A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Comment on “The Forests and the Trees”

winter stream with trees and snow

Silver Maples, after the willows

J.R.R. Tolkien said in Letter 339, “In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies….” In her essay “The Forests and the Trees” (2017) and her earlier essay “Taking the Part of Trees” (2000), Verlyn Flieger suggests that Old Man Willow, the first evil character the hobbits encounter in The Lord of the Rings, shows that JRRT was not being exactly truthful there.  “Fine words, but the reality is somewhat different. … Never does he explicitly take the part of the Old Forest against the hobbits.”

The Old Forest is definitely a dark and evil place.  But why?  Bombadil lays out the history:

It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirst spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs. (I, vii)

The ecologists and foresters have a fact to add here, which puts a very different face on Old Man Willow and the Old Forest:  Willows are not forest trees! They can’t handle shade.  Willows are what ecologists call a “pioneer species”.  That is, when a place is cleared by fire, bulldozers, or other calamities, willow trees are the first to re-sprout along the stream banks.  They send out “fine root-threads in the ground” and stabilize the soil.  That gives sturdier but slower-growing trees a chance to survive rainstorms and flooding.  But once the maples and ashes get established, they overgrow the willows, which then die out.  (And after a while, oaks do the same thing to the maples. C’est la vie.)  In a mature ecosystem, willow trees are just annoying weeds. (Pollan, pp. 106-7)  Old Man Willow shouldn’t be there.  He’s twisting nature out of its habit, trying to preserve his own status beyond his due.

Old Man Willow is a familiar character. We’ve seen his kind elsewhere in the Legendarium.  When the Old Forest was young, he was “lord”, but when his time was past, he wouldn’t let go and accept his natural fate. He used his magic (singing, as Bombadil describes it) to enslave the other plants of the forest so he wouldn’t have to die.  Willow-Man’s heart is rotten exactly the same way as the hearts of the Kings of Númenór.

At Isengard, Gandalf gently points out that Treebeard doesn’t really understand evil beings, because “you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things,” as someone evil would. (III, x) Old Man Willow is exactly the type Gandalf means.  His trees “attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it.” (I,vi)  Contrary to Prof. Flieger’s expectation, Tolkien can’t “take the part” of the Old Forest trees any more than he can take the part of the Haradrim.  They’re the slaves of an evil master, and their own hearts have been filled with pride and malice thereby.  Here’s another Númenór parallel: “proud” or “pride” is used about the Númenóreans 12 times in the 13 pages of Akallabêth.  I think we’re supposed to see them the same way, with Old Man Willow fighting for unnatural immortality with wood and song as Ar-Pharazôn did with gold and iron.

In her 2000 essay, Prof. Flieger quotes Jane Chance’s Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, saying “‘Old Man Willow and his malice represent the living embodiment of the parent Tree of Death’, presumably in Eden.”  Flieger calls this “overstated”, but I don’t think it is.  JRRT knew a lot about trees; it’s no stretch to think he knew that a willow in the heart of a dense forest would be a perversion of nature.  And Old Man Willow’s evil nature sprouts from exactly the same root as the great evil among Men, the central theme of LotR.  Jane Chance nailed it.  I’m going to have to read that book.

So, in conclusion, I think I’m willing to accept JRRT’s letter at face value.  He takes the part of the trees in the same way a feminist takes the part of women: supporting those who have historically been abused and exploited, but with no obligation to defend Messalina or Elizabeth Báthory.  To the Old Forest, “all their enemies” includes at least one tree.  The Old Forest was “hostile to two-legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries”, but not all those injuries were caused by the two-legged creatures.  A monster among their own kind inflicted the worst.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey , ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1981).

Flieger, Verlyn “The Forests and the Trees”, in There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale, KSU Press (2017): 129-144.

Flieger, Verlyn. “Taking the Part of Trees: Eco-Conflict in Middle-earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle Earth. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 89 (2000): 147-158.

Plants for a Future. Database., accessed 20 Jan 2018.

Pollan, Michael.  Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Grove Press, 1991.

United States Department of Agriculture. PLANTS database. Accessed 20 Jan 2018.


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1 Comment

  1. A magnificent reflection!
    I have long been troubled by the Old Forest and its relationship to the free peoples of Middle-earth. Your linking of the character of Old Man Willow to others in Tolkien’s legendarium seems entirely correct. Our ability to accept our limits is central to our wholeness. Eventually I am going to have to lay everything down and that will be my final liberation.
    I have been making the acquaintance of some woodland near my home in recent years and had noticed that many of the trees on its outer edges are willows but that there are no willows at the wood’s heart. I have always thought that the willows are a gentle tree, their slender boughs trailing delicately into the waters of the brook that flows from the wood. They seem so unlike the character of Old Man Willow. But now I will understand them differently knowing that their delicacy belongs to their place as pioneers of the wood and that one day they will have done their work and will have to making way to other trees.
    I am so grateful to you for deepening my understanding here.

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