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Trees in JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth

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Avebury Trees

JRR Tolkien, acclaimed philologist and author of such works as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was very fond of trees. Both his letters and his fictional works have many descriptions of trees:

It was a bright morning, and the mulberry tree in the grove just outside C. S. L.'s1 window shone like fallow gold against a cobalt blue sky.
- Letter to his son Christopher, November 1944
The rime2 was yesterday even thicker and more fantastic. When a gleam of sun (about 11) got through it was breathtakingly beautiful: trees like motionless fountains of white branching spray against a golden light and, high overhead, a pale translucent blue.
- Letter to Christopher, December 1944

To Tolkien, trees represented Nature, and damage done by humans to trees was just part of modern society's practice of destroying the natural environment to build cities, industries and roads:

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.
- Letter to the Houghton Mifflin Co, June 1955
There was a great tree – a huge poplar with vast limbs – visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs – though of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.
- Letter to Jane Neave, September 1962

This Entry looks at the appearances of trees in Tolkien's works relating to the world of Middle-earth3.

Trees in The Silmarillion

Tolkien's first great work was a corpus of 'fairy stories' about the Elves. He collected them together in a group known as The Silmarillion, but he never finished them. He was constantly changing his mind and going back to rewrite the whole collection in a new style. The first stories of the Silmarillion were written from 1916 onward and these formed the mythology and history of the characters we meet in The Hobbit (published 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (published 1954-55), but he was still working on The Silmarillion up to his death in 1973. The book was finished by his son Christopher with the help of fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay and was published in 1977.

The Two Trees of Valinor

The Valar, archangel-like beings entrusted by the Creator with the management of the world, were at war with Melkor the renegade Vala. In this war, the lights that illuminated the world were destroyed. The whole world was dark except for the dim light of the stars. It was in this starlit darkness that the Elves first awoke4, so they learned to see to by starlight and always loved the stars, calling themselves the Eldar, the people of the stars.

The Valar decided to build a new home for themselves, in a land in the far west of the world, which became known as Valinor. Yavanna, the Vala who specialised in plant life, put forth all her powers in a magic song5 and created two giant trees, one golden and one silver, which glowed with a powerful but soft light. This illuminated the whole land of Valinor except for the very easternmost part to the east of the steep Pelori mountain range, and a few places in the very far south and north. Middle-earth, the central continent of the world, remained in darkness.

  • The silver tree was called Telperion. The trunk and branches of the tree were white and its leaves were dark green with silver undersides. These glowed with a white light.

    The tree's name came from 'telep', the Telerin Elvish for 'silver' - this word was 'celeb', pronounced 'keleb', in most Elvish languages. We see this in such names as Celeborn the husband of Galadriel (who in early drafts was called Teleporno6), Celebrian the wife of Elrond, Celebrimbor the maker of the three Elven-rings, and Celebrant, the river Silverlode.

  • The golden tree was called Laurelin, which means 'Singing Gold'. Its leaves were light green edged with gold and the tree glowed with a yellow light. Tolkien pointed out that the word 'laure' meant the golden yellow colour as of the sun shining through yellow leaves rather than the metallic colour of the metal gold7.

The Two Trees illuminated the land of Valinor for many thousands of years8. This period was known as the 'Years of the Trees'. During this time, many of the Elves came to Valinor and lived with the Valar, learning from them and becoming the High Elves.

The trees were destroyed by the spider monster Ungoliant working in collaboration with Melkor. Melkor pierced each of the trees with his spear and Ungoliant sucked the life out of them, leaving Valinor in darkness. Yavanna tried to revive the trees, but all she could do was to get Telperion to produce a flower and Laurelin a fruit. The two trees then died. The flower of Telperion became the Moon and the fruit of Laurelin became the Sun. These provided light to the whole world and at last Middle-earth was no longer in darkness. The time since then up to the present day is known as the Years of the Sun.

The High Elves brought the memory of the Two Trees with them wherever they went.

The Silmarils

Fëanor, said to be the greatest Elf that ever lived, captured some of the light of the Two Trees in crystal and created the three glowing gems known as the Silmarils. Melkor stole them, killing Fëanor's father in the process, and returned to Middle-earth where he wore them on his Iron Crown, ruling his hordes of evil creatures from the fortress of Angband. This was the start of a long war between the High Elves and Melkor, whom they called Morgoth the Black Enemy. The Elves could never win this war without help, since Melkor was a Vala, the original Dark Lord.

For more than 500 years they fought a losing battle against Melkor's forces of orcs, balrogs and dragons. Eventually with the help of the rest of the Valar, Melkor/Morgoth was defeated. Two of the Silmarils were lost but the third was taken by Earendil up into the sky and is still seen as the Morning Star.

(Melkor's lieutenant, Sauron, went on to be the new Dark Lord, causing just as much destruction and woe in the world as his master.)

The Silver Tree Remembered

The High Elves loved Telperion so much that Yavanna made them another tree called Galathilion. This looked like Telperion but didn't give off any light. They planted it in their city of Tirion. It was sometimes known as the Tree of the High Elves, and appears twice on the Doors of Durin in an image created by Celebrimbor.

A sapling of this tree was named Celeborn (the same name as Galadriel's husband) and was planted on Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, which was in the ocean to the east of Valinor but within sight of it.

When the High Elves returned to Middle-earth from Valinor, as told in the Silmarillion, Turgon created the City of Gondolin in a hidden valley. By keeping the city secret, it escaped destruction by Morgoth's forces for many centuries and was probably the most beautiful construction of the Elves in Middle-earth. Outside the doors of his palace, Turgon made replicas of the two trees - Belthin ('divine radiance') was an image of Telperion and had flowers made of actual silver. The other tree, Glingal ('hanging flame'), was made of gold and commemorated Laurelin.

The Elves gave the first king of Numenor a seedling of Celeborn which was called Nimloth. Like its forebears, it didn't emit any light, but was a memory of the glowing silver tree of Valinor. The Numenorians considered their tree sacred. They planted it in the capital city of Armenelos and it was looked after for many years, until Sauron's evil kingdom in Middle-earth caught the attention of the Numenorians. They were so powerful that they defeated Sauron and took him to their island as a prisoner, but gradually he won the confidence of the king. He persuaded the king to follow a new religion - the first casualty was Nimloth. Sauron cut down the white tree and burned it on the altar of his new religion.

Isildur, fleeing from the destruction of Numenor, brought a fruit of Nimloth with him, and this was planted in Minas Ithil (his city on the borders of Mordor). This became known as the White Tree of Gondor and was the first of a line of trees with this title.

The Golden Tree Remembered

As already mentioned, Turgon's tree of gold, Glingal, was made in memory of Laurelin. It stood outside the doors of the Palace in Gondolin.

Galadriel, another High Elf who returned to Middle-earth, also brought the memory of the golden tree with her. She found a type of tree, the mallorn, which had both beautiful golden flowers and also golden leaves. She encouraged these mallorn trees to grow in the land of Lorien between the Misty Mountains and Anduin the Great River. Treebeard describes the land of Lorien as Laurelindorenan, the Valley of the Singing Gold, meaning Land of the Memory of the Golden Tree.

Trees in The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is set thousands of years after the war between the Elves and Melkor, but the memory of the trees is kept alive by the Elves who still survive in isolated communities around Middle-earth, and by the educated people of Gondor who study the past.

Frodo and his companions in their travels encounter the pictures of the Tree of the High Elves (Galathilion) on the Doors of Durin at the entrance to the dwarf city of Moria.

When the party reaches Lorien, they are entranced by the beauty of the mallorn trees. When leaving Lorien, Galadriel gives Sam a present of some soil from her garden and a seed from a mallorn tree, since he is by profession a gardener.

When Pippin visits Minas Tirith, a dead white tree is still standing in the courtyard of the citadel. Because the last White Tree of Gondor has died without any offshoots, people take it as a sign that Gondor itself is coming to its end. Later Gandalf takes Aragorn up the mountain above Minas Tirith and shows him another white sapling, which they transplant to the city - this is a sign of hope. Rather than burning the dead tree, it is uprooted and carried to the cemetery of kings where it is laid to rest.

Evil Trees, Good Trees and Ents

The forest of Mirkwood, featured in The Hobbit, was an evil place full of dangerous creatures such as giant spiders, but it was never said that the trees themselves were a problem. They just provide a dark cover for all the evil underneath. The reason for the evil, of course, is that the Necromancer, a mysterious dark presence who later turns out to be Sauron the Dark Lord, has made his residence in the southern regions of the forest.

In The Lord of the Rings, however, we meet actual evil trees. The first is 'Old Man Willow', who can 'sing songs' to hypnotise passers-by, making them feel sleepy. They rest against the tree. He then traps them by opening up cracks in the trunk and engulfing them. Old Man Willow is just one tree in the strange 'Old Forest'. The trees are said to move around when no one is looking and once they launched an attack on Buckland, the part of the Shire occupied by the Brandybuck family.

Later in the story, in the much wilder forest of Fangorn, Merry and Pippin meet a tall tree-like creature. Treebeard is an Ent, a 'Shepherd of the Trees'. He once ranged over the whole northwest of Middle-earth9, but now looks after the forest of Fangorn, where he admits that some of the trees have black hearts and are much more evil than Old Man Willow. As time progresses, the Ents are gradually becoming less active and becoming more tree-like, while many of the trees are becoming more alive - some can even walk.

Treebeard is disgusted by the wizard Saruman who lives nearby. In the past, Saruman would ask permission to walk in Treebeard's forest and would spend hours talking to the Ent, trying to learn about the the distant past. But now, Saruman has formed an army of orcs, and they chop down the trees of Fangorn as fuel for their furnaces. Orc industry is the enemy of trees. At Merry and Pippin's instigation, Treebeard organises an army of walking trees to fight against Saruman's army of orcs and is instrumental in the defeat of Saruman.

Tolkien said that as a child he always felt bitterly disappointed by the story in Shakespeare's Macbeth in which the trees of Great Birnam Wood come to high Dunsinane hill. To fulfill a prophesy, the soldiers disguise themselves with tree branches and Macbeth thinks that the prophesy has come true. Tolkien 'longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war'. Years later when he was writing The Lord of the Rings he wrote the chapter in which the Ents are introduced without any conscious invention of the creatures - he always felt that he was reporting on the Ents rather than creating them. He said in a letter in 1956:

[...] though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents. I came at last to the point, and wrote the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought: just as it now is. And then I saw that, of course, it had not happened to Frodo at all.

Although there were evil trees in Middle-earth, Tolkien felt that they had been driven to evil by humans or other enemies:

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien 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.
- in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, June 1972

And Finally

We could almost say that The Lord of the Rings begins and ends with a tree. In the first chapter, we hear of the Party Tree, a great spreading tree, probably a chestnut, in the grounds of Bag End, Bilbo's house in the Shire. For his 111th birthday party, Bilbo wined and dined 144 guests in a marquee so big that this tree was inside it. Bilbo made his farewell speech standing under the tree.

Near the end of all the adventures, the hobbits return home to find that Saruman has got there before them and has turned the Shire into an industrial wasteland. The Party Tree and many other trees have been chopped down. When the Shire is reclaimed and peace restored, it is up to Sam to heal the damage done to Nature. He plants many new trees and uses the soil from Galadriel's garden to help them grow. The mallorn seed is given pride of place and is planted where the Party Tree had stood. It grows to be the only mallorn west of the mountains.

The Avebury Trees

Avebury is a mystical place in Wiltshire, England. The tiny, picturesque village is built in the middle of a giant stone circle, one of the biggest in England. Outside the stone circle is a henge - a circular ditch and bank. Just where the road to the east-north-east from the village crosses the henge stand four mighty trees. Their roots are exposed forming a sort of lattice of roots on the ground. This is a place where Tolkien liked to sit.

Some say it was these trees that gave him the idea of Ents. Others say that the nooks and crannies among the roots gave him the idea of little creatures living underground, which led to Hobbits. Tolkien himself never said either of these things. But the trees are worth a visit, just to marvel at them and to remember the author who really liked trees.

1Tolkien's friend CS Lewis.2Frost.3Tolkien did not consider Middle-earth to be a different world; it was our own world long ago, with a mythology of his own invention.4The very first Elves came to life by waking up as adults rather than being born. Later Elves were born in the usual way.5The idea of creation being the embodiment of a song also occurs in Tolkien's Ainulindalë (Music of the Ainur) and in CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew.6Don't google this name, children.7This is a somewhat circular definition because in Tolkien's world, as we will see, the golden tree came first and the sun was made from it. 814,000 years are mentioned by Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring, one volume of The History of Middle-earth, a compilation of previously unpublished material by JRR Tolkien that show how his tales set in Middle-earth evolved.9His song mentions places in Beleriand, long since vanished beneath the sea.

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