine?). Then he declares that “In that day (always a significant statement!) you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master’.” (Hosea 2.14ff) How many wedding sermons have been preached on this text? None by me as yet! I’m not sure how I would tackle it as yet. Perhaps more importantly I want to think about how this tension & longing addresses the question of my own marriage and the struggles within my own psyche.

  3. Thank you for reminding me about the Hosea text – yes it’s very strange isn’t it? Why does the lover taker her to the wilderness (particularly after making her into one, 2:3)? Is it to bring her to the lowest point (one of thirst and death) or to a place devoid of distractions – although wildernesses are often full of distractions (the stylites’ empty wasteland provides David Attenborough with hours worth of material for fascinating viewing!). Or is this – and I suspect it may be the case – also part of the de-wilding of the wilderness; of bringing it into the divine oikonomia.

    We then have those tantalising words in verse 18 “And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground.”
    Is this the promise of a harmonising union (although very much open to be persuaded) or simply the continuation of the domestication of the cosmos? It is certainly one of those wonderful passages which suggests a divine awareness of the wild.

    I think what I am trying to pin down in words here is this feeling that there are part of creation that need to be ‘redeemed’. I know I am projecting a Christian reading onto a Jewish text here (though I think by Paul’s time this may have been acceptable language), but there is this sense that the wild (and by extension wild animals) is somehow outside this oikonomia and needs to be either subdued (through the rather brutal language of P) or in some way brought in. Either way, there is something inherently wrong (and literally un-godly) about the wild. I do love the idea of Yahweh creating a covenant with them though! 🙂

    I think one of the problems we face when talking about wild/domestic, anima/animus etc. is that we live in a very different world; to the ancients the chaos of the wild held all that was unthinkable and unholy, and only God (in whatever form(s)) could hold it back. Therefore , God speaking through thunder and earthquake was truly terrifying as this was the convergence of their hope and deepest fears. We rarely look to hell to hear God’s voice! Which brings me back to the point earlier, to us it is entirely natural – yes we may fear earthquakes still, but we understand them. We can only look for God in the wild because we no longer really fear the wild (in the old sense), because it is, for the most part, contained. In other words, our ‘wild’ is not the ‘wild’ we read in the ancients.

    The other thing that I find interesting from your comment is the equation with feminine and tame/domestic. Here again, there appears to be a difference between our attitudes and those of the ancients (well, in this case the ancient Jewish texts). It struck me forcibly just now when I was reading a dissertation one of my students has sent me and in it she was arguing how texts like Judges appear to use women as a motif for disorder, violence and disharmony (either as instigators or in some way the cause of it). One need only think back to J’s Eden to find woman as wild and untamed sowing discord.

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