Tolkien and trees

Yesterday I caught the Tolkien biopic which is right at the end of its release in cinemas. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s set against the latter part of his childhood, time at university, and service in the trenches of the First World War. The main themes are his relationships with his similarly-gifted school friends (the other three boys of the “TCBS” club) and his difficult pursuit of the love of his life, Edith, but there are secondary themes of his fascination with language and hints at the importance he attached to trees. It reminded me of how he influenced some of my own early treeish thoughts.

The film shows Edith dancing in a wood – a sight that captivated Tolkien’s imagination and led to him to construct the early tale of Beren and Luthien, in which a mortal man is set a seemingly impossible task to win the hand of an Elven princess. But presumably for copyright reasons they don’t use elements of the tale in the body of the film. A missed opportunity. The two mythical lovers are only named in a caption at the end. Here is Tolkien’s account of Beren’s first sight of Luthien, which is his retelling of that real event in a woodland with Edith while he was away from the trenches as the First World War was raging around them:

Beren came stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road. But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of lluvatar. Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.

As I said, a missed opportunity for a film maker.

There’s a rather powerful scene between Tolkien as a student and Joseph Wright, then Professor of Comparative Philology, and an expert on the structure and history of languages and dialects. Wright is played by Derek Jacobi as the blunt Yorkshireman he was, and he expounds on the depth of meaning of a single word.

A child points and is taught a word. “Tree”. Later he learns to distinguish this tree from all the others. He learns its particular name. He plays under the tree. He dances around it. Stands underneath its branches for shade or shelter. He kisses under it. He sleeps under it. He weds under it. He marches past it on his way to war, and limps back past it on his journey home. A king is said to have hidden in this tree. A spirit may dwell within its bark. Its distinctive leaves are carved onto the tombs and monuments of his landlords. Its wood might have built the galleons that saved his ancestors from invasion. And all this, the general and the specific, the national and the personal, all this he knows and feels and summons somehow however faintly with the utterance of a single sound: “oak”.

Mr Tolkien and Professor Wright

For me, I have a vivid memory of rereading the Return of the King as a child (I read the books several times) and coming across Sam’s song, and then going to look for some good big beech trees in the local woods:

In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

I seemed to spend a lot of spare time between 8 and 12 playing in local woods, and then later in my teens exploring a country park. I think these times are what made it so natural to buy Century Wood two decades later. It really did feel like coming home.

When I first visited Century I managed to get disorientated and lost, and came out of the south boundary and into a neighbouring plot thinking I was still going east. Even now, sometimes in high summer when the lines of sight are short, I can get lost until I came across a familiar landmark. Sometimes it feels as if the little choices of which way to go around a bush or a fallen tree add up and push me off course. And when that happens, I remember this passage from the Fellowship of the Ring about the Old Forest:

At first their choice seemed to be good: they got along at a fair speed, though whenever they got a glimpse of the sun in an open glade they seemed unaccountably to have veered eastwards. But after a time the trees began to close in again, just where they had appeared from a distance to be thinner and less tangled. Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles. These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their ponies. Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right; and they had to go some distance along the bottom before they could find a way up the further bank. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards. After an hour or two they had lost all clear sense of direction, though they knew  well enough that they had long ceased to go northward at all. They were being headed off, and were simply following a course chosen for them – eastwards and southwards, into the heart of the Forest and not out of it.

There are a lot more passages and events I could talk about. The tangled, knotty resentment of Fangorn Forest. The beauty of Lorien. The creeping horror of Mirkwood.  The unexpected forest in Helm’s Deep, inspired by Tolkien’s disappointment with Birnam Wood. And slow moving tree-men, the ents, the shepherds of the trees. But instead let me finish with this passage of hope from The Return of the King, which helped me through one difficult winter, pinned to the notice board in the kitchen:

Spring surpassed his wildest hopes. His trees began to sprout and grow, as if time was 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.


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