Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
In the previous posting, JRRT was quoted as saying of Tom Bombadil that he was: “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside” (letter to Stanley Unwin, 16 December, 1937, Letters, 26)
In that last posting, I was employing that phrase with the emphasis upon “spirit”, attempting to show how JRRT was using Tom in The Lord of the Rings to add greater depth to the story. Within the narrative, we might be shown the ruins of ancient buildings, like Weathertop,
built by Elendil after the founding of Arnor in SA 3320, but Bombadil
was far older, saying to the hobbits that:
“Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big people, and saw the little People arriving.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”)
Ruins were mute testimony to Middle-earth’s ancient past. Tom was the living witness to that past—almost the spirit of Middle-earth itself–and beyond it, practically to its creation.
In that posting, I suggested that there was a second living witness in the text and, in this posting, I want to think out loud about him—but let’s begin with the rest of that first phrase: “the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside.”
In 1892, Tolkien was born into what we might think of as the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The first, the foundational wave, had begun in the 1760s, in northern England, where the pressure of the increased demand for British wool products had inspired men like James Hargreaves (1720-1778) and Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)
to invent new machinery to speed up production. Water and then steam were applied to the increasingly sophisticated machinery and spinning and weaving factories began to spring up in various parts of England.
By the mid-Victorian period, a second wave was converting entire towns into factories,
and not just those which produced woolen or cotton materials—virtually anything could be made, in large quantities, in all kinds of factories.
Birmingham, when JRRT was a boy, was just such a place
and even the then-rural village, Sarehole, just south of Birmingham, where he spent part of that boyhood, had a mill with an auxiliary steam engine.
By the turn of the 19th century, Britain was laced with railways—by 1914, there were 20,000 miles (32,000km) of track.
Trains, and their urban cousins, street cars and metros, spread people out beyond the old centers of towns, producing larger and larger urban/exurban areas.
After the Great War (1914-1918), automobiles began to appear in ever-greater numbers, adding to that spread, as well as crowding lanes made for carts and wagons.
For Tolkien, this was the end of “the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)
when the world, in his mind, looked more like this.
But Britain had been moving towards less green for a very long time.
It had been Neolithic farmers, in fact,
perhaps about 1000BC,
who had begun the shift, cutting down large numbers of trees not only for building, but to clear acreage for their crops and pastureland for their animals.
This began the deforestation of Britain—and you can see it here as a general European trend.
(To watch someone very efficiently using a stone axe
to cut down a tree, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN-34JfUrHY )
And we might see this deforestation mirrored in the behavior of the invading Numenoreans, suggesting that even Middle-earth had become less green than it had once been:
“The fellings had at first been along both banks of the Gwathlo…but now the Numenoreans drove great tracks and roads into the forests northwards and southwards from the Gwathlo…” (Unfinished Tales, “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn”, Appendix D, “The Port of Lond Daer”)
As someone with a strong attachment to trees,
JRRT could express his feelings quite passionately, as in this letter to The Daily Telegraph of 30 June, 1972:
“It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetuated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.” (Letters, 420)
Those words, “destruction, torture and murder of trees”, can easily sound like an echo of this second living witness as he speaks about Saruman and his orcs:
“Curse him, root and branch! Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost for ever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop!” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)
This is Treebeard, of course, even if it almost seems to echo the author and his letter to the editor.
(an Alan Lee)
And we might see a small puzzle here between what Tom Bombadil says of himself:
“Eldest, that’s what I am…Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn.”
and what Gandalf says of Treebeard:
“Treebeard is Fangorn, the guardian of the forest; he is the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 5, “The White Rider”)
Even if this suggests a small contradiction, reinforced when Celeborn, parting from Treebeard, calls him, “Eldest” ( The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”), we might understand Tom and Treebeard, in fact, as a complementary pair: Tom is the witness for humans over all the ages of Middle-earth, while Treebeard stands (and walks) as witness for the land itself.
It is, perhaps, a sad thought then that, with Sauron gone, there appears to be no threat to Bombadil, but, without the Entwives, there is only extinction ahead for Treebeard and his kind, when that land will lose its final witness and no one will remember the Willow-meads of Tasarinan.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Be thankful for trees,
And know that, as always, there’s
You can listen to JRRT himself remembering those Willow-meads here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO7QRVqLv40
And you can hear Donald Swan’s well-known setting (sung by the appropriately-named William Elvin) here (at 28:25): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5cN7R2-wQI