Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Ents: Between Nature and Mankind

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.
-- K.G.


  1. Thanks for your post!

    I definitely agree with you that the fact you have wild, beings of nature with the consciousness of men make them creatures that inspire awe.

    I think there are two additional factors that can be considered about the Ents. First of all, their size alone would be terrifying to anyone who saw them. You briefly touched on this point when you mention the quote of "these Tree-men, these giants" but I actually think here giants is the key word to consider. If we recall our class discussion about the etymology of the word ent, Tolkien took it from 2 phrases: orþanc enta geweorc, and eald enta geweorc meaning "work of cunning giants" and "old work of giants" respectively. So in this sense the Ents are actually be closer to the giants of Norse mythology than to men. We describe giants as like men because they are larger versions of men so I think the description of Tree-men is done in a similar vein to relate something new with something familiar. This presents a potentially even more terrifying way to view ents as not just nature+mankind, but nature+giant. Now we have almost an excess and overabundance of nature and its wildness present just based on their sheer size. And this of course speaks to their durability in battle. Giants were fearsome opponents in the Old Norse myths.

    Secondly, I think we can apply the words 'Perilous indeed,' said Aragorn, 'fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them. Follow me!' to Fangorn and the Ents as a whole. I wonder if the attitudes towards the Ents is shaped by a projection of guilt for how humans, dwarves, hobbits have treated the environment. Another post mentions Saruman, Sauron, Melkor as being associated with fire and ash but we could say the same thing for humans, dwarves and hobbits, and even the elves. They cut down trees for firewood, wood for building, and, worst of all, weapons. By presenting these trees as sentient beings, Tolkien forces us to think about our impact on other living beings, and now they can communicate with us! A large and terrifying being who we have wronged makes them all the more fearsome.


  2. Dear KG,
    Thanks for this post, developing and fleshing out this theme of the blurry liminality of the ents, both with their familiarity an frightening, older otherness. In this we can begin, I think, to better understand Tolkien’s counter-intuitive view of trees as untame-able and wild.
    But I wonder if it is helpful to press Tolkien on this fear. Perhaps ents, but are trees really so fear-inspiring and untame-able? In view of trees’ immobility and seemingly passive nature, it seems to be a claim to raise eyebrows. On account of the apparent strange-ness of Tolkien’s view here, I wonder if Tolkien viewed trees much more like ents, if he embued trees with that wild, non-human character that Flieger found in Treebeard and previously in the Green Knight?
    P.S. Sorry for the delay in commenting!

  3. Ents really do walk the line between wild and tame, nature and man, uncivilized and civilized. I remember my first impression of Treebeard was that he was both kindly and frightening. The idea of a powerful creature that is only somewhat human is terrifying to us, not despite that humanity but because of it. You mentioned the many ways Ents are both human-like and non-human. It is surreal to think that these creatures, who can communicate, move around, form communities, and think intelligently, are not quite human. I find it interesting that you brought up that both man and Ent can manipulate nature. Ents seem more a part of nature to men, because trees are so characteristic of the natural world. But an Ent’s resemblance to the trees and their ability to shephard them does not necessarily make them more tree-like than a man. One could possibly argue that men and Ents are as similar or dissimilar as men and elves- elves too wield power over nature to a degree, and are very powerful, but resemble humans more than trees or Ents. This wild-ness or natural state of the Ents may seem fitting with their appearance and role in nature, but it need not be inherent to trees. Just as elves, dwarves, orcs, and even men are perilous for different reasons, Ents too are perilous. Their ancientness and strength/size play a role in making them powerful, but to me they aren’t strictly more terrifying than any other peoples or beasts we have met in their world. -S. Rajan

  4. So while your post is fascinating and really well thought out, I think I had a different takeaway from the line-blurring than you did. In reference to the redirection of the Isen, you said "This is not something that a creature wholly a part of the natural world could or would do". I disagree, and I think that the Ents as tree men don't cross the line between man and nature, I think they show that that line is false. Both men and Ents interfere with the "natural" course of the Isen, but only one is actually a perversion of the Isen. The nature of a river is to flow, and while the Ents merely redirect the Isen, Saruman actually stops it up, perverting its intended purpose. It's a sin that, now that I think about it, heavily resembles that of Morgoth, who sought to isolate what Eru made interconnected. What terrifies us about the march of the trees isn't that we are getting attacked from some other world, it's that we realize that we were actually part of something greater than just us, that we perverted the natural order of things. The Ents exist to remind us that we aren't isolated, and that when we create this illusory divide between man and nature all we're really doing is making the rest of nature down the line very, very angry
    - Daniel Betancourt

  5. I've been thinking about the liminal state that Ents inhabit, and I wanted to relate it to our ideas of heroism in these stories. Can we say that the Ents are heroes for destorying Isengard? Is Treebeard a hero of this story? The ents seem almost more monster like, like giants as a commenter says above. But I think you are right to classify them as something closer to men. It is said in the Silmarillion that Yavanna asks Manwe who will protect her creations (the trees) from her husband Aule's creations (the dwarves) with their forges and pits of fire, and he finds that the Ents are a part of Iluvatar's creation, meant to inhabit this role as guardians of the Huorns and the things that grow. I think it's fair to say that the Ents can be heroes, especially the kind of hero that Tolkien seems to value the most, that of the gardener, the one who grows things, since that is the express purpose of the Ents. This is not just because they are Tree-Men, or because they are giants in the shape of trees, but because they as a race have their own fate in the wold that Iluvatar created.

    -Josh Greenberg