(Updated on 15/08/15)
We’re heading back into the heavy fantasy stuff, starting now.
Fangorn is a stuffy and old place. Tolkien gives it an interesting description, that of an ancient, almost undisturbed area, somewhere that has been free from the influence of not just living things, but stuff like weather and the like:
“A queer stifling feeling came over them, as if the air were too thin or too scanty for breathing…the trees that stood silently about them, rank upon rank, until they faded away into grey twilight in every direction.”
It’s a forest that has grown and then remained as it was, getting older and older without much change or outside intervention. We might all have experienced that sort of stuffy, warm wooded area, but Fangorn seems to take that idea to an extreme.
Pippin compares it with a sitting room in his home in Tookland, an interesting comparison, one that not only reinforces this image of an almost antique forest, but offers us a little bit more about Pippin. He’s in the Took leadership bloodline, so he’s actually someone quite important in the Shire, essentially the heir to the place’s most powerful family. It’s a bit odd that this has never really come up before, but there it is. It’s part of Pippin’s growth as a character over the last chapter, as we learn that he has not just got big potential, but a big future (if he lives to see it).
It doesn’t take long for the titular character to show up, after only a brief bit of exploration from the two hobbits, and he is a dozy. We have been sort of absent the fantasy stuff for a while now, since Lothlorien I suppose. Fangorn lands us right back there with the Ents. Tree’s as actual living things is a step beyond what we’ve seen so far, by which I mean the Old Forest. There, trees were “alive” and had a presence. They could alter paths and talk to each other. Old Man Willow had a very vivid and angry personality.
But he was still a tree. He wasn’t walking around and talking in “Common”. The Ents do both, so we can see them as a sort of evolution, or maybe devolution, of the Old Forest, in that they are what the Old Forest used to be before it became “treeish”.
And it is only natural that someone like Tolkien, who had such a deep affinity/obsession with nature, would include a race like the Ents in his great work. And, lest we forget, living trees have been Chekov Gunned before in the narrative, way back in the pub conversation between Sam and Sandyman in “The Shadow Of The Past”, though many readers have taken that particular “sighting” to perhaps be a reference to the Entwives.
“Treebeard” thus becomes a three-hander, and Treebeard is an intriguing character in his own right. He’s old, thoughtful and patient, infuriatingly slow, the defining trait of the Ent species, in comparison to the “hasty” hobbits. While we do clearly get the sense that Treebeard is a “good guy” (and the way for Merry and Pippin to get out of their present predicament), he’s still secretive and untrusting, the air of a man (yeah, I know) whose been burned in the past by others. He’s all powerful here, master of all he sees, holding Merry and Pippin’s lives, literally, in his hands, and he acts like it. But he also has other aspects. He’s strangely charming in his words right from the off (“…they reminded me of something I cannot remember”). He is a bit snarky about the withdrawal of the Elves from the wider world to “make songs about days that would never come again” and showcases some sarcastic humour in his first lines: “Almost felt you liked the Forest! That’s good! That’s uncommonly kind of you.” You can almost imagine Treebeard adding, under his breath “asshole”.
He namedrops Gandalf almost casually and refers to the local bad guy as “Young Saruman”, more hints at Treebeard’s age and experience. Pippin’s recollection, presented as being recited years later, is an effective way of showing the reader just what kind of thing Treebeard is, more than a living tree, something wise and ancient:
“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 roof-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.”
The comparisons with Tom Bombadil are fairly valid, Treebeard acting very much like an “eldest”. That, and both characters live in very strange forests, have a control over the environment, and treat the dangers of the outside world in an almost casual manner. But Treebeard has nowhere near the same level of notoriety as Bombadil has, in the eyes of the modern audience anyway, partially because we spend only a chapter in his company and things of great significance to the larger plot do take place with him, unlike the excursion with Bombadil.
The brief bit of stream-of-consciousness info that Treebeard gives out indicates that Fangorn Forest is in a bit of trouble anyway, regardless of Orc incursions. It goes back to a sense of darkness encroaching and evil spreading, with the Ents becoming “treeish” and “entish”, heading towards becoming very much like the Old Forest, if things are not turned around. Having come from a more visceral depiction of the troubles in the local area in “The Uruk-Hai”, this aspect of it, Saruman’s influence at work among the greenery of the world, adds a more fantastical dimension.
Anyway, Treebeard is an ally, that much is clear. He takes Merry and Pippin into his care and brings them to his home. More xenia stuff in this section, refuge, food, hospitality, the works, standing in marked contrast to the way Merry and Pippin were treated by the forces of the enemy in the last chapter. The Ent draught, which appears to have characteristics of high volume alcohol from the effects described, adds to the plethora of magical foodstuffs/liquids we have encountered so far and offers another contrast to the stuff the Orcs were swigging in the last chapter. In fact, the mirror goes further, as we discover later in this chapter that the Trolls of the enemy are corrupted versions of the Ents, much like Orcs are of the Elves.
The interaction within Treebeard’s home gives the hobbits the chance to spew information. I suppose I should note that they really have no idea if Treebeard is someone that they should be telling all of this info too, but he is putting them up I suppose. We get a brief glimpse of the Entwives tragedy, and we’ll learn more of that particular story later.
The Ents, as Treebeard makes clear, can be viewed as a sort of independent faction in the troubles, albeit one that is belligerent against Mordor and company as a matter of course. They are their own race, and they have their own motivations, their own “side”. They basically just want to be left alone, and not get involved, but Saruman is forcing them into it. But the Ents are in no alliance other than their own, and it is not hard to imagine them fighting the “good guys” if they have to.
Treebeard is the first character to a while to give us some more info on Saruman. What we’ve learned of him is basic, and comes almost entirely from “The Council of Elrond”. We know he was good, now bad. We know he’s after the Ring, and he’s at war with Rohan. We know he has a fortress in a place called Isengard, and we know that he is a wizard of similar, if not greater, skill than Gandalf. Wonderful is Treebeard’s summation of Saruman’s look, “his face . . . became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside”.
Treebeard gives us a bit more, beginning a process of imbuing Saruman with more character, a process that will see its partial culmination in “The Voice Of Saruman”. Saruman is a cunning person, a skilful linguist, someone who can slide his way into your confidence easily, get what he needs from you, and get out without harm. He’s adept at finding things out through speech and false friendship: “I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind”. He’s a schemer in every sense of the word. And now, as his plans race towards their intended destination, he’s started to mess with the balance of nature, blending the races of Orc and man to create the “Uruk-Hai”. This, for readers with better memories, should ring some alarm bells. We’ve heard talk of Man/Orcs before, and it was way back in Bree with the “slanty-eyed foreigner”. Saruman appears to have a wide reach.
The sudden arrival of Merry and Pippin into Treebeards life is an accelerator for Treebeard, who suddenly (well, it seems sudden, but isn’t really) decides that now is the time to make a stand. It’s almost as if just outlining what’s been going on in Fangorn, the Isengardian encroachments and attacks, just sets him off.
If I wanted to be mischievous, I could propose an almost conspiracy theory style summation for this, which is that Treebeard has been planning to “rouse” the Ents for a while against Isengard. We’ll find out later that he’s been in contact with Gandalf, so he knows more than he’s letting on, which I always found interesting (especially considering his admonitions to the hobbits that they talk too much and reveal things too quickly).
It could be that Merry and Pippin have it all wrong. They aren’t the pebbles that start an avalanche, they’re the excuse. They’re the ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Treebeard has been ready to try to get the Ents to take on Saruman for a while, but he needed something to light the fire. Merry and Pippin, a new race who turn up in Fangorn out of nowhere, forced in by an Uruk attack, heralds of the epic battle that has begun to be waged outside the forest, are it. He’ll show them to the Entmoot, a meeting where we never really learn what is said, and suddenly the Ents are going to war. Is Treebeard Colin Powell? Maybe.
Part of the reason I could conform to that theory is Treebeard’s origins. During the actual writing of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien first envisioned Treebeard, named just “Fangorn” in the early drafts, as a villainous giant, a servant of Saruman who traps Gandalf and keeps him prisoner much as Saruman eventually did in the final text. He was changed at some crucial point, but I do see bits of a dark streak in Treebeard still. After all, the Ents don’t just beat Saruman and call it a day. By the conclusion of the story, they’ve essentially been granted Isengard.
We get to the tale of the Entwives, the great tragedy of the race. It’s pretty horrible, these living trees having such a huge lifespan but having no ability to reproduce, tying back into the Elvish idea of “the long defeat”. Apparently, this is just a common thing among the magical races of Middle-Earth, under the encompassing umbrella of “the age of men”, which is coming fast. The Ents literally have nowhere to go as a species, which might explain their desperate desire to stay unmolested in the forests. Treebeard has been more than a little comic up to this point, but the tale of the Entwives really grounds him in serious sadness, a despair so distant that he can’t even remember what they looked like exactly.
Treebeard becomes almost a quasi-father figure to the hobbits here, they reminding him of “Entings”, he providing them with protection and shelter. That adds to the tragedy somewhat, Treebeard forming this attachment to the two little guys out of some longing for children of his own. Perhaps I’m probably taking that idea a bit too far, but the elements of it are there.
The Entmoot itself is one of those completely alien fantasy scenes, which we see through the eyes of the two strangers. Ents, like trees, come in all shapes and sizes. What is actually discussed in the Entmoot is never really known beyond what Trrebeard relates, so it’s possible that they talk about some stuff the old Ent doesn’t want the hobbits to hear. Still the Ents have strength in them as the Moot would appear to demonstrate, and we begin to see them as a legitimate hope for the forces of good, the kind of friends who might prove very useful.
The scene is supposed to be set up as tension filled, but I do think that it falls flat in that regard. We’re never really in any doubt, especially after Treebeard’s previous speech, about what is about to take place here. The Ents are going to go to war, it seems to just be a matter of how long it will be before they decide. In the end, it’s quite fast. Some Ents don’t even need to stay for the full conference. Hmm. Treebeard obviously has allies in this meeting, the closest thing the Ents have to a government. He doesn’t even need them all to be present during the arguing. Seems he had the decision to go to war all wrapped up, huh?
The Ents march to war and it appears to be a terrifying prospect, this army of nature giants, shaking the earth: “Could it be that the trees of Fangorn were awake, and the forest was rising, marching over the hills to war?” The allusions to the closing sections of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are obvious. The Ents march is a rallying cry for the forces of good as a whole, a chink of light in an otherwise desperate situation. Of course, it’s tinged with a note of warning that they may be going “to our doom”: success is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. That and it is, more than likely, the last march of the Ents, the long defeat of Middle-Earth’s elder creatures in progress. A chance for some glory certainly, but maybe a last chance. The march, aside from suddenly introducing this more militant side of the Ents, also introduces us to the Huorns, the more tree-like denizens of Fangorn, though for now they are simply moving parts of the forest.
The chapter closes on a line from Treebeard as the Ents prepare to make their move: “Night lies over Isengard.” I love that last line, it’s so full of suspense and danger, and serves as a great leading off point for this plot line. We won’t be back here for quite a while and things will be radically different when we do. The forces of nature incarnate are coming after Saruman.
This chapter serves as a proper re-introduction to the fantasy aspects of Middle-Earth, after we have spent the first three chapters of Book Three dealing with more realistic things: funerals, chases through landscapes, small military confrontations and bickering soldiers. Very quickly, Tolkien has brought us back into the vivid worlds of his imaginations: strange deadly forests, talking trees and the hordes of nature gathering together to make war on an evil wizard. “Treebeard” stays grounded through the narrative focus on the strangers in a strange land, Merry and Pippin, who are coming into their own as characters more and more. As outsiders, they provide the ideal cipher for Treebeard to tell of his race and their problems with Saruman, as well as adding the high fantasy-like tale of the Entwives, with that desperately tragic dimension to the Ents, even as we cheer them off to a final confrontation with Saruman. Full of memorable fantasy moments and a brilliant way to show the shift in power against the White Wizard – an abuser of nature about to get his comeuppance, even if he doesn’t realise it – “Treebeard” is a great continuation of the Book Three storyline.
Next time, the biggest deus ex machina in the whole book.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.