We begin our next series with a deep dive into where the Ents and their leader, Treebeard, came from. The arboreal people group are very old by the time of "The Lord of the Rings," and their origins, both in the story and in Tolkien's creative process, are a fascinating bit of Middle-earth trivia.
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Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 15: Entish Origins.
Well, here we are after a long run through Elrond’s life. I’m sad to leave the half-elven hero behind, but at the same time, I’m really excited about the next series — especially since it covers a very different aspect of Middle-earth lore. To start this one off, I want to read a quote that many of you will probably recognize. Ready? “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it.” Recognize it? It’s Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel speaking the opening words of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The tragic, moving introduction is inspired. It immediately sets the tone for the trilogy that follows, and I genuinely believe that it’s one of the great defining factors that sets apart Jackson’s creation from most other less-successful fantasy adaptations. Blanchett’s immortal yet tired voice draws the audience in from the get-go. The references to “change” and “loss” harken to an ancient history that already exists before the viewer ever showed up on the scene.
There’s just one thing I need to point out here. If you go to the books, it isn’t Galadriel who says those lines. Nope. It’s actually the old Ent Treebeard who utters the words …or at least something very close. At the other end of the story, toward the end of “The Return of the King,” Treebeard says goodbye to Galadriel and Celeborn, and in his parting words, he says, “It is sad that we should meet only thus at the ending. For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again.” Similar sentiment, but… a little bit of a different implication, don’t you think?
While I heartily approve of the decision to repurpose the line to have Galadriel introduce the first movie, I like Treebeard’s original delivery for a completely different reason: it fits in with the slow, somber, and accepting Entish vibe. Don’t get me wrong, Galadriel is very old and also earns the right to speak like she’s seen some stuff, but no one in Middle-earth quite has the same age requirements, not to mention life experiences, to utter those sad words, as the old protector of Fangorn Forest. That’s why I’ve chosen Treebeard — and really, the Ents as a whole — as our next focus. The Ents are quiet-yet-essential factors of Middle-earth history who deserve some attention. They also go through their most dramatic and devastating experiences during the late Second Age — which makes them ideal candidates to show up in “The Rings of Power” series. So, without further ado, let’s spend some time basking in the slow-paced, shady, Entish world.
When it comes to Ents, the best place to start is right at the beginning. The only problem is trying to figure out where that beginning actually is. So, instead of diving into a fast-pace narrative, we’re going to spend the rest of this episode exploring how Ents found their slow, sonorous way into Tolkien’s world in the first place — and I’ll tell you right now, it’s not going to be a straightforward answer.
See, I like to lump Tolkien’s creations into two different categories. There are the OG elements, like many of the characters and events in “The Silmarillion,” which have literally been around in some form or another for over a hundred years now. And then, there are the newcomers.
For instance, in one of the most famousest of Tolkien’s letters, he talks about how many elements of “The Lord of the Rings” he was unaware of when he started the story. He explains that “I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears til I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure…” The list of things he discovered along the way keeps going, but did you get that last bit? Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure? Fangorn is where the Ents live. In fact, that word, Fangorn, is Elvish for Treebeard.
So, unlike many other areas of his world, Treebeard, the Ents, and their home were unknown to Tolkien until, like the rest of us, he stumbled on it along the way. This is a nifty piece of trivia, but when it comes to creating a coherent narrative, it immediately creates a problem. See, the Ents are immortal, or at least live an unknown but very lengthy amount of time. But their late “discovery” by their subcreator takes place toward the end of their history. That means Tolkien had to retroactively figure out how they fit into his earlier stories. In fact, he addresses this challenge early on in a letter to a fan that he writes in September of 1963. In it, he says “There are or were no Ents in the older stories — because the Ents in fact only presented themselves to my sight, without premeditation or any previous conscious knowledge, when I came to Chapter IV of Book Three.” And, I love this, he goes on to inform the reader that, well, since Treebeard appears to know all about the past, I guess they’ll have to come into the story back then, too — and he sure does work them in early… and in a couple of different ways, too.
The first of these comes right after they show up in “The Two Towers,” when Treebeard informs Merry and Pippin that the Elves are the ones who first woke them up and taught his people their tree-talk. It’s a fun summary, and the quick and simple explanation works for the moment, but as Tolkien fleshed it out, it turned out to be insufficient.
See, the Ents, and especially Treebeard, are extremely old. In fact, there’s an ongoing super-debate between Tolkien fans like yours truly about whether Treebeard is the oldest creature in Middle-earth. Let me explain, since I’m sure you’re dying to hear if he is or not.
In “The Two Towers,” Gandalf gives us multiple references implying and straight up stating that Treebeard is the oldest creature. At one point he says “Treebeard is Fangorn, the guardian of the forest; he is the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.” At another point, he refers to the Ents as “A power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang. Ere iron was found or tree was hewn, when young was mountain under moon; ere ring was made, or wrought was woe, it walked the forests long ago.” Okay, one more quote. You still with me? Good. Just a little bit later, Gandalf tells Théoden “For Treebeard is Fangorn, and the eldest and chief of the Ents, and when you speak with him you will hear the speech of the oldest of all living things.”
Okay, so that triple-header seems to make the case. Treebeard is the oldest, right? Well, maybe. It turns out that, in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Elrond refers to Tom Bombadil as “oldest and fatherless.” So, the ancient, mysterious beginnings of both Bombadil and Fangorn have led to this endless debate about who’s older. If you want to get technical, I suppose you could say that Bombadil is clearly a spirit, so his origin could be before physical Middle-earth got going. Then again, as we’ll see in a minute, the Ents also have indwelling spirits who could also be much older than the physical world. There are a lot of gray areas here, guys. One thing I can say, though, is that the Ents are the oldest people group that are still living during “The Lord of the Rings.” In the appendix to “The Return of the King,” it definitively states that “The most ancient people surviving in the Third Age were the Onodrim or Enyd. Ent was the form of their name in the language of Rohan.” As far as I can tell, this claim isn’t contradicted anywhere else.
But enough about that. The point I’m trying to make is that, once they settled into the larger story, Ents became an unseen but integral part of the plot. They come into the story very early on — and not because the Elves sing them into being, either. At least, not at first.
In the already mentioned letter where Tolkien grapples with whether Ents have a history in Middle-earth, he says something that shows he already was slowly figuring out how to fit them into the bigger picture. He says that one of the Valar, named Yavanna, asks Eru — that is, God — “to give life to things made of living things not stone, and that 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. The Ents thus had mastery over stone.”
In “The Silmarillion,” which, remember, is published after Tolkien dies so a bit further down the chain of creative evolution, we get the full version of this story. In it, Yavanna, who oversees all growing things, wants to protect her growing creations — many of which can’t move or defend themselves. So, she asks for a special protection for the trees, in particular, saying “I hold trees dear. Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon bough little mourned in their passing. So I see in my thought. Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!” A bit later it explains that when the Elves awaken for the first time, “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.” Real quick, the kelvar and olvar refer to creatures who can move and plant life, respectively. So, yeah, in the end, Tolkien did create a scenario where Ents are sort of “pre-created” but the spirits that actually inhabit the trees don’t show up until the Elves arrive on the scene. So maybe the Elves do end up waking them up after their spirits, you know, go to the trees and dwell therein.. Who knows. As far as I can tell, Tolkien didn’t clarify that part.
Anyway, once the stage is set, Yavanna tells her fellow Valar, Aüle, that her trees will have protectors. The two characters are having a bit of a creative showdown at this point, since Aüle is a smith who creates the Dwarves — who won’t necessarily get along with the trees. In fact, this whole thing about Ents is partly rooted in the fact that Aüle’s Dwarves will need firewood and are a threat to Yavanna’s growing creations. Yavanna tells Aüle, “Now let thy children beware! For there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril.” Her blacksmith companion simply responds “Nonetheless they will have need of wood.” Yeah, not a great start for their two creative offspring, huh.
Okay, so that’s how the Ents initially come into being. But before we charge ahead with talking about the backstory of the Shepherds of the Trees in “The Lord of the Rings,” we need to talk a bit about how those specific iterations of the Ents developed, because they’re actually very different from the first time Tolkien envisioned them, and, well, it’s just too good to skip over this part.
See, in the earliest versions of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” writings, Treebeard is often called Giant Treebeard. This primitive version of the character shows up in the book “The Return of the Shadow” which details some of Tolkien’s earlier drafts and notes for the trilogy. In that book, Treebeard is very, and I mean very, different. He’s described as a massive tree-like form, towering 50 feet in the air (later Ents are just 14 feet high, by the way.) He’s also described as haunting Fangorn and it’s Frodo who first discovers him when he stumbles into his garden.
The craziest part, though? Treebeard is originally a villain. That’s right. He’s the one who originally delays Gandalf. Not Saruman. Even in this book of early notes and drafts, though, the content already start to reflect a change in the character. In one of these notes, Tolkien writes himself a question, asking “If Treebeard comes in at all — let him be kindly and rather good?”
Of course, over time, that question turns into a very strong yes. Treebeard becomes a key leader in the fight against Saruman and even destroys one of Sauron’s armies (more on that later) during the War of the Ring. So, yeah. After Tolkien initially stumbles on some villainous tree-like giants that antagonize Gandalf and Frodo, the Ents slowly evolve into the arboreal softies that we all know and love.
Alright, now that we’ve established where the Ents came from — both in a literary sense and as far as their actual origin in the story — we can start to round out who they are and how they impact Middle-earth history. Next time, we’ll start that process by diving into how the Ents lived in their daily lives and what areas of the continent they inhabited.
Alright, that’s it for now. Until next time, friends.