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.
“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”.
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.