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December, 2004 : Essay:

Can't See the Story for the Trees

Two Thoughts on the Mind, Experiences, and Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien

Really, what more needs to be written about Tolkien? His work and life have pretty much been parceled to bits by scholars and geeks for fifty years now. And it’s high time I threw in my 2p worth. In all my readings about him, about what made him tick, there is something that I've noticed people have missed regarding his World War I experiences and his Lord of the Rings trilogy (LotR). I’ve also noticed a commonality among the majority of people who don’t like the LotR.

Before our reader/writer relationship goes any further I should throw in a disclaimer here: I do not regard myself as a Tolkien scholar, nor have I done an exhaustive review of works about him. If my points have already come up (and I'm sure they have somewhere) I won't be surprised, you probably shouldn't be either. Now, indulge me as I explore the issues.

Tolkien's wartime experiences have been credited with influencing his dislike of unrestrained industrialization—he had seen up close the horrors of industrialized warfare and the slaughter of human beings. But more than a "nature against man" theme came from this time in his life. J.R.R. Tolkien was a communications officer during the war—a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. In 1916 he decided to specialize in signaling and, after learning Morse code, flag, and disc signaling, message transmission by heliograph and lamp, signal-rocketry, field telephones, and carrier pigeons, he was appointed battalion signaling officer.1

World War I was an odd time to be a communications officer. There were radios and there were phones, but nobody trusted them because the enemy might be tapping or tuning in. For that matter, you never really knew who was on the other end of the line. Couriers and homing pigeons were the order of the day. Tolkien himself struggled in a tangled confusion of wires, soiled out-of-order field telephones, and a prohibition against the use of wire communication for all but the least important messages as the "Jerrys" had tapped telephone lines and had already intercepted crucial orders preceding an allied attack.2 Break out the flags and pigeons.

Military communications are always complicated things, as you can never be sure that you are not being influenced by your enemy. Sound familiar? It should. At its heart, Tolkien’s magic system in LotR is all about communication; it is the framework upon which the Rings of Power are based. Each ring enables its wearer to influence his or her people, and each wearer is then (as the plan goes) influenced by the One Ring. Who has the ear of the king(s)? Sauron, baby! And the best part? The One Ring, the very tool you use to communicate, has a will of its own and influences its user. Crafty.

In the LoTR trilogy, the magic of this "ring system" is only hinted at, never really put into practice outside of the One Ring trying to sway people to its will. But Sauron engages in the systematic use of magic to influence people again and again. Sauron, through the palantír, turns Saruman to his side, who in turn (through Grima Wormtongue) weakens the King of Rohan, and thus the entire nation of the horse lords.

The scenario is repeated in Gondor. Sauron, through the palantír, influences Denathor, the steward of the city, weakening his resolve and his heart and turning him against the forces that could save his kingdom.

That was my first point, and I'd like to go off on a very tricky segue here. As can be guessed, I like Tolkien's work. I know there are those who do not. I suspect that some of you might even be reading this essay. In my discussions with people who do not like the LoTR, one of the principle arguments I hear is: "...there's all this reading that has to be done. And it's reading about" (heave a heavy sigh) "trees."

Would you like some cheese with that whine? Anyway, as I've gotten older, I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to trees, a lot of readers have absolutely no idea what Mr. Tolkien was writing about. He might as well be discussing WWI-era heliograph equipment—it's all meaningless jargon to them.

I can say that because it’s the same for me. I can say that because I don't like reading books about ships—I don't really want to learn the entire lingo and the jargon of sailing. Don't care for the cut of that jib. Likewise, I know that an Appaloosa, an Arabian, and a paint are all horses, but I couldn't tell you the difference. Sorry. Getting back to LotR, the reality of it is that a major chunk of the reading population knows two kinds of trees:

  1. The piney kind.
  2. The leafy kind.

I know people who can draw you the layout of Minas Tirith, Helm's Deep, AND Isengard, but don't ask them to sketch you a dogwood leaf, or—heaven forbid—a dogwood bloom. More telling, it really pisses them off if you ask them to. Tolkien explains Minas Tirith, Helm’s Deep, and the layout of Isengard, but he simply assumed that everyone already understood about the flora.

True story: when I was in the eighth grade I had to do a report on trees; I had to get leaf samples from twenty-five different kinds of trees. Twenty-five! Sweet lord! I got my mom to help me and within five blocks of our house we had thirty. And she knew each one. My mom and dad were rural types in their youth (Southeast Oklahoma, West Texas, respectively). They just knew trees. Tolkien just knew trees. And he liked them, and he walked among them as does his characters. I like to go hiking and backpacking and gradually I've been learning about trees. I still couldn't identify twenty-five different kinds, but with what little I do know the LoTR becomes much more three-dimensional.

But if you can't tell a birch from an oak (and it's okay, lots of people can't) it kind of gigs the ol' ego. And for most of the geeks I know, that's an intolerable sin.


  1. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien, The Authorized Biography (New York: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1977), page 77-78. Back
  2. Ibid., page 83. Back

Copyright © 2004, Dotar Sojat. All Rights Reserved.

About Dotar Sojat

Now it can be told! Dotar Sojat shot the deputy, and he let Bob Marley take the rap for it.