“O Rowan Dead, Upon Your Head Your Hair is Dry and Grey.” Quickbeam the Ent Teaches Us the Power of Lamentation.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 628-631

I have never known any fully mature rowan-trees and so sadly have never encountered in my own experience the description that Bregalad, or Quickbeam as he is called in the Common Tongue, gives of the mighty trees of his youth.

“And these trees grew and grew, till the shadow of each was like a green hall, and their red berries in the autumn were a burden, and a beauty and a wonder.”

A rowan-tree crowned in glory.

I may not have met a fully mature rowan-tree but I do share Bregalad’s love of the rowan and its beauty and I have enjoyed watching birds flock to them later in autumn as other sources of food begin to run scarce. It is a tree that sustains them well into winter and itt is a good tree to plant and grow in a town garden or to see upon a woodland walk in the country.

Merry and Pippin are introduced to Bregalad by Treebeard towards the ending of the first day of Entmoot.

“Are you getting weary, or feeling impatient, hmm, eh?” Treebeard asks. “Well I am afraid that you must not get impatient yet?” This is still only the first day of deliberations that will take three days to conclude. Bregalad has already made up his mind about what to do and needs no more debate and so he is given the task of looking after the young hobbits until all is done.

“I am Bregalad, that is Quickbeam in your language. But it is only a nickname, of course. They have called me that ever since I said yes to an elder Ent before he had finished his question. Also I drink quickly, and go out while some are still wetting their beards.”

I love the way in which Peet on Deviantart has captured Bregalad’s gentleness and delight in this picture.

The quickness that Merry and Pippin experience in Quickbeam, and which they delight in, is a quickness to sing and to laugh. The very last time we see the friends at the end of The Lord of the Rings as they bid farewell to Sam is as they go off together singing. Bregalad is of the same spirit and so he laughs when the sun comes out from behind a cloud and he laughs whenever he meets a spring or a stream but his singing is subtly different whenever he meets a rowan-tree. He halts a while “with his arms stretched out” and he sings and sways as he sings.

Bregalad is a lover in the sense that he delights in life, and he delights in the life of the forest in particular, and especially in rowan-trees amidst the life of the forest. He takes pleasure in the being-ness of rowan-trees, in the simple fact that they are, and he expresses his delight in his singing. He sings his joy in the beauty of these trees.

O rowan fair, upon your hair how white the blossom lay!
O rowan mine, I saw you shine upon a summer's day,
Your rind so bright, your leaves so light, your voice so cool and soft:
Upon your head how golden-red the crown you bore aloft!

This is a song of praise for the glory of a fellow creature but his song does not end with praise but with lamentation. If, in Derndingle where the Entmoot meets, the mood is of growing anger which will eventually spill forth in songs of war, songs in which Bregalad will join, the mood of the song that he sings to Merry and Pippin is one of the deepest sadness.

O rowan dead, upon your head your hair is dry and grey;
Your crown is spilled, your voice is stilled for ever and a day.

It is not only anger that rouses the Ents against the wanton destruction of Saruman and of the orcs of Isengard but sadness also. And the sadness goes deeper than the anger. With their anger the Ents will “split Isengard into splinters and crack its walls into rubble” but with the sadness that they sing in songs of lament they will labour to heal the land, to renew Fangorn and also to rebuild Isengard making it a place of beauty once again, a place in which earth, air, fire and water can live together in harmony with one another and in which living things that grow and which sustain life can thrive. Bregalad teaches us that we need more than anger if we are to transform the earth. There are other songs to sing than songs of war.

The rowan-tree both protects and heals.

10 thoughts on ““O Rowan Dead, Upon Your Head Your Hair is Dry and Grey.” Quickbeam the Ent Teaches Us the Power of Lamentation.

  1. Thank you very much, I feel very honored.
    One of the characteristics of Tolkien’s universe is that not only living beings have consciousness, but the earth itself does, as it appears in several episodes throughout the book. Something to keep in mind that clashes greatly with our assumptions about the natural world.

    • Even at the time that I was writing the previous piece on the march of the Ents to Isengard there was a niggling voice within me that was saying that I had passed over the Entmoot too quickly. Thanks to your comment that inner voice was able to speak out loud and clear! So thank you for challenging me to write about Quickbeam. There are a number of serious scientists now who are talking about a sentient universe. Perhaps Tolkien would have asked them what took them so long! But Tolkien’s insights did not emerge from the so-called scientific method but from his understanding of the nature of myth and most importantly the “true myth” of which he convinced C.S Lewis on Addison’s Walk.

  2. Thank you for this reflection. It is good to be reminded of how singing is important in our connection with others.

    • Thank you so much for picking up on this, Bob. There is a sense, I feel, that all of Tolkien’s legendarium is woven together in song, and, of course, it all begins with the music of the Ainur. I wrote a piece a year or two back which pondered whether the music that Frodo heard in his dream in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell was a kind of tuning in to that music. The whole world around Tom Bombadil is shaped as a beautiful sub-creation by his songs. And how many people think that there is a kind of soundtrack running through their lives?

  3. For something I worked on a decade or so ago, I felt I had to go and meet some Rowan trees. Even spending time with them, however, I never really felt I got to know them. I may be lacking something wild in my make-up!

    • You and me both, brother! Recently I have been introduced to some new voices within Christianity who are exciting me very much and who speak of a need to rewild Christianity. One is the remarkable Irish writer, John Moriarty, who died in the first decade of this century. Fascinatingly Moriarty told a story of himself that was a turning point in his own life that reminded me of something you once said to me. He spoke of teaching English Literature in Canadian university and discussing Keats with a class while a blizzard was blowing outside that he knew would kill him if got lost in it. He suddenly had the feeling of the deep incongruence between the poetry and the weather and it led him to return to his native weather in the west of Ireland and the life of a hermit there. The other writer, story-teller, speaker is Martin Shaw who edited a John Moriarty Reader that I am currently reading. Shaw has also led a trans-Atlantic life, in his case teaching at Stanford, but also living for long periods in a tent in Dartmoor in England. It was a end of one of these times a couple of years ago that he had a vision of Christ that brought him to the Christian faith in which he had been raised but which he had abandoned as a young man. Both of these writers are calling me to a personal rewilding but I have a few miles to go yet and promises to keep before I am free to explore this further. I pray for preservation to follow this path for a time at least before my own ending.

      • That’s a great response, Stephen. A student last year wrote about “re-wilding” our university campus. It has been on my mind for some time. It is the elves who awake the trees (and later, a couple of hobbits and Saruman’s tyranny). It is Lucy who awakes the trees. However, the trees may play a role in awakening us from slumber.

      • A question to a Lewis scholar… Did Lewis change the rules between That Hideous Strength in which Merlin is forbidden to reawaken the trees and Prince Caspian in which not only is Lucy bidden to reawaken the trees but all kinds of pagan deities are encouraged by Aslan to create chaos in Narnia? It also brings to mind Wordsworth in his sonnet, The World is Too Much With Us, longing to see Proteus and Triton rise from the sea in a dead, disenchanted world.

      • Cool question, Stephen. I think the question has two different parts:
        1. What is the goal of the magic?
        2. What is the source/power/logic of the magic?
        1. Is there a goal to Lucy’s awakening of the trees in Prince Caspian–a goal beyond sheer delight, I mean? It is true that the trees are decisive in negotiating the surrender of the Telmarine settlers who had ruled unjustly. However, that certainly wasn’t on Lucy’s mind. Joy and possibility and instinct were Lucy’s only motivation, methinks.
        2. Unlike our Earth (at least in this age), Narnia has an in-built magical logic:
        a. The lands and hills and rivers are tended toward growth–richly so at the beginning of creation, but the logic of growth may still be there. After all, the air in Aslan’s country and the water at the end of the world have living, energizing qualities (and both are things that would be enervating, not energizing: mountaintop rarified air and ocean bitter saltwater).
        b. The awakening into speech and intelligence is critical to Narnia’s magic. Certainly, this happens at the beginning, as Strawberry the Horse becomes Fledge the Father of Flying Horses and the first Narnians learn to speak–as well as to joke and discern wisdom. However, this happens later, as well. The Talking Mice of Reepicheep’s breed are descended not from the dawn of creation, but as a recognition of honour when they freed Aslan from the cords of torture. The magic is still in the land for awakening (and for going to sleep, unawakening, as we learn).
        c. There is magic in Narnia that works from the inside to the outside. Eustace was thinking dragonish thoughts in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, while sleeping on a dragon’s horde. He became outside what he was inside: a dragon. When Jadis steals the apple of life-giving, she is cursed with life; when Diggory plucks an apple for someone else, it is life-giving: It heals his heart, gives life to his mother, and gives safety to Narnia (thus partially unringing the bell he rung). This endemic magic is part of the Narnian core.
        d. There is magic brought to Narnia, such as magic from the stars (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and the magic of Jadis, Emperor of Charn.
        e. I do not know the source of other living magic, like that of Dr. Cornelius in Prince Caspian or the Green Witch in The Silver Chair. I suspect that in the Narnian multiverse, there is some sort of magic in every world. In Charn, it was clear that magic was weaponized, and there was the Deep Magic of the Deplorable Word (a world-destroying curse). In Narnia, there likewise seems to be a living, useful magic operating with greater or lesser strength. I suspect this is a sense that there is, in Lewis’ imagination, faërie in every world. For example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensies are hunting the White Stag, and Father Christmas arrives in Narnia. But we also see shared mythologies between the worlds. Even subterranean Bism of The Silver Chair has flaming magical salamanders, heard of here on earth.
        There are things we don’t know about this. How lawful is the magic? Is it gauged by outcome or intention? Are there colleges and schools to shape the magic?
        Would there have been a Deeper Magic in Charn that breaks the Deplorable Word and makes death work backwards? There is on Earth, but we don’t know about Charn because Diggory rang the bell that awakened Jadis from a state frozen in time and allowed the world-destroying magic to have its way.
        Does that faërie-like magic still live on our Earth? It is clear that magic can operate on our Earth. We see this in the movement between the worlds: the “Thin Places”, and Uncle Andrew’s magic rings. However, these things all seem to be wasting away. The “Thin Places” are disappearing, the Wardrobe seems unlikely to work again, and the rings are not definitive in the end for helping Narnia in its last distress. Moreover, this kind of magic seems to be mostly leaking in from other worlds: the Narnian creation apple that becomes the wardrobe, and the rings formed from dirt left over from Atlantis (at least, that’s what Uncle Andrew thinks). It does appear that magic has faded from our world by the 20th century. When Jadis arrives here, she keeps her wit and strength and beauty, but not her magic. Our atmosphere, our paved streets and electric lights, or iron trees–these things no longer give space to magic.
        f. There is the magic of Aslan, primarily shown in healing and restoration (like Eustace’s undragoning, the meal of the Lamb, and the sleep of the mad dreamer in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) or in grace and guidance (in various points, but, in the same story Aslan’s guidance out of darkness as a cruciform bird and ray of light).
        Lucy’s magic in awakening may well be simply #f, the grace and guidance of Aslan for Lucy and the healing and restoration of the slumbering sentient trees. However, was this a first awakening of the trees? Or was this a re-awakening of the dryads? I don’t know.
        Beyond Aslan’s grace, the awakening of the trees fits magic #s a, b, and c–the three kinds of magic built into Narnia’s soil and water.
        Thus, for Lucy’s awakening of the trees, there is a Narnian innocence about #1, the goal, and a resonant Narnian magic (#2).

        1. The magical goal was laudable from Merlin’s perspective, but it seems to go against the directives that Ransom the Director is working under. It is a very passive counter-conspiracy, after all. Most of the members of the Company at St. Anne’s never actually do anything except live in fellowship. In the end, Merlin uses magic, but it is not sourced in the hills and fields and rivers and trees. There is a logic to the magic he uses and its natural outcome.
        2. There is a sense in the text among others of the Company at St. Anne’s (which you and I were trying to locate one day) that Merlin, though Christian, was dealing with magic that was on the edge of “unlawful”. I don’t know if that means Christian “law” (which for St. Anne’s would be, I suppose, something resonant in the heart and mind and at table fellowship and in work, rather than something written and weighed in court or canon), but it could also be something akin to Natural Law: the rhythm of all creation in a dance with the “Tao,” or the way of moral choice that Lewis believed to be a discovery in the universe (like mathematics or music), not an invention of human societies (like the tools to do mathematics or play music). It could be that awakening the hills was in that unlawful category.
        And yet, Ransom does not think the fields are wake-able, even for Merlin. It is like the naiads and dryads have fled the rivers and fields (T.S. Eliot mentions such in “The Waste Land). The magic has wasted away–as Jadis discovered about 45 years earlier in The Magician’s Nephew.
        However … the fields do awaken in a couple of ways. Nature-magic comes alive. First, there is the weather and movement of the hills during Merlin’s awakening from slumber (this might be coincidental, or the natural result of opening an old tomb). Second, there is a fog or darkness that descends on Edgestow. Third, the fields swallow Edgestow, including Bracton College, the N.I.C.E., and Lord Fancypants McCad, formerly known as Devine (but not Mark Studdock and Mrs. Maggs’ husband and the jailed animals, who had gotten out).
        Merlin also got out. Presumably, he got out forever.
        What magic did Merlin actually do?
        1. He spoke the words of his college, which are also Old Solar, the primeval unified speech of the solar system, still in use among the planetary intelligences beyond the sphere of earth and demonic hordes within our sphere.
        2. He caused people to sleep, wake, or move by a sort of hypnotic suggestion.
        3. He spoke words of prophecy, such as a prophecy about Mr. Bultitude.
        4. He caused a presumably homeless drifter to speak eloquently in ancient, unknown tongues.
        5. He liberated some people (at least two) and animals from Belbury–though the liberation of the latter may have been a lock and key situation.
        6. He either prophesied the confusion of tongues at the Belbury bigwig banquet, or created a spell or curse of Babel.
        7. Did he cause the trees and rivers to devour the college, town, institute, and nearby fields?
        Except for possibly #2 and #7, these are all about language, words of magic. I think we can suspect that #2 is also about the magic of speech, right? This makes sense, because That Hideous Strength is a book about Language. Its title comes from a poem about the Tower of Babel.
        Thus, because there is a logic of magic endemic to the world of That Hideous Strength (The Field of Arbol), I think that #7 was not Merlin awakening the hills in the way he proposed to Dr. Ransom, the Director of St. Anne’s. It is out of character with Ransom’s warning and the other kinds of magic that Merlin utilizes.
        It seems that, contrary to Ransom’s feeling on the issue, the hills and trees and rivers were wake-able. And they awoke. I suspect, but cannot prove, that the earthquakes and destruction are not divine fire from the sky, but an ecological uprising against the unlawful magic and ecoterrorism of the N.I.C.E. It might also be a kind of macrobial self-destruction–the collapsing of the demonic powers that energized the creepy supernatural intelligence that directed the N.I.C.E.’s work. I don’t know. However, it would be resonant with the magic in That Hideous Strength that if Merlin tried to awake nature, when he found it changed (as Ransom thought), it would not awaken in benevolence.
        Do we have any sense that if nature awoke in our industrial ages, it would feel like our kin?
        It could be that awakening the fields would be too dangerous, thus awakening a foe not a friend (which was the risk they were taking with Merlin all along).

        I am curious, though, about #6. Was the confusion of tongues at Belbury a prophecy or a curse? A curse would make sense to the nature of magic as magic of speech. But I think there is an internal logic at play–an endemic magic: Belbury loses speech because it has cast away meaning.
        For though it is a book about Speech, there is a sense where the true meaning of Speech supersedes speech itself:
        “For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun, Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.”
        In Saussure’s language, denotation breaks free of connotation–the signifier superseded the signified. When meaning infuses our planet (as Mercury-Viritrilbia in our atmosphere), speech without meaning can no longer contain meaning. The link between the signifier and the signified is broken when signs lose their meaning.

        In the speculative universes of the Ransom Cycle and Narnia, it seems that magic has faded from our world, Terra, Earth, the Silent Planet, Thulcandra.
        However, there may still be some Thin Places where it can creep in. We know that the fay have fled or been murdered, but there might be some remnant of faërie alive still. And it seems that the hills and trees and rivers may come alive in dire circumstances–but not always on our side. After all, the third curse in the garden of Eden is a break between nature and humanity. Trying to manipulate the magic of the natural world could be what “unlawful magic” means, in Lewis’ mind. In The Abolition of Man, the essay behind That Hideous Strength, Lewis certainly equated technocratic ecological devastation and scientific manipulation of nature “free” from ethics with what he elsewhere calls the Magician’s twin–not a search for the good of the community or an honest scientific curiosity, but the old alchemical temptation to be masters of nature and thus masters of humanity (specifically, real people). The magical world “enthrall” caries both the connotation of “magic” or “spell” as well as the image of “slavery” or “bondage.”
        So what about Rewilding? I suspect our generation is aware of that third Edenic loss in a way that is deeper than many that have come before (at least in the West). We are recovering a sense of that third curse, a sense of the break, and a desire to live in a new rhythm with creation. It could be that Rewilding could recover some lawful magic. After all, magic is not all about control and bondage. “Spell” is the old word for “story” or “speech,” and “enchantment” connects to our words for “song.”
        It could be the magic of Narnia or the special grace of Aslan allows Lucy to awaken the trees. But it may also be that Lucy has a completely different relationship with the trees than most of us–and certainly more than most of those in the interplanetary war of That Hideous Strength. In awakening the trees of Narnia, as a daughter of Eve, Lucy seems to be unbreaking the Third Edenic Curse–at least a little bit.
        There may be more to rewilding that we might think!

        We, now, this is pretty silly. My quick response is a short essay. I apologize for this, but these questions have been on my mind! I am working on a chapter on “the apocalypse of the imagination” in Lewis’ writing, and so the loss of magic has been moving through my thoughts for a while. You gave me an excuse to write out my thoughts as they pertain to your question. Feel free to ignore all of this nonsense! However, I might reshape this into a blog post or something. I appreciate your prompt!

      • Thank you so much for honouring me with such a full and substantial reply! As you can see it has taken me a while to reply to you. I look forward to reading your chapter on “the apocalypse of the imagination.” Why does the modern mind confuse apocalypse with annihilation? Is it because we fear revelation so much? I know that the story of Susan is a particular problem in The Chronicles of Narnia but if we were to take Lewis’s original intention does it not at the very least point to Susan’s fear of Narnia, of its apocalyptic nature? One can only hope that eventually she will say yes to her heart’s deepest longing.
        I like your emphasis upon Lucy’s intention as described in Prince Caspian. One could almost say that she does not so much form an intention as being taken possession of by it. Merlin, on the other hand, desires mastery rather than delight. I have never sought to practice magic and it is a long time since I have tried to practice those forms of prayer that are nearest to magic, but it strikes me that the greatest temptation for those who do is the desire for mastery. Lucy is completely free from this and so Aslan is able to trust her. In the same way Frodo is, of all the possible bearers of the Ring, most free from this temptation although the temptation gradually wears him down as he draws closer to Mount Doom.

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