Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ents: Civilized and Doomed

            If there is one thing that Tolkien does well, it is trees. His fiction is studded with lush forests, filled with trees that think and hate and move and, occasionally, even march off to war. Within the forest of Fangorn, the eponymous Treebeard, chief of the Ents, introduces Merry, Pippin, and Tolkien’s general readership to this species of half-trees, half-giants. The Ents share a lot of characteristics with a more traditional tree spirit figure: they look like trees, for one, and can speak to trees. They also live off of Entwash, a special type of water, rather than solid food. Given these similarities, there is an impulse to interpret their role in the books as an anti-society, anti-industrial one. However, as we discussed in class, the Ents are best interpreted as a civilization in and of nature: they meet in grand (if rare) Entmoots, and are tree shepherds, a cultivating force. Ents do not represent wild in its truest form: rather, they are a wild society, a civilization organized around a celebration of what it means to be truly at home and unified with the natural world.
            However, the wild they inhabit is a decidedly orderly one. An odd characteristic of Fangorn, as of all the great and ancient forests of The Lord of the Rings, is that there are so few (if any) things other than trees. An ordinary forest is teeming with birds and animals and bugs. Individual trees, in the real world, are the critical host to dozens of other life forms, from squirrels to robins to beetles and everything in between. The odd paradox of Tolkien’s forests is that although the trees themselves are very much alive, everything else is rather dead.
            In some ways, this is a very Tolkien-like thing to do. At least within The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien shies away from any lack of order. There are discrete categories all characters may be sorted into, based on their race, and although this is not a universal fault, many of his evil characters in particular tend to fall a little flat: orcs are just evil. There is no redemption or really anything interesting happening within their characterization (which frankly, I don’t think is the world’s largest literary sin, given their distinct place within the narrative). The society is strictly hierarchical, as well: Gandalf clearly takes precedence over the Hobbits just as Aragorn takes precedence over any other men that may work their way into the novel. The Ent society, although it is largely separate from the rest, follows roughly these rules as well: Treebeard is in charge. Just as with the others, this does not mean that Treebeard invalidates the opinions or agency of other characters; instead, it means that when a leader is needed, Treebeard is the obvious choice, and he is chosen because he is the oldest. There is a quantifiable value about Treebeard that allows him to fit into a neat ranking. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t nuances, but there is definitely a pattern, which makes it easier for Tolkien to control the world he has created.
            The lack of sex in the novel also, I argue, contributes to the sense of neat outlines. Sex is messy, and, as in the case of Arwen and Aragorn, is a critical way for individuals to traverse boundaries and hierarchies. Perhaps the greatest example of sexlessness in The Lord of the Rings is the absence of the Entwives. One of the single weirdest literary moments in the book is when Treebeard introduces the concept of the Entwives, describes their vanishing, and then never proceeds to actually be reunited with them in the course of the story. It is an untied end, a one-off story that never finds its fit conclusion.
            Of course, in order for Treebeard and the other Ents to live within the context of their wild society, the Entwives cannot be there. As he explains:
But the Entwives gave their minds to the lesser trees, and to the meads in the sunshine beyond the feet of the forests; and they saw the sloe in the thicket, and the apple and the cherry blossoming in spring, and the green herbs in the waterlands in summer, and the seeding grasses in the autumn fields. 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, and plenty, and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them). So the Entwives made gardens to live in. But we Ents went on wandering, and we only came to the gardens now and again. (Tolkien 475-6)
Although the Ents, as shepherds, are also a force of a certain kind of cultivation, the Entwives take it much further in their love for “order”. The fruit-growing Entwives are of course also associated with fertility, and their quest to bring smaller kinds of plants up in the proper way can be interpreted as a sort of child rearing substitute. The crucial difference between the two Ent-genders, however, is that the Ents crave a wildness that is impossible to reconcile with the orderly gardens of the Entwives.
            Another interesting thing about this account of the schism between Ent and Entwife is the Garden of Eden resonance. Treebeard describes lush, fertile “gardens” maintained by figures older than any others, sorted into male and female categories. This is somewhat ironic, given that the Ents are basically trees and the Tree in Eden is so important. However, I think that this resonance underscores that the Ents and the Entwives should be two sides of the same coin: Adam and Eve are inextricably linked, perhaps more than any other couple in all of western literature. The distance between the Ents and Entwives is all the more tragic because it represents the rendering of two codependent halves.

            Of course, the codependence of the Ents and Entwives is related to reproduction. Without the Entwives, there can be no more Entings, and the whole species is stuck in, at best, stasis. In order to continue as a species, they must give up their love of wilderness and accept life in the Entwives’ gardens—provided they can find them first. Scholar Verlyn Flieger writes of this tension: “The Ents’ primal energy is the very essence of the wild… It is civilization which by its very existence will eventually kill them. Not just the industrialization of Saruman, but he industrious gardening of the Entwives will bring an end to the Ents and their world. The tame, by its very desire for order, will edge out the wilderness.” (96). The irony here—in order to continue, the Ents must cease to be who they really are—is at the heart of the ultimate tragedy represented by Treebeard and the Ents.


  1. And yet, as you point out, the Ents are very orderly themselves, particularly in terms of leadership. I think the gendering of the Ents and Entwives is important here: men needing adventure and "wildness", women needing order and cultivation, as Tolkien suggested to Michael. It is tragic and quite poignant that he ends the story with the Ents still missing the Entwives, when otherwise he is interested in giving his characters fruitful marriages. I agree there is a certain sexlessness in the story itself, but on a deeper level, the story is all about sex--or, if you will, fertility--and what it means: the making of creatures, both biologically and aesthetically. RLFB

  2. Oh man, in addition to the Eden imagery you mentioned, something I just thought of in class last week is the potential significance of the Ents being nomadic shepherds while the now-absent Entwives are agriculturists- perhaps, while (as far as we know) the Ents did not murder their wives, there is some Cain and Abel here as well?

    On a more concrete note, I think it's interesting that the Ent/Entwife dimorphism is more complicated that the Ents being wild while the Entwives are more "civilized" or ordered; the Ents are not as wild as they first appear. In class we noted the absence of animals from Fangorn. This is surely not a natural condition for a wild forest to be in, but part of the Ents' role as shepherds is to keep out parasites and wolves. While I agree with you about the strikingly hierarchical nature of Tolkien's world, this particular dichotomy- wild and cultivated- is not so neat.

    I also wonder if the irreconcilable difference between the “Ent-genders”, as you call them (very fun word btw) is at all related to Tolkien’s struggle between worldly affairs and his creative endeavors. I’m thinking in particular of the imagery in Leaf by Niggle, in the contrast between Parish’s garden and Niggle’s tree-picture.

    H. Bell

  3. This blog post helped me to articulate something I have been wondering about Ents this quarter. How are we to perceive their relationship with nature and to those trees that exist at the border between tree and ent (the Huorns and the trees of the Old Forest)? Your interpretation in this blog post, that ents occupy a wild society, is I think a good starting point. Ents exist in the wild but, I would argue, are not wholly part of it, although the presence of the Huorns suggests that the border between Ents and trees is perhaps a mutable one. What sets Ents a part is the fact that they form a society that is able to interact with the world of human or elven civilization and, thus, influence it and be influenced by it. What I think makes the Ents truly so tragic is the fact that it is not nature that will be wholly lost by the advent of civilization, but rather the part of the wild that has a voice; with civilization around to tame and order nature, the need for sheperds of the wild is gone. -EI

  4. I would like to add another main point to your argument. You mention the tragedy that the ents will be unable to continue because they have lost the Entwives, and I think that that's made even more clear because they don't seem to have much of a place in the world even at the time that Lord of the Rings takes place.

    While this seems to be a quote from the movie trilogy rather than the books, I do still think that it sums up some ideas nicely and it's worth taking a look at. At one point, Treebeard says "Side? I am on nobody's side because nobody is on my side." Nobody aligns themselves with the Ents and, in fact, most people aren't aware that they exist. Those who believe that they might actually be real tend to have negative connotations associated with them and, even beyond Saruman and industrialization, it seems that most of the peoples of the world (Theoden and even the hobbits) don't seem to have much use for Ents. Much like the elves realizing that they needed to depart, the Ents were so 'other', so on the edge of things that they didn't really belong in the world anymore.