“The Forest Was Rising, Marching Over the Hills to War:” J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sub-Creation of Trees in The Lord of the Rings
Author and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is a well-known lover of trees. Despite the trees’ prominence in his fiction, they have been little studied. Just how important trees were for Tolkien becomes apparent in this description of a tree in his garden:
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 with the unblemished grace of its former natural self, and now a foolish neighbor was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. […] This fool said that it cut off the sun from her house and garden.
To his “this fool” remark Tolkien added a footnote, clarifying that he called her a fool “[o]nly in this respect – the hatred of trees. She was a great and gallant lady.” Tolkien refers to his most famous work, The Lord of Rings, as “my own internal Tree” and in a letter to W.H. Auden he writes how he “longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.” This idea culminated in the creation of the Ents featured in The Two Towers. As Patrick Curry notes, “[Ents] share the sentience with us, and exist in relationship with us, but they are also profoundly other; and in that important sense, independent of us.” As the existing literature on trees in Tolkien’s fiction focuses on the mythological and botanic links, this essay shall be concerned with the literary and philological sources for trees in The Lord of the Rings and argue that Tolkien’s description of ‘living trees’ in Middle-earth is not as far removed from our everyday world as it would appear and that many characteristics of Tolkien’s fictional trees are rooted in science and medieval literature.
According to Tolkien, a fantasy story consists of three components, “the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man. The essential face of Faërie is the middle one, the Magical.” Indeed, nature plays a prominent role in Tolkien’s fiction, and trees, in particular, permeate his works. The Primary World, in Tolkien’s view, is the ‘real’ world around us. The Secondary World is the fictional ‘fantasy world’ created by the author, in which the action of the plot takes place. Realism and inner consistency of the Secondary World can be achieved by rooting fiction in fact. Tolkien uses the term ‘sub-creation’ for this process. An example of this is the name for the Ents, which is of philological origin: “They owe their name to the eald enta geworc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone.” In The Two Towers, Treebeard refers to this connection between Ents and stone: “Trolls are counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves. We are stronger than Trolls. We are made of the bones of the earth.” The phrase ‘bones of the earth’ can be interpreted as a metaphor for stone as well. In the Primary World, the connection between trees and stone is encountered in a ‘petrified forest,’ a fossilized wood that is almost indistinguishable from rock.
Several literary and philological sources can be identified as Primary World sources to render the Ents in the Secondary World of The Lord of the Rings more credible. Tolkien derived the name for the Ents from the opening lines of the Old English poem The Ruin: “Wrætlic is þes wealtan, wyrde gebræcon. / Burgstede burson, brosnað enta geweorc” [Wondrous is this stone wall, smashed by fate. / The buildings have crumbled, the work of giants decays.] Tom Shippey also mentions lines 1-3a of the Old English poem Maxims II: “Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne, / orðanc enta geworc, þa þe on þysse earan syndon, /wrætlic weallstana geweroc” [A king shall rule a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar, / The cunning work of giants, wonderful wall- stones]. In both poems enta is translated as ‘giants,’ but what these beings actually were and their significance to early medieval English society is unknown. Tolkien provides insight into what he believed the mysterious enta to be when he writes that Ents are of unknown origin, “either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees. […] The Ents thus had mastery over stone.” In line with the elegiac laments of life’s transience in The Ruin and Maxims II, Tolkien creates the Ents as “a race running down to extinction.” The mysterious ‘giant builders’ in The Ruin and Maxims II morphed into giant living trees with mastery over stone in Tolkien’s Secondary World.
A second literary link is found in the Ents’ attack on Isengard, which is based on a scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “As I did stand my watch upon the hill / I looked toward Birnam and anon methought / The wood began to move” (Act V Scene 5 ll. 34-36). Tolkien commented on this scene in Macbeth: “[The Ents’] pan in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Duninsane hill.’” Furthermore, Shippey identifies a parallel to another Shakespeare play, as “in Fangorn Forest, Gandalf, Saruman and Treebeard himself are wandering, meeting or not meeting seemingly at random. The effect as a whole is like that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Thirdly, the Old English Exodus, which Tolkien translated, contains a passage describing the army of the Pharaoh as a ‘moving forest:’
þa him eorla mod ortrywe wearð,
siððan hie gesawon of suðwegu
fyrd Faraonis forð on gangan.
[Now were the hearts of men without hope,
when they saw from the southward ways
the army of Pharaoh marching on,
their crests like a forest moving.]
The last march of the Ents in The Two Towers, with a forest that literally moves, was perhaps in Tolkien’s subconscious mind when he worked on his translation of this Old English poem.
For the creation of his Secondary World in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien appears to have drawn from Old Norse literature as well. The Völuspá poem in the Elder Edda opens with a creation myth listing all the beings in Old Norse middle-earth in chronological order:
A hearing I ask of all holly offspring,
the higher and lower of Heimdall’s brood.
Do you want me, Corpse-father, to tally up well.
Ancient tales of folk, for the first I recall?
I recall those giants, born early on,
who long ago brought me up;
nine worlds I recall, nine wood-dwelling witches,
the famed tree of fate down under the earth.
It was early in ages when Ymir made his home,
there was neither sand nor sea, nor cooling waves;
no earth to be found, nor heaven above:
a gulf beguiling, nor grass anywhere.
Before Bur’s sons brought up the langs,
they who moulded famed middle-earth;
Sun shone from the south on the stones of the hall:
then the ground grew with the leek’s green growth.
The “Long List of Ents” recited by Treebeard, likewise, starts off with a creation myth, followed by a list of all the beings inhabiting Middle-earth:
Learn now the lore of the Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free people:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses:
Hm, hm, hm.
Beaver the builder, buck the leaper
Bear bee-hunter, boar the fighter;
Hound is hungry, hare is fearful… hm,hm.
Eagle in eyrie, ox is pasture,
Hart horn-crownéd; hawk is swiftest,
Swan the whitest, serpent coldest…
These lines mirror the opening lines of the Völuspá, as both start with the oldest creatures, outlining the order of Creation. The feature of a defining characteristic being attributed to each creature in Treebeard’s song is also encountered in the Old English poem Maxims II:
Hafuc sceal on glofe.
wilde gewunian, wulf sceal on bearowe
earm anhaga, eofor sceal on holte,
Draca sceal on hlæwe,
frod, frædwum wlanc. Fisc sceal on wætere
cynren cennan. Cyning sceal on healle
beagas dælan. Bera sceal on hæðe
eald and egesfull. Ea of dune sceal
[The wild hawk must find
A home on the glove; the wolf haunts the wood,
The eagle soars alone. The boar in the forest
Shall be tusk- strong.]
The dragon shall dwell in a barrow,
Old and treasure- proud. The fish must spawn
Its kin in water. The king must give out
Rings in the hall. The bear shall be on the heath,
Old and awesome. The river flows from the hill
To the flood-gray sea.]
Both the Old Norse Völuspá and Old English Maxims II poems were used to describe the cosmic order, starting with the Creation, and classify all lifeforms. Treebeard’s song is clearly written in the same vein and appears to have had a similar function for the Ents in Middle-earth. Tolkien’s use of this type of poetry in his Secondary World is not very far removed from the Primary World, since both the Old Norse and Old English sources mention mythological creatures such as giants and dragons alongside existing creatures such as man, horse, and leek.
Della Hooke discusses an early Welsh poem, Câd Goddeu, “the mysterious ‘Battle of Trees’, which is found in the thirteenth-century Book of Taliesin but which may draw upon a sixth-century poem [which] is said to have called upon the trees of the forest to fight for [a god].” She provides a translation of the passage in which the trees participate in battle:
Câd Goddeu ‘The Battle of the Trees’
The tops of the beech tree
Have sprouted of late,
Are changed and renewed
From their withered state.
When the beech prospers,
Though spells and litanies
The oak tops entangle,
There is hope for the trees.
The alders in the front line
Began the affray.
Willow and rowan-tree
Were tardy in array.
The holly, dark green,
Made a resolute stand;
He is armed with many spear-points
Wounding the hand.
This passage brings to mind the scene in the Old Forest where the hobbits are attacked by Old Willow in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is uncertain whether Tolkien was familiar with Câd Goddeu, although his interest in Welsh is well-known and he would have certainly found the topos of trees waging war appealing.
As Tolkien was a philologist and passionate about historical linguistics, it is worthwhile to examine the etymology of the names he has given to his characters. The OED offers some interesting information about the noun ent, whichcan be linked to the modern English noun imp, for which the first, now obsolete, sense is listed as “[a] young shoot of a plant or tree; a sapling; a sucker, slip, scion.” Modern English imp is etymologically derived from Old English impa and “Welsh imp ‘graft, scion,’ [which] is [derived] from Middle English. French ente (whence Middle Dutch ente, Dutch ent) is ultimately from the same source.” The Dutch ent and enten both relate to botany: an ent is a branch or shoot from one tree or plant species that is grafted onto another tree or plant species. The verb enten denotes this action of grafting, or, figuratively, the process of something new growing out of an existing thing. The name Ent thus perfectly befits the tree-like characters in the Secondary World of Middle-earth yet is etymologically rooted in the Primary World.
The Old English poem Genesis B, particularly the depiction of Adam as selfsceafte guma in this poem, appears to have contributed to Tolkien’s characterization of Tom Bombadil and Treebeard. Both characters are among the oldest inhabitants of Middle-earth. Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun,” whereas Tom Bombadil describes himself as the ‘eldest’: “Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths for the Big People, and saw the little People arriving.” Shippey notes that “[i]t is odd, though, that Tom shares the adjective ‘oldest’ with […]Fangorn the Ent,” and that Tom Bombadil “seems in fact to be a lusus naturae, a one-member category” This idea can be connected to the Old English poem Genesis B, which
at one point calls Adam selfsceafte guma, which could be translated calquishly as ‘self-shaped man’. […] [T]he Bosworth-Toller Dictionary prefers ‘a man by spontaneous generation’. Adam of course wasn’t spontaneously generated. But Tolkien may have wondered what the thing behind such a word could be.
An indication of how Tolkien envisioned the Ents, particularly Treebeard, as selfsceaft may be found in the etymology of a derivation of Modern English ent. The Latin ens (plural entia) is a philosophical term for “[a]n entity regarded apart from any predicate but that of mere existence.” This sense has been recorded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and quite befit the characteristics of Treebeard and the Ents as beings that simply ‘were,’ a part of Middle-earth’s Creation, similar to Adam in Genesis B. John Vickrey asserts that selfsceaft may be derived from the Old Saxon compounds -giskaft and -giskapu, since Genesis B was a close interdialectal translation from Old Saxon it is probably justifiable to assume that the Old Saxon poem had *self-giskefti(e) gumo at this point). As metodi-giskaft and wurd(i)-giskefti signify ‘dispensation from God or fate’ (or, loosely, ‘fate’), so the analogous selfsceaft signifies ‘dispensation by oneself’ or ‘self-fate, self-destiny.’
Although Old English has expressions denoting free will, such as agen cyre, selfwill, agen willa, and agen diht, Vickrey argues that “[a]ll these terms denote merely free will, whereas selfsceaft ‘self-fate’ seems to denote not the possession of free will, but the consequence thereof.” Vickrey concludes that the use of selfsceaft by the poet of Genesis B was a deliberate choice, as “above all other men Adam was ‘self-fated’ because he determined his own fate in matters in which posterity had no choice at all. To the poet the most important of these seem to have been physical death and the loss of Adam’s (relative) immortality and the loss of Paradise.” Tolkien’s idyllic description of Tom Bombadil and Lady Goldberry tending to Middle-earth indeed invites for a comparison to Eve and Adam tending the biblical Garden of Eden.
The predicament of Adam in Genesis B mirrors that of the Ents in different ways. Both Adam and Ents are creatures innate of Creation, but the initial immortality of both Adam and the Ents is lost: Adam lost his immortality in the Fall, whereas the Ents slowly become more tree-like, thus dying, in a sense. Treebeard also hints at his mortality. Tom Bombadil appears to be immortal, however, which is highlighted by Gandalf’s visit to Tom in order to “have a long talk […], such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another.” This passage suggests that, unlike Treebeard and Gandalf, Tom will not only live through the Fourth Age, but through many more Ages to come. Moreover, Adam’s loss of Paradise is mirrored in Middle-earth losing its untamed wilderness and forests, as the Ents have lost their Entwives and therefore can no longer procreate. These parallels between the biblical Garden of Eden and Middle-earth make the Secondary World of The Lord of the Rings even more interesting.
Apart from Adam’s selfsceaft in Genesis B, Tolkien also applied personal experiences and observations to the characterization of the Ents and Tom Bombadil: “[I]nto this [story of the Ents] has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening” Tolkien refers to the relation between the (male) Ents and the (female) Entwives. The loss of the Entwives brought a disbalance in Middle-earth and is the cause of the Ents (thus the wilderness) diminishing and slowly becoming extinct. This implies that both untamed and tamed nature are in a symbiotic relationship and that both are needed, even necessary. The harmonious relationship of Tom Bombadil and Lady Goldberry may offer a glimpse of the harmony between the Ents and Entwives before the Entwives were ‘lost’. The balance between Tom Bombadil and Lady Goldberry is juxtaposed with the balance between ‘tamed’ and ‘untamed’ nature seen with the Ents. Tom Bombadil is the “Master of wood, water, and hill,” whereas Lady Goldberry is the “daughter of the River” whose song can make it rain. Tom presides over the earth and all that lives and grows there, whereas Goldberry is able to manipulate the weather, thus dividing nature up, roughly, into ‘earth’ and ‘air.’ In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron not only causes a war affecting all life in Middle-earth, but also destroys nature. As Treebeard notes, “Sauron of old destroyed the gardens, [and] the Enemy today seems likely to wither all the woods.” It is not only the War of the Rings, but the culmination of all these events that herald the end of the Third Age. What the future shall bring is only hinted at, but The Return of the King ends on a hopeful note: Aragorn finds a seedling of the “Eldest of Trees” which he carefully removes and plants at his court, where it blossoms; Sam Gamgee returns home to his wife and young child.
Another interesting parallel between Treebeard and Tom Bombadil is linguistical. Both characters are preoccupied with names and naming things. Shippey argues that the major theme in Tolkien’s works is “the identity of man and nature, of namer and named. It was probably his strongest belief, stronger even than his Catholicism (though of course he hoped the two were at some level reconciled).” Discussing Tom Bombadil, Shippey observes that
when Tom names something (as he does with the hobbits’ ponies) the name sticks – the animals respond to nothing else the rest of their lives. There is an ancient myth in this feature, that of the ‘true language’, the tongue in which there is a thing for each word and a word for each thing, and in which signifier then naturally has power over signified – language ‘isomorphic with reality.’
Furthermore, Treebeard “represents language itself, specifically the history of language,” which is confirmed by Tolkien’s admission that he feels “strongly, the fascination of the desire to unravel the intricately knotted and ramified history of the branches of the Tree of Tales. It is closely connected with the philologists’ study of the tangled skein of Language.” Treebeard, then, almost becomes a personification of Tolkien’s ‘Tree of Tales,’ acting and talking like a philologist and a historical linguist:
Treebeard has a particular interest in and knowledge of linguistic matters. He thus fulﬁlls the concept of the “ﬁtness” between words and the things they name. […] Treebeard is […] something of a philologist and a linguist; he is also a philosopher of language. Taking up a position that, in our world, was debated by the Platonic philosophers and arises from time to time in subsequent history, Treebeard says that there is a connection not only between names and things but also between names and stories.
In the case of Tom Bombadil, “the identity of name and thing gives the namer a kind of magic.” By calling things by their proper name Tom asserts his mastery over them; it is what gives him his power. Shippey conveys that “[i]n sober daylight no linguist would care to admit that places exhale their own names […]. Many people however feel that names fit; and that places have a character of their own. On this not entirely irrational opinion much of Middle-earth is based.” As the preceding discussion about the etymology of ent and the characteristics of Ents demonstrates, Tolkien made the meaning of the names of characters in The Lord of the Rings ‘fit’ and possess distinctive characteristics that define them in the Secondary World of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s use of themes and topoi from medieval and early modern literature causes the Secondary World of Middle-earth in some respects to be different, yet in other respects to be very much the same as the Primary World’s Middangeard.
 Patrick Curry, Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien (Walking Tree Publishers, 2014) 21-22; Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans, Ents, Elves, and Erianor: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (The University Press of Kentucky, 2006) 130.
 Corey Olsen, “The Myth of the Ent and the Entwife,” Tolkien Studies 5 (2008): 38; Cynthia M. Cohen, “The Unique Representation of Trees in The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien Studies 6 (2009): 91; Lynn Forest-Hill, “‘Tree and Flower and Leaf and Grass’: Anachronism and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Botanical Semiotics,” The Journal of Inklings Studies 5-1 (2015): 72-92.
 Curry, Deep Roots, 50-51.
 See note 2, and also Verlyn Flieger, “How Trees Behave – Or Do They?” Mythlore 32-1 (2013): 21-33.
 Maxims II, ed. Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. In The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1942) 55, emphasis mine.
 Maxims II, ed. and trans. Craig Williamson. In The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) 978, emphasis mine.
 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, in The RSC Shakespeare Complete Works (Macmillan, 2007) 1911.
 Tolkien, The Two Towers, 453.
 Maxims II, ll. 17b-20a […] ll. 26b-32a, ed. Dobbie. In Minor Poems, 56.
 Hooke. Trees in Anglo-Saxon England, 90, emphasis mine.
 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 114-118.
 “Letter 213: Tolkien to Deborah Webster,” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; Douglas A. Anderson, “J. R. R. Tolkien and W. Rhys Roberts’s Gerald of Wales on the Survival of Welsh.” Tolkien Studies 2 (2006): 230-234.
 Van Dale Groot Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal Eerste Deel A-I, Eleventh revised edition, Ed. G. Geerts and H. Heestermans with the assistance of C. Kruyskamp., s.v. ‘ent.’
 “(fig.) doen voortgroeien op: Engeland waar de Angelsaksische beschaving geënt was op de Britse stam.” Van Dale, s.v. ‘enten.’
 Tolkien, The Two Towers, 488.
 Ibid., 120.
 Ibid., 122.
 Ibid., s.v. ‘ens.’
 Vickrey, “Selfsceaft in Genesis B,” Anglia 83-2 (1965): 158.
 Ibid., 159.
 Ibid., 160.
 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 121-133.
 Tolkien, The Return of the King, 958.
 Ibid., 974.
 “Treebeard’s face became sad. ‘Forests may grow,’ he said. ‘Woods may spread. But not Ents. There are no Entings.’” Tolkien, The Return of the King, 958.
 Tolkien, The Fellowship, 122.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 127.
 Tolkien, The Two Towers, 465.
 “Elrond and Galadriel rode on; for the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed, and an end was come of the story and song of those times. With them went away many Elves of the High Kindred who no longer stay in Middle-earth.” J.R.R.Tolkien, The Return of the King Being the Third Pard of The Lord of the Rings (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001) 1006.
 Galdalf says to Aragorn: “‘The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginnings and to preserve what may be preserved. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be the dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.’” Tolkien, The Return of the King, 949-950.
 Ibid., 950.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 19.
 Ibid., 124.