Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:
“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”
“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”
For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.
My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.
I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.
I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.
12 thoughts on “An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard”
excellent post–as I am currently reading Tolkien’s authorized bio from Humphrey Carpenter, it’s so interesting to see that one of Tolkien’s main thrusts in TLOR trilogy was the dirty industrialization of his beloved countryside.
Thanks for leaving a comment, Robert. Tolkien could literally see Birmingham coming closer and closer each year and swallowing his village. How do you see this tension between our living in the modern age and also resisting it?
. . .it is remarkable that a work of fantasy so captures our current situation; it makes me think that TLOR trilogy can’t be strictly labeled as “fantasy”; some combination of the words “fantasy” and “mythology.” I can’t think of any other work of fantasy that contains such important and deep similarities and lessons about modern life; I mean, I love The Chronicles of Narnia, but I don’t believe Narnia and it’s creatures have the depth and darkness of Middle-Earth.
My own feeling is that what is generally termed “fantasy” has largely been derived from what Tolkien created and I think you are right in using the word, “mythology” to describe what he wrote. His belief was that the Normans destroyed the mythology of the English following the invasion of 1066 & he was seeking to restore it in his own work. He didn’t lack ambition! Others know much more about the relationship between Middle-earth and Narnia than I do but I rather think Tolkien may have agreed with you on the question of depth!
It interests me this, Stephen. I must admit I have no sensible “answers” or offerings. But I often feel that we see God easiest in the beauty of holiness, and the darkness of despair or adversity. It is good to see him also in the tension of normal life – in the places where we acknowledge the contradictions and face, as you say, the hypocrisy! God in the nitty-gritty perhaps.
I think hypocrisy is something I do want to avoid. I see it as a state of denial; a pretence to a unified life that does not exist. If I pretend to live a life of pure environmental responsibility then I am a hypocrite. Acknowledging the tension and the contradiction is a better place to start. Of course, it is always possible to become comfortable, even with the tension. I must remain uneasy just as the best characters do in The Lord of the Rings.
“…I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”
I wonder, too, about the concept of freedom. Here is a statement of freedom and adherence to belief? But at what cost? Saruman will not surrender to his enemies, but finds himself trapped in his tower. And Treebeard understands that. Finally, of course, Gandalf will grant “freedom” to Saruman, despite concern that he is still malicious. But Saruman is such a prisoner of his own character that he will ultimately meet his demise trapped by that maliciousness of character, and not walk free.
We identify and find solace and inspiration and so much more in the ‘freedom’ of the countryside, but we also can not turn aside from the ‘freedom’ granted by the roads and accessories of modern life….
I am, as usual with your blogs, grasping at the edges of what I want to say! Thank you for the thought inspiring writing…
Once again I appreciate your thoughtful response. I think that resolution, easily attained, is unlikely to be true. Some call this place of tension, liminal space, the threshold neither in or out of the house. Perhaps we live in a time in which to live in such space is what is most required of us.
This reminded me of Watership Down – of the rabbits’ helplessness in the face of human ‘progress’ and Bigwig looking at a line of trees and saying ‘I don’t trust straight lines. Men make them.’
Great to hear from you, as always, David. What you wrote brought the late, great John O’Donohue to mind & so I decided to Google “John O’Donohue-Straight Lines” and this came up pretty near the top from Geez magazine 2006.
“John O’Donohue, the contemporary Irish poet, speaks of unity as a grand circularity. “The creator of the universe loves circles: time and space are circles, the day is a circle, the year is a circle, the earth is a circle.” O’Donohue writes beautifully about the inclusiveness and unity of a “great circle of belonging” which encompasses humanity, the earth and God.
Whereas progress is a straight line, the new future may be more circular and spherical. Both O’Donohue’s flowing imagery and tender tone contrast with the growth charts, bottoms lines an competitive self-interest of the marketplace. He calls us to abandon the path of perpetual growth and re-enter the circles that encompass all, and the cycles that balance time.”
I like the look of that & so, I think would Bigwig and Treebeard. Saruman, on the other hand, would hate it!
what a thoughtful post. I can relate to that tension, as I’m sure many of us can. I’m grateful to the men and women who came before me and helped draw lines and lay down laws for the preservation of some of our wild-spaced in the U.S.
It’s now my responsibility, and the responsibility of my contemporaries to make sure their work is not undone. It’s frustrating, and I have a hard time not judging those who wish to remain oblivious, or simply don’t care, or who actively wish dismantle our state and national parks and wildlife areas. But judging them does highlight my own hypocrisy, and even if it didn’t, it is not my place to judge. But it is hard.
I saw a wonderful interview with Christopher Tolkien on You Tube in which he speaks about sitting with his father above the ancient White Horse carved into the chalk on the downs above the Thames Valley. I have also sat on that spot, perhaps that very spot! CT speaks of how he reacted excitedly as a steam train passed by in the valley below. JRRT did not share his son’s excitement. As far as he was concerned the train was an instrument of oppression. I cannot go that far. After all I travelled by car to the National Trust car park and then walked along the top of the down land to the White Horse. But I think we can draw a distinction between the tension in which we all live in the western world & those who seek to destroy our wild spaces.