Tolkien and the Secret Life of Trees

Fangorn
Fangorn Forest from The Lord of the Rings, illustrated by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read a fascinating article recently about the German forest ranger and ecologist Peter Wohlleben in The New York Times. Wohlleben is the author of a book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and is featured in the documentary film, Intelligent Trees. His observations about arboreal biology are exciting and even startling:

trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

Obviously this is a type of life and “society” quite different from our own. But trees are living creatures. I imagine it would benefit our understanding of them to consider the ways in which they behave like living creatures, not inanimate objects.

Reading this profile of Wohlleben reminded me of a writer who shared a similar outlook on nature: J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien portrayed trees as possessing various degrees of sentience, and as being shepherded by Ents, a race of tree-like giants. His imagination was informed by a deep sympathy with the forest, and a perception that trees were conscious on some mysterious level.

In 1972 the Daily Telegraph published an article which contained the description of a landscape “transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings.” In a letter to the editor, published a few days later, Tolkien replied,

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. 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.

Sources:

McGrane, Sally. (January 29, 2016) “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/30/world/europe/german-forest-ranger-finds-that-trees-have-social-networks-too.html

Tolkien, J.R.R.; Carpenter, Humphrey (ed). (1981) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: George Allan & Unwin.


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