“Farewell to Fangorn,” by Luca Bonatti
The Ents are one of the more memorable of the creatures of the Tolkien universe: the Shepherds of the Forest, these mighty tree-like beings were even larger and stronger than trolls. Their main role in the War of the Ring was their assault on and subsequent capture of the rogue wizard Saruman’s fortress of Isengard. But the Ents were, perhaps even more so than the Elves of Middle-Earth, a dying race:
‘There have been no Entings – no children, you would say, not for a terrible long count of years. You see, we lost the Entwives.’
‘How very sad!’ said Pippin. ‘How was it that they all died?’
‘They did not die!’ said Treebeard. ‘I never said died. We lost them, I said. We lost them and we cannot find them.’ He sighed. ‘I thought most folk knew that. There were songs about the hunt of the Ents for the Entwives sung among Elves and Men from Mirkwood to Gondor. They cannot be quite forgotten.’
-“Treebeard,” The Two Towers
The ‘loss’ of the Entwives is one of the great mysteries of the Tolkien mythology. What happened to them? And perhaps more importantly, what lessons can we glean from their sad story? I believe I can answer both of these questions. First, let us honor Treebeard’s wish for the tale of the Ents and Entwives to be remembered:
‘When the world was young, and the woods were wide and wild, the Ents and the Entwives – and there were Entmaidens then: ah! the loveliness of Fimbrethil, of Wandlimb the lightfooted, in the days of our youth! – they walked together and they housed together. But our hearts did not go on growing in the same way: the Ents gave their love to things that they met in the world, and the Entwives gave their thought to other things, for the Ents 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. 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 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. But we Ents went on wandering, and we only came to the gardens now and again. Then when the Darkness came in the North, the Entwives crossed the Great River, and made new gardens, and tilled new fields, and we saw them more seldom. After the Darkness was overthrown the land of the Entwives blossomed richly, and their fields were full of corn. Many men learned the crafts of the Entwives and honoured them greatly; but we were only a legend to them, a secret in the heart of the forest. Yet here we still are, while all the gardens of the Entwives are wasted: Men call them the Brown Lands now.’
-“Treebeard,” The Two Towers
The Entwives and Ents were unable to coexist in the same space, since they were each interested in different aspects of natural life: the Ents in the wild lands of the deep forest, and the Entwives in the cultivated, tame fields. When Sauron’s armies destroyed the home of the Entwives, the Ents were unable to find any survivors. They sought far and wide, but in vain. Did they all die? I don’t think so. Tolkien makes it excruciatingly clear that they ended up in the lands near the Shire, far to the northwest of Fangorn Forest and their former home in the now-Brown Lands. Consider Treebeard’s reaction when Merry and Pippin first told him about their home:
He made them describe the Shire and its country over and over again. He said an odd thing at this point. ‘You never see any, hm, any Ents round there, do you?’ he asked. ‘Well, not Ents, Entwives I should really say.’
‘Entwives?’ said Pippin. ‘Are they like you at all?’
‘Yes, hm, well no: I do not really know now,’ said Treebeard thoughtfully. ‘But they would like your country, so I just wondered.’
-“Treebeard,” The Two Towers
Treebeard noted the parallels between the Shire and the Entwives’ former gardens immediately. They adored cultivation, tilled earth, open fields, abundance, and peace and order. These are all defining traits of Hobbit society in their land. And the hope of finding the Entwives there certainly lay heavily on his mind, as evidenced by his repeated insistence on the idea. Upon bidding farewell to Merry and Pippin, he entreated them:
‘But if you hear news up in your pleasant land, in the Shire, send me word! You know what I mean: word or sight of the Entwives. Come yourselves if you can!’
-“The Voice of Saruman,” The Two Towers
In fact, after briefly meeting with the Hobbits again on their return journey, he again insisted that they look for the Entwives in their homeland (“Many Partings,” The Return of the King). He was without doubt convinced that, of all the places in Middle-Earth, the Shire was the most likely to be their refuge in exile. But in neither the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings nor The Silmarillion do we find evidence of this. Ironically, the surest proof of the Shire as the eventual home of the surviving Entwives comes near the very beginning of the tale, as Samwise Gamgee argued with Ted Sandyman at the Green Dragon:
‘But what about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them? They do say that one bigger than a tree was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back.’
‘My cousin Hal for one. He works for Mr. Boffin at Overhill and goes up to the Northfarthing for the hunting. He saw one.’
‘Says he did, perhaps. Your Hal’s always saying he’s seen things; and maybe he sees things that ain’t there.’
‘But this one was as big as an elm tree, and walking – walking seven yards to a stride, if it was an inch.’
‘Then I bet it wasn’t an inch. What he saw was an elm tree, as like as not.’
‘But this one was walking, I tell you; and there ain’t no elm tree on the North Moors.’
‘Then Hal can’t have seen one,’…
-“The Shadow of the Past,” The Fellowship of the Ring
This passage is often overlooked since it comes so long before the Ents are even hinted at in the story. Tree-like creatures bigger than trolls bearing the appearance of tree species not native to the region? I think you see the conclusion I am drawing. This elusive being was one of the few remaining Entwives. But why do they dwell in the Wild, away from the fields they loved so dearly? This is where my analysis takes a darker turn: I believe the Hobbits violently drove the Entwives out of the Shire and took it for themselves. I admit that this hypothesis is mostly conjecture, but bear with me.
The Shire was not settled by the Hobbits until 1601 of the Third Age, well over a millennium after the War of the Last Alliance, when the Entwives were driven out of their eastern home. Before the arrival of the Hobbits, the lands of the Shire were part of the Arnorian successor state Arthedain, and according to legend unpopulated and used as a hunting-ground by the king. But what if that legend concealed a terrible past? What if the king of Arthedain, seeking to divert the encroaching nomadic bands of Hobbits amid the never-ending wars between him and the other successor-kings, allowed them to settle in the peaceful and fertile lands of the Entwives?
Did the Hobbits see the Entwives as monsters like trolls? Or perhaps the beginning was not violent; perhaps the Entwives welcomed the Hobbits and taught them their arts of cultivation. But at some point this relationship soured, and the Hobbits drove the Entwives out of the land with ax and fire. The few survivors of that treachery would have fled to the Old Forest, the last place they could escape the destruction. There, mourning the loss of their second home, they may have wallowed away until they had become nearly dormant like the huorns of Fangorn. And perhaps in that time they may have come under the malevolent spell of Old Man Willow. Or, given the atrocities of the Hobbits, they may have willingly allied with him. In any case, taken in this light Merry’s account of the Brandybucks’ war with the forest takes on an entirely new light:
In fact long ago [the trees] attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it. But the hobbits came and cut down hundreds of trees, and made a great bonfire in the forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge. After that the trees gave up the attack, but they became very unfriendly.’
-“The Old Forest,” The Fellowship of the Ring
Nowhere can we get a more precise date for this ‘battle’ than ‘long ago.’ It was at least recent enough for the Hobbits to find the barren strip in the forest where the Brandybucks had carved their way through the woods. They faced utter hostility from the trees, who saw them as nothing but, as Tom Bombadil later said, “destroyers and usurpers.” Usurpers. The Hobbits, according to this interpretation, stole the lands of the Entwives, settled them for themselves, and when the Entwives attempted to strike in vengeance with the aid of the trees of the Old Forest, they were brutally beaten back again.
Saruman’s destruction of Fangorn Forest becomes even more dramatically ironic in light of this analysis. Add to that the fact that Merry and Pippin befriended Treebeard and accompanied him into battle against Isengard, and you have a truly tragic tale. The descendants of the Hobbits who had deprived the Entwives of their beloved home and driven them into the wilds became like unto children to some of the Ents. The acts of Merry and Pippin can in this light be seen as a redemption of sorts for the terrible crimes of the Hobbits.
The central theme of the tale of the Ents and Entwives is the figurative conflict between Nature and Civilization. One tends toward chaos, the other order, and never the twain shall meet, according to this old tradition. Thus, as the Ents pine after the Entwives (I swear I did not intend to make that pun), so too do the people of settled agricultural societies yearn for the mythical, pristine Wilds of Nature (which in actuality don’t exist). My conjecture about the tragic epilogue of the Entwives adds to this: our collective pursuit of lives of comfort, peace, and ease, like the Hobbits, requires acts of wanton cruelty and destruction. Was this the message that Tolkien intended? Almost assuredly not. But as he himself would concede, tales grow in the telling. A great work of literature can say many different things to later Ages of the world. And to our Age, facing ecological disaster on an untold scale, the forgotten tale of the Entwives can serve as a lesson, or perhaps a warning: once you push too far, there may be no going back, just as there may be no more Entings in the Fourth Age.