On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

With long but steady strides Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin on a long journey across the Fangorn Forest but at its ending they are in a safe place for the first time since leaving Lothlorien. They are in Wellinghall at the foot of the Misty Mountains, one of Treebeard’s dwelling places in the forest. “I like it,” he says. “We will stay here tonight.”

Treebeard gives Merry and Pippin a drink very like the water of the Entwash that they had drunk earlier that day near the borders of the forest after escaping the orcs and Tolkien tells us that the water had “some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Tolkien seems to have had a particular love for this kind of description. He hints at what it is that his characters remember. They are “reminded” of the smell and the wood is “distant” and its savour “borne from afar”. Later in his description of Aragorn’s use of athelas to heal those who have been wounded in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of The Pelennor Fields he uses it in a particularly poignant manner. Instead of a simple and straightforward description of the properties of the herb or of the drink he evokes the memory of a sensation, a memory that lies hidden at the edge of consciousness. In the case of Aragorn’s use of athelas this is especially striking. When he uses it to bathe Frodo’s wound after the attack at Weathertop we are simply told that “the fragrance of the steam was refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared.” In the Houses of Healing Tolkien again hints at memories that are evoked by the effect of the steam. It is as if the memory, mingled with the working upon the senses of the aroma of the herb crushed in warm water and the hands of the true king, achieves the healing of body and soul and spirit together.

 

Here it is not so much healing that is achieved. That came about if you remember when the hobbits drank of the streams of the Entwash earlier that day. Here Merry and Pippin find refreshment and nourishment but what refreshment; what nourishment! Later their friends will observe that they have grown in stature and other hobbits will find them almost intimidating.

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What a journey they have been upon since their capture by the orcs and Pippin’s unhappy description of himself as “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage”. They have been through a kind of initiation together and now they are warriors and ready for battle. There is nothing that they have done which has brought about this transformation except their refusal to give up and their total loyalty to their friends and to the quest even though all seems hopeless. Later this will be described as a “gentle loyalty” thus distinguishing it from the fierce loyalty of battle hardened members of the Fellowship like Gimli or Legolas, but it is loyalty nonetheless. In Tolkien’s Christian understanding of such things no gift can be described as a payment to honour a contractual obligation. The hobbits did not encounter Treebeard or drink “of the draughts of Fangorn” as their due wage for loyalty. But without that loyalty no gift could have been received. The same is true for us. It is by means of our commitment to the good that we, like Merry and Pippin, will be capable of receiving gifts that will transform us.

Learning to See as an Ent Sees

In meeting Treebeard Merry and Pippin are introduced to a wholly different way of seeing the world and living in it. Ents may not be trees but they think like trees and if trees could speak (and for all I know they do) they might speak as Ents do.

We do not say anything in Old Entish, says Treebeard, “unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” In other words we are being invited to look at reality through the eyes of a creature who never rushes and who takes a very long term view of everything and to imagine what life might be like if we were to see it as he does. For there is no doubt that Treebeard would see us as very “hasty” folk indeed. He would be horrified to see us only plant trees that will mature at great speed and then be cut down to feed our need for timber. And if he were horrified by that he would be even more horrified by our daily destruction of the forests of the world and the endless steady transformation of our planet into a vast desert. He might look at our behaviour and conclude that in actual fact the orcs had won the War of the Ring and that a new Dark Lord had indeed arisen wielding something that was very much like the One Ring, if not worse. We may remember that there were times when Sauron took on the appearance of a benevolent lord. Perhaps he would know how to use words like freedom as a cloak for his true purposes but now with the possibility of real and everlasting power he needs cloaks no longer. At the time of The Lord of the Rings he is revealed as he truly is.

Thankfully Sauron and his lesser ally, Saruman, overlook the Ents. It is not that they do not know of their existence but that they discount them as they weigh up who their most dangerous opponents might be. As far as they are concerned Ents are too slow, just like the trolls made by Morgoth in mockery of them, to be a real threat. But as we shall see they have dangerously miscalculated. Evil always discounts that which does not seem to threaten it on its own terms. Evil will always say, as Stalin said of the Pope, “How many divisions does he have?” Maybe it will be those who learn to see like Ents or Hobbits who will prove to be our most doughty champions.

“I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burume. Excuse me: that is part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know this thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world…”

“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.”

 

What would it be like to learn how to Name things as Ents do? We won’t even begin to know the answer to that question unless we learn to take time to look at things. When we look at something as an Ent does then we might begin to learn its long story and to learn to tell it ourselves.

Perhaps we might learn to see through the eyes of that great prophet, William Blake, in his “Auguries of Innocence..”

“To see a World in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”