- “The tree took me up from ground and carried me off”:A Source for Tolkien’s Ents in Ludvig Holberg’s Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground
When I recently proposed to the University of Nebraska Press the reissue of my father's 1960 edition of Ludvig Holberg's The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground, it was far from my mind to think it would have any bearing on my study of Tolkien. NK is of great interest to students of early science fiction and political satires based on other worlds (such as Gulliver's Travels, to which NK is greatly indebted). But because the reissue (and the informative preface by Peter Fitting) caused me to look into the text, something I had not previously done at any length, I found something quite unexpected: it appears that the kingdom of sentient trees presented in NK has such strong specific parallels to the Ents that some unconscious inspiration, based on a memory of having read NK, was at work in Tolkien's process—pace the consensus that "[w]hat came entirely from his own mind was the connection [of ents] with trees" (Shippey 88-89).
The primary plot of the book is the first known version of the journey to an underground world, later developed by Verne and others. Niels Klim finds a kingdom of intelligent, mobile trees in the utopia of Potu. While there are sensible trees in classical literature, Canto XIII of Inferno, etc., the specific points of similarity to The Lord of the Rings are as follows.
In both texts the tree-creatures at first assume the interloper(s) to be dangerous and/or irrational, and fail to correctly identify the type of beings they are: "they conjectured I was a monkey, though of a species different from the monkeys of that country" (NK 17); "I should have just trodden on you, and taken you for little Orcs … what are you, I wonder?" (TT, III, iv, 67).
The tree-creatures then carry off the interlopers, who find their hosts' language sonorous but incomprehensible. Leaping into a tree while pursued by a mad bull, Klim finds that it is sentient, and "presently another tree advancing to me, let down one of its branches, which had at the extremity of it six large buds in the manner of fingers. With these [End Page 153] the tree took me up from the ground and carried me off, attended by a multitude of other trees of various kinds and different sizes, all of which kept muttering certain sounds, articulately indeed, but in a tone too foreign for my ears, so that I could not possibly retain anything of them" (NK 17). Compare: "A large knob-knuckled hand was laid on each of their shoulders . . . then two great arms lifted them up" (TT, III, iv, 66); "[h]olding the hobbits gently but firmly, one in the crook of each arm, Treebeard lifted up first one large foot and then the other … he set off with long deliberate strides" (TT, III, iv, 70); "[at the Entmoot] a curious and unintelligible conversation began. The Ents began to murmur slowly … Though he could not catch or understand any of the words—he supposed the language was Entish—Pippin found the sound very pleasant to listen to" (TT, III, iv, 84).
Klim can't become a full citizen of Potus because of his insufficiently deliberative nature: "they even went so far as to give me the nickname of Skabba, which in their language signifies 'overhasty'" (NK 78). Compare, of course, Treebeard's frequent characterizations of Merry and Pippin as "hasty" (TT, III, iv, 67ff).
The trees of NK are "brave and warlike"; though they never declare war themselves, if it be declared against them they "push it with all imaginable vigour" (75). Compare, obviously, the Ents' destruction of Isengard (TT, III, ix, 170-75).
The Potuan society is extremely slow to have political debates or to change any laws or policy: "The threefold repetition of words [in legal proceedings] was made use of to assist the slowness of their perception . . . for very few could comprehend what they...