Rooted in Mythology: The Influence of Trees in Tolkien’s Folklore

by Eve Andrews
trees folklore

If you’ve been keeping up with the Wild River feed, you’ll know that we have some very exciting news: we’ve just launched our latest Kickstarter for Lurker #1: Harriet Is A Tree, written by our very own Beanie White! The chilling tale of an unlikely friendship between a lonely young girl named Harriet and a strange, sentient tree, this first instalment of the Lurker series is the perfect way to kick off the spooky season!

As I’m sure you’re aware, we at Wild River are suckers for a bit of folklore, and all this talk of anthropomorphic trees got us wondering – how back does this concept truly go? It didn’t take much digging to learn that the idea is firmly rooted within myths, folklore and classic tales, a fascinating, subversive concept that has since bled into modern storytelling.

Of course, one of the most notably known among modern sentient trees is the Ent race, created by the Granddaddy of fantasy himself, J. R. R. Tolkein. He has been cited as saying that the Ents, a benign tree-like species, were a spontaneous creation. However, despite his lack of a direct source, that’s not to say that they came from a place of zero influence. We know for certain that Tolkien drew from a wide range of Anglo, Norse and European mythology, a diverse collection of ancient lore in which sentient trees have played a significant role. 

A budding linguist, it’s inevitable that Tolkien would have been familiar with the corpus of old English literature and its collection of ancient Christian poems, among which is an ode titled Dream Of The Rood. ‘Rood’ being a modernised derivative of the old English word ‘rōd’, or ‘pole’, the chilling verse documents the thoughts and feelings of a sentient tree as it was cut down and nailed into the cross upon which Christ was crucified. And such isn’t the only religious text harking to similar imagery that Tolkien doubtless would have read. There are other influences at which to be looked, one such being The Golden Bough. Written by James George Frazer, this poetic study was published in 1890 and originally bore the subtitle A Study In Comparative Religion before being retitled A Study In Magic And Religion. A representation of the endless cycle of death and rebirth, a prime focus in the story is the ritualistic murder of the priest who guards the Golden Bough by their successor, alongside the bi-annual battle of the Oak and Holly King – an interpretation of winter and summer. 

This certainly clears up confusion regarding the surface-level polarisation between Tolkien’s works and personal beliefs. With his vivid depictions of magic, myth and, of course, tree-folk, one often raises a brow upon learning that not only was Tolkien a devout Roman Catholic since boyhood but that he explicitly stated that he regarded The Lord Of The Rings as a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. To him, myths and fantasy reflected a more profound religious truth, stating: “We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”

And contrary to popular modern belief, magic and tree-folk have a solid place in religious folklore. I mean, just look at King Arthur, depicted in many versions of his own tale as a devoutly Christian monarch who gifted Gawain a pentacle-endowed shield and ruled with a wizard at his right hand. And alongside him, we have Arthurian, foliage-based incarnations such as The Green Knight and the enchanted forest of Brocéliande; a fertile source for creations such as Tolkien’s Entish race and one that we know he would have been deeply familiar with. 

There is also a wealth of other folkloric iconographies to be looked at when it comes to the depiction of sentient tree-folk before the time of Tolkien. The first image that undoubtedly springs to many minds is that of The Green Man. While his current title wasn’t coined until 1939, The Green Man has nevertheless been a renowned symbol of rebirth since the early sixteenth century and is often depicted as a tree/ dwarf-like hybrid – very reminiscent of something one might find in the pages of Tolkien.

Furthermore, the word ‘Ent’ in itself is derived from ‘enta’, a word frequently found in ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry meaning ‘giant’. The most notable work in which this reference appears is the legendary old English poem, Beowulf, in which the word is used to refer to the earthly monster, Grendel. This is particularly significant in reference to Tolkien and his Ents, as he actually published his own translation of the epic poem – so we know for certain that he read it!

Now, maybe we are overthinking it a bit. Maybe the whole idea of the Ents just happened to pop into Tolkien’s head while he was out for a walk one day. But hey, it’s fun to dig about a bit! And with all the live foliage-based imagery rife in the work he undoubtedly would have been studying, it’s hard to believe that it didn’t have some kind of influence.

Want to see more? We’ve got you covered! Our very own Harriet Is A Tree has officially launched. Check out our Kickstarter to pre-order your copy and grab some Kickstarter exclusive rewards – limited time only!

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