A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Middle-Earth’s Forests

Olga has a nice essay at her blog entitled “In the shadows of dark forests”.  She’s all about the “dark, enchanted, haunted woods”: Mirkwood, Taur-nu-Fuin, and the Old Forest. Reading it, I was struck by two absences[1]:  Fangorn and Lothlórien.  Let’s see what their absence might imply.

Fangorn Forest looks at first like another of those magical places, but that changes quickly.  In two pages, the narrator slides his description from”dark and tangled” and “a queer stifling feeling” through “untidy” and “shabby and grey” to “gleam[ing] with rich browns, and with the smooth black-greys of bark like polished leather.” (LotR III,iv) The reader starts out expecting a traditional entry point to Faërie, but then is gradually pulled via domestic, human-centered terms into a comfortable feeling that Meriadoc and Peregrin share.

The Forest of Lothlórien doesn’t have any negative connotations in its description.  “In the dim light of the stars their stems were grey, and their quivering limbs a hint of fallow gold.” (LotR II,vi)  Grey is a friendly color in Middle Earth, gold is pleasing to Man and Dwarf alike, and JRRT even includes the stars as a sort of benevolent framing device.  Boromir expresses reluctance to enter, but both Aragorn and the narrator make it clear that he’s working from bad intelligence.  Lothlórien seems like it ought to be Faërie, but it’s clear that we’re not invited to think of it that way.

Why don’t these two forests fit into Olga’s frightening group?  Because someone is in charge.  Real forests are complicated ecosystems, a huge network of cooperative and competitive relationships between individuals of a myriad of species.  Haldir describes Southern Mirkwood as “a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.”  Competition apparently isn’t a good thing to Haldir. (or JRRT?)  Much better if someone has everything organized, knows the name of each tree, makes sure that each is in its proper place and everybody has enough water and sunlight. Then you have a “good” forest, one which even the Entwives might appreciate.  But the workload — “That would indeed be a burden!” as Goldberry put it. (LotR I,vii)

And now I understand something I didn’t when I started writing this post. The Old Forest looks like it doesn’t fit. When I put Fangorn and Lothlórien on one side, and Mirkwood and Taur-nu-Fuin on the other, they look like the classic dichotomy of Law and Chaos.  For example, from Three Hearts and Three Lions:

This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more animistic expression…

Poul Anderson

What, then, do we do with the Old Forest?  It looks to the hobbits like Chaos, but Bombadil is there in the middle of it. Why isn’t it a forest of Law? As Goldberry says, “…all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master.”  I never understood the distinction she’s trying to convey.

Dark Forest

This forest belongs to me, but I am not its Master.

There must be some difference between what Galadriel (for example) does and what Tom does. The word “master” comes from Old English mægester, “one having control or authority”. The Old English word comes from the Latin magister, meaning “the one who is greater”.  Tom doesn’t control things, exactly, though he does seem to have authority.  Like a fencing master!  I don’t have to do what our fencing master says – she’s not the owner of the salle, nor is she the Queen – but if I know what’s good for me I’ll do what she says.  She has authority because she knows more about fencing than I do. And now I know what Tom Bombadil’s role in the Old Forest is.  Because he knows more songs, or his songs are closer to the actual Music, even Old Man Willow does what he says.

[1] There is no way to spell “absences” that will ever look right to this Idiosopher. [back]


Ardagraphic Information Systems: the Paper


One More Forest

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing my essay here!
    You’re making an interesting point about the forests. I’ve never looked at them from Law vs Chaos perspective, and that’s a really curious observation. I guess I was taking more of a traveller’s approach, so the dark-haunted-tangled image is dominant in my essay.

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