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TreeMy wife has just sent me two links showing a linguistic family tree illustrating the relationship of the various modern European and Oriental languages with their Indo-European roots.[1] This use of a tree-metaphor to encapsulate the living traditionalism at the heart of language was one of the imaginative roots of J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of the tree-like Ents and their language of Entish in Middle-earth.

The Ents in The Lord of the Rings have a great deal of gravitas. They live for thousands and thousands of years. They were in Middle-Earth long before the Elves. At their deepest level of meaning, they work on an etymological and an ecclesiological level. Etymology is of course the study of the roots, meanings, and development of words. Let us remind ourselves that Tolkien was a philologist; his academic vocation was as a linguist—at Oxford University. So let us look at that etymological dimension, the linguistic dimension. The Ents do not say anything very quickly. They are never “hasty.” Ents take their time. After all, they have plenty of time to take! They live for millennia. There is, therefore, an element of linguistic tradition in the Ents.

As a philologist, Tolkien did not see a word as merely a label, as the nominalists do, as the relativists do, a label that is ultimately meaningless and which reflects an underlying meaninglessness to the cosmos. On the contrary, Tolkien sees a word and he sees its whole history, where it comes from, going right back to its roots. If it is a Germanic word in the English language, he traces it back to the Old English from the Old High German; if it is from French Norman, he traces it right back to its Latin roots, et cetera. The roots of a word are important, which is why a tree is an appropriate symbol if you want to understand the significance of linguistic connections and the importance and potency of language.

This deep understanding of language is analogous to an understanding of history. If we want to understand where we are now and where we are going, we have to understand where we have been. And what is true of history in the broader sense is equally true of the history of words. In order to really speak well, write well, or think clearly, we need to use words correctly. We need to know linguistic tradition. We need to be linguistic traditionalists. We have to be in touch with the language, its roots, and its heritage. We need to become linguistic tree-huggers! We do not necessarily have to speak very quickly; we have to speak well. We have to speak accurately, with a precision of meaning. Contrary to Peter Jackson’s tragically abusive presentation of the Ents in his film version of Tolkien’s epic, in which they appear to be dim-wits who are outwitted by the smartness of the hobbits, we know that when Tolkien’s Ents come to a decision it will be the right one, because they have been absolutely precise in the way they have used their words. They think and speak definitely, in accordance with precise definition. They define their terms and they know their meanings. They are the opposite of postmoderns and nihilists who see no meaningful roots to the cosmos because they see no meaningful roots to words.

So much for the etymological traditionalism of the Ents. Let us look now at their connection to ecclesiological traditionalism. Ecclesiology, of course, is an understanding of the meaning of the Church. Tolkien was a lifelong practicing Catholic and very much a traditional Catholic. He wrote in the 1960s that he could not understand the present mania for trying to get back to the so-called purity of the early Church. Why, he asked, do we assume that the early Church was more pure than the Church today? Why is the sapling considered more pure than the full-grown tree? Notice the tree-metaphor, the Ent-like symbolism.

As G.K. Chesterton said, the Church is the one continuous institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. In that sense, this continuum, the Catholic Church’s tradition, can be seen very much like a tree, resplendent with the lives of countless saints and secure in the development of doctrine. The more it branches out through history, addressing the issues of each new century, the deeper its roots become in the soil of its tradition. How is this glorious tree inferior to the sapling it once was? And even if we presume that the sapling is more pure than the full-grown tree, we do not find the sapling when we cut down the tree to look for it. All that we do is kill the tree. So even if it were true that the early Church was more pure than the full-grown Church, which it is not, we cannot get back to the early Church. Nor is Tolkien alone in his use of a tree as a symbol of tradition. Chesterton described the two types of philosophies as the philosophy of the tree, rooted, and definite, and the philosophy of the cloud, rootless, formless, and lacking definition.

The philosophy of the tree is the belief that reality is part of a continuum of human knowledge. It is the living tree of Western culture, Western civilization, rooted in the reason of Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; in the faith of the old covenant of the Jews, transformed into new and infinitely richer life by the Word made Flesh, who makes sense of all of history; flowering in the fusion of faith and reason that we see in Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas; and the goodness, truth, and beauty of Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare; right through to the modern flourishing of western civilization as something rooted and continuous, a continuum, that we find in the works of Tolkien.

Against this is the philosophy of the cloud: the rootlessness, the formlessness of relativism, which changes shape all the time, blown around by the winds of fashion and ultimately lacking substance. This formless philosophy was ridiculed in Hamlet’s lampooning of the relativist, Polonius, in his likening of a cloud to a series of imaginary creatures.

Against this formless relativism that has its head in the clouds, Chesterton returned to the tree-metaphor to describe the inner integrity of Tradition:

I mean that a tree goes on growing, and therefore goes on changing; but always in the fringes surrounding something unchangeable. The innermost rings of the tree are still the same as when it was a sapling; they have ceased to be seen, but they have not ceased to be central. When the tree grows a branch at the top, it does not break away from the roots at the bottom; on the contrary, it needs to hold more strongly by its roots the higher it rises with its branches. That is the true image of the vigorous and healthy progress of a man, a city, or a whole species.[2]

In similar fashion, Tolkien described the Catholic Church, as intended by Christ “to be a living organism (likened to a plant) … for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred … [T]he authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites, and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!)”[3]

Once this concept of tradition is understood, the sheer vandalism of modernism and so-called “progressivism” becomes starkly apparent. In the mistaken belief that the sapling is superior to the full-grown tree, the modernists attempt to chop down the tree in search of the sapling. Were their erroneous and heretical experiment to prove successful, they would only succeed in killing the tree and would not, of course, discover the sapling, which has ceased to exist (at least in the temporal sphere). In terms of philosophy, this sort of modernism can be likened to the “noble savagery” of Jean Jacques Rousseau who believed that civilization was itself a decadent influence, which needed to be destroyed so that the presumed primitive purity of Man might emerge. It is no coincidence that Rousseau’s philosophical iconoclasm led to the “ignoble savagery” of the French Revolution, or that the modernists’ moral iconoclasm has led to the destruction of the family and the chaos and anarchy that inevitably follows in its wake. The disastrous consequences of Rousseau’s faulty anthropology and modernism’s faulty “progress” should serve as a warning to all who seek a return to a pure and primitive Garden from which Man has long since been exiled and to which he cannot return through his own anthropocentric and godless labours.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] See here and here for the family trees.

[2] Church Socialist Quarterly, January 1909

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 394

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6 replies to this post
  1. Those who’re fascinated by linguistic history might want to listen to a most excellent podcast, “The History of English.”

    Note the rating at iTunes, where you can subscribe:

    That’s 398 five-star ratings to just two two-star-ratings and no one-star ratings. That’s how good it is.

    He starts long ago with the Indio-European language upon which many of the world’s major languages are based, follows the various branches, paying special attention to the branch that becomes English.

    It’s fascinating to learn where our words come from and even how a flavor in their meaning acquired a thousand years ago still lingers today.

    Why does English have one set of words for fatherliness that starts with F (i.e. father) and another set that starts with P (paternal)? Behind both is the same set of Indo-European words. The F words come through Germanic languages, where they were spoken with an F. But F & P are pronounced much a like, so in Latin, they had a P sound. Both eventually came together again in English.

    You even begin to understand one reason why English has become the world’s most widespread language. In its long history, it faced many challenges to its survival and has adapted by simplifying and making it an easy second language to learn. Nouns, for instance, aren’t gendered and the same noun can serve as a subject, direct object or indirect object. Word order tells which it is and word order is easy to learn. Even social complexities such as the vous versus tu in French were removed as too troublesome. (Thou was the equivalent of tu.)

    The podcast is now up to Episode 57 (out of about 100), so you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. But if you’re like me, you’ll love every episode. When each new episode arrives, it goes in at the front of my listen playlist.

    I’d love to see high schools and colleges use the series with what’s called ‘flipping’ the class. The podcast becomes the equivalent of the lecture and the local teacher leads a discussion afterward where the students can ask questions and draw conclusions. It’d make an excellent elective, with the students listening on their own time and the discussion taking place in lieu of study hall.

    —Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (LOTR chronology) and editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II

    • One does not need a “podcast” to learn the History of English, there are beautiful books written on the subject, and one retains more through reading and concentration anyhow.

      And this business about students “teaching themselves” in lieu of the classroom is a most depressing trend. Firstly, it most likely that they’ll be tuned to their idiotic (as most of it is today) music rather than the “lecture”; a classroom should be just that–a community of Teacher and Student, Learned and Learning, in which exchange is vivid and articulate.

      Why not just send them all home to watch you tube videos on Physics ,and they can flip back and forth between that and Kardashian episodes. How so very convenient–saves money too!

      • This seems like a needlessly and unjustifiably captious–petulant, actually–response to a post that was written in good faith. Mr. Perry was simply suggesting an educational resource for those who might be interested. Furthermore, in some respects a podcast (one can almost hear the untrammeled spite dripping from the plosives as you type the word) may actually be a preferable vehicle for learning the history of linguistics, as it enables the student to hear various phonemes that can only be represented in a text using IPA. My own linguistic training was helped immensely by having someone to pronounce the phonemes so that I could learn them. And for those without access to instructors in linguistics, I fail to see how a podcast would be the worst conceivable alternative. Here’s a wild idea: one could supplement the podcast with a book! These are not mutually exclusive options, after all.

        And I do not believe that Mr. Perry at any point suggests students’ teaching themselves “in lieu of the classroom”; in fact, he suggests the option of replacing study hall (which, to my best recollections of middle and high school, was a fairly aimless and worthless period of time) with a program in which students would listen to the podcasts the night before, then engage in a structured discussion of the podcast, led by a teacher. That’s not at all autodidacticism, and it doesn’t undermine the “community of Teacher and Student.” It’s certainly no bar to “vivid and articulate” discussion. If anything, it forces students to synthesize the materials they’ve heard so that they can contribute intelligently to discussion.

        I rather suspect you didn’t actually *read* Mr. Perry’s post at all but simply appropriated his words as a springboard to rail against “kids these days” with their newfangled gadgets and degenerate music. At any rate, it’s not fair to Mr. Perry. For someone who is such an advocate of reading, one hopes that in the future you’ll practice the art a bit more accurately and sympathetically.

  2. Modernism is indeed vandalism. The actual result of erasing one’s ties to heritage and place is alienation. Instead of being freed from a delimiting past, the naked individual is free game for the modern manipulators who convince us to choose an identity at Gap jeans or Victoria’s Secret.

  3. A nicely thought-provoking article. Mr. Pearce does a fine job of taking JRRT’s writings — both fiction and non — and showing the consistency of his world view.

    I would add that the tree metaphor links, too, to Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle,’ which for me is “the greatest short story ever told.”

    And a side “Amen!” to his observation of the sheer awfulness of Jackson’s LotR — the ents, Faramir, Frodo’s rebuke to Sam, etc. The movies were Hollywood’s best attempt to denude Tolkien’s real underlying ethos in favor of secular modernity and cynicism.

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