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The Two Treebeards

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

For those whose first love is Tolkien's original novel, some of the changes made in Peter Jackson's films are bound to be disappointing. No Tom Bombadil! No Glorfindel! What's with Aragorn falling off a cliff on the way to Helm's Deep! Sam would never abandon Frodo! No scouring of the Shire! And these are just a few of many omissions or changes. For the most part, I'm able to shrug off the various ways in which I'd have preferred the films to be made closer to the books, and just enjoy the films. I think they're great.

But four of the films' modifications of the original story are just about unforgivable. In this post, I'll discuss the first.

Peter Jackson and his team either did not understand Treebeard or strongly disliked him. Visually he's well done, and John Rhys-Davies gets the slow booming voice exactly right. He is sad, kind-hearted, and devoted to his friends and the trees in his care. All this is fine and good.

The unforgivable feature of movie-Treebeard is that he is a fool and a slave of his passions.

Consider the wisdom of the real Treebeard, and the way in which his passions are subordinated to reason. Treebeard inadvertently rescues Merry and Pippin was the Orcs, and takes them deep into Fangorn Forest. He asks the hobbits about their adventures, pumping them for news of the outside world. He was "especially interested in everything that concerned Gandalf; and most interested of all in Saruman's doings." He recognizes that "there is something very big going on." He explains that he's not really on anyone's "side" in the great conflicts of the age, and worries that "the withering of all woods may be drawing near."

But this independence or neutrality does not make him indifferent or unwilling to act: "But Saruman now! Saruman is a neighbor: I cannot overlook him. I must do something, I suppose. I have often wondered lately what I should do about Saruman."

Because he is wise, and senses the time is ripe, he decides to continue "wondering" along with his peers in the formal collective deliberation known as the Entmoot. He summons the Ents to the Moot where they spend three days in careful and earnest discussion about what to do with Saruman.

"The third day broke, bleak and windy. At sunrise the Ents' voices rose to a great clamour and then died down again. As the morning wore on the wind fell and the air grew heavy with expectancy [...] Then with a crash came a great ringing shout: ra-hoom-rah! The trees quivered and bent as if a gust had struck them [...] 'To Isengard!' the Ents cried in many voices [...] 'To Isengard with doom we come! With doom we come, with doom we come!'"

They march straightway to Isengard and sack it.

Now of course the Ents go to war in the film as well, with the same result against Saruman as the book. But the manner in which the decision to go to war is made is as alien to Treebeard's character as could be imagined. The film portrays the Entmoot as a ridiculous affair, time-wasting, completely out of touch with the urgency of the situation. The hobbits are impatient. Finally Treebeard emerges and shares the news:

Merry is livid. This fool of an Ent just doesn't get it!

Movie-Treebeard decides to send the hobbits home to the Shire, and offers to take them to the edge of the Forest. Then Pippin gets an idea:

You see, if Pippin hadn't tricked movie-Treebeard into seeing Saruman's carnage with his own eyes, the Ents would never have gone to war! Three days of deliberation are set aside when faced with the sight of a cleared section of forest, and all Treebeard has to do to muster his troops is let out a barbaric yawp.

The real Treebeard is wise, a well-ordered soul in which the great passions of anger and hatred and wrath are subordinated to the dictates of right reason. They are great engines of action capable of astonishing destruction, but they don't lead the charge. Treebeard and his friends deliberate thoroughly and demonstrate their practical wisdom by arriving at the right choice. But careful thinking alone doesn't win wars, and when reason makes the call, the passions are there, intense, awful, but always attuned to the dictates of reason.

Treebeard is in fact an exemplar of the virtuous person, as virtue was understood roughly from Plato and Aristotle all the way through the Middle Ages. As Plato puts it in the Republic, the "spirited" part of the soul is an ally of reason and that soul is rightly ordered in which reason commands spirit and reason and spirit together command the body. C.S. Lewis tried to rehabilitate this old anthropology in his little book, The Abolition of Man, and especially its first chapter, "Men without Chests," where the Chest is understood as the seat of the passions.

By contrast, movie-Treebeard is capable of rational discourse, but is not practically wise. He arrives at the wrong conclusion about what is to be done, and he lacks control over his emotions. His outburst of wrath is something he suffers as a result of seeing destruction, rather than something he chooses as a result of deliberation. In this respect, movie-Treebeard is a thoroughly modern individual, a true heir of the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, who rejected the classical tradition's prioritization of practical reasoning over the passions. Reason, Hume insisted, was always and everywhere the slave of the passions. Thus, when movie-Treebeard is resigned and indifferent, the result of his practical deliberation is resignation. But when he sees the carnage and his feelings change, he decides to do something different. His passions are in control, and reason simply comes to their aid.

The point of this comparison is not to defend the old way of thinking, though I do agree with it. The point instead is to highlight just how radically different a character movie-Treebeard is from the real-Treebeard. The resemblance is only superficial. And since the real-Treebeard is wise and lovable and honorable, there was no need to change him so. I understand that by portraying Treebeard as the movie does, Merry and Pippin are able to assume a more prominent role in shaping the main story of the War of the Ring. But they already have prominent roles, just by following the letter of the book. So why diminish a wonderful character just to give extra boost to two already wonderful characters? Unforgivable.

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