Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Ents and Wandering

We talked a lot about balance at the end of class on Monday, and about how art and nature are part of the same system, we need a middle ground between cultivation and wilderness, etc. We mostly focused on what it is the Ents need to maintain balance, i.e. some kind of order and cultivation to curb the wildness (which happens to be the very thing the Entwives took with them when they left). It was also implied that the entwives left some kind of wildness behind, and that this is what possibly led to their demise. Tolkien doesn’t explicitly state that a lack of what the Ents have was what specifically allowed “the gardens of the Entwives to be wasted” (The Two Towers 79), but I think we can infer that it is the fact that the Ents and the Entwives are separated that will lead to the demise of both. Perhaps the stubbornness of both has something to do with it, as we can see in the Elvish song in which both Ents and Entwives declare that their land is best, and invite the other group to submit to its superiority. Either way, I think we have landed on the idea that the separation is what is deadly. 

I’d like to use this post to think more about these themes of balance and separation, and more about what the Entwives are missing. Is it just wildness or is it something else, too? After Treebeard laments that the Entwives are gone, desire things that ought remain outside the forest, and that they “made gardens to live in,” he says that, “we Ents went on wandering, and we only came to the gardens now and again,” (79). I think that word “wandering” is very important to what Treebeard is saying, and is a core value of Ent life. It is always mentioned in conjunction with what the Ents have and what the Entwives have rejected, and can be thought of as a similar virtue to the unrestrained growth that we talked about in class as being the Ent side of a harmonious balance.

But what is wandering for the Ents? It may seem like wandering is simply an offshoot of that wildness that we agreed is what the Ents have and that the Entwives lacked. But it is also something different. It’s something people do, as we know from the song that follows Aragorn around (“Not all those who wander are lost”). It also has some associations with the wilderness, as Aragorn’s wandering seems to be in reference to his time as a ranger, a job that requires a fair bit of time spent in the wilderness. But I think that although wandering may associate with the wilderness, it is not exclusive to the wilderness. After all, is it impossible to wander around a town or a city, or to let your thoughts drift places they weren’t aiming to go while indoors? Wandering can certainly happen in the wild, but the wild is not a precondition for wandering. Nor does wilderness activity require wandering. After all, most of the journey do dispose of the One Ring goes through the wilderness, but that is certainly not wandering.

It is also notable that when Treebeard uses this word, “wander”, he uses it in a very complicated way. What I mean is that it is not clear that Treebeard’s wandering is thought to be aimless, even if that is what we think of when we think of wandering (at least I do). For example, he talks about how the Ents have searched far and wide for the Entwives, but then refers to this as wandering: “For many years we used to go out every now and again and look for the Entwives, walking far and wide and calling them by their beautiful names. But as time passed we went more seldom and wandered less far,” (79). It might make sense to think of a search as wandering (or meandering?), but then again, it does have an aim, which is to find the Entwives. They may not know where the Entwives are, but it is not as if they are merely walking aimlessly around Middle-Earth. Yet at the same time, their journey does sound like it has an aimless aspect to it. What then do we make of this kind of thing? Even Treebeard’s first mention of the Ents as wanderers alludes to the fact that they “came to the gardens now and again.” If we think of the Entwife gardens as an image of cultivation and focus, and also as a place where the Ents might actually aim to go, then how are they wandering there? 

To sum up, I think that this word, “wandering” throws a bit of a wrench into the discussion of what the balance is between the virtues of the Ents and the Entwives. Wandering seems to include some element of focus (what we might think of as the Entwife virtue), at least in how Treebeard uses it. And in fact, it also seems like the Entwives are at least a tiny bit associated with wandering—the Ents say that they had been seen walking west, east, or possibly south. This may not be literal wandering, but there is an association there with aimlessness. So is it exact balance that the Ents would have needed in order to be happier and to have been able to reproduce more generations? Or perhaps just more balance? Because there does seem to be aspects of both the wild and of order in each of the Ents and Entwives; there just may not have been enough.

-Daniel Lewis


  1. Dear Daniel,
    Thank you for a helpful point, essentially pointing out that we only really witness one side of the tree-herd role in Tolkien – the Entwives who supply the balance are ‘off screen’ and we never meet one. In this, your theme of balance and separation pairs nicely with that of wilderness and ordered gardens.

    Several other posts are pointing out how Treebeard represents a model of sorts for cultivating even paternal care of growing things. How your observation of balance and separation, wilderness and gardens, can shed light on that model? Is Treebeard, without an Entwife, a faulty or one-sided model for cultivation? Should the ideal tree-herd be a synthesis between an ent and entwife or are both poles (ent and entwife) in binary tension needed?

    Secondly, you dwell on the motif of wandering to point out that it is an imperfect association because both ent and entwife do some wandering. However, can we fill out the entwife model a little more? Tolkien gives us very little to work with, but what can we, I wonder, surmise about the character of those more settled cultivators?

  2. Perhaps the balance we are seeking here is between stability and movement: to be wholly stable could be as problematic as to be forever wandering. We need both home and journey? RLFB

  3. I would like to attempt to answer one of the questions Robert poses in his comment before addressing Daniel’s post. As far as an ideal tree-herd is concerned, I think that the binary tension between the Ents and the Entwives is vastly preferable to a single, synthesized entity. This is because there is no way to reconcile the unhindered growth of the wilderness with the careful order of a garden. Taming the forest destroys its worth as a wilderness and allowing a garden to grow beyond its bounds corrupts its value as a garden. Even if a synthesized creature were able to maintain both kinds of nature at once, it would be unable to properly appreciate them. Both the Ents and the Entwives value natural beauty and hold it high esteem, they simply do so from different perspectives. The Entwives prefer their gardens, deriving beauty from the ordering and careful maintenance while the Ents have chosen the forests whose growth is unrestricted, but directed, creating a more wild kind of beauty. Each group acts similarly to cultivate the natural beauty that they prefer and it is this choice that has separated them. The fact that this decision seems to reach into the core of their being – the Ents have a need to wander their forests and the Entwives have a need to remain with their gardens – means that no synthesis of the two would be functional as a tree-herd.

    With regard to ‘wandering’, I understood it as having less focus on the travel and more on the where an Ent or Entwife was going. Wandering, for me, was more akin to surveying than to journeying. The Ents must go throughout their domain in order to maintain the forests as their role as tree-herds necessitates and they must go everywhere. Daniel mentions the connection that we associate between ‘wandering’ and ‘aimless’. The Ents’ wandering is, to some degree, aimless in that it encompasses their whole realm, but that does not take away from its purpose: the continued herding of trees. Similarly, the Entwives’ potential wandering, at least before the destruction of their gardens, would have been under much the same circumstances. They must also cultivate and supervise their charges, which requires being able to check in on all of them. It could even be said that Entwives would need to wander more often within the bounds of their lands because they must maintain a far more ordered system. As I see it, wandering is a component and virtue of both the Ents and the Entwives, which could reconcile the potential problem Daniel brings up at the end of his post.

    -Jeff Nocton

  4. This is slightly related, but sort of off topic from your post. We recently had a class conversation about the sins of hobbits, and your discussion of wandering has made me consider the sins of the ents—they wander, and in wandering they have forgotten, just as the hobbits have. This is why they’ve lost the entwives, and perhaps as they wander, they are not trying as hard as they might to regain them. As you say, wandering aimlessly is a central component of enthood—just as one could say eating is a central component of hobbithood. And, also as you claim, the separation between ents and entwives is deadly, but perhaps the fault is with the ents for wandering, and not the entwives for staying put? ~ERGG

  5. This is a small point...but when you talk about the Ents wandering with a goal, it isn't a particular destination. They aren't aimless, but the thing they're looking for isn't in a known location (or even necessarily in one place).

    Also, I think there might be something about wandering that has to do with understanding the world a bit better...just moving through it. (This is kind of like what Jeff was saying about surveying instead of're trying to understand where you are by being in it; you aren't just travelling through it.) That could be part of why the Ents growing more tree-like is a tragic thing...they can no longer move, and thus they can't fully experience their home anymore? Doesn't a gardener have to be able to move through his garden?

  6. Daniel asks at the end whether "exact balance... or just more balance" would have been necessary to prevent the separation of Ents and Entwives; I'm not too sure I even understand the question to really attempt to answer it, but it is an interesting one. It seems to me that you are perhaps equating "balance" with similarity? You write that each group has aspects of both wildness and order but "there may not have been enough"--enough of which? Do you mean that the Ents needed more order and the Entwives more wildness, such that they could reach a middle ground?

    I think a big part of the separation between Ents and Entwives is not that they didn't get along personality-wise, which if it were the case could have been resolved, maybe, by compromise; but rather that they had fundamentally different interests. The Entwives loved ordered gardens with fruit trees and grasses, and the Ents loved wild woods; what compromise is possible there, other than one group's wishes being dominant over the other's?

    In class we mentioned Lothlorien as an example of balance--a "cultivated forest" where trees grow unchecked, and not just for their fruit but for their beauty and their huge majesty, but are also the site of a permanent dwelling of Elves. I suppose this is as good as can be for a balance of the physical things that both Ents and Entwives loved. But I would posit another example of balance that is less in the physical result and more in the action itself, and that is Sam regrowing the Shire. Like the Entwives, Sam is certainly a gardener; he goes around planting trees themselves and returns to check up on them and care for them so that they will grow, unlike the Ents who do not seem to plant trees themselves but rather like to observe and talk with old trees. But like the Ents, Sam is scattering his trees all over the Shire, and though he knows exactly where each seed has been planted they hardly make up an organized garden; not to mention that he is growing trees simply for their beauty and not for their fruit. I don't think this does anything to suggest a solution for the Ents and Entwives, but I think it is a nice example of how both of their methods can be blended, and of how some kind of balance between wildness and cultivation can occur.

  7. Wandering, why we do it, and what it really means to "wander" is a really interesting question for me (an inveterate wanderer) and one that Tolkien seemed pretty interested in as well. His darlings, the Hobbits, have wandering as sort of their national pastime; they seem to love to take long jaunts under starlight - and Aragorn is THE wanderer of the story, although as the rhyme says he isn't lost, exactly. He's just been wandering.
    I don't know it's right to say that Tolkien equated wandering with aimlessness, exactly; it seems more like Tolkien's wandering was more akin to "searching," or perhaps "questing"; Aragorn's wanderings in the wild were not done in search of any one object, but in pursuit of experience, and by the end of his wanderings he had become seasoned - "the hardiest of living men," in fact. Hobbits wander for relaxation and to clear their heads, but Bilbo and Frodo's wanderings seem to be of another character - for their wanderings often put them in contact with elves and other wanderers, as though they're convening with Faery like the Smith of Wooten Major. Wandering, then, is far from aimless; its more about coming to something, just in a roundabout sort of way, right? And we all do a bit of wandering of some kind or another in our lives; and that wandering is how we find ourselves.


  8. I too am quite fascinated by this question of wandering - what instills some with an insatiable wanderlust, and keeps some rooted to their homes? I think a large part of the question, as relates to the ents, is when is it time to wander, and when is it time to rest? The ents, perhaps, simply wandered for too long, and ceased to see the value in resting for a while in one's own place. The entwives, meanwhile, set out on their journey with a specific destination in mind - a place where they could tend their gardens - and once they got there, they never left, became stagnant. Not at all suitable for a creature of the wild. I think this is where the issue of balance comes in - the ents and the entwives both failed to acknowledge the value of the others' ways and wants. We see allusions to both sides of this coin elsewhere in the series; "It's dangerous business, going out your door," "Not all those who wander are lost," etc. I think the attention to balance was a good instinct, and the question for Tolkien may have been how long we are to wander, and what it is that can compel us ultimately to settle.