I read a lot, for all kinds of reasons: entertainment, escape, instruction and every now and then, the experience is transformative.
Fortunately, I did not read J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings until recently. Had I read it in my youth, as most people do, I know that I would have been taken up by the story, by the adventures of its indelible cast of characters: Frodo, Gandalf, Strider, Elrond, Lord Sauron, Gollum. There are dozens of captivating personalities who make their way through Tolkien’s fantastic world. Reading The Lord of the Rings in that way makes for a thrilling experience but at another level, for me the impact of the work was more profound. I became aware of this part way through when the ents took centre stage.
These sentient creatures, “shepherds of the trees”, are living in the Fangorn Forest which, we are told, is the last such habitat of its kind. The ents are gigantic, perambulatory beings, given speech in an earlier era and who resemble the trees that they protect. They take the long view, like indigenous people around the earth, always thinking at least seven generations beyond their present. When two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, flee to Fangorn to rest after a searing battle with the evil Orcs, they are taken around the forest by Treebeard, the oldest of the ents. For days they experience the misty, arboreal Shangri-la where they are bathed, soothed and regenerated while this aged, wise ent shares the magic, history and probable future of the Fangorn world.
Although Treebeard and his fellow ents go on to wage a dramatic, successful battle on behalf of the hobbits and their company, it is their time in the Fangorn Forest that resonates particularly in the mind. The little hobbits – and the reader – are embraced by the plant life and we catch a glimpse of its awe-inspiring, nurturing strength.
Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in the 1930’s when he could not have anticipated the climate crisis we are experiencing less than 100 years later, and yet, his creation resonates with and informs us today. In 2020 we know that the forests are under severe threat and we are only now coming to comprehend that without them we will be unable to breathe. That is such an extraordinary prognosis, one that echoed in the back of my mind as Tolkien guided me through the Fangorn world. Living in a rural environment as I do, I walk through forests every day. Nevertheless, it was during my reading of The Lord of the Rings that I truly experienced the pulsating, breathing aspects of the arboreal world. Their branches held me in their arms and like the hobbits I was enveloped by their life-giving strength.
As so many have said before me, the experience of reading The Lord of the Rings is an enchanting one. Certainly, I found that to be the case but even more, I was given the opportunity to grasp metaphorically the breath of life that comes from our arboreal friends and for that, I am grateful.
This year, if I do nothing else, I will plant some trees.