Philosophy & Tolkien: The Mystery of the Ents and the Entwives, lovers of woods and meadows
There aren’t all too many textual references about the Entwives or the Entmaidens. In “Lord of the Rings”, the Entwives are mentioned in three different instances: twice in The Two Towers (3.IV. Treebeard) and once in Return of the King (6.I. Many Partings).
There is nothing about them in The Silmarillion, and I only found one note in the HoME series, which I’ll use when I’ll discuss the difference in nature between the two.
Ents and Entwives are mentioned in Tolkien’s Letters: 144, 153, 157, 163, 209, 210, 230, 247, 338 (I only read the Dutch version, which I do not posses, so I’m relying on my notes for this one).
If what follows seems odd at times, it’s because much of it is speculation, and some of it goes directly against the good professor’s own comments (in Letter 144 to be more precise), but I have only tried to present some facts about the Ents and the Entwives, and interpret them.
Gender & Names
Those who are familiar with post-modern philosophy will recognise the term ‘gender’ immediately: it’s a word that expresses the new view on masculinity and femininity as culture-based, rather than sex-based, attributions. Culture, socialisation and doctrine rather than actual biological reasons determine what is typically masculine or typically feminine during a certain period or in a certain place. For example, it’s possible that primitive societies consider the woman as the ‘stronger sex’ because she works the land and has the children, while in western societies the woman is seen as the ‘weaker sex’. Another example is the toys children play with: girls can play with cars, but for a boy to dress like a princess or play with dolls is not generally accepted.
In this matter language is a very important factor: in Dutch (as in French) there are different words for professions when they’re executed by a woman (for a teacher we speak of ‘leraar’ and ‘lerares’, for a nurse ‘verpleger’ and ‘verpleegster’ etc…); in English there’s no such difference (as far as I know) and so the ‘male’ word is used in both instances.
When we look at the way Tolkien gives the Ents and Entwives their names, we can already see something of the way he thinks about these two groups.
The Ents are named after ‘giants’, while the Entwives are merely a sidekick to the actual Ents. Of course this is no different from the way the English ‘man’ and ‘woman’ originated: one could compare it to ‘football’ and ‘women’s football’, or ‘Dwarves’ and ‘Petty-Dwarves’. (For the native English speakers, this is not necessarily so: in Dutch the words ‘man’ and ‘vrouw’ have no affinity with each other in a derivative manner.)
The fact that the second, female term is derived from the first, shows that the female group is seen as dependent of the male group: first there were Ents, and then (because Ents need to procreate) there were Entwives. The term ‘Entwife’ has the same meaning as the term ‘She-elf’ or even ‘she-man’. [In this context it might be interesting to the term ‘human’ as originated from ‘he-man’.]
So, to sum it all up: the hierarchy between Ents and Entwives is already established by their names. When we are later to discuss the difference between both, it’ll be easy to point out which kind of ‘care for nature’ Tolkien himself prefers: that of the Ents, the dominant male group, of which the Entwives are only a lower version, designed for companionship not excellence.
Nature versus Culture
One of the most prominent, almost omnipresent, distinctions made in philosophy and science is the distinction between nature (‘the given’) and culture (everything created by man). In general the hierarchy is a reversed one: though culture is generally believed to mean progress and science, it is not as good as Nature.
The dominant factors in the development of this hierarchy were a) Christianity (where nature is God’s creation, and thus better than anything man-made) and b) the romantic reaction to the rise of Enlightenment and industry.
Those who study Tolkien’s works closely will know that because the professor was a devout Catholic, there is a certain reminiscence of the Christian doctrine on creation in his works.
To take one example: there is one God, Ilúvatar, and all creatures are his children. The Dwarves, created by Aulë and granted life by Ilúvatar because of his goodness, are ‘man-made’, culture as it were, and so of a lesser kind than the ‘Children of Ilúvatar’, Men and Elves.
On the other hand, Tolkien’s aversion to industry and technology (clearly shown in the figure of Saruman) ties in with the romantic position where culture is a defilement and a perversion of nature (though of course, these same romantic scholars did embrace the pleasure of delicate food and wine, which is also man-made).
This same hierarchy (nature is better than culture) can be found in the difference (and hierarchy) between the Ents and the Entwives.
Let’s look at how Tolkien describes them, in the words of Treebeard in Book3.
About the Ents he says that they ‘gave their love to things that they met in the world’, ‘loved the great, trees and the wild woods, and the slopes of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain-streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees’. They also ‘went on wandering’, even after the Entwives had already settled down and started to create their gardens.
About the Entwives, he says the following: ‘…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 wild 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.’
If we summon this up, we can see that the Ents stand for Nature and the Entwives represent Culture – agriculture to be more precise. Treebeard mentions that Men were taught by the Entwives, a sort of mythical explanation for the rise of agriculture (as if Elves didn’t have that!).
Treebeard, as an Ent, shows little respect for the sedentary life of the Entwives and their desire to grow things after their own fashion and control nature. This brings to mind the discussion between Saruman and Gandalf: the first wants to overwrite the white page and break the white light, to discover and create new (more exciting) things; while the latter claims it folly to ‘break a thing to understand it’.
The same sort of tension can be found in the conflict (though both Christopher and J.R.R. Tolkien seem loath to call it a conflict) between the Ents and the Entwives: the difference between respect and awe for a wild unruly nature, only tamed a little to keep it safe (Ents are ‘shepherds’ not ‘farmers’); and the desire to tame nature and bend it to our needs and wishes.
The Entwives, in the end, are punished for their way of life. Treebeard describes them as ‘bent and browned by their labour; their hair parched by the sun to the hue of ripe of corn and their cheeks like red apples.’
After becoming sedentary, their gardens were destroyed by Sauron and became the Brown Lands. The Ents who wandered the woods escaped this fate as they could make their home wherever they wanted, and were not bound to the soil where they lived.
The Search for the Entwives
Though we all know the good professor didn’t like allegory and the search for it in his work, it’s hard not to start interpreting what he wrote – especially when it comes to parts of his mythology that are clearly linked to his view on industrialisation and ecology.
The search of the Ents for the Entwives, of Nature for lost Culture (or culture destroyed by evil – we can think again of Saruman who uses a positive tool like technology for negative purposes), could also be seen in reverse as the search of a cultured man for a pure and untamed world.
Tolkien clearly states that there will be no reunion for Ents and Entwives in this world. Treebeard says that the Ents ‘believe that we may meet again in a time to come, and perhaps we shall find somewhere a land where we can live together and both be content. But it is foreboded that that will only be when we have both lost all that we now have.’
This reminds us of Arwen and Aragorn, who may meet outside the confines of this world. It seems that Ents, because they are a creation different from the Maiar or the Ainur in general (in a way, they are ‘man-made’ like the Dwarves) go to a different place when they die – a place where they might reunite.
In a way, we can read this as a metaphor for the inability of Culture to reconcile its ideals and tools with the wild and unruly Nature Tolkien so admired. There is no way out of the rapid industrialisation of this world, no way to make two different goals (the constant strife to control nature and develop new techniques to make our life more comfortable, versus the desire to nurture and protect what is already there) meet on some level.
This is an utterly pessimistic view, and it doesn’t stroke with the general feeling we get from Tolkien’s works, at least not when ecology is concerned: it seems that the rise of the Ents and their conquest of Isengard shows us clearly that Tolkien believes nature can rise against its oppressor.
On the other hand, the contrast between the very few tree-herders that are left and the massive army of Huorns that moves to Helm’s Deep overnight also suggests this pessimism of a Nature turning evil and destroying itself.
(An interesting parallel can be found in the way Frodo, in destroying the Ring, ends up destroying himself.)
Tom Bombadil & the Entwives
A passage from The History of Middle-earth (Volume 7: The Treason of Isengard, XXII) suggests that there might be a link between a (removed) paragraph where Treebeard talks about Tom Bombadil, and the conflict between the Ents and the Entwives.
Christopher Tolkien writes about this (in a footnote with this text): ‘Conceivably, my father felt that the contrast between Bombadil and the Ents developed here confused the conflict between the Ents and the Entwives; or, it may be, it was precisely this passage that gave rise to the idea of that conflict.’
This is an interesting idea: are the Entwives with their domestic and sedentary nature, their desire to control and their seeming disinterest for their original task, derived from the enigmatic Tom Bombadil? After all, the parallels are clear: Tom too is dedicated to his own little spot in the world (remember that at the Council of Elrond, the idea to hand the Ring over to him is dismissed because he wouldn’t see the size of the problem), a domestic creature who doesn’t leave his domain.
Treebeard says about Bombadil that he ‘understands trees, right enough; but he is not an Ent. He is no herdsman. He laughs and does not interfere. He never made anything go wrong, but he never cured anything either. Why, why, it is all the difference between walking in the fields and trying to keep a garden; between, between passing the time of a day to a sheep on the hillside, or even maybe sitting down and studying sheep till you know what they feel about grass, and being a shepherd.’
What he means with this is not clear to me: he suggests further on in the text that Ents are very good at ‘becoming like trees’ and trees became like Ents rather quickly. Perhaps this didn’t happen with Tom Bombadil?
What ís clear, is that Treebeard doesn’t think very highly of Tom – and that he doesn’t think very highly of the Entwives either, though he does miss them. Perhaps he (and Tolkien with him) feels that it takes a special kind of connection to be a shepherd of trees, and that any other attempt to connect with nature is just not good enough?
However, Tolkien writes in one of his letters ‘[Tom Bombadil] has no connection to the Entwives in my mind.’ [Letter 144]. So perhaps I’m just reading too much into it.
This article is dedicated to Tasar_Took_Nualda, who lay at the basis of this research project by buying a raffle ticket. Thanks Tasar!