“My Name is Like a Story.” Treebeard Gives a Lesson in Language as Participation in Life.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) 603-607

Last week I wrote about the first encounter between Merry, Pippin and Treebeard as if they had met at a party and had begun the process of getting to know each other. Of course, my suggested image of a party has to be qualified by the possibility that Treebeard might have killed the young hobbits before any conversation took place. That really is some party!

But Treebeard hears the nice voices of the hobbits and decides not to act too hastily and once that decision has been made the whole business of getting to know each other can begin.

For Merry and Pippin this is a simple matter. “Nobody else calls us hobbits; we call ourselves that.” But for Treebeard a name is a very different affair altogether. One one level a name is something that one can present to another so that the business of getting to know a person can begin. “Well, I am an Ent, or that’s what they call me. Yes, Ent is the word. The Ent, I am, you might say, in your manner of speaking. Fangorn is my name according to some. Treebeard others make it. Treebeard will do.” All of this is mere preliminary to real communication. Nothing much has really been said as yet. The real business is yet to start.

Alan Lee conveys something of the mystery that is Treebeard in this beautiful picture.

“‘ I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate’. A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say.”

Treebeard gives a clue about himself in speaking of Ents from the “old lists” of living things in which he tries, and fails, to find hobbits. The Ents are “earthborn, old as mountains.” Pippin later described Treebeard in these terms, “something that grew in the ground… had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” Ents are a part of the ancient story of the earth and are yet as immediate and sudden as waking up on a spring morning and finding that everything is alive once more.

Treebeard, like nature herself, takes a particular pleasure in the process of concealment. In speaking of concealment I do not mean deception. He is not trying to throw anyone of the track by pretending to be what he is not. What he does through concealment is to invite another into the long business of getting to know him. I am reminded of the beautiful thing that the great writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said of his wife of many years. “I have known her for so long that she has become a complete mystery to me.” Marquez speaks of the particular pleasure that is gained in remaining in a relationship for a long time and yet never losing a curiosity in who the other is. The reward for this curiosity is not a series of facts that can be consigned to a database that can be forgotten until it becomes necessary to access the data contained therein. The reward is mystery. It is an invitation to go ever deeper and to know that one will never get to the end of the going and that each act of discovery will be a delight over which you can linger and enjoy.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mercedes Barcha delighting in the mystery of one another.

And language, for Treebeard, is a participation in the story of all things. It is not a dispassionate observation of observable facts, that quality that Treebeard describes as hastiness. It is an ongoing response to the hospitable invitation that another gives to get to know them, to listen to their story. And once Treebeard has decided not to kill the young hobbits the business of allowing the hobbits to get to know him can begin.