Hill Is a Hasty Word for a “Thing That Has Stood Here Since This Part of The World Was Shaped.” Treebeard Calls Us to Learn to Speak With Less Haste.

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.”

You must be getting tired from holding us up.” Alan Lee’s wonderful depiction of the first encounter between the hobbits and Treebeard.

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.

The old High Street in Droitwich

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.

Merry and Pippin begin to contemplate Fangorn in Alan Lee’s depiction.

“Fangorn is My Name.” Merry and Pippin Meet Treebeard on a Hill in The Forest.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 600-607

Merry and Pippin make their escape from the Orcs up the Entwash into the Forest of Fangorn and at first they are driven by fear of their captors. But at last they pause, struggling for breath in the stifling stillness of the forest and try to assess their position. Which way should they go and what provision do they have for their journey?

A careful examination of their position would not give the hobbits much hope. They have only lembas to eat and enough for only five days and where will they go? But we have already seen that they are content to live in the moment and soon their curiosity about their immediate surroundings begins to grow and, for a while at least, concern for their prospects fades away.

It is the age of the forest that fascinates them and the feeling of age. Pippin likens the forest to the “old room in the Great Place of the Tooks”, where the Old Took, Gerontius, who Bilbo knew, lived year after year while the room grew old about him. “But that is nothing to the old feeling of this wood.”

Anke Eissmann’s characterful depiction of Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest

The moment in which the young hobbits meet Treebeard for the very first time is handled very differently in Peter Jackson’s film than it is in Tolkien’s original telling of the story. The obvious difference is that Tolkien gives us no pursuing orcs. They are lying slain on the grass of Rohan by this point and Grishnákh was killed while trying to take the hobbits to Mordor. But the other difference is that there seems to be a complete absence of fear on the part of Merry and Pippin as they are lifted from the ground by “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen feet high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck.” I will come back to this strange absence of fear next week in my reflection. As always I do not consider it to be an oversight on Tolkien’s part, one that Peter Jackson corrects.

What we are given is wonder. The first thing that Merry and Pippin become aware of is Treebeard’s eyes and it is Pippin, the one who is normally unreflective, who tries to describe those eyes.

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long slow steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground- asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky 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.”

What Pippin seems to be describing is nature itself in all its heartbreaking beauty. I say heartbreaking because even as we read these words we are so aware of the fragility of the world that Treebeard expresses and represents. And in this Tolkien reveals himself as a modern writer who is aware that nature is standing at bay as a debased culture, orc like in its character, knows only one relationship to the natural world and that is dominance, abuse and rape.

One of my pleasures in writing these reflections is seeking for appropriate artwork to aid them. Although I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made and, in particular, loved the landscapes within which he set the story I have found much more help for my own work from the imaginations of artists. This week I have used an image by the excellent Anke Eissmann once again who finds such character in the faces of Merry and Pippin and I have found a wonderful depiction of Treebeard’s face by Alan Lee. If Eissmann always gives us character in her work Lee gives us mystery. There is a transcendent quality to all his work. Each image is a kind of portal to a reality beyond the surface that can be touched or simply regarded. This is certainly true of his depiction of Treebeard and as I looked at it I began to see a likeness to his depiction of the figure of Merlin in Bragdon Wood from C.S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Again, in future weeks, I want to come back to this likeness. I do not know if it was intentional on Lee’s part but that sense that something is awakening, emerging from the earth in both Treebeard and Merlin, is one that excites, even intoxicates me. I hope that you will enjoy this exploration with me and that, perhaps, you will share your insights and responses in the comments section below.

Alan Lee depicts Treebeard as if emerging from the earth
And here is Alan Lee’s depiction of Merlin emerging from the earth of Bragdon Wood. I hope that you will enjoy comparing the two.

The Imagining of Valinor. Film Makers and Artists Try to Depict The Undying Lands.

Valinor Imagined in the New Amazon Series

Like people all around the world I was captivated by the publicity image of Valinor that announced the new Amazon TV series of The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, the quality of the light that entrances. I am not one of the fortunate reviewers who are permitted to watch the series and so I can only guess that what we can see on the horizon is Laurelin, the golden tree that brought the light of day to the Undying Lands. And what is portrayed in this image is a kind of eternal sunrise, the light always coming from the horizon. It was only after the trees were destroyed by Ungoliant that the light that we know came into existence, the light of the sun and moon.

And so what we have is a remarkable act of the imagination on Tolkien’s part and one that has been represented to us by one of the great artists of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, who is one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. We all know the feeling that we have at sunrise and sunset and that we perceive the world differently at those times than at any other part of the day. Now we are invited to perceive a world in which that light and possibly that feeling is always present at least in daylight.

John Howe’s visual imagination invites us into a world that is close enough to our experienced reality for us to recognise and yet is an intensification of that experience so that this new world that we perceive is a “more than” all that we know.

It is not just the light in this image that is captivating, it is the world that we perceive through the eternal sunrise towards which we look and possibly move. Note the contrast between the mountains that frame both sides of the picture and the city (is it Tirion of the Noldor?) and the parkland like foreground over the lone figure of an elf is moving. Wildness and cultivation seem to lie together easily. There is no strain in the image. It is not like the hall of a king of the northern world, a fragile oasis of light and warmth in the midst of a dark and dangerous wild like Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf.

Alan Lee imagines Alqualondë, the Haven of Valinor

My own early visual experiences of the sublime were twofold in nature. Among those that I recall were the moment when I stepped inside the doors of Westminster Abbey for the first time and a journey southwards from Keswick down through The Lake District of England on a coach. In Westminster Abbey what I recall is a sudden broadening of my horizons contained within a building and a sense, equally sudden that I was a very small figure in this beautiful space. My memory of the journey through The Lake District is of the mountains rearing up above me with the same suddenness that I experienced in Westminster Abbey and that same perception of self as very small but not insignificant. The self that experienced both had entered two worlds that had both grown much greater than I had previously known but the feeling was not one of fear but of excitement. I wanted more of what both seemed to be inviting me to explore.

In my weekly blog posts in which I am reflecting upon The Lord of the Rings I am just about to begin the southward journey of the newly formed Fellowship of the Ring into the dangerous wilds of Middle-earth. It is a very different world from the imagining of Valinor with which I began this post. In the Middle-earth journey every aspect of the landscape strains against each other and perhaps the most powerful example of this is in the attempted crossing of the Redhorn Gate below Caradhras that we will come to soon. It is a terrible journey but am I alone in my feeling that it is more glorious than the everlasting serenity that we perceive in the picture, beautiful as it is, of Valinor at the head of this piece? Does my own desired experience of the sublime require wild moments too?

Alan Lee’s Awe Inspiring Depiction of Caradhras Seen From The Redhorn Gate