Tolkien and Horrible, Horrible Trees

OCTOBERWEEN! It’s Octoberween! Oh, shit, son, shit’s gonna go down. Everything is freaky, and cold, and basically it’s too cold out now so we need to freak each other out in order to want to hide under some covers.

I thought I wouldn’t do Tolkien posts every week. Here’s last week’s entry. I meant to do some stuff in between every post, but, uh, instead, I guess I’ll post on Tolkien again this week. But wait! I’ll also talk about Blackwood. You remember that guy, right? I talked about him once. OK, cool. So. Blackwood wrote two stories about murderous trees. And Tolkien has ents. So, hey, this post will write itself, right? Well, not really, but I noticed some interesting things as I read the stuff about the hobbits in the Old Forest.

So in “The Willows” two campers stumble on an island where the willows all over happen to be horrible creatures from other planes of existence that struggle for days to connect to the minds of the campers. They can’t quite bridge the gap, but when they start to, human minds are emptied by the contact. They reach out, they break the boat the campers came in, they shift in the night, they clutch at the minds and bodies of the people that come across them – a rare event, usually. They live in a place where humans do not come.

“The Man Whom the Trees Loved” has trees even more like ents: they shift, they block paths when people they don’t like come into the forest, they glower and threaten while welcoming others in. And eventually they consume a forester who loves them to begin with.

All right, so what about Tolkien? Well, you already know he has ents and trees that hate people and so on, so forth. But there’s a real, disconcerting similarity between the two authors at this point. Tolkien has images that are horrifying. We know many of them: the Nazgul, the orcs, even Gollum. But there are the trees…

These trees glower and hate and glare. They eat and reach forward and hate those that hurt them before. Because the hobbits hacked down a section of the Old Forest and burned it. But the greatest fear in the forest is Old Man Willow. Which, to be honest, seems like an obvious intertext.

Tolkien, thirty years after Blackwood’s story, put in a willow that eats people. Thirty years after “The Willows,” considered even in the 20s and 30s as one of the greatest horror stories in English. I don’t think most people talk about Tolkien and horror fiction. His sources are always medieval romances – maybe writers like William Morris. But the pulpy horror writers, the turn of the century writers who fall between the cracks, we don’t tend to wonder if Tolkien read them.  But honestly, at this point, it seems like he has to have.

Now, I’m also not sure that’s important on its own. So what if Tolkien read Blackwood? Even if it’s one of Blackwood’s horror stories, and not his strange, nature-obsessed fantasies (the things we would expect Tolkien to enjoy, if anything)? It doesn’t matter, really. But what might matter is that Tolkien read it and saw it as something he might want to incorporate into The Lord of the Rings (or his mindset from which the story came, whichever).

The Lord of the Rings has been accused of being happy faff in a genre (romantic fantasy) that should have a tragic background, not a happy ending. There’s evil, which is evil, and good, which is good. A few good guys are tempted, tragically in one case (Boromir). People have expressed discomfort with how easily Faramir rejects the Ring. So a lot of people don’t see the threat here. They’re not sure why anything that’s happening matters to us. It’s a popular pursuit to try to figure out what Sauron “really” is. Hitler’s big in Sauron code.

But that’s not really what’s happening. These people, in the Third Age, live on the edge of worldwide change. Magic is about to drain out of the world. Hobbits start to hide, elves begin to leave, and Men have to learn to function on their own.

So what about the trees? Huorns, technically. Trees that got Ent-ish, and Ents that got tree-ish. We can read The Lord of the Rings entirely in its own mythology, and that’s that. The trees have spirit that other things don’t really have, and they’re dangerous, and that’s that. But to find that Tolkien co-opted some ideas from Algernon Blackwood (who would certainly like the idea that trees have spirits). You know, the “Willows” guy.

There’s more in Middle-Earth than good and evil. There’s Sauron, who is pretty much evil, sure. He’s obsessed with power and control, and crushes peoples and cultures just because he can. There are good people. Gandalf is pretty noble and sacrificing (though I’ve heard arguments, good ones, that he’s not). Frodo is tempted, nearly loses himself, but with help from friends makes the right decisions in the end. Well, sort of. Sam is good. Aragorn is good. Pippin’s good, if dumb a lot of the time.

But is Treebeard good? He ends up helping the hobbits, but just because Saruman is cutting down trees and polluting the forest. He doesn’t offer to help in the war, and that’s why he really just sort of disappears. He’s like Tom Bombadil. Sure, we all love Tom, but he’s fickle, uncaring, and cheerful in the face of depression and the end times. He will survive the war; the ents are sad, but they will endure. The elements of nature, the elements of Middle-Earth, are independent of the events of the War of the Ring in a way we don’t typically imagine. The Huorns hate orcs as well as hobbits. Blackwood was all about how Nature can remake people, but he also wrote about how Nature is its own thing, and not a friend to Man. The ents make friends, but don’t side with anyone particularly. They punish their own crimes, no one else’s. There is a darkness that is not destroyed even with Sauron’s power. And, anyway, the book is explicit that Sauron is not gone, only his Ring.

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One thought on “Tolkien and Horrible, Horrible Trees

  1. Pingback: On my embarrassing failure vis-a-vis Tolkien, and what I learned from same | Wondrous Windows

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