J. R. R. Tolkien’s love of nature and, especially trees, was well-known. He drew inspiration from the green growing things and was undoubtedly saddened by the damage humans could inflict on the natural world. During his life Tolkien witnessed the unflattering change of certain landscapes due to the merciless strides of technological progress, and that could not leave him indifferent.
The Professor’s attitude to the “nature vs people” battle can be traced in both his letters and his literary works. In letter 165 Tolkien wrote: “I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.” Letter 339, in its turn, contains the following words: “In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies”. This could not be put any plainer: Tolkien was not much impressed with what people did to trees for their own benefit.
In The Lord of the Rings nature sets out against the enemy who mistreated it: the Ents of Fangorn march to Isengard to deal with Saruman, and their subsequent attack on the wizard’s citadel makes history as not only one of the most important events of the War of the Ring, but also as a crucial event in the Ents’ own history. It shows how the forces of nature, when angered, can protect themselves in the manner that very few expect. The Ents’ wrath had been accumulating for quite a long time until it finally reached the tipping point with Merry and Pippin’s arrival triggering the action that had been long in the making. Verily, to the Hobbits “it seemed now as sudden as the bursting of a flood that had long been held back by a dike” (Two Towers, p. 101).
Even though the Ents might come across as slow and perhaps even clumsy, they are anything but that, which becomes especially apparent once their march begins. Full of vigour and resoluteness, the Ents are so menacing in their wrath that Merry was right to have assumed, even prior to the start of the march, that once these giants are angered it is better not to be on the other side.
In Tolkien’s vision the trees march to war against the enemy that “has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment” (Two Towers, p. 84). Thus, nature goes to war against technology. Saruman’s actions angered the Ents greatly: he felled trees to “feed the fires of Orthanc” to conduct his experiments; some fallen trees were left to rot and treeless spots were now scattered all over the neighbourhood where there used to be beautiful groves. Saruman’s maltreatment of nature shows how much he cares for his own profit alone and not for anything else. In the same way technology marches on around the world in its incessant progress and treads on the green things to make room for itself without even noticing them. Tolkien’s Ents have a lot to say against it.
In their attack on Isengard the Ents show their might and true power over stone, but this might is different from that of the pre-Anglo-Saxon giants’. Instead of building from stone, the Ents break it. Crushing stone pillars all around Orthanc seems very easy for them. From Merry and Pippin’s description of the attack we learn that “a punch from an Ent-fist crumples up iron like thin tin”, so it did not take the Ents long to destroy the gates as they “tear it [rock] up like bread-crust”.
However, that was only the beginning. Technology did not keep silent for long, and soon Saruman launched a counter attack using machinery setting out fumes and fires that caused considerable injury to the Ents. Instead of defeating them, this technological devilry only made the giants angrier, so that their reaction was truly terrifying, according to Pippin’s account:
It was staggering. They roared and boomed and trumpeted, until stones began to crack and fall at the mere noise of them. Merry and I lay on the ground and stuffed our cloaks into our ears. Round and round the rock of Orthanc the Ents went striding and storming like a howling gale, breaking pillars, hurling avalanches of boulders down the shafts, tossing up huge slabs of stone into the air like leaves. The tower was in the middle of a spinning whirlwind. I saw iron posts and blocks of masonry go rocketing up hundreds of feet, and smash against the windows of Orthanc.
(Two Towers, p. 209)
By further flooding the valley around Orthanc and filling all the pits under Isengard with water, the Ents put a final touch to dealing with machinery by means of natural forces. It becomes a cleansing procedure for the land after it was fouled with filthy experiments and the devilry of the treacherous wizard: nature won over technology.
In describing the work of the Ents on the stone Merry says that “it was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments” (Two Towers, p. 207). Undoubtedly, most of us have seen how trees are able to grow through stone and asphalt, break hard surfaces and defeat stone creations of mankind with their natural power and perseverance. Trees take long to grow through and over stone, but eventually they succeed. The Ents took long to get roused, but once it happened their full power was accumulated in the blow delivered to Saruman’s laboratory. Nature can be patient for a long time, but once it gets roused against the advances of technology the response can be truly terrifying.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image: Pixabay