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.