Tolkien and His Trees
As an avid fan of J. R. R. Tolkien I was thrilled with the recent Lord of the Rings movie releases. The Ring Trilogy was finally brought to life on screen in a manner worthy of the integrity of the works. This familiarized many people with the trilogy for the first time. But if you’ve only seen the movies, you should read the books. As great as the movies are, they can’t really hold a candle to the books -- and reading the books provides wonderful illumination.
Despite the popularity of the movies, I still encounter Catholics who have not read the books, are unaware that Tolkien himself was a devout Catholic, and are completely unfamiliar with the Christian themes that permeate the trilogy. One such theme among many is Tolkien’s use of trees as symbols of life and goodness, and the corruption of trees as symbols of evil and death.
Instances of Trees in the Trilogy
There are four major instances of individual trees in the trilogy: the Party Tree, Old Man Willow, the Ent Treebeard, and the Eldest of Trees (a symbol of the King of Gondor). There are also particular forests that bear certain human characteristics, but I won’t explore them here.
The Party Tree, located in the party field in the Shire (in Hobbiton), was a symbol of happy times and celebrations as well as the wholesome, pastoral prosperity of the Shire and its inhabitants. It is cut down and destroyed when Saruman departs from Orthanc and exacts his revenge on the Shire, enslaving its inhabitants. Upon his return to the Shire, Sam replaces the destroyed tree with a beautiful mallorn tree, a gift of the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien.
Old Man Willow, a tree in the Old Forest, tries to capture and kill Frodo and his companions. The ancient tree’s rotten heart drives it to seek to destroy men, whom he considers to be usurpers and destroyers of the wood.
The Ent Treebeard is an ancient guardian of trees in the forest, very much like a tree himself, who leads the Ents in the fight against Saruman at Orthanc. He would no longer suffer the destruction of his forest for the purposes of evil.
The Eldest of Trees is a symbol of the throne of kings, and stands in the courtyard of the king in Gondor. The tree in the courtyard is dead—a symbol of evil times and the absence of the king from his seat. When Aragorn assumes the kingship he discovers a sapling of the ancient line of trees that was thought to be extinct, and uproots the dead tree and replaces it with the sapling.
The general themes are these: trees are (generally speaking) good unless they are corrupted. The destruction or death of good trees is always a bad thing—and those who are responsible for their destruction are evil. The renewal or replacement of destroyed trees with new trees is a symbol of a resurgence of good.
In chapter two of Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila, she refers to soul in the state of grace as a “tree of life, planted in the living waters of life.” Christ is the life-giving water and the works of the man whose soul is pure are streamlets that flow from this divine source. The spring nourishes the tree, which gives shade and yields fruit.
Contrarily, if the soul falls into mortal sin, the tree “leaves the spring and becomes rooted in a pool of pitch-black, evil smelling water [producing] nothing but misery and filth.”
As in the Trilogy, water and trees are closely linked in Scripture. St. Teresa draws her inspiration from countless references to trees and water from Genesis through the New Testament—most directly, as can be discerned from her phrasing, Psalm 1:3. (Actually, a search of the Douay-Rheims Bible online (crosswalk.com) returns 345 verses for “water” and 158 for “tree”.)
In Tolkien’s trilogy, one of the signs of evil regimes is that the water in their domains is dark and filthy, unfit for drinking and corrupting or choking the life out of the vegetation in its vicinity. By contrast, in Treebeard’s home deep in the forest, the Ent has a special, life-giving water that is inexplicably nourishing and sustaining. Water is also used for purifying: after Saruman is overthrown, the Ents reroute the river Isen to flow through Isenguard and purify its evilness.
Universal Themes Contribute to Trilogy’s Appeal
Whether you take a good look at The Lord of the Rings as a separate entity or as a part of Tolkien’s larger body of work, there is much to discover that is of benefit to Christians. Indeed, Christian students of Tolkien never tire of pointing out that these universal concepts are the backbone of the work, making it a classic.
One of the identifying characteristics of a “classic” work of literature is a certain transcendence that allows it to be appreciated in different eras. Though by certain standards the Trilogy is almost too young to be named a classic, we are certainly living in a different era than that of the Trilogy’s authoring during the Second World War in England. And during our own era, one could easily argue that the works have reached the apex of their public appreciation.
Given the Christian richness that permeates The Lord of the Rings—the richness of Truth which obviously inspired Tolkien—one must hope that the Ring Trilogy will be proven one of the most influential works of fiction written in the twentieth century. May the golden branches of Lothlorien beckon us all to the treasures that lie within!
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