Friday, December 10, 2004

What will waken the Ents of Europe?

Victor Davis Hanson calls up his inner Tolkien Geek in this National Review column comparing Europe to Tolkien's Ents. The Ents, he reminds readers, were
. . . tree-like creatures, agonizingly slow and covered with mossy bark, nursed themselves on tales of past glory while their numbers dwindled in their isolation. Unable to reproduce themselves or to fathom the evil outside their peaceful forest — and careful to keep to themselves and avoid reacting to provocation of the tree-cutters and forest burners — they assumed they would be given a pass from the upheavals of Middle Earth.

But with the sudden arrival of two volatile hobbits, the nearby evils of timber-cutting, industrial devilry, and mass murder became too much for the Ents to stomach. They finally "wake up" (literally). Then they go on the offensive — and are amazed at the power they still wield in destroying Saruman's empire.

Hanson thinks that the Ents may work as an analogy to modern Europe:
Today the continent is unarmed and weak, but deep within its collective mind and spirit still reside the ability to field technologically sophisticated and highly disciplined forces — if it were ever to really feel threatened. One murder began to arouse the Dutch; what would 3,000 dead and a toppled Eiffel Tower do to the French? Or how would the Italians take to a plane stuck into the dome of St. Peter? We are nursed now on the spectacle of Iranian mullahs, with their bought weapons and foreign-produced oil wealth, humiliating a convoy of European delegates begging and cajoling them not to make bombs — or at least to point what bombs they make at Israel and not at Berlin or Paris. But it was not always the case, and may not always be.

If the Ents aren't the best comparison, there are a number of "awakenings" that occur in the course of The Lord of the Rings which may work just as well. As Hanson reminds us,
. . . there are variants of the Ent theme throughout Tolkien's novels, from the dormant Riders of Rohan — whose king was exorcised from his dotage and rallied the realm's dwindling cavalry to recover lost glory and save the West — to the hobbits themselves.

The latter, protected by slurred "Rangers," live blissfully unaware that radical changes in the world have brought evil incarnate to their very doorstep. Then to their amazement they discover that of all people, a hobbit rises to the occasion, and really does stand up well when confronted with apparently far more powerful and evil adversaries. The entire novel is full of such folk — the oath-breaking Dead who come alive to honor their once-broken pact, or the now-fallen and impotent High Elves who nevertheless do their part in the inevitable war to come.

While these various "awakenings" to the realization of evil that must be defeated is certainly a common theme, I notice that many of these awakenings do not take place until something rotten is exorcised. It is not until the influence of Saruman in the person of Wormtongue is cast out of Edoras that Theoden is brought to his senses. Denethor must burn on a pyre of despair before Gondor receives a worthy Steward and King. And the hobbits must take it upon themselves, relying on no outside help, to remove Saruman from their midst in order to save the Shire.

Which makes me wonder if there's something "rotten in Denmark" (so to speak) that must be cast out before Old Europe can wake up like the Ents.


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