Look at this photograph. What does it suggest to you?
Yes, it’s a tree by a river – but to my mind it is almost as if the tree is walking, possibly even climbing up the bank. The photographer has captured a moment that we all know couldn’t possibly be happening, and yet..? Most of us let our imaginations go into free-fall from time to time, and that’s no bad thing. As a creative writer, I’d say that sort of inspiration is pretty essential!
Any published author will be asked the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” So, while that curious-looking tree played no part in my fictional inspirations, I’m presenting this photo as a speculative example. If my theory is correct, what you’re looking at just might have helped create an iconic literary masterpiece.
Let’s cut to the chase: even if you are not a reader of fantasy fiction, the concept of “walking trees” may be familiar to you through another medium. How about Peter Jackson’s cinematic extravaganza from twenty years ago, The Lord of The Rings? Three films based on the fantasy novels of J R R Tolkien. This was the man who introduced us to a species of “tree-herds” called Ents, resembling trees in appearance, and taking a resilient pride in fostering ancient woodlands. One of these peculiar characters (Treebeard) played a major role in sheltering two of the Hobbits, and in rousing many of his kin to defeat the evil Orcs of Middle Earth.
So, what might have inspired the creation of Ents in Mr Tolkien’s fantasy world?
Here’s a little more background to the photo of that “walking tree”: I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of England known as the Ribble Valley. One tributary of the Ribble is the Hodder, and that is the river featured in the background, as I took that photo myself while walking on a day in early spring. This is another photo of the same tree in late summer, when the undergrowth has sprung up to disguise those leg-like roots.
That walk by the river is one which would have been familiar to Tolkien, who stayed at nearby Stonyhurst College while visiting his eldest son John, who was studying for a priesthood there during the Second World War. Tolkien was renowned for his love of nature and wooded landscapes, and was known to have written much of the first book in his fantasy trilogy (The Fellowship of The Ring) during his visits to the College. The footpath by that peculiar-shaped tree is now part of an official “Tolkien Trail” that encompasses both river and College. Treebeard and his fellow Ents did not appear until the second book (The Two Towers), so I leave it to you to judge if someone with a love of trees might not have done as I did while walking one late winter’s day. Perhaps John Tolkien alerted his father to this local curiosity, and imagination did the rest.
Isaac Newton wrote “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Which, if you use your imagination a little, is an easy analogy for two Hobbits sitting high up in the foliage of a walking tree…