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.”
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.