Monday, May 19, 2014

Are Entwives Evil?

No, seriously, are they? Here is part of what Treebeard had to say about them:

They did not desire to speak with these things; but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, plenty, and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them). LotR.3.4

This sounds to me to match the definition for Evil we came up with in class (5/7), which was that Evil consisted in dominating the wills of others. Perhaps I am simplifying our discussion about the Ring, but we definitely said it either exerted its evil will over its bearer, or gave its bearer the power to exert their will over others. In any case, I found it very disturbing that the Entwives were described as doing to plants what Sauron did to men. Why would Tolkien portray the Entwives as in some way evil?
            I would like to propose that it has to do with two things: the problem of bending wills in a world where plants and gems are alive, and the anxiety we humans have about our relation to the ‘natural world’ given the idea we discussed in class that all of creation is God’s artifice.
            Let’s begin with the latter. The picture professor showed us in class of Jesus as the Creator is perhaps the best way to show the idea that God created the world like a craftsman. This then complicates our division of ‘nature’ and ‘artifice.’ We should rather either think of everything as natural, even rocks and gems, since they are on the same level of existence as plants and animals; or we should think of everything, even trees, as artifacts, since they were made by God.
            The point of this is everything we have said before about anxiety of craft in Tolkien’s world applies to the Entwives too. I would argue that they exhibit hubris towards their gardens not unlike Feänor’s in regard to the Silmarils. In both cases, something unworked by human(oid) hands is shaped, or bound: the light of the trees is trapped in crystal, and wild plants are domesticated. Now I will not go so far as to say that crafts and agriculture were not part of Iluvatar’s plan for Arda and his children, but I think there is an anxiety present in Tolkien about these acts: are humans allowed to exert craft on the creation of God?
            We brought up Genesis in class, but when I went back over the passage, I found that it doesn’t seem to grant to humans the right to do whatever they want to nature:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.” (29-30)

For one thing, God seems only to mean that humans can use plants for food, it says nothing about houses or firewood, and for another, God also grants plants to animals: humans cannot take it all for themselves. Applying this to the Entwives and Feänor (assuming Christian theology informed Tolkien’s thinking here as elsewhere), their fault is covetousness. The problem is that humans don’t just stop at picking fruit, the collect the seeds and plant fields and orchards, they breed plants to produce bigger fruits, they genetically modify them to be pest-resistant. In short, they play God.
            Now before you say “Woah Sam, slow down! All the Entwives did was make gardens!” I’ll say yes, but there are clues that their downfall was due to their over-attachment to their gardens, which serves as a cautionary tale. For Treebeard says that when they went in search of the Entwives: “we found a desert; it was all burned and uprooted, for war had passed over it.” While the Ents still have hope, it seems clear to me that the Entwives were destroyed during the last battle between Sauron and the Free Peoples, and probably they perished trying to protect their gardens. Furthermore, in the song of the Ents and Entwives, it is the Wives who refuse to come visit the Ents “because my land is fair… because my land is best!” This seems pretty arrogant to me. Like Feänor, the Entwives became more engrossed in something they had worked upon than their own kindred, which will lead to the eventual destruction of their race.
            To sum up, in class we said that it is necessary for their to be both woods and gardens. But while we talked in class about the anxiety we have about the woods, I think we also need to recognize that we are also not completely comfortable with what we do in making gardens.
            We must now talk about the bending of wills aspect of gardens. From our readings over the past week, Pearl, The Dream of the Rood, and the Quenta Silmarillion we have gotten used to the idea that gems can be trees and trees gems and moreover both can be alive. They can even become holy, for example the tree that eventually became the Cross. Thus it is not really surprising that Tolkien could describe the Entwives as making plants “hear” and “obey.” This would seem to put Entwives in the same category as Saruman and Sauron, but Tolkien does not make such an interpretation easy. For they appear also like ancient agricultural goddesses, such as Demeter, since “Many men learned the crafts of the Entwives and honoured them greatly.” How could beings that introduce agriculture to man be evil?
            To answer this, let’s talk about the most beloved gardener in LotR: Sam. During his brief stint as ringbearer, he has a vision of overthrowing Sauron, and turning Mordor into a huge garden, but he realizes that “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.” While it would seem that a huge garden would be infinitely better than the plain of Gorgoroth, what Sam intuits is that in doing so he would be bending the wills of others to create and maintain such a garden, and so he’d be no better than Sauron. Sam declines the power to create a garden kingdom, but we must wonder if the Entwives would have done the same if they had gotten the Ring. They do not go as far as to enslave men or the Ents to work their gardens, but in a world where trees and gems are alive, the act of domestication is itself an act of domination.
            The Entwives are not evil because they are not filled with hate, and do not destroy, but they are imperfect. They need to remember what it is to walk through a wood, just as the Ents need to be able to appreciate an orchard.

-Sam B.


  1. That is really puzzling to me. Are gardens evil in Middle-Earth because the plants in a garden are so controlled by the gardener? It would seem that its enough to consider how clearly good Sam, the gardener, is and how the Ents still love the Ent-wives, even though they prefer to have greater control over the plants in their care than the Ents. Maybe the last point you make is the key, that there needs to be an adjustment. Just as trees in a forest, as we said in class, need to be cared for and tended to, the plants in a garden must be allowed to grow to some degree outside of the gardeners designs. The gardener should let them go a little wild. Ya, and if Sauron grew plants he'd probably genetically modify them…
    Larry B.

  2. Sam,

    I think you make a really terrific argument here. I don’t totally buy it because I think on some level, the beneficial side of cultivation is something Tolkien prizes to an extreme degree: subcreation, which is that particular way in which, for him, humans are the image and likeness of God (and presumably in which the Children of Ilúvatar can most directly trace their lineage). But, does even that Good have a shadow side? Clearly, covetousness is an omnipresent danger in Middle Earth, and I think it’s very clever of you to suggest that the Entwives’ disappearance (and the ents’ eventual extinction) may have been the unintended consequence of over-valuing their subcreations and pursuing their art at the expense of their intimate relationships.

  3. If what you write is true, what makes Galadriel any better than the entwives? Surely the only difference is that she is cultivating some semblance of a forest, not a garden. But is this any better? Is there any substantive difference between cultivating a garden and cultivating a forest—subcreating something which has little semblance to something one might find in everyday life and subcreating something which somewhat resembles a naturally occurring ecosystem? Really, it seems like there can't be, since, as we mentioned in class on May 14, Lorien is really more like a jewel than a forest. I think this might lend some weight to Bill's reservations about declaring the entwives subcreation evil, but I do wonder at the differences between Lorien and the entwives' garden, since the latter seems to have resulted in a desert, perhaps as you suggest a result of some punishment for evil, whereas the former only fades (presumably) with the loss of the ring which built and sustained it. Does this difference come from the interior attitude of Galadriel in contrast to the entwives? I suppose if Galadriel willingly surrendered Lorien that would contrast her with the entwives, who you paint as a Feanor analog.


  4. The line between pride and arrogance is a fine one though, and I think you do well to highlight it, considering that the distinction between good and evil in this world seems to be "Ilúvatar said so".

    More seriously, this is in a line of interpretations about what is, or is not meant to be taken as bad or good according to certain standards. Part of my project was thinking about how we understand good and evil as categories we can apply to Middle Earth. Ultimately, it's something where we accept the theology behind the characters that yield our answers. The entwives, as Bill pointed out, are cultivators. They subcreate, and subcreate with the blessing of the Music, which Tolkien seems to prize. It is this distinction between those who create within the Music and those who create without, that seems to be the most relevant, while other aspects tend to be seen as details. Still, this was a fascinating point to bring out.