In class on Monday, we talked a lot about the ways in which human beings create, control, and tame natural elements, particularly in regard to the creation of gems, crosses, and agriculture. This discussion then led me to think about the ways that Ents control and alter nature, and what this says about their role in Middle Earth. This also leads into why they are such fearsome creatures – they have the terrifying wildness of trees paired with the consciousness and (sometimes) civilized nature of men. Ents function as tamers of nature, but they themselves cannot be tamed – this leads into why they are such frightening, unpredictable creatures.
Ents occupy this blurry liminal space between nature and mankind / civilization. They have existed as long as memory in Middle Earth - “...the Onodrim, that Men call Ents, dwelt there long ago; for Fangorn is old, old even as the Elves would reckon it” (Lord of the Rings, p. 442). Sam’s cousin Hal claimed to have seen an Ent walking beyond the North Moors; Sam tells Ted, “But what about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them?” (Lord of the Rings, p. 44). The same ideas are echoed in Merry and Pippin’s first encounter with Treebeard; he is described as “…a large Man-like…figure” (Lord of the Rings, pg. 463). Note how Sam doesn’t simply call them walking trees or monsters; he refers to them as tree men.
In many ways, the Ents do act like men. First, they have the power to raise armies, as shown at the battle of Helm’s Deep. This must have been an absolutely frightening sight – trees, being trees, are expected to remain rooted solidly into one place; even then, they can be terrifying (as is evidenced by the hobbits’ experience with Old Man Willow). I can’t imagine what a sight to behold it would be to suddenly see a shadowy forest of animate, angry trees coming towards you on a battlefield. Second, both the Ents and the Entwives engaged in very civilized and human activities - the Entwives cultivated orchards and gardens, while the Ents largely function as shepherds. Third, the Entmoot is an especially civilized affair – it takes the Ents three days to decide to march to Isengard; it is a hastily quick decision by Entish terms.
Ents, much like humans, also modify nature from time to time to serve their needs. Perhaps the most powerful example of Ents diverting nature to serve their own purpose was their redirection of the river Isen into Isengard to destroy Saruman’s fortress. During their initial attack, Treebeard sensed that his fellow Ents were beginning to spiral out of control, and that their enthusiasm for the destruction of Isengard might actually end up causing them bodily harm. He asks them to retreat, and he comes up with a plan – a plan that Pippin described as having been “made in his old head long before” (Lord of the Rings, pg. 569). Instead of attempted to tear down the slick walls, Treebeard engineered a way to divert the river Isen down into Isengard itself, thus destroying it using the power of nature. Particularly after the descriptions of Saruman destroyed so much of the Fangorn forest, there is something poetic about the destruction of Saruman’s smoking steel and modern machinery by something as seemingly simple as the Isen. What’s significant here, though, is how Treebeard utilized nature much as a human would. He altered it, however briefly, to fulfill his needs. This is not something that a creature wholly a part of the natural world could or would do.
However, the destruction of Isengard is also an example of the uncivilized nature of the Ents – if Treebeard hadn’t been there to pull them back, they would have continued to attack the towers, and risk immense harm to themselves. They are incredibly powerful creatures, not easily taken down by Orcs or men, and are largely impermeable to arrows. Their fearsome nature is echoed in Tolkien’s letter to his aunt, where he describes the root (no pun intended) of human fear of trees: There exists a “...fear of anything large and alive, and not easily tamed or destroyed…” (Letters, p. 321). The Huorns also exist to show the potential for Ents to exist beyond the realms of civilization. These creatures, who have lost touch with their Entish side and have become almost entirely like trees, are some of the most terrifying creatures in the Legendarium. While the Ents can still speak with them, they are incredibly volatile, and interacting with these queer creatures without Ents present to shepherd and guide them would not be recommended. As the Ents become slower moving and have fewer trees to shepherd, it seems that more and more are becoming more Huorn-ish, and are moving outside the boundaries of the Entish civilization. A Fangorn Forest without Ents to guide the Huorns would be terrifying and downright dangerous. The Huorns exist beyond the laws that the Ents abide by.
I thought that Verlyn Flieger phrased the scary aspects of Ents particularly well in her essay on Treebeard and the Green Knight: “Treebeard…is something large and alive, a being out of that vast, non-human, forest world whose power and wildness antedate civilization, and have both fascinated and frightened humanity…” (Flieger, p. 88). The Ents pre-date civilization as we conceive of it. Men are bound by civilization, and while Ents often abide by these civilized rules and laws, they also have the capacity to break them. While Ents and Entwives function as tamers of nature, they themselves are untameable. These creatures do not exist entirely in either world, and thus are not subject to the laws of men or nature. It is when they are breaking these rules when they are at their most terrifying.