Tolkien’s Trees and Wonderful Transformation

If I had the privilege of serving as executive producer for an upcoming Tolkien flick—either big screen or television—I know how I would craft the opening scene. Sunbeams would swiftly rise over a mountain peak. This leading camera shot would roll our vision into a shimmering, green-grass field with morning mist. The shot would then take us up close on a lone tree in the center of the dew-dripped, steaming field. The stately tree would be beautifully shimmering with golden leaves. Suddenly, the pervasive steam would wisp upward into a smoke-like ring. Then, with gathering momentum, it would rush with rapid descent into the stump of a pipe. Viewers would discover the pipe to be in the mouth of a middle-aged author seated on a felled log, sketching words in Elvish script.

Alas, I am not the producer. But I am confident I could make my case for such an opener based on the prominence and deliberate role of trees in Tolkien’s Legendarium. After all, opening scenes in The Lord of the Rings reported grand party preparation: “There was a specially large pavilion, so big that the tree that grew in the field was right inside it, and stood proudly near one end, at the head of the chief table. Lanterns were hung on all its branches.” On the night of the long-expected party, “Bilbo left his place and went and stood on a chair under the illuminated tree. The light of the lanterns fell on his beaming face . . .”1 This well-lit tree supplied a marvelous backdrop for Bilbo’s stunning vanishing act. Tolkien made certain that a tree stood prominent in his playful, opening scenes.

Trees can be deeply personal. One afternoon this spring, I drove down our road and was immediately horrified. A neighbor had workers in his front yard, cruelly hacking the limbs of a precious tree. This was not just any old tree. The previous spring, I had beheld its glory. The tree flowered gorgeously. And on days with blustery wind, it flurried the most brilliant pink petals. I had reveled in that tree’s color and fragrance. Now it was being massacred, and I grieved.

Early seeds in early scenes

I am not alone in such sentiments. During Tolkien’s childhood in Sarehole, one tree’s demise was indelibly emblazoned on his psyche: ‘There was a willow hanging over the mill-pool and I learned to climb it . . . One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that.’2 Seeds of his deep feelings for trees were planted in him at a young age.

Tolkien’s fascination with trees permeated the Legendarium, supplying not only picturesque scenery but also intriguing personification and metaphorical symbol. In Tolkien’s world, trees stand with beauty, grand and stately on the landscape of Middle-earth. But they also serve to accomplish so much more. They often evoke transformational wonder. A simple survey of just several Tolkien trees proves instructive.
In The Silmarillion, trees were placed in the amazing scenery of Arda through the Valar’s creative ingenuity:

The spouse of Aulë is Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits. She is the lover of all things that grow in the earth, and all their countless forms she holds in her mind, from the trees like towers in forests long ago to the moss upon stones or the small and secret things in the mould. In reverence Yavanna is next to Varda among the Queens of the Valar. In the form of a woman she is tall, and robed in green; but at times she takes other shapes. Some there are who have seen her standing like a tree under heaven, crowned with the Sun; and from all its branches there spilled a golden dew upon the barren earth, and it grew green with corn; but the roots of the tree were in the waters of Ulmo, and the winds of Manwë spoke in its leaves.

And we dare not forget. Yavanna sang the two trees, Silpion and Teleprion, into marvelous existence, “. . . the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.”3

First-Age emergence of trees through Yavanna reveals the seeds of other crucial trees that eventually take the stage. In “Akallabêth,” Isildur risked his life and secretly stole a piece of fruit from Nimloth. The fruit was planted “and a shoot arose from it and sprouted in the spring.”4 Very soon, evil Sauron built a new, grand altar and wickedly burned the cut-down wood of Nimloth on that altar. When the Númenóreans were preparing to flee, Amandil set sail. His son, Elendil, along with the Faithful loaded ships with numerous things of “beauty and power, such as the Númenóreans had contrived in the days of their wisdom, vessels and jewels, and scrolls of lore . . . but in the ship of Isildur was guarded the young tree, the scion of Nimloth the Fair.”

In “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” we discover these powerful future connections:

Many treasures and great heirlooms of virtue and wonder the Exiles had brought from Númenor; and of these the most renowned were the Seven Stones and the White Tree. The White Tree was grown from the fruit of Nimloth the Fair that stood in the courts of the King at Armenelos in Númenor, ere Sauron burned it; and Nimloth was in its turn descended from the Tree of Tirion, that was an image of the Eldest of Trees, White Telperion which Yavanna caused to grow in the land of the Valar. The Tree, memorial of the Eldar and of the light of Valinor, was planted in Minas Ithil before the house of Isildur, since he it was that had saved the fruit from destruction; but the Stones were divided.5

Tolkien’s thematic thrust with trees carried even further significance. Within The Lord of the Rings, our beloved professor employed personification with a deliberate aim toward unique characterization.

Trees serving as transformational characters

In The Two Towers, Merry and Pippin suddenly encountered one fascinating fellow.

They found that they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen feet high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate, the arms at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin.

Here they met Fangorn, an Ent more affectionately known as Treebeard.

Pippin later rendered his own first impression of Treebeard’s eyes: ‘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.’6 After careful questioning and learning of the hobbits’ nature, Treebeard explained the complex nature and history of Ents.

With this descriptive meeting, Tolkien presented a fresh twist on beloved trees, now imbuing them with masterful characterization. Such tree characters carried the capacity to make pivotal choices of character and virtue:

‘The trees and the Ents,’ said Treebeard. ‘I do not understand all that goes on myself, so I cannot explain it to you. Some of us are still true Ents, and lively enough in our fashion, but many are growing sleepy, going tree-ish, as you might say. Most of the trees are just trees, of course, but many are half awake. Some are quite wide awake, and few are, well, ah, well getting Entish. That is going on all the time. When that happens to a tree, you find that some have bad hearts. Nothing to do with their wood: I do not mean that. Why, I knew some good old willows down the Entwash, gone long ago, alas! They were quite hollow, indeed they were falling all to pieces, but as quiet and sweet-spoken as a young leaf. And then there are some trees in the valleys under the mountains, sound as a bell, and bad right through. That sort of thing seems to spread. There used to be some very dangerous parts in this country. There are still some very black patches.’7

Treebeard and his compatriots—other Ents plus two hobbits—proceeded to make courageous, action-oriented choices for the good of Middle-earth and the Quest. As Gandalf and Company grew closer to Isengard, Théoden was personally stunned to learn that Treebeard and the Ents were real. He admitted that from his people’s perspective, they had become nothing more than the stuff of songs, legends, and lore. ‘You should be glad, Théoden King,’ said Gandalf . . . ‘You are not without allies, even if you know them not.’ ‘Yet also I should be sad,’ said Théoden, ‘for however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass forever out of Middle-earth?’8 Théoden recognized their veracity and also their vulnerability at this precipitous time.

The Company journeyed further and upon arriving, they found Isengard now overthrown. Seeing two small figures resting atop the rubble, one sleeping and another smoking, “Théoden and Éomer and all his men stared at them in wonder.” They soon met the two hobbits and went on to discover how Treebeard, Quickbeam, and the other Ents had powerfully detained Saruman in the citadel at Orthanc. Grateful Théoden and his companions now fully recognized the true existence of these good, enlivened Ents and their wondrous ability to be difference-makers in Isengard. These particular ancient tree-like characters were deeply good and capable of accomplishing very positive, transformative endeavors.

Trees serving as bold symbolism

Tolkien’s trees in the Rings show up as personified, quirky, and compelling characters. They reveal capacity for making choices between virtue and vice. But he also strategically planted literal trees in deliberate scenes, allowing us to “time travel” again into the depths of Middle-earth’s earlier ages. Here we experience trees as bold symbols, metaphors of transformation.

Following the great victory, Aragorn was crowned King at Minas Tirith. Eventually, the day came when Gandalf took him outside the City. They climbed to high places that supplied a vast view, and Gandalf declared this to be the King’s realm and the Dominion of Men. Aragorn questioned his own mortality and drew dismal connections, symbolized by the Tree in the Court, “still withered and barren.” He asked, “When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?” Gandalf sent him down a stony slope. The King discovered “a sapling tree no more than three foot high.” Aragorn cried out, ‘I have found it! Lo! here is a scion of the Eldest of Trees! But how comes it here? For it is not itself yet seven years old.’ Gandalf came and said: ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair, and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telperion of many names, Eldest of Trees.’

For readers now time-traveling from Present-earth, it is seriously wonderful to realize this sapling was from the lineage of that Silmarillion tree. (‘Gives me goosebumps considering these profound connections across the ages.) But there’s more; Gandalf continued to wisely explain the symbolism:

‘Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake.’9

In proverbial style, Gandalf proceeded to draw distinct linkage of meaning between the seed of a tree, “the line of Nimloth,” and the race of Elendil. The Wizard wisely used the tree’s metaphorical symbolism to encourage Aragorn regarding his own potential long-range influence. Trees may have surprising—albeit tediously slow—long-term impact. And so might kings who serve faithfully, lovingly, patiently, and with a long-range view of their impact in their realm.

Seeing the forest for the trees

Recall from opening pages of The Fellowship of the Ring that tree with lanterns in the party field, the one under which Bilbo gave his speech and vanished. Sadly, by the end of the Epic, trees of the Shire were cut down by Sharkey’s men who worked their ugly deeds. Their destruction included the party tree, and Sam grieved terribly. Then came a hope-filled day when he planted saplings across the Shire, sprinkling precious dust from the box Galadriel had given him. That box also contained a tiny silver nut amidst the grey dust. Sam planted it “in the Party Field where the tree had once been; and he wondered what would come of it.” The next spring, “His trees began to sprout and grow, as if time were in a hurry and wished to make one year do for twenty. In the Party Field, a beautiful young sapling leaped up: it had silver bark and long leaves and burst into golden flowers in April. It was indeed a mallorn, and it was the wonder of the neighbourhood.”10 Shire trees portrayed wonderful transformation.

Tolkien masterfully positioned trees in Middle-earth in order to symbolically portray the wonder-filled renewal that was taking place, both in the Shire and in his character’s lives. And there’s a forest of meaning, oh so personal, we dare not miss. The Professor loved trees so much, he even saw them as delivering the bold image of transformation for his own life and his perspective on the real significance of his life’s work. Tolkien’s most allegorical story—and some would argue even autobiographical—employed the story of a painter and his picture of a tree and a leaf.11 His short little tale supplied the potently big message: Oft times our littlest known works actually convey the most loving, largest, and longest-range significance.

May those of us traveling Present-earth each plant the grace-motivated seeds of noble choices, steady work, loving service to others, and deep patience. And may those seeds spring up into flourishing trees of transformational influence that outlive us for generations to come.

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring, 47 and 50.
  2. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 30.
  3. The Silmarillion, 31.
  4. Ibid., 327ff
  5. Ibid., 349.
  6. The Two Towers, 78.
  7. Ibid., 83.
  8. Ibid., 182-183.
  9. The Return of the King, 279.
  10. The Return of the King, 338-339.
  11. Leaf by Niggle.