My 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.

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[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

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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