Tolkien’s Trees: Part 3

(This is the part 3 in a series on the subject of the Norse myth of Ygdrasil in Tolkien’s writings. For parts 1 and 2, click here and here.

The third element of Ygdrasil which we perhaps see making an appearance in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the root of corruption, the root being strangled and bitten by Nidhogg the serpent. This tortured root, since it is on the tree that represented all existence, is a symbol of how misery and evil are rooted in the world. Similarly, the tree that we know as Old Man Willow has been corrupted. He is face of the evil that lurks in the hearts of many trees in the wood that Tom Bombadil rules over. Tom Bombadil himself is a Valar governing this wood, just as Mimer who rules over the grove of the third root and its well is a god.

Perhaps this connection is a little tenuous. But it is clear elsewhere that this story of the root tapped by a corrupt creature has left its mark on Tolkien. In the Silmarillion, we see that the two trees Telperion and Laurelin, the massive trees that light the world, are destroyed at Melkor’s behest, when he brings Ungoliant, the massive she-spider. Ungoliant kills the trees by biting into their roots and sucking the life out of them. It is true that Nidhogg the serpent has been exchanged for a spider, and that this is a one-time attack, not a permanent state of affairs: but nonetheless, the significant elements marking the tale are unchanged. A terrible monster stealthily attacks an essential piece of the cosmic architecture, a component of the world’s own structure, in the shape of a tree. And despite this attack, the serenity of the divinely planted system is preserved. In Ygdrasil, the tree’s life is maintained by the care of the guardian, Mimer, the God of wisdom and knowledge. In the Silmarillion, the light of the two trees is salvaged, and preserved in the form of Telperion’s last flower and Laurelin’s last fruit, by the Valar Yvanna. The flower and fruit are now the moon and sun, out of reach from attack, and safe forever. In this way, we can see a fairly obvious influence of the old Norse tale upon the work of Tolkien. While his creation tale preserved itself from the pagan elements of Norse mythology (something that Tolkien did quite deliberately, and rejoiced in ), his later tales delve into the richness of the Norse tradition.

It is no accident that Tolkien wrote a whole book called Tree and Leaf. It is plain that the Norse cosmology, based in the form of a tree, took hold of his mind. Tolkien characterizes the collection of Tales that mankind has created as a tree, un-ravelable, complex, and alive. This tree is eternal, and the tales that spring from it are endless. In this tree, this living fountain of tales, we see another Ygdrasil. Tolkien sees himself as plucking leaves from an infinitely fantastic and rich source. Not only does Ygdrasil inhabit the worlds that Tolkien subcreates, but it is from a sort of Ygdrasil that Tolkien gets his tales: grown from the soil of England and rooted in old traditions: one of Tolkien’s roots is clearly the Norse mythology of Ygdrasil.


Tolkien’s Trees: Part 2

(This is part 2 of a series, on the subject of the Norse myth of Ygdrasil in Tolkien’s writings. For parts 1 and 3, click here and here.)

When Ragnarok, the last batle of gods and giants, has finished, the tree of Ygdrasil has been withered and burnt by flame, just like in Pippin’s vision of the Tree of Gondor. Both trees burn, and in both cases, it symbolizes a destruction of an order.[1] And yet, after Ragnarok, we hear that not the whole tree has died: there are still worlds left intact and whole, with peace.[2] Odin hears this being sung of a long way off by a distant and beautiful voice, just like Faramir and Eowyn hear the Eagle singing of Sauron’s fall when they are on the battlements after the final confrontation. And the tree remains alive, just as the tree of Gondor does not fail.

One could also argue that The Hobbit owes something to Ygdrasil. The trees burning under the dwarves, the wizard Gandalf (whom some compare with Odin[3]), and the quivering hobbit is a picture of a little Ragnarok. We see Gandalf, in a grim and terrible mood of Norse inevitability, prepare to throw himself down upon his enemies at the roots and destroy himself along with them – but Tolkien turns the tale at the last moment, and rescues them.

Not only does the White Tree of Gondor resemble Ygdrasil, but the Party Tree back in the Shire also resembles Ygdrasil in important respects. The tree which replaces the original is a mallorn tree, which is described as being smooth and pale white with golden leaves – the very name Lothlorien means “The Golden Wood.” The roots of Ygdrasil are sprinkled with holy waters of the fountains, and according to Viktor Rydberg, everything which the water touches is turned a white colour, simultaneously linking the roots of Ygdrasil to the white mallorn trees and the White Tree of Gondor. Also, these white roots are surrounded by golden cisterns, just as the mallorn trees are hung with gold leaves.[4]

Not only that, but Ygdrasil produces the food called the “dew of the morning” a food similar to ambrosia, but also similar to the way manna is described: sweet, falling from the leaves of the tree onto the ground to be gathered daily, and extremely nourishing. “The morning dew from Ygdrasil was, according to the mythology, a sweet and wonderful nourishment, and in the popular traditions of the Teutonic middle age the dew of the morning retained its reputation for having strange nourishing qualities.”[5] When the Company is in Lothlorien, they receive gifts of food from the elves there, and it is called lembas, the wayfarer’s bread. It is sweet, light, and extremely nourishing. And this food, as you may recall, is presented to the company wrapped in the leaves of the mallorn tree, without which it will spoil. So not only is the mallorn tree described similarly to Ygdrasil, but it also bears some of the same connections to food and nourishment.

[1] J.R. Wytenbroek, “Apocalyptic Vision in Lord of The Rings,” Mythlore, 54 (summer 1988), 11.

[2] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Teutonic Myth and Legend, (William H. Wise & Co.: 1934), 183.

[3] John Gough, “Tolkien’s Creation: Northern or Not,”in Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 30, No.1, 1999, 2.

[4] Viktor Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology: Gods and Goddesses of the Northland, Norraena Society, ( New York: 1907), 331.

[5] Rydberg, 345.

Tolkien’s Trees: Part 1

This is the first part of an essay I wrote for a class. (For Parts 2 and 3, click here and here.) It involved a lot of original research, I think. Meaning that while there may be scholars out there who have commented on this sort of, after long and diligent searching, I could find none. So I had to make my own conclusions, which I hope you (the reader) find compelling.
(Notes on reading this: Start at the top and work your way to the bottom.)

Almost everyone who reads Tolkien picks up on the fact that Tolkien has borrowed elements of Norse tradition. It is easy to recognize the Vikings in the Rohirrim, and the names of Gandalf, and all the dwarves from The Hobbit are easily northern. But the true depth of Tolkien’s indebtedness to Norse mythology is often left unsounded. To illustrate this priciple, I will take the case of trees in Tolkien’s literature. Tolkien’s use of trees and tree imagery was heavily influenced by the Norse legend of the tree of Ygdrasil.

In Tolkien’s literature, trees form an important part of the narrative. In the Lord of the Rings, we start almost immediately with a description of Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday party, which of course is set up under the marvelous Party tree, a center for the hobbits’ festivities. It is this tree that forms a center for the hobbits, and as such, is a metaphor for their community bond. Sam does not cry at the destruction Saruman has wrought in the Shire until he comes over the last hill and sees that the Party Tree is gone. It is this tree that symbolizes the hobbits’ community. This is why it is so important that the tree gets replanted, just like another tree that we see in the Lord of Rings. In the white city, the high and noble fortress of Minas Tirith, we see a withered tree, dead and barren amid the stony and silent city. It is this tree that Pippin has a vision of, seeing it burn under the anticipated attack on Minas Tirith by the armies of Sauron. This tree also is a symbol of community – and it is dead. When the king’s line failed, the dry leadership of the stewards took over, and the tree which had been fruitful became barren. It is only when a lone man comes out of the wilds where he had been hidden that a new tree begins to bud, hidden away on a shielded mountain slope above Minas Tirith. The tree mirrors the community’s state. The tree called Old Man Willow, in Tom Bombadil’s neck of the woods, is the face of the evil that permeates the uneasy wood on the Shire’s borders, a rebellious evil that must be put down by an Ainur. All these tree images use the same pattern of identification that the Norse used with their tree Ygdrasil. Ygdrasil represented the existence of all things, the community of the world. Ygdrasil was the ultimate bond between all things: a world-tree. Because of this, each of these trees owes something to the world-tree of the Teutons.