Ents and Entwives in Middle Earth Mythos
A paper for HUML199 -- Lord of the Rings Seminar at the University of Toronto
By Ben Spigel (me) copywrite 2003
Note: Refrences to the Lord of the Rings series are done (book.chapter) meaning that (1.1) would mean a refernce to the first chapter of the first book (of 6 total)
Ents are one of the most interesting creatures in Tolkien's Middle Earth mythos. Ents by themselves are nothing more then mobile trees. Only when provoked, such as by Saruman, or motivated, by Gandalf among others, do they act. There is only one exception to this rule, the Ent's ceaseless search for their feminine counterparts, the Entwives. Ents, therefore, are a balancing force in Middle Earth, providing strength when strength is needed for a beleaguered ally, thus turning the tide of battles, and the fate of Middle Earth. However, while Ents help balance Middle Earth, their lack of internal balance leads to their eventual extinction.
According to Tolkien in letter 157, the name Ent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for giant. In Anglo-Saxon, ent can be used as a term for a hero of old and it was a person to whom all ancient Anglo-Saxon works were dedicated. Tolkien states that he has always been interested by the implications of the word, and it is easy to see how the creatures known as Ents emerged from the Anglo-Saxon word (Tolkien 1981: 208).>?
Ents are "tree-herds," meaning that they are the shepherds and protectors of the trees (3.4). In this capacity, Ents work to protect the forest of Fangorn from outside threats, such as the wood gathering of Dwarves, or attacks from Orcs. However, far from being visible defenders of the trees, Ents have descended into the realm of myth. Prior to Marry and Pippin's meeting with the Ent Treebeard, only two people living in the Third Age had met Ents, the wizards Gandalf and Saruman.
Ents are tree-like in appearance, but far from trees in nature. They have the capacity for movement, thought, and speech. Described as "large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck," they have seeming taken the attributes of those that they guard (3.4). Their large stature gives them great power in combat, as seen in the Ents destruction of Isengard. The supremacy of Ents in battle is unmatched among those who fight the Darkness of Sauron. Their strength is almost beyond imagination, within five minutes of attacking the fortress of Isengard, they had reduced the gates to ruble and they imprisoned Saruman, a Maia and leader of the White Council, in the tower of Orthanc.
Counter-balancing their amazing power when enraged, Ents are mainly passive creatures. Millennia of watching over trees have given them a plant-like outlook on life. Above all, they cherish deliberate and well thought out actions. At the end of the Third Age, many Ents have started to become "tree-ish," laying down roots and no longer patrolling the forest that they protect. (3.4) At the same time, more trees are becoming Entish, gaining the power of movement. These Ents become Hurons, Ents that no longer actively move or talk, but when needed they can display the same strength as Ents. Hurons, however, still guard their forest from outsiders, and are quite dangerous if there is no true Ent to control their rage (3.6)
Treebeard, the Ent that plays the largest role in the Lord of the Rings series, is the oldest of the Ents. Of the three Ents that existed before the Darkness, he alone remains a true Ent (3.4). Treebeard is an important source for the history of the Ents; it is through though that we learn of the tragedy of the Entwives. Treebeard is also important in that he is the connection between Gandalf and the Ents. Through him, Gandalf is able to acquire Entish reinforcement at Helms Deep, and though Treebeard the Ents are tasked with imprisoning Saurian in Orthanc.
Unlike other creatures in Tolkien's mythos, they were not sung of in Illuvitar's song that created the Middle Earth. They were created instead at the behest of the Valar Yavanna, to protect Nature, which she is the guardian of. She perceived that the secret creation of Dwarves by Aule would be a threat to her wards as "the kelvar can flee or defend themselves, whereas the olvar that grow cannot." (Tolkien 1999: 40)
In order to protect she pleaded with Iluvitar to make "Shepherds of the Trees" who will protect the forests in times of need (Tolkien 1999: 41). Hence, even in their creation, Ents were used as a balancing force. Yavanna believed that Dwarves would have no love or respect for her trees and would cut them down at will. Therefore, she reasoned, a power, equal to that of the Dwarves, must exist for the sake of the forest.
Ents, then represent the polar opposite of Dwarves. While Dwarves are industrious and quick to anger, Ents display almost a Zen-like calmness until something endangers the forest. While Dwarves attempt to shape nature by carving and grinding stone, Ents, as the shepherd of the trees, shape and move the forest by a more innate and hidden power.
Constant with their roles as protectors of the forest, Ents have a special relationship with Elves, who are forest dwellers. The Elves first taught the Ents new languages, and it with them that the Ents first aliened themselves with (3.4). After Dwarves from Nogord passed through Sarn Athrad, an army of Elves attacked them. Those who escaped the Elven sneak attack were cut off and killed by the Ents (Tolkien 1999: 282).
Of the four Entish military actions Tolkien describes: the attack on the Dwarves, the Last Alliance, their actions in Helm's Deep, and their invasion of Orthanc, the first three of them involve the Ents acting as reinforcements to the main battle. In this capacity, Ents act as a balancing force, allowing smaller forces, such as the defensive force of Helms Deep, to triumph over a numerically superior army. The only time that the Ents acted alone was when they were directly attacked. All of their other actions are at the behest of those who are friendly to the forest.
Ents are passive creatures, so passive that they are beginning to become completely sedentary. This is caused by their isolationist view, as Treebeard says, "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side." (3.4) Ents are willing to endure massive suffering before resorting to violence. Treebeard states that Ents will accept the necessity of using trees for firewood, and only the Orc's wanton violence and Saruman's deception that drives the Ents to war.
The only time that the Ents act when not immediately threatened is the disappearance of their female counterparts, the Entwives. The Entwives are an interesting example of the dual nature of a species. While the Ents, the males, roamed around the forest alone, learning to talk to Elves and Men, and enjoying natural beauty, Entwives instead enjoyed ordering and controlling natural things. Unlike the Ents who were content to live in the forest and protect the trees, Entwives "ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit according to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty, and peace." (3.4).
Due to their differences on the definition of beauty, the Ents and the Entwives drifted further and further apart, as the Ents explored around the great forests of Middle Earth, and the Entwives went South, fleeing the Darkness of Sauron and passed over the Andulin into South Gondor (3.4). This land was made into a desert by war, and the Entwives passed out from existence into the realm of myth.
Their disappearance is one of the great tragedies Middle-Earth. By the end of the Return of the King, most of the damage caused by Sauron and Saruman have been repaired, Aragorn has taken his rightful on the Throne, the once scoured Shire has been restored, and all the major themes of Middle Earth have resolved themselves in preparation for the end of the Third Age. However, the Entwives remain missing, and according to Tolkien in letter 338, they will never return (1981: 419).
The reasons for the Ents endless search for the Entwives are twofold. First, the Entwives are necessary to the survival of the species. It is only through mating with Entwives that Entlings can be made who will replace the older Ents who slowly become completely sedentary and non-communicative. Without Entwives, the Ents will slowly die off.
Secondly, the Ents feel that they have driven the Entwives into exile. In Treebeard's song to the Entwives, we can see a continuing conflict over which way of ascetic philosophy, natural beauty or intelligent, was better. "Come back to me! Come back to me, and say that my land is best!" and Ent sings to an Entwife, who then replies: "I'll linger here beneath the Sun, because my land is best!" (3.4) The song ends with a lingering hope that the Ents and Entwives could somehow find a land that both ideals of beauty could coexist in, but in letter 338, Tolkien writes that he does not think that this will happen (Tolkien 1981: 419).
The loss of the Entwives filled the Ents with an overwhelming sense of sorrow that colors all their actions. Even as the Ents triumphantly march to Isengard, Treebeard is filled with pessimism about the Ents future. He confided in Marry and Pippin that this may be the last march of the Ents, and that they are only going because "doom would find us anyways, sooner or later." (3.4) This is the only military action that the Ents take on their own behalf. All others, their attack on Dwarfs, their part in the Last Alliance, and their support of Gandalf at Helm's Deep where at the behest of others for the benefit of others.
Militarily, the Ents are a balancing force. They balance out power between a smaller army and a larger army. Tolkien explains in letter 249 that because of the Ents, the elf Dior could defeat the Dwarves who had stolen Thingol's necklace, which held the Simril, even though he had, no army (Tolkien 1981: 334). The Ent reinforcement routed the Orcs and prevented any chance of them reforming and attacking the tired defenders of Helm's Deep. However, Ents are not harmonious within their own species. Their obsession with natural beauty led to the loss of the Entwives, who sought to create beauty through intelligence and intervention. Lacking the Entwives, many Ents began to shy away from the duty that they were given since their creation, to protect Yavana's nature, and have become sedentary trees. Thus, while the Ent's affect on the balance of power is a major factor in the history of Middle Earth, their lack of internal balance doomed them to extinction.
Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien A Critical Assessment. London: St Martin's Press, 1992.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers. London: HarperCollins, 1999.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Simarillion. London: HarperCollins, 1999.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981
Shippy, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. London: HarperCollins, 2000