LotR Reread: The Tree is Talking, Merry…

Chapter III: The Uruk-hai

This is my least favorite chapter in The Lord of the Rings. It’s not just because Merry and Pippin, two of my favorite characters, have been captured and treated cruelly by the orcs. It’s the orcs themselves that make me hate this chapter. Of all of Tolkien’s bad guys, the orcs are the worst. They were Elves once, kidnapped and tortured by the dark powers until there was no goodness left in them. Now they are a race of creatures filled with cruelty and malice who inform on each other, kill each other for petty reasons, and go out of their way to destroy. At least the Nazgul, the Ringwraiths, do exactly what they’re ordered to do; Gaffer Gamgee, Farmer Maggot, and all the residents of Bree survived their encounters with them. Had orcs been knocking on their doors that night, they wouldn’t have been so fortunate.

Orcs are utterly evil. Their very name is derived from an old word for ‘demon’, and while Tolkien struggled with their essential nature and wondered if there was a possibility of their being redeemable, but he never found an answer to that and so in the end, the orcs were irredeemably evil. And these creatures have Merry and Pippin in their clutches.

See why this is my least favorite chapter?

There’s little hope for the two hobbits as the chapter begins. They are alone and unarmed, injured, surrounded by enemies who want to kill them, and far from anyone who can help them. Pippin is regretting his decision to go on this Quest more than ever, but his misery doesn’t stop his brain from working. He’s young, not stupid, and when opportunity knocks he takes his chance to a) slip away from his captors to leave a trail behind with his feet and his Elven brooch, which he rips off his cloak and drops on the ground, and b) cuts the ropes around his wrists when a fight breaks out among the various groups of orcs and a murdered orc falls next to Pippin with a sword still in his hand. Clever hobbit!

But he can’t contrive a way to talk to Merry, who has a head injury and has been insensible for much of this rough journey. It’s probably a blessing that he doesn’t remember it. This doesn’t last forever, however, as the orcs have decided that it’s time for the hobbits to run along with them instead of being carried. They force a nasty brew down the hobbits’ throats. Try not to think about what might be in it. I’m sure we don’t want to know. It restores the hobbits’ vitality, whatever it is, and Merry perks back up again and the nasty gash on his head starts to heal.

birds calmness countryside dark clouds

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They’ve been holding this exhausting pace for days. Under normal circumstances the orcs probably would have tortured the hobbits to death, or just hacked them apart and eaten them but their leader keeps the orcs in their place. His orders are to bring them to Sauron alive and unspoiled– no killing, no maiming, no stealing their possessions. They’ve been told that the hobbits have some sort of Elvish bauble that Sauron wants for the war. Because the orcs haven’t searched Merry or Pippin, they don’t yet realize the hobbits have nothing of valuable on them.

In the meantime, Merry and Pippin notice how different the orcs are from each other. Rather than being some massive force from a single place with a single language and culture, they find that these orcs come from all over and speak different languages. They only speak the common tongue to understand each other. There’s also a group that is larger than all the others; these orcs, the Uruk-hai, are allied with Saruman and so are at constant odds with the orcs who pay fealty to Sauron. Even among evil, there is nuance and dissent. The various groups are constantly at each others’ throats, and it’s a miracle they get as far as they do without killing each other.

A time comes when they have to work together. They’re crossing through Rohan, and a company of riders has spotted them. The orcs and Uruk-hai might be evil and hate everything, but they’re not stupid. They know the riders are relentless and are fully capable of killing every last one of them. They spend the next day or so pouring on the speed, but eventually the riders catch up to them just before night falls. Instead of attacking in the dark, though, when the orcs would have the advantage (they can see in the dark and hate the daylight) the riders wait just out of bowshot. The fight will come in the morning. The orcs are resting at the edge of Fangorn Forest, a mysterious place few dare to venture into.

The oncoming battle is not a cut and dried thing for the hobbits. They can’t be sure that the riders won’t kill them along with the orcs, and escape won’t be an easy thing for them, even if the orcs aren’t guarding them in all the chaos. Their precarious situation grows more perilous when orders come down that the hobbits are to be killed rather than taken by the riders. And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, one of the higher-ranking orcs grabs the hobbits and drags them a little way from the camp. Grishnakh has been a rabble-rouser the whole time, and it seems he’s decided to take whatever Elvish bauble the hobbits have and get out of there before the riders attack. He’s cutting his losses. If only he knew what he was looking for.

Pippin has a spectacular presence of mind here. He’s been a prisoner for days, threatened with death and worse, and now an orc is pawing at him. But as I’ve said before, Pippin is not stupid. He realizes that Grishnakh is looking for the Ring. If he doesn’t find anything, he’s going to kill both of them. So he plays along and uses Grishnakh’s desires against him. He suggests that “It” can’t be found so easily and makes little ‘gollum, gollum’ sounds in his throat. Merry catches on, and soon he’s bargaining with Grishnakh, telling him that if he unties their legs they’ll give him what he’s looking for. It’s a desperate tactic and doesn’t seem likely to work, but it’s all they’ve got to work with.

And what do you know? It works! Grishnakh’s greed leads him to drag the hobbits a little further off so he can claim his prize alone, but Pippin and Merry’s gambit has bought them just enough time. The riders have begun their attack. Grishnakh is killed straight off– thanfully, as it seemed he was about to kill the hobbits– and the horses dodge the hobbits while their cloaks keep them camoflauged from the riders. As the battle unfolds, Pippin undoes his bonds and frees Merry. Unseen, they pause to eat a bite of lembas, gather their strength, and then flee into the unknown depths of Fangorn Forest.

nature forest trees park

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Chapter IV: Treebeard

Fangorn Forest is an odd place. It’s stifling and feels like an old house that hasn’t been rearranged or aired out for a hundred years, but it doesn’t feel threatening to the hobbits. They drink from a clear, cold stream and walk farther into the trees, chattering all the while as though they’re forgetting what they suffered at the orcs’ hands. Hobbits are a resilient people, after all, though they should have noticed that their cuts and bruises healed rapidly after they drank from the stream. They keep wandering, chasing after a shaft of sunlight they spotted. It makes the musty old forest seem different, a rich place full of beauty instead of an dusty old hovel that needs a good spring cleaning. But the sunlight doesn’t last very long, and Pippin says, “What a pity! This shaggy old forest looked so different in the sunlight. I almost felt I liked the place.”

To their surprise, someone answers them. “‘Almost felt you liked the Firest! That’s good! That’s uncommonly kind of you,’ said a strange voice. ‘I almost feel that I dislike you both, but do not let us be hasty. Turn around!’ A large knob-knuckled hand ws laid on each of their shoulders and they were twisted round, gently but irresistibly; then two great arms lifted them up.”

What has just picked them up? A tree! Or something that looks very like a tree, though it also resembles a very large man. It has incredible eyes, brown shot through with green, and the hobbits sense an incredible depth in them, like this creature is looking at them with the same care that it’s been giving its own thoughts for endless years.

So what is this creature? It’s an Ent. Treebeard, some call him, though his right name is Fangorn. The forest is named after him. Now follows the question, what is an Ent? Like Hobbits, Ents are a creation of Tolkien’s. There is nothing like them in fantasy writing before him, but they seem like natural fixtures of the genre thereafter. That’s not just because they’re such memorable characters. Tolkien didn’t create them out of nothing, after all. He used the bits and pieces of Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian lore to build is great work, and there are hints of creatures like Ents in those tales– Old Man Willow is not unique to Middle-earth, and the name ‘ent’ comes from old words for ‘giants’. In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Vala named Yavanna asked Iluvatar to create a life form that would guard the trees, her beloved creations, from the depredations of Dwarves and Men, and so Ents came into being. See, Tolkien loved trees and throughout the twentieth century, he saw many old and beloved trees get cut down in the name of ‘progress’. He hated this, and so out of the whispers of myth, he created a being that could protect the trees he so loved.

Now two strange people are meeting for the first time: hobbits and ents. Treebeard decides to take the hobbits along with him, for safekeeping and because he’s taking a liking to these small, hasty people who are only too happy to chatter on about themselves and their corner of the world. Treebeard can almost forget that he’s so ancient and can imagine that he’s listening to Entings- young Ents. It’s something he hasn’t been able to to for a long, long time. See, the Entwives are gone, probably long dead, and the remaining Entings grew up and old long ago. There are no Ent children anymore and never will be again. The Ents are doomed to die out and never be seen again in Middle-earth.

Merry and Pippin tell Treebeard their story– leaving out the Ring– but Treebeard gives them an odd look when they tell of Gandalf’s fall in Moria. He doesn’t say anything about it, though. He does tell them all about Fangorn and that the reason they were warned away from these woods is the same reason that people are warned away from Lothlorien. It’s easy to get tangled up in forests and lose your way or else be enraptured by its beauty and never want to leave

Because he has such a polite audience, Treebeard goes on and on about Ents and their history. The stories are sad ones: their longing for the Entwives, the destruction of the forests, how evil festered in the roots of some trees whose ‘kin’ were destroyed, and how the world has gotten old and worn out. And yet that long sadness has not made Treebeard sad. He carries on despite it all.

When evening comes they arrive at Treebeard’s home, which is less of a house and more of a clearing with a roof formed of intertwining branches. It’s called Wellinghall, in a shortened version of its name, and it’s beautiful. Treebeard offeres the hobbits more of that strange water that healed their injuries, and then talks some more about Saruman. Saruman used to walk in Fangorn Forest and listen to Treebeard’s stories, and was very courteous once. Those times are gone, however. Now Saruman wishes to be among the great powers of the world. He no longer cares for beautiful and growing things and his minions are cutting down trees right and left. Some feed the fires of the forges of Isengard, but others are chopped down and left to rot. This angers the Ents, but they have done nothing about it. Yet.

Treebeard seems to be getting riled up, but calms himself down and tells Merry and Pippin another story about the Entwives, including a song written by the Elves. When he is finished with the tale, he bids the hobbits goodnight.

The next morning, Treebeard is up early. When the hobbits are ready to go, he scoops them up and announces that they are going to the Entmoot, a gathering of Ents. Such a thing has not happened for a long time. What they’ll discuss is a mystery to the hobbits, and it’s not made any clearer for them once they arrive at the Entmoot. There are many old Ents there, as different from one another as different species of trees are from each other. They spend the morning discussing things in their slow, rolling language and hours pass before anyone pays the hobbits any mind. Treebeard eventually sends a young Ent, Quickbeam, to look after the hobbits, as Quickbeam has already made up his mind about what they’re discussing.

They spend the next day with Quickbeam while the rest of the Entmoot continues to debate the matter, and the day after that. The Entmoot lasts three days, but it comes to a sudden end. The forest falls silent for a while, and then there’s a sound like a storm has broken over the woods. The Ents have made up their mind. They will not stand by and let Saruman destroy the forest any longer. They are going to march on Isengard and tear down its walls. They are strong and will split the stones apart if they have to, though Treebeard acknowledges that they could be going to their doom: “‘…Of course, it is likely enough, my friends,’ he said slowly, ‘likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents. But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.'” They’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and they have decided to act. For good or for ill, they can’t stand by and watch the destruction go on forever not matter what it may cost them.

The entire forest seems to be on the march now. Dims shapes of shadowy trees are moving, and the Ents begin their march. By the time night falls, they have reached the valley overlooking Isengard. The Ents are ready to attack.


Next Week: Horses, horses everywhere in ‘The White Rider’ and ‘The King of the Golden Hall’.

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