The Vindication of the Ents
-- reflections on The Lord of the Rings

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
      Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Moral Men doomed to die,
      One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
      One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
      One Ring to bring them all in the darkness bind them,
In the Land or Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy triology written by Oxford don J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien (1892-1973). It consists of The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). Detailed and successful movie versions of these, filmed in the beauty of New Zealand, were directed by Peter Jackson, with The Fellowship of the Ring released in 2001, The Two Towers in 2002, and The Return of the King in 2003, distributed by New Line Cinema.

My interest here is principally to consider what was done in the movies, especially in the treatment of the extraordinary tree-herding beings, the Ents, of The Two Towers. But I do want to range a little wider. My experience with The Lord of the Rings began in 1969. I had been hearing about the books for a while, since they had become cult favorites in the late '60's. With elves and dwarves, it all sounded a little silly. Eventually, however, I decided to read the triology, starting in a curious location, which was in a tent at a YMCA camp on Mount Lebanon, near the village of Ras-al-Matn. This was at the beginning of my year in Beirut, and the University of California program had us up at the camp for orientation sessions. It was also cooler up there, with summer heat and humidity lingering down in Beirut itself.

I loved the books, and over the years I would reread them every so often. The detail of Tolkien's creation was amazing; and even more material became evident when the Simarillion was postumously published in 1977. My own interests, however, were not along the same lines. I did not need a fantasy world of Middle Earth when real history was already there and Tolkein's own fantasy landscape looked more than a little like a redrawing of the actual geography of Western Europe, i.e. Francia. If we eliminate the English Channel, the North Sea, and the Irish Sea and add some mountains to the East, the Shire can be put right into Little England, where it evidently belongs, along with Tolkein's own heart:  The Hobbits are clearly English, and Tolkein admitted to being, in spirit, one of them. He actively disliked France and its language, which begins to get us into Nancy Mitford's "Uncle Matthew" Radlett territory.

Tolkein himself says that his whole project began with the languages that he enjoyed inventing. In the movies we hear a fair amount of High Elvish speech. Now, Tolkein's love of language began with actual study and knowledge of Greek, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, Gothic, and more. But this wasn't good enough, and his imagination shot off into the creation of his own languages. However, human history has no shortage of real languages, especially Classical languages, of no less interest, and far more literature and history, than Tolkein's imaginary ones. After all, British academics had long gone on, after Greek and Latin, into Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Old Church Slavonic, Coptic, Armenian, Hindi, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Ethiopic, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Even with Tolkein, who displays not the slightest interest in any of these other languages, we must be on the lookout for conventional Classical references. For instance, it was many years before I realized the the name of the Mines of Moria was the Greek word for folly, -- this occurs in St. Paul but not in Plato, whom I had read long before the former. But, in the end, I am not interested in Tolkein's languages, when the field of the real ones, and questions of realistic linguistics, are so vast. Tolkein's true parochialism shows, however dazzling his imagination. At the same time, I cannot deny feeling a similar urge, since I created a fantasy syllabary for Hawaiian and other Polynesian languauges. But this was for something that otherwise has never existed:  a dedicated writing system for these languages that is more suited to their phonology than the Latin alphabet in which they have always been written. I don't think Tolkein has a similar excuse.

On the other hand, the moral dimension of The Lord of the Rings was a large part of its appeal. This struck many of the sophisticated as naive or simplistic, but it was not surprising when it became evident that Tolkein took his Roman Catholicism quite seriously -- he generally went to Mass every day. Unlike the Christ-Lion Aslan in the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis, there is no obvious Christ figure in Tolkein. However, Tolkein treats Middle Earth in terms of a morally advanced paganism, in which we see Christ-like features on display in extraordinary individuals. With their love of Classical (and Norse) mythology, both Tolkein and Lewis were happy to see much of ancient religion as a kind of praeparatio Christi -- an attitude that has not always been evident in the history of Christianity (where the old gods might be regarded as demons) but that is discernable in Dante -- or in Lewis, who preserves the gods themselves as what he called edila, associated with their eponymous planets (as angels are in Dante). This left many with the impression that The Lord of the Rings was devoid of recognizable religion. Overtly, yes; but the subtext was powerfully present.

This was at no time more obvious than when The Fellowship of the Ring movie was released in 2001, not long after the Terror attacks of 11 September 2001. While Tolkein had written in the shadow of the Nazis and World War II, Peter Jackson managed to make a movie that suddenly looked relevant to a new source of radical evil from the East. Since then, Radical Islam, or Islamic Fascism, has looked worse and worse, with various groups exulting in the on-camera decapitation, incineration, or drowning of hostages and the mass kidnappings of young women for the purpose of sex slavery -- with an open defense of slavery in general, thus contradicting the anti-American trope that slavery was invented by Europeans just to oppress Africans, out of racism. The alliance of the Left with all of this is a disgrace that so far has engendered little embarrassment, let alone shame, among its enthusiasts. They are equally complacent about Vladimir Putin, another threat from the East, who is the first European ruler since Adolf Hitler to invade and conquer the territory of neighboring states, with no more resolute a response from the West than Ethiopia got in 1935 -- only now the United States joins in the feeble and almost pointless support given to the Ukraine.

If Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings was beautifully adapted, cast, and filmed, there were nevertheless things about it that disappointed fans of the books. Parts were left out. Most conspicuously, at first, this involved the entire sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring that included the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-Downs (Chapters 6,7 & 8). Since Bombadil was, to many, a favorite character, this was a significant loss. The cuts, of course, were made to keep the movie within a reasonable run time. But leaving this out also left out an important feature in the whole story. From the Barrows, Meriadoc (whose name comes from the Kings of Brittany) obtained an old sword, whose spell enabled him to break the enchantment of the King of the Ring-Wraiths in the third book, making it possible for Éowyn of Rohan to kill him. To be sure, we can do without this, but it was a feature of how Merry came to participate in great events and play an essential role.

Equally painful was a cut in The Return of the King. One of my own favorite parts of the whole story was "The Scouring of the Shire" (Chapter 8), where the Hobbits, returning home from their adventures, discover that the Shire has been all but conquered by minions of Saruman -- something seen by Samwise in the Mirror of Galadriel. The military experience that Merry and Pippin (Peregrin) had obtained in the course of their adventures is now put into action, as Gandalf apparently anticipated, and we also realize that, as the heirs of Buckland and the Tooks, respectively, Merry and Pippin are actually going to be significant players in the domestic history of the Shire. In several ways, this rounds off the whole story, especially since it culminates, after no less than a decisive battle, in Saruman himself being killed by his own creature, Wormtongue, who himself is then quickly killed by Hobbit archers. This is a lot for the story to lose. In the movie, the Hobbits return to an unchanged and unaffected Shire, and they seem to blend in as though they are nobodies, making less of a splash than Bilbo did when returning from his adventure in The Hobbit. And we lose poignant features like the tree, a gift from Galadriel, that is planted in place of Bilbo's Party Tree, which had been cut down by Saruman's agents.

Again, these cuts were made in the movie just to keep it at a reasonable length. However, I suspect that this is not the treatment we would see now. Recently, Peter Jackson took The Hobbit, a brief and simple book, and turned it into no less than three movies (using some extraneous material). So now, somehow, The Hobbit is a big as The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, both the "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" trilogies have been expanded into four movies. If we were to follow such cinematic practice, The Lord of the Rings would make five or six movies, at least, nothing from the text would be lost, and various parts of Tolkein's mythology from the Simarillion could be added, as appropiate. Perhaps someday this will be done.

Meanwhile, the grave cuts made to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King pale besides the violence done to the story in Jackson's adaptation of The Two Towers. The Ents are among the most beloved creatures of the whole epic. We are told that trolls are parodies of the Ents, created as evil counterparts the way that orcs/goblins were the evil counterparts of elves. Thus, the Ents are large and powerful. They can easily be mistaken for trees, which is what happens to Merry and Pippin when they, with us, meet the first Ent, Treebeard. The Ents reside in Fangorn Forest and both live and work in ways that are all but indistinguishable from the natural trees. In the ideology, if we can call it that, of The Lord of the Rings, this is one of Tolkein's ultimate statements. The Ents are exactly the opposite of the technological civilization that Tolkein actually doesn't like very much. The Hobbits live in all but Mediaeval simplicity, but the Ents go far beyond that. There are no roads, machines, or technology in Fangorn whatsoever. This was a large part of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings to the Hippie generation, many of whom would have been happy to just live among the trees, without technology, something that a very few, at least, were able to do -- for instance living (naked) on the beach and in the nearby jungle on the East Maui volcano.

The Ents play an essential, indispensible role in the story of The Two Towers. The arrival of Merry and Pippin sets things off. Treebeard calls an "Entmoot," a general meeting of the Ents to deal with the evils generated by Saruman. In, for them, short order, they decide to go to war. In the movie, this is all ruined. Peter Jackson decides, outrageously, that the Ents determine to do nothing. Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin to release them at the edge of the forest, and he only then realizes that Saruman has been cutting down a lot of trees. This is ridiculous. Treebeard knows that already, since he and the Ents know everything that goes on in the forest. That's why they decide to go to war. So Jackson's Ents are not only irresolute and timid, they are ignorant of the events in their own land. Lovers of the Ents should have rioted and burned down the movie theaters, or at least protested the movie.

But it gets worse. Saruman's forces attack Helm's Deep, where the King of Rohan, Galdalf, Aragorn, and others have held up. They are in danger of being overrun. The Ents come to the rescue. Fangorn Forest literally marches to the scene and devours Saruman's army. We have gotten the impression that there aren't many Ents left, but at Helm's Deep we see the Huorns, of which Merry says there are "hundreds and hundreds." These are Ents that are becoming more like trees, or perhaps also trees that are becoming a bit more like Ents, i.e. "waking up." This is all absolutely eliminated from the movie. The Ents do not save the day, just some extra Riders of Rohan. After this, we really want to ask, "What has Peter Jackson got against the Ents?" Do they offend him in some way?

To Jackson's credit, he does a good job of portraying the assault of the Ents on Saruman's fortress at Isengard. Perhaps he thought that was good enough. But this does little to make up for the insult and demotion of the Ents in the story as a whole. And just as bad as these distortions of character and plot is the elimination of the entire story of the Entwives, i.e. the female Ents from whom the males had become separated in prior ages. As with Tom Bombadil or the "Scouring of the Shire," perhaps the story can make do without this, but the result is not the same thing, and we lose a large part of the emotional dimension of the account of the Ents. We also wonder if this is another hint of Tolkein's ideology. The males who stick to the forest survive, while the Entwives, who love gardens and cultivation, have wandered, disappeared, and perhaps all died. Their gardens are found empty and devastated. In other words, they should have stuck to the forest too.

Given Tolkein's nostalgia for the Middle Ages and for simpler times, and his distaste for industry and technology, it is not surprising that The Lord of the Rings is built around the Hobbits and their simple, parochial habits and virtues. But even the Hobbits have some industry and commerce. In those terms, the Ents are the ideological quintessence of the whole story. The Ents are as pure a fantasy as Tolkein can formulate of life with no technology whatsoever, whose whole society and culture is built on pure natural growth. And it is a significant part of the story that their strength is underestimated by others -- especially by Saruman, who cannot understand the force they command, to his great loss. And we might say that Peter Jackson does the same thing. He doesn't think that the power of the Ents will make a good movie. People will not believe their ability to wipe out Saruman's army. A bunch of stupid trees, who don't even know what's going on in their own forest (according to Jackson), could never do that. So Jackson is sucked into the same error, if not the same evil(!), as Saruman (whose fitting end, of course, is not included in the movies).

The Vindication of the Ents is thus not that Tolkein's ideology really makes any sense -- it doesn't -- but that Peter Jackson fails to grasp and misrepresents the essence of The Lord of the Rings, something surpremely expressed and embodied in the Ents. It is neither Jackson's job nor mine to include a critique or disparagement of Tolkein in the middle of Tolkein's own story (what Paul Verhoeven does, in a very treacherous and nasty way, in Starship Troopers [1997]). That this is the meaning of the demotion of the Ents is liable to escape most people's attention; but fans of the Ents, which I think includes most who love the books, insensibly, or explicitly, feel the insult.

The paradox of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings among Baby Boomers is the degree to which, raised in the 1950's, they took for granted the material prosperity of the age, from which they developed a nostalgia for "simpler times," not understanding that such prosperity could not be sustained with "simpler" technology. This was not a mistake made by their parents, who had grown up during the manifest deprivations of the Great Depression. But this was a generation dismissive and contemptuous of their parents -- the integrity of whose values had already been confused and compromised by the unconstitutional provisions of the New Deal. Tolkein himself already grew up with the given of Victorian technology (thank God for those toilets), about which earlier English writers, like Thomas Hardy, were unhappy. Tolkein's own reservations where born, perhaps, in the trenches of World War I, when the promise of technology became the threat of miserable death in the mud, smell, body parts, etc. This might give anyone pause. And over the prosperity of the '50's fell the Shadow of the Bomb, the threat of which is now increasing again as the apocalyptic fanatics of Iran are eager to get one and quickly use it against Israel and other religious enemies. This time, however, the threat is less the technology itself than the political and diplomatic folly, the veritable Chamberlain-esque appeasement, practiced by too many in the West, and especially by the clueless and mendacious Obama Administration.

The real threat of Tolkein's nostalgia is when it becomes an ideology that is hostile, not just to technology, but to human beings themselves. This is a lot of what we see in Environmentalism, which in the cause célèbre of "Climate Change" can claim the endorsement of science for its goals. Yet these are people who generally despise science for its abstract and impersonal nature, and its connection to engineering and technology. Having accepted that Marxism results in poverty, rather than the prosperity promised by Marx himself, Environmentalism can make common cause with Luddites and Marxists who are perfectly comfortable with this alteration, whose effects we see them admiring in the totalitarian police state of Cuba. After all, destroying modern economies, industry, and prosperity requires a Soviet-style command economy, whose bitter and bloody failures now become virtues, and whose aim is thus a deliberate goal of subsistence poverty (if that) rather than an inadvertent one, after ostensively intending universal wealth.

Does Peter Jackson insult the Ents and spare us the miserable end of Saruman out of distate for Tolkein's ideology? Probably not. The meaning of the Ents for Tolkein is nowhere near as obvious as the morally aesthetic meaning of Hannibal Lecter for Thomas Harris. At the same time, he also insults the aesthetic integrity of the work. I find it hard not to love the Ents, regardless of their ideological significance. If there were Ents, I would have no objection to the preservation of their domain. It would fall in with designated Wilderness areas -- where such areas are not just manifestations of the Environmentalist hostility (i.e. of comfortable elites) to humanity and civilization.

The Vindication of the Ents is thus no more than a defense of the aesthetic integrity of The Lord of the Rings, whose appeal reveals the paradoxes, dilemmas, unease, and uncertainties of our age. The moral seriousness of the work, indeed, will rise above the primitivism of Tolkein's ideology and in fact will contradict the nihilism or the craven and supine accommodation of political elites (i.e. Democrats) to the growing modern evils of Islamic and Putin-esque fascism. Tolkein is thus susceptible to alternative uses, one to denigrate human civilization, the other to defend civilization against multiple "post-modern" manifestations of tyranny. As it happens, the complacency, inaction, and accommodation of the Obama Administration in the face of foreign tyranny is a clue to its admiration for such tyranny, especially in Cuba, if not in Islam, and its desire to see the domestic application of such politics in America. Saruman (if not Sauron), preserved from his end by Peter Jackson, indeed lives today. And he got elected President.


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Copyright (c) 2015, 2016 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved