Many Weary Days as a Prisoner of the Giant Treebeard

Gandalf was delayed. This was a concept that Tolkien ran with from nearly the beginning, and lasted through to the published version. Most readers already know the story of how Gandalf met Radagast who told him to go see Saruman, who locked him up in the tower of Orthanc.

Today, I want to look at how that all came about. While Radagast had been mentioned in The Hobbit, at the time of even the so-called Third Phase of writing (about a year and a half into it – he started writing in December of 1937), Tolkien had yet to invent Saruman.

While the first draft of the opening Lord of the Rings chapters omitted Gandalf’s delay (as described here), the second draft (part of the Third Phase of writing) introduced it. However, it did so right when Frodo woke up in Rivendell.

“There are many powers greater than mine, for good and evil, in the world,” Gandalf says in the early drafts. A version of this line actually made it into the published edition. Rather than going on to mention the “Morgul-lord and his Black Riders,” Gandalf explained in this early draft, almost in passing, why he was delayed.

“I was caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days as a prisoner of the Giant Treebeard. It was a desperately anxious time, for I was hurrying back to the Shire to help you. I had just learned that the horsemen had been sent out.”

Treebeard? Yes! The lovable and ancient Ent might not have been so cordial when Tolkien first created him. In a note dated July 27-29, 1939 Tolkien was working out something to say during a Chaucer performance at Oxford. He got a bit sidetracked, however, and transported Frodo out of the narrative in which he was working and into … well, just see:

“When Frodo heard the voice he looked up, but he could see nothing through the thick entangled branches. Suddenly he felt a quiver in the gnarled tree-trunk against which he was leaning, and before he could spring away he was pushed, or kicked, forward onto his knees. Picking himself up he looked at the tree, and even as he looked, it took a stride towards him. He scrambled out of the way, and a deep rumbling chuckle came down out of the tree-top.

“‘Where are you, little beetle?’ said the voice. ‘If you don’t let me know where you are, you can’t blame me for treading on you. And please don’t tickle my leg!'”

The two exchanged a bit of conversation and then Frodo finally saw the Ent: “and what he had thought was the stem of a monstrous oaktree was really a thick gnarled leg with a rootlike foot and many branching toes.”

To make matters even more surreal, Tolkien wrote six lines in Elvish (Tengwar), which read: “Frodo meets Giant Treebeard in the Forest of Neldoreth while seeking for his lost companions: he is deceived by the giant who pretends to be friendly, but is really in league with the Enemy.”

The conception of Treebeard being evil lasted for quite a while. The next mention came as a note where Gandalf warned someone to beware “of the Giant Treebeard, who haunts the Forest between the River and the South Mountains.” In a margin, he wrote “Fangorn?” which removed the Ent from Neldoreth and placed him where he would remain.

Continuing in his August 1939 writings, Tolkien took even more notes about where the Fellowship might go after leaving Rivendell.

“Fangorn Forest,” read one such note which went on to talk about how Gollum must come back into the story. But it also suggested that Frodo become separated from the rest. At this point, Tolkien seemed to be rethinking the whole Treebeard thing, and was maybe even thinking of dropping him from the story completely.

“If Treebeard comes in at all,” he continued, “let him be kindly and rather good?” He continued, deciding that “Gollum pretended to make friends, but tried to strangle Frodo in his sleep and steal the Ring.” It would be Treebeard who found him and carried him up “into the Black Mountains. It is only here that Frodo finds he is friendly.”

The note goes on to explain that Sam had refused to leave Frodo’s side, and that “Ond is besieged.” Ond was the early name for Gondor, and “the tree-giants assail the besiegers and rescue Trotter &c. and raise siege.” Also of note, if this were to happen, Tolkien wanted Boromir not to be with the Fellowship, but wanted to take Gimli instead. As we know, he never really went with this scenario and ended up including both Man and Dwarf.

So anyway, I guess I didn’t really cover Gandalf’s delay so well. But in this draft, Tolkien didn’t either. Gandalf was imprisoned by the evil Treebeard and then somehow inexplicably escaped.

Though it now seemed as if Tolkien had decided that Treebeard was good, he again changed his mind. In late 1939, he took up the task of revising the story thus far and trying to figure out Gandalf’s delay once and for all. Again in notes (written after he first thought that Treebeard might be good), he wrote: “What delayed Gandalf? Black Riders or other hunters. Treebeard.”

He also tried to work out a timeline for Gandalf’s delay. In an early version of that, Treebeard is missing, but in another, later version, it’s Saramund (proto-Saruman – we’ll get to him later) that turns Gandalf “over to a giant Fangorn (Treebeard) who imprisons him?” It was written as a question, and Tolkien really didn’t know for sure.

And finally in August, 1940, Tolkien abandoned the Treebeard idea, noting: “Gandalf’s story of Saurman and the eagle”. So for nearly a year of his life, Tolkien saw Treebeard as an evil creature, but slowly and sporadically came to view him as good – then evil again, then absent, then finally good.

The next time we heard about Treebeard, he’s helping Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli break the siege of Minas Tirith. This was in late 1940, so it was not long that Treebeard was ever out of the story. But we’ll get to all of that when we do.

A Few Notes
In the post linked to above, I said that I would get to Gandalf’s delay “hopefully next weekish.” That clearly didn’t happen. It’s been a month and a half since then. For that, I apologize, but I hope it was worth the wait.

In the published book, Gandalf went right into his story about being imprisoned and then talked about going to the Prancing Pony, as they happened chronologically in the story. In the early drafts, however, Tolkien included the Prancing Pony bits as part of the narrative (rather than a sort of flashback). And that’s where we’ll head soon!

But tomorrow we’ll talk about the origins of Saruman. Excited?

Camera: Holga 120N || Film: Fuji NPS 160 (expired April 2006)

Camera: Holga 120N || Film: Fuji NPS 160 (expired April 2006)

About the Photo
I’ve been waiting since I started this blog to use this photo for Treebeard. Sure, you can get tons of photos of trees, but how many are actually caught walking? This is actually an old stump blow white by the blast at Mount St. Helens. It’s crawling over a pile of pumice.


  • Day 142
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 701 (247 from Rivendell)
  • 93 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 220 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,078 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 16th night out from Rivendell. January 8-9, 3019 TA. (map)

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18 thoughts on “Many Weary Days as a Prisoner of the Giant Treebeard

  1. I’m catching up on your posts (I’ve been away for a bit) and just wanted to comment that I have a picture of this tree stump too! From my one and only trip to the area.

    I was going to try posting the picture but I don’t know how to do that. Anyhow, I really like it (and it’s the header of my blog if you want to see mine).

    • No kidding! That’s great! It’s along a “back way” into the place, and a lot of people don’t go that way. Very cool.

      And it’s great that you’re catching up and still reading! Thank you so much.

      • I am really enjoying your tour through LOTR and Tolkien’s other writings — I had no idea he wrote so many letters and essays on Middle-Earth. I shall have to see if I can get them out from the library at some point.

        I’m not really sure how my friend and I found that stump — we were towards the end of a four-week road trip from Calgary, Alberta, around the western US, and were getting a bit tired. So naturally we drove all the way from Portland to Port Angeles (I think it’s called? where the ferry to Vancouver Island is) in one day, via Mt St Helen’s and Mt Rainier. With stops to look at things, though it was too wet to make us go for a proper hike. I think we were sent on a detour and that’s how we found the stump. It’s one of my favourite pictures from our whole trip.

        • I would really recommend both Morgoths Ring and The People of Middle-earth. Two great books with tons of essays and info written post-LotR.

          It’s pretty amazing that you just accidentally found the stump. Coming at St Helens from Rainier, you’d be on the “back way,” so it makes sense, but still really fun.

  2. Neldoreth is the name of a part of Doriath, after (iirc) a prominent tree with three trunks (Q. nelde, S. neledh ‘three’).

    The Elves never reused personal names but they did reuse a few place-names.

    • This was a little bit ago, but I think in this case Tolkien was just reusing a name without having a specific location in mind. But now that I say that, I’m not sure. He nailed most of the Third Age geography during and after writing LotR.

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