There are a lot of characters in Tolkien’s works that are connected with nature in one way or the other. Whether they are those that care deeply about nature, or are part of the natural world themselves, Tolkien made sure to give them quite a prominent voice in his tales. One of the best representatives of the sentient nature is the race of the Ents.
Tolkien claimed to have not invented the Ents specifically, but they were rather the product of the unconscious of his. To quote the Professor himself, “Ents are composed of philology, literature and life” (Letters, № 163). The word ent is derived from Old English, and in Anglo-Saxon sources it meant “giant”. The name for the people of Middle-earth was inspired by the line “eald enta geweorc idlu stodon” from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer translated as “the old creations of giants stood desolate” . “The old creations” of the line refer to the ancient buildings constructed by the previous inhabitants of the British Isles that had dwelt there before the Anglo-Saxons came, and they were the structures made of stone. This is reflected in the poignant Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin, where the writer laments the stone works of giants — enta geweorc — that lay in ruins and faced decay. The word ent is also used in the similar sense of “giant” in Beowulf: the sword that Beowulf takes from the lair of Grendel’s mother is described as “the work of giants” — enta ærgeweorc .
Tolkien’s Ents are definitely very unlike the giants of pre-Anglo-Saxon times. Known as Ents in the language of Rohan, they are called Onodrim in Sindarin. The Ents “grew rather out of their name” (Letter № 157) evolved and became what we know them to be in The Lord of the Rings: very tall sentient creatures in the shape of trees able to walk, talk and fight. However, their initial appearance in the course of Middle-earth history far precedes the Third Age: the Ents have been there since the very start.
Eru’s granting life to Aulë’s Dwarves makes Yavanna rather concerned about the safety of her growing things, the olvar. She opens her heart to Manwë who, after dwelling on Yavanna’s thought, is granted a more detailed vision of Ainulindalë by Eru. After re-experiencing the Song, he puts Valië’s mind at ease by passing on Ilúvatar’s words to her:
When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared.
(Silmarillion, p. 41)
Manwë calls these spirits The Shepherds of the Trees. A very similar name is used by Treebeard when he refers to the Ents as “tree-herds” and later by Aragorn and Gandalf who both use exactly the same epithet as Manwë does. Thus the role of these tree guardians is clearly stated. But who exactly are the Ents? In his description of their nature Tolkien is rather vague: “the Ents were either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else that slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees” (Letters, № 247). Besides, they have mastery over stone. Treebeard casts more light on the Entish nature: “We are made of the bones of the earth” (Two Towers, p. 101) which makes the Ents stronger than their counterfeits, Trolls, made in mockery of the mighty tree-herds.
The Ents have been in Middle-earth since the awakening of the Children, but their prominence has been decreasing over the years. By the Third Age they had become mostly the characters from legends and tales for most inhabitants of Middle-earth, and there are rather few who know for sure what they are and even that they exist at all. Moreover, many of the Ents had grown sleepy and tree-ish, as Treebeard puts it, and there are very few of them left.
Due to the great age of most tree-herds, the Ents remember a lot of what came to pass in the ages past. Treebeard is the oldest of them: he recalls the lands of Beleriand and the way he roamed them when he was younger; Celeborn addresses the mighty Ent as Eldest, and Pippin notices Treebeard’s age and wisdom in his eyes:
One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake.
(Two Towers, p. 71)
This slowness the Hobbit notices in Treebeard’s eyes is one of the chief characteristics of the Ents: they are not a hasty people at all: they take rather a long time to make a decision, but once their minds are set, there is no stopping them. This dislike of haste is also reflected in the Entish language which is beautiful, melodic, but very slow. One needs a lot of time to say something in it, and it must be worthy of saying: in their own tongue the Ents waste no breath saying something which they do not consider important. Treebeard’s name has grown over years and is reminiscent of a story. The Ents themselves, however, are gifted language learners, and they found it easy to master the tongues of the Elves: long ago it was the Firstborn who awoke the desire for speech in the Ents, and the tree-herds were ever grateful for that gift of speech.
Thoughtful and unhasty, the Ents belong to one of the most ancient races of Middle-earth. Their role has dwindled over the long years, but in the Third Age they come out of legends to provide their assistance in the course of the War of the Ring.
In the second part of this reflection I am going to look at what happens when the Ents are stirred, what kind of mastery over stone they have and why it is better to be on their side once they march to war.
 Letter, № 163.
 T. Shippey – The Author of the Century
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image: Pixabay