The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 603-607
Merry and Pippin begin to tell their story to Treebeard but soon Merry suggests that Treebeard put them down.
“You must be getting tired of holding us up,” he says.
Treebeard replies by saying that he doesn’t tire easily but that perhaps it is time to go, to leave the place on which they are standing. And then he ponders the name of this thing.
“Hill?” suggested Pippin. “Shelf? Step?” suggested Merry.
Treebeard repeated the words thoughtfully. “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped. Never mind. Let us go.”
And so Treebeard, in just a few words, challenges us to examine the ways in which we use language, a way is usually unexamined, we might even say, thoughtless. We first learn the names of things from our parents and other adults; a code that we share in common with all who speak our mother tongue. Hobbits, in Tolkien’s world, abandoned their own original language and adopted the Common Tongue, or Westron, that enabled the peoples of Middle-earth, such as Ents and Hobbits, to speak with one another. It is another way in which Hobbits are able to be a kind of Everyman in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien did some work on the Westron language but unlike the languages of the Elves that emerged from a first principle of language, from the mythology that was the Elves first and essential experience of reality, Westron was a translation from English back into an invented language.
Merry and Pippin, like most hobbits, have very little understanding of the ancient languages of Middle-earth. They are modern people for whom language has lost its ancient connection to an experience of its world that is rooted in myth and mystery. Those who still speak Gaelic in Scotland are able, if they so choose, to walk about a Hebridean island and through the names of each place they come to, tell the story of their island. Tolkien, through his knowledge of Old English, could do something similar with the place names of England, particularly in the ancient shires of Worcester and Oxford. The name of the town near which I live in Worcestershire is Droitwich, from the Old English wic or village and dright which might be dirt (drit). English, unlike Gaelic which tells stories, has always been a practical language. We might say that it is a hasty language. It encourages you to get on with things. Gaelic encourages you to stop and ponder the stories of things.
Treebeard is not particularly interested in getting on with things. He has no gardens to tend or food to grow. As he says to the young hobbits his food is a drink “that will keep you green and growing for a long, long while” and unlike ale or beer this drink involves no manufacturing process. His task is to be a shepherd to the trees of the forest and like shepherds, or herdsmen, throughout the world for much of the time, the work requires a close attention to all that is going on and Treebeard has been paying attention for thousands of years. His language, perhaps more like Gaelic, invites you to stop and ponder.
His attentiveness and his long memory is expressed in the telling of stories and the hill on which he has been standing that day has a very long story indeed. Treebeard’s life is lived in long practiced harmony with the forest in which he has lived for long ages and his language is contemplative, an expression of that harmony.
The French Orthodox scholar, Olivier Clément, speaks of this kind of contemplation thus:
“Here is a little spiritual exercise by means of the humblest of sensations- of breathing, of rejoicing under the blue sky, of touching a stone, or the bark of a tree, of gazing… at the majesty of a tree- I try to reach the transcendence of a thing. The object is visible and at the same time invisible; I must seek its inner self, let myself be led by it”
Treebeard has been led by the “inner self” of his forest for a very long time.