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  • The Unique Representation of Trees in The Lord of the Rings
  • Cynthia M. Cohen (bio)

When The Lord of the Rings was originally published (in 1954 and 1955), it became the first literary work to portray tree-like beings as ontologically distinct from regular trees. Before The Lord of the Rings and during Tolkien's lifetime, other authors who had imagined trees that did not behave or appear like trees of the Primary World had conceived of these creatures simply as trees—strange, extraordinary, malicious, or friendly trees—and they perceived no need to further distinguish them. For the purposes of this article, literary trees are divided into four categories: (1) trees that do nothing unusual, appearing essentially as Primary World trees; (2) trees that remain rooted in the ground but are able to talk, think, and/or feel; (3) trees that remain rooted but can move their branches or trunks as trees of the Primary World cannot; and (4) trees that can uproot themselves, physically moving from one place to another. These categories are augmentations: trees in all categories but the first can talk, think, and/or feel; and trees in the fourth category can move their branches or trunks as well as relocate themselves. When these categories are applied to The Lord of the Rings, Ents and Huorns fall into the fourth category, Old Man Willow belongs in the third, trees of the Old Forest and Fangorn Forest fall into the second or first categories (although most readers assume they belong in the third or fourth), and the remainder of trees in the text belong in the first. As this article will demonstrate, Tolkien distinguishes trees of the fourth category from all others; he implies but does not confirm that trees of the third category are something other than trees; and he seems to accept that trees of the second category can convincingly be called "trees." The following survey of texts written before or contemporaneously with The Lord of the Rings—texts that contain trees of the third and fourth categories—reveals the originality of Tolkien's consideration of such trees as ontologically distinct.

I. The Uniqueness of Tolkien's Method

Trees of the third and fourth categories often appear in literature as trees upon which human characteristics have been projected. This can be partly attributed to morphological similarities: for instance, humans and trees both have trunks, limbs, and crowns, in roughly comparable locations, and both typically stand upright. Another explanation, Tolkien suggests, is that people wish to associate or communicate with other [End Page 91] living things (MC 152), expressed by G. K. Chesterton in a legend of the Barbary Coast (1922):

St Securis . . . grew to love [trees] like companions. . . . And he prayed that they might be loosened from time to time to walk like other things. And the trees were moved upon the prayers of Securis. . . . The men of the desert . . . [saw] the saint walking with a walking grove.


Chesterton portrays these trees as trees—trees that physically move as Primary World trees cannot, but trees all the same—illustrating the key difference between Tolkien and every other author surveyed here. Where other authors saw no need to ascribe words other than "tree" (or familiar species names of the Primary World) to tree-like creatures that did not act like actual trees, Tolkien opted for linguistic distinctions that would complement his literary descriptions. In The Lord of the Rings, the words "Ent" and "Huorn" signal ontological differences from trees; other authors made no such distinction.

David Lindsay and Ludvig Holberg, for example, both wrote about trees of the fourth category. An unusual creature—at first glance simply "a great tree floating in the water . . . upright, and alive"—appears in Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), a book that Tolkien read "with avidity" (Lindsay 187; Letters 34). Maskull discovers that the crown "actually was a sort of head, for there were membranes like rudimentary eyes"; he realizes that he can ride this tree, directing it through watercourses by covering up some of the "eyes" (Lindsay 188). Though once referred to as "the huge plant-animal," the creature is otherwise called a "tree." Similarly, the ambulatory...


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