In the Oxford Botanic Garden, amongst the colourful flower borders, there used to stand a magnificent black pine tree. This enormous specimen, stood over 18 metres tall in a corner of the walled garden, its twisted boughs reaching towards the sky. This veteran would have seen much change in its lifetime, it was estimated to be over 200 years old.
Sadly it is gone now, it had to be cut down a year or so ago, as several of its large limbs fell off. It was starting to creak and die, coming towards the end of its long life. It is sad when any old tree dies, to see something fall that has stood for so long. However this was not just any old tree, this was the favourite tree of one of the greatest authors of all time: JRR Tolkien.
Tolkien, who famously conceived of the world of Middle Earth, where The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit stories were set, was a great lover of trees. They feature prominently in his books, where he imbues them with great significance. The White Tree of Gondor appears on the flag of Gondor and the Doors of Durin at the entrance to Moria have two large trees emblazoned on them. Tolkien understood that each different tree species has its own character, and this is reflected in his writing. Middle Earth contains a fabulous range of woodlands, from the dark and tangled Old Forest, to the golden glory of Lothlorien. Then we come to Fangorn Forest, where Tolkien took his love of trees to the extreme, by giving them life. In creating the Ents, a tree-like race that protected Fangorn Forest, I believe Tolkien was expressing his love and respect for trees in its purest form.
Perhaps my most favourite character from the Lord of the Rings books is Treebeard, the leader of the Ents. Humphrey Carpenter, in his unrivaled biography, describes Treebeard as “the being who was the ultimate expression of Tolkien’s love and respect for trees”. The passage of text that first describes him has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it as a child:
“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.”
Aside from the elegant beauty of Tolkien’s prose, this quote evokes a feeling I have often felt when in the presence of a large, old tree. Veteran trees give off an atmosphere of longevity and knowledge, their twisted boughs and scarred bark acting as a window into the past, much in the same way Treebeard’s eyes are in the quote above.
One can learn a great deal more about Tolkien’s love for trees from reading his letters:
“I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.” Taken from Letter 165 written in 1955.
“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. (Too often the hate is irrational, a fear of anything large and alive, and not easily tamed or destroyed, though it may clothe itself in pseudo-rational terms).” Taken from Letter 241 written in 1962.
With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.” Taken from Letter 339 written in 1972, just over a year before he died; standing up for trees until the very end.
As this selection of quotes shows, Tolkien’s love of trees ran deep. He felt real pain at their destruction, that happened all too frequently at the hands of humans. Whilst Tolkien was not known for his conservationist views, he hints here that he was aware of many of the most common problems facing our natural world. He is perceptive in stating that humans wish to tame nature because they fear it, they fear letting it get out of control. It is something we still see all too often across the countryside, from road verges mown mercilessly to hedgerows relentlessly cut. Tolkien saw trees as the persecuted and wanted more people to care about them. This explains why he gave them such power and strength, shown by the Ents rising up to overthrow Saruman, tearing down Orthanc and returning it to nature.
I’ve always felt a deep and poignant connection to Tolkien and his writing. For me it has always been more than just enjoying the stories and fantasy world he created. I’ve always had a sense that there is a deep love of nature flowing as an undercurrent to his tales. I also have a strong admiration for Tolkien as a person, he went through hell in the First World War and contributed so much to the English language, not to mention influencing countless authors.
I have visited the Oxford Botanic Garden twice, each time taking a few minutes to sit beneath Tolkien’s favourite tree. Sitting beneath its imposing, twisted limbs it is easy to see where the inspiration for the Ents came from. Upon studying its shape and form I felt like Pippin in the quote above, as he looked into Treebeard’s deep and worldly eyes. The last photo of Tolkien alive, taken in 1973, was of him with his hand resting on the trunk of the pine tree. I find it immensely sad that it is gone, as it was, in my eyes, the most fitting monument to a truly great man.