Tolkien 1, Shakespeare 0

Ok, learn something new every day. You know that scene in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Two Towers, when the giant tree-creatures known as Ents march on Saruman’s tower? Remind anybody of a certain Scottish play? Coincidence, you say?

Maybe not. From Tolkien’s letter #163 to W.H. Auden:

Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading someone else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part 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. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening.

(Emphasis mine.)

There you go – straight from Tolkien’s mouth. Or, pen. I’d provide a link, but unfortunately this comes from a PDF document that I received through …. ummm…..unlinkable means.

You have to admit, though – if we want to pit modern movie special effects against Shakespeare’s ability to paint a picture with words….the march of the Ents still rocks.

UPDATED: Found a link, here.

6 thoughts on “Tolkien 1, Shakespeare 0

  1. Tolkien and Shakespeare are my two favorites. I did summer studies at Oxford University, Exeter College (Tolkien was graduated from Exeter) where I studied Anglo-Irish Lit. and Shakespeare in performance. I touched every bench, chair and book during my stay wondering if Tolkien had touched them. Thank you for this tidbit. I most certainly wish you could divulge your source 😉
    P.S. I teach both Macbeth and Hobbit in my Brit. Lit class, and my students will find this Shakespearean allusion quite interesting!

    (So sorry about the deleting.)

  2. It's funny, I was talking about this at a party the other day.

    The march of the Ents and the march of Birnam Wood have very similar symbolic content, since they are both the uprising of nature against an "unnatural" tyrant who usurps nature. The difference is Tolkien, in his secondary world context, was free to literalize Shakespeare's metaphor. He wanted the forest to truly march to war. But I think Shakespeare only included Act 5, Scene 6 (the one scene "Birnam Wood" appears onstage) to drive in the point that nature itself seems to be rebelling against Macbeth's treachery-won rule: "unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles." Compare this to Saruman, also a traitor, described as having "a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things…"

  3. Alexi, I think you are quite right.
    Tolkien was a Luddite, and I think the Ents joining the war against Saruman's mechanized, 'unnatural' world parallels the natural vs. unnatural battles in Macbeth quite nicely.

  4. I feel as though it should be Shakespeare 1 Tolkien 0. If he did dislike Shakespeare does it not seem somewhat hypocritical to use direct inspiration?

    Also (just for fun) whilst reading The Merry Wives of Windsor I came across some words you might recognise; Bilbo, Middle-earth, Elves, Goblin haha

    Shakespeare 1 Tolkien 0

    – Wil Ridley

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