In this episode, we dig into what it looks like to live as an Ent. What do they look like? What do they eat? Where do they live? It turns out that, by the time of "The Lord of the Rings," the Ents are living a much smaller version of their slow lives than they did in the past.
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Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 16: Entish Culture and Geography.
Last time we started to break down the mysterious world of the Ents. Tolkien invented the Shepherds of the Trees as he wrote “The Lord of the Rings,” and at first they had nothing to do with his older “Silmarillion” content. Oh yeah, and when Treebeard first showed up in early drafts of the story, he was a massive giant, almost four times as tall as the final version, and he was the big baddy instead of Saruman. Of course, over time, Treebeard and his people came to occupy a more favorable part of the story, and Tolkien even whipped up a pretty wild origin story of their own, to boot, that involved singing elves and dueling Valar practically at the beginning of time.
Now that we’ve got their beginnings sorted out (as much as is possible, anyway), this week I want to dive in and explore the world of the Ents. Don’t worry, there’s a larger Entish history that we’re going to get to, as well, but I want to set the stage with this mysterious people group before we, you know, tell their story. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’ve watched “The Lord of the Rings” movies, read the books, or both, if you don’t read anything else, it’s easy to walk away from the experience with a very unsatisfied idea of just who the Ents are in the first place.
With that in mind, let's unpack these wild Tolkienian inventions a bit, shall we? The first thing I want to talk about is the word Ent itself. While Tolkien is a master of languages, the philologist didn’t even try to disguise where he got this word from. The word ent is old English for Giant. Hey, if the shoe fits, right? I mean, remember last week, how the early versions of the LOTR literally referred to Treebeard as “Giant Treebeard?” If you’re wondering where I got that little linguistic factoid, it’s brought to you by Christopher Tolkien’s comments in one of his father’s works that actually has nothing to do with Middle-earth. I’m talking about Tolkien’s book “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,” which is a story inspired by Norse mythology and is really good, by the way — all of Tolkien’s old-world compositions and translations are high quality and incredibly accessible for people like us who don’t spend our lives studying old languages. Anyway, on the last couple of pages of “Sigurd and Gudrun,” there’s a note from Christopher Tolkien regarding a variation of the word ent used in the book. The comment mentions that it is, “from the noun ent (from which was derived the name of the Ents of Middle-earth.)” Well, there you have it.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the strange world of the Ents than their old-English-inspired name. Take their physical appearance, for instance. Last time we touched on the fact that Treebeard shrunk from his original 50-foot stature to a still impressive but much smaller 14 feet. But what else does Tolkien tell us about the appearance of these strange tree shepherds? Well, when Merry and Pippin first stumble into Fangorn forest, we get a description of Treebeard himself, and it’s about as odd as it gets. We’re told that he has a form somewhere between a man and a troll. He’s sturdy and has a tall head with practically no neck. He has big feet with seven toes each, and a great big beard that has a twiggy, mossy appearance. When it comes to his epidermis, we get two different elements. Treebeard’s arms are described as having a smooth, skin-like covering while his trunk — pun intended — is covered in a grey-green, bark-like substance. But we don’t get a clarification on whether this is rough skin or the equivalent of clothing.
There are two elements of Treebeard beyond these basic outward features. The Professor spends a lot of time focusing on his deep, ageless eyes. Pippin specifically is amazed by these and prioritizes them in his description of Treebeard over all other features — which, considering how dramatic and different those are, shows how crazy the guy’s eyes must be. Along with his eyes, Treebeard has his signature deep, booming voice. In Peter Jackson’s films, this is portrayed by John Rhys-Davies (who also plays Gimli) and the talented actor does a great job giving us an airy-yet-deep, creaking, and slow version of the Ent’s voice. As good as Davies’ interpretation is, though, when Tolkien originally created the voice, he had someone else in mind: none other than his good friend, C.S. Lewis. It says in his biography that when he got to the chapter where the Hobbits meet Treebeard, “he modelled Treebeard’s way of speaking, ‘Hrum, Hroom,’ on the booming voice of C.S. Lewis.”
Okay, so we’ve got a good idea of how Treebeard himself looks, not just in the movies but in the books, as well. But is that a fair sample of all of the other Ents? I’d say yes and no. See, there are certain features that Ents share in common. For instance, they’re all big. They’re compared to giants and, more accurately, trolls, which Treebeard says are counterfeits of his kind made by the enemy. But apart from their tall, tree-like appearance, Ents are actually quite different looking when you see them side by side. We know this because of Merry and Pippin’s experience attending the Entmoot. At that point, Tolkien spends a long while explaining how different they all are. He highlights the fact that height, girth, the color of bark-like skin, and even the number of their fingers and toes — from one to ten — are all different. Of course, the inspiration for this is simple, since they each resemble different kinds of trees, usually the kinds of trees that they love or particularly care for.
When it comes to Entish culture, there are a lot of little clues that we get throughout Tolkien’s writings about how the Ents live their quiet, secretive daily lives deep in the forests, surrounded by their tree-folk. Take, for instance, Treebeard’s home. It’s described as an open area of the forest along the edge of the nearby Misty Mountains. While it’s technically an architectural structure, in this case, “home” is a very generous word. All it is is a shallow bay carved into the side of the mountain — a sort of three-walled structure, if you will. There’s a waterfall and many of Treebeard’s trees are incorporated into the home, but there’s not much else in the way of purposeful structure. Treebeard has a bed that he can lie down on the inside, but again, there isn’t much else as far as furnishings go. So, while they do have homes, Ent-houses aren’t much to write home about.
As far as Ent food is concerned, the Ents have a simple yet famous diet, which is referred to as Ent-draughts. This consists of a magical beverage that is described as “like water” but with a quiet-yet-potent impact. The books explain that when the draught is drunk, it reminds one of a faint “smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Sounds pretty Entish to me. The intoxicating impact of the drink is powerful. It’s described as starting at the toes and then moving up through the body, delivering a refreshing and invigorating effect that makes the Hobbits feel like their hair is standing on end. It’s the kind of effect that could only be written up by an author who spent a lot of his days in a pub drinking and socializing with friends.
Merry and Pippin are the main characters that visit Treebeard’s home and get to drink the famous Entish elixir. In fact, the effects of that drink stick with them for the rest of their lives. It gives them a near-instant growth spurt (although nowhere in Tolkien’s writings does it happen, like, right there on the spot like in the deleted scene from “The Two Towers” movie.) Regardless of the speed of its delivery, though, the effect is impressive, and the Hobbits remain unusually tall and large for the rest of their lives. While Merry and Pippin are the only ones who get a taste test, though, the Entish drink is well-known across Middle-earth all the same. In fact, when Legolas hears about his friends getting to try Treebeard’s liquid food, he says that “Strange songs have been sung of the draughts of Fangorn,” clearly reflecting some previous knowledge about the reputation of the imbibition.
Of course, the Ents also have a life outside of their food and lodging. They shepherd their trees — an act that we don’t get to see in detail — and they occasionally gather in their Entish enclaves — those are the Entmoots that we already talked about. During the Entmoot that happens in “The Two Towers,” we see and hear about a bunch of little hints that give us a better idea of what daily life for the Ents looks like. For instance, when they’re together, we find that the Ents’ un-hastiness goes on steroids. They take endless amounts of sleep-inducing time greeting one another and making minor decisions. This is partly due to their unusually cumbersome language, a dialect that evolved over time. In some of his letters, Tolkien explains that the Entish language wasn’t always so complicated. In fact, earlier on it was quite a bit simpler. This jives with a line where Treebeard points out that, in his language, names are growing all the time. In “The Two Towers,” he adds that “Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say,” which means, yeah, after a while a name could get pretty lengthy.
Speaking of the Old Entish, Treebeard also gives us a glimpse of how his ancient tongue works when he says that it “is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” This slow, detailed approach to speaking pretty much sums up the entire Entish experience. If anything feels hasty or rushed, they don’t like it. In fact, Merry and Pippin’s Entish friend Bregalad tells them that his nickname is Quickbeam. It’s a title that he’s given when he says “yes” to an elder Ent before he had finished asking a question — plus, he tells them that he drinks too quickly and gets going with his day too quickly, and his slower companions get annoyed with the whole deal. Yeah, when it comes to Ents, slow and steady is the name of the game.
Alright, now that we’ve gotten a bit of a glimpse into how the Ents look and spend their daily lives, I want to talk a bit about where they live. No, not their Ent-houses. I mean what parts of Middle-earth they inhabit. By the time of “The Lord of the Rings,” the answer to that question is simple: they live in Fangorn forest. In fact, we already talked about how this forest isn’t just where the surviving Ents live. The area is literally named after Treebeard. In “The Two Towers,” the old Ent himself even says, “Fangorn is my name according to some, Treebeard others make it. Treebeard will do.”
While Fangorn is their ancient home, though, by this time it’s the last holdout of what used to be a much bigger living space. To get a better idea of just how expansive this used to be, we once again we turn to Treebeard’s introductory conversation with Merry and Pippin, where the master of Fangorn Forest explains to his new Halfling companions that the woods of the world used to be much bigger. He refers to this ancient time of arborescent glory as the “Broad Days” and says, “Time was when I could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of my own voice in the hollow hills.” Right before this, he also adds that “Aye, aye, there was all one wood once upon a time from here to the Mountains of Lune, and this was just the East End.” For those of you who can picture that classic Middle-earth map in your head, the Mountains of Lune are the mountain range to the left of the Shire away in the upper left-hand corner of the map. And guess what? This is the same area that, during the Second Age, is controlled by Lindon. Lindon is an Elven kingdom, it’s ruled by Gil-galad, it’s where Elrond lives for a long time, and it’ll be a central part of the “Rings of Power” show. So, yeah, here’s our first easy connection to how Ents could factor into Amazon’s version of Middle-earth. The Elven kingdom could easily be a stomping ground that the Ents visit — and they could even get there without ever leaving the woods. We know this because at one point in “The Lord of the Rings,” Elrond explains how in the past the woods of Middle-earth were so dense that a squirrel could hop from one tree to the next from an area like the Shire all the way to the areas around Isengard and Fangorn.
But it turns out that this isn’t even the full extent of the woodlands that the Ents used to explore and dwell in. At the end of the First Age (just before Amazon’s Middle-earth show begins) there’s a big area of the map away to the left of the coast of Middle-earth that is still above water. This area is called Beleriand, and it’s where most of the big showdowns between Morgoth and the Elves and their allies take place early on in the story. Guess what? Before that area is sunk under the waves at the end of the age, a lot of it is covered in trees — and yes, the Ents live there, too. In fact, we get an earful about it from Treebeard himself when he trots out an ancient poem that talks about many of the places where he used to travel. I’m not even going to try to list all of the lengthy, complex names that he mentions, but if you look them up, they all correlate with different parts of Beleriand.
The other little hint — or, I guess more than a hint, really — of Ents living in Beleriand during the First Age comes in “The Silmarillion.” At one point, a nasty battle takes place between the Elves and the Dwarves, and the Dwarves end up losing. It’s an ambush, and most of them are killed, but a few hold together and break away, trying to escape to safety. As they retreat, it says, well, I’ll just read it to you, “And as they climbed the long slopes beneath Mount Dolmed there came forth the Shepherds of the Trees, and they drove the Dwarves into the shadowy woods of Ered Lindon: whence, it is said, came never one to climb the high passes that led to their homes.” You can just ignore the geography here. For now, what we’re interested in is the fact that the Ents aren’t just around. In this case, they join in a fight …against Dwarves. This explains Treebeard’s hostility toward Gimli when he realizes that Legolas wants to visit Fangorn with a friend who is a Dwarf and an ax bearer. Fortunately, Gimli comes from a family of Dwarves with a very good reputation, whereas the folk attacked by the Ents in “The Silmarillion” have a much worse track record. Still, while Ents are primarily shown attacking Orcs and Uruk-hai in “The Lord of the Rings,” it’s interesting to note that, in the past, the children of Yavanna did end up tussling with the children of Aüle after all.
The last thing that I’ll say about Entish geography is that, while their homeland is severely restricted by the time that “The Lord of the Rings” starts, when it ends things are a bit more hopeful. See, at the end of “The Return of the King,” Aragorn actually gives them the valley of Isengard on the condition that they keep an eye out on the now-abandoned tower of Orthanc. He also says, “When this valley is filled there is room and to spare west of the mountains, where once you walked long ago.” He also says that “Lands will lie open to you eastward that have long been closed.”
While this is an awesome offer, though, Treebeard sadly turns down the second half of the deal due to some issues with the Entish population. Don’t get me wrong, he’s grateful, and it seems pretty clear that, at the least, the forests themselves will be able to spread and grow once again. The only problem is that their shepherds won’t be able to keep up with them. There just aren’t enough Ents left by the end of the Third Age. Why, you ask? Well because they lost the Entwives, of course. But that’s a story we’ll have to pick up, in all of its tragic glory, in the next episode.
Alright. That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.