The vision of a walking forest is one of the gifts that await us inside The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien loved trees. Machines he didn’t love very much. His love for the modern world was scarce and his works are pervaded with a longing for pre-modern ages. It is logical that when creating the universe of The Lord of the Rings he placed it in a primordial time where Nature is overwhelming and magic very often plays the part of technology. Sauron’s work, which is a work of destruction, leaves behind the wastelands that resemble the landscapes of mining and industrial activity. The Orcs fell trees. Elfs are fond of trees. Hobbits plant them in the Shire. Sam is a gardener. The book starts with a prologue where we can read: “They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools”. This first section of the prologue (“Concerning Hobbits”) also warns us that: “A well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favorite haunt”. By contrast, the forests of Middle Earth are remnants of an archaic world even much older than the remote and mythical one where Frodo and his companions struggle against darkness.
These forests represent primitive powers, either beneficent or maleficent. Three of them have a strong presence not only as places but also as collective characters: the Old Forest, Lórien and Fangorn (for Mirkwood is much more important in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings). All of them are full of magic, but only the third is the walking forest. Merry and Pippin go into it hiding from the Orcs, and there they meet Treebeard, the most important of all Ents, so much that his real name is Fangorn, because he is the Guardian of the Woods, and also it’s Spirit,it’s consciousness or something of the like. Old as the world, wise and kind, Treebeard is an ancient power that, when roused and infuriated, will hardly find a match. And the news that Pippin and Merry bring make him angry. So he calls all Ents to an assembly and they discuss minutely for three days what to do (time is long for these creatures that count the duration of their lives by thousands of years) until they decide to march to war against Saruman. “We may help the other peoples before we pass away”, declares Treebeard.
The Ents march to Isengard (against Isengard) and Treebeard carries Pippin and Merry on his shoulders. “Pippin looked behind. The number of the Ents had grown – or what was happening? Where the dim bare slopes that they had crossed should lie, he thought he saw groves of trees. But they were moving! Could it be that the trees of Fangorn were awake, and the forest was rising, marching over the hills to war? He rubbed his eyes wondering if sleep and shadow had deceived him; but the great grey shapes moved steadily onward. There was a noise like wind in many branches. The Ents were drawing near the crest of the ridge now, and all song had ceased. Night fell, and there was silence: nothing was to be heard save a faint quiver of the earth beneath the feet of the Ents, and a rustle, the shade of a whisper as of many drifting leaves. At last they stood upon the summit, and looked down into a dark pit: the great cleft at the end of the mountains: Nan Cururnir, the Valley of Saruman.
“Night lies over Isengard,” said Treebeard.”
(End of chapter 4. Treebeard. The Two Towers).
“I have always for some reason -I don’t know why- been enormously attracted by trees. All my work is full of trees. I suppose I have actually in some moment… I should have liked to make contact with a tree and find out how he feels about things”.
Tolkien chuckled while saying the last sentence. He was walking with John Izzard and a BBC crew around a tree garden in Oxford. They were filming a documentary that was aired in 1968 and that I have been able to watch thanks to the person who uploaded it to Youtube (it is an episode of the series “On Their Own Words. British Authors”). So this is first hand information on Tolkien’s love of nature and vegetal life, who seemed so appealing to him.
But we also know (because the author himself said so in one of his letters) that he was bitterly disappointed when, as a young scholar, he found out the way Shakespeare made the prophecy of the witches materialise in the play Macbeth. Which was by moving not the forest of Birnam itself, but the soldiers disguised under a camouflage of branches and leaves.
In June 1975 Tolkien wrote a letter to W.H. Auden in which he commented on Ents:
“Their pan in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war”.
These were his actual words. Therefore, the epic and magic vision of a walking forest was born from the frustration of a boy at what Shakespeare seemingly didn’t dare to fulfil. When Tolkien writes The Lord of the Rings, the child that lives still inside the adult makes him create those Ents and Huorns so that Fangorn Forest may do what Birnam Forest never did: that is, to march to war.