“I Am Not Altogether on Anyone’s Side, Because Nobody is Altogether on My Side.” Treebeard, the Ents and Forests in The World of Middle-earth

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 611-617

The homes in which people live tell you much about them. Of course, many people have little choice in the kind of home in which they live, but even when that choice is limited for people they will still seek to do something to tell a story about themselves. I remember when as a young man I taught in an African school in Zambia I would sometimes go to visit a student’s family in one of the villages nearby. One thing always stood out to me on these visits and that was that the family I visited may have possessed very little but everything was presented with great care and the simple hut was clean and life lived with great dignity. Those who know the descriptions of the simple homes of early settlers travelling west among the American continent will recognise this need for dignity. I came across great poverty in African villages but I did not encounter squalor until I worked as a parish priest in some run down neighbourhoods of Birmingham, England.

Treebeard’s home is an expression of his dignity as the oldest of the Ents and of a carefully crafted balance between earth, the flowing of water over the earth, that which grows in the earth, and light. It is the play of light upon stone, water and tree that gives Wellinghall its particular character. The name in its English form and therefore in the Common Tongue of Tolkien’s Middle-earth comes from the idea of a spring welling up from the earth beneath it and the hall that was built there.

An imagining of Wellinghall

“A little stream escaped from the the springs above, and leaving the main water, fell tinkling down the sheer face of the wall, pouring in silver drops, like a fine curtain in front of the arched bay.”

The “arched bay” had been shaped out of the lower slopes of Methedras, the last of the Misty Mountains and so we are brought into a home in which the worlds outside and inside flow together in a carefully crafted manner. If in a typical western home a great effort is made to create something which keeps the interior quite separate from that which lies outside this is most certainly not the case with Wellinghall.

Treebeard’s home is, as far as he can achieve it, an adaptation to the world of earth, water, tree and light in which he has lived since time immemorial. There is no agriculture or industry within his world. Even his food is derived from the welling waters of the young Entwash that flow through his home although there is clearly some kind of intoxicant that occurs within them, or has been added to them. But it is an intoxicant that energises rather than enervates. We remember that when Merry and Pippin first drank from the waters of the Entwash as they escaped into the forest from the orcs they did not notice that “the cuts and sores of their captivity had healed and their vigour had returned”.

A forest as a place of healing.

Perhaps what we see in the ecology of Fangorn Forest is what can happen when a very particular set of relationships are able to develop over a long period of time. It is important to note that Fangorn is never presented as a kind of paradise in a way in which Lothlórien appears to be. Treebeard himself speaks of the impact of darkness upon it and his work as the shepherd of the trees is both to protect the forest from external forces that seek to harm it and from the darkness that might destroy it from within.

Even as he speaks with Merry and Pippin we seem to see Treebeard become increasingly aware that he has failed to protect his forest. The depredations that first came with the return of the Númenorians in the Second Age and whose activities led to the large scale destruction of the forest that once had lain right across Eriador and of which the Forest of Fangorn was only its eastern end seem to have been something with which Treebeard had to learned to live with, albeit reluctantly. But now the deliberate destruction of the forest by Saruman is something that he cannot tolerate. It may be that a world in which no-one has really been on the side of the trees and their shepherds is one that has led Treebeard to stay out of the struggles for power and for freedom in the wider world about him. He has not been “altogether on anyone’s side” because “nobody is altogether” on his side but now he realises that unless he chooses a side his forest will be destroyed completely. He has to take action.

No-one is “altogether” on Treebeard’s side but some seek to destroy his world completely.

Sam Gamgee Remembers a Gift to Heal the Hurts of the World.

As always, Saruman underestimated the capacity of those that he made his foes to undo the harm that he sought to do to them, and he greatly underestimated the power of good in the world. In many ways the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings is a celebration of  that goodness. And the goodness is given graciously and abundantly.

I ended last week’s reflection on the death of Saruman lamenting one who, in Wordsworth’s words, “laid waste his powers”, meaning Saruman, and then hinted at one who, in his labours to restore the Shire discovered power that had lain hidden deep within him. Of course I am speaking of Sam Gamgee.

It is typical of Sam that he gets down to work straight away to remove all traces of Saruman’s malign influence upon the Shire and to begin to restore it “as it ought to be”. Sam finds many willing helpers. Perhaps some hobbits might have been ashamed of their failure to stand up against the invaders and wished to make amends. There might even have been some among the more willing collaborators who might wish to do so also. Let us hope so. Tolkien does not tell us.

But it isn’t until Sam begins to ponder the destruction of the trees and how it might only be his great-grandchildren who might see the Shire as he once knew it to be that he remembers the gift that Galadriel gave him in Lothlórien. It is a box of plain grey wood with no decoration save a single silver G rune set upon it.

“If you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there.”

When Sam at last remembers Galadriel’s gift it is typical of him at this stage in his life that he is more afraid of making wrong use of it than he is confident in his power to use it well. It is Frodo who rightly encourages him saying, “Use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own, Sam… and then use your gift to help your work to help your work and better it.”

It is a fundamental principle of faith and of life that grace perfects nature and so it is with Sam here. It is not that Sam had to start the work in order that the grace given in Galadriel’s gift could build upon it. It is that the person that Sam has always been in potential is now revealed in the grace given to him through the gift.

Galadriel saw Sam’s greatness in his vocation as a gardener. That he was one who could turn a wasteland into a place of abundance. Her gift allowed Sam to discover that in himself. Perhaps Gandalf caught a glimpse of that greatness when he caught Sam by the hair and dragged him through the open window into the sitting room at Bag End. Gandalf may have spoken of punishment in sending Sam with Frodo but the punishment would have been Frodo’s if Sam had been a fool. Gandalf sees enough of what Sam will become to choose him for the great adventure.

Frodo’s challenge to Sam’s wits and knowledge proves sufficient. Sam travels the Shire doing his work. He plants saplings everywhere and places a grain of Galadriel’s gift by each one. He plants the little silver nut that the box contained in the party field at Hobbiton. And then he stands at the Three-Farthing Stone and casts what remains of the earth into the air “with his blessing”.

The result is wonderful and the year 1420 is a “marvellous” year. Even the children are extraordinarily beautiful, the beer becomes a thing of legend and the silver nut proves to be a mallorn, a wonder of the world. Sam’s faithful journey with Frodo, even after seeing the vision of destruction in Galadriel’s Mirror, is rewarded. Perhaps it is his father, the old curmudgeon, the Gaffer, who puts it best. “It’s an ill wind as blows nobody any good… And All’s well as ends Better!”

Sam discovers a greatness and a power within himself, perfected by grace, that  Saruman squandered. Saruman’s soul became the very wasteland that he took pleasure in making. But goodness is the stronger as Sam reveals in his labours.

 

The artwork this week is by Edward Beard Jnr