Entomology: Studying the Shepherds of the Trees (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p46b)

The Ents/Manwë section of this chapter was written in 1959ish – a few years after the Lord of the Rings was published. Prior to their invention in that book, the Ents did not exist in any of Tolkien’s writings. And when he first wrote about them, during the creation of LotR, they were not the Ents we know and love today. Let’s take a look at how this all happened.

The word “ent” was first used by Tolkien when naming the land of the Trolls north of Rivendell. “Ent” was from the Old English “eoten” for “giant.” It had nothing to do with Treebeard’s Ents, which, at the time of the naming (early 1938), did not yet exist. (Return of the Shadow, p201, 205)

Toward the end of 1938, Tolkien had Sam say: “But what about these Tree-men, these here – giants? They do say as one nigh as big as a tower was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back.” (Return of the Shadow, p254) This could certainly have been the first mention of Ents, except that way back in 1917, when writing the first version of the Eärendel story, he also mentions the “Tree-men,” which probably weren’t anything remotely related to the Ents. (Book of Lost Tales II, p254)

Around Decemberish of 1938, Tolkien was trying to figure out the reason for Gandalf’s delay. Eventually, he devised the story about the wizard being held prisoner by Saruman, but the original idea was that Gandalf was “caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days as a prisoner of the Giant Treebeard.” (Return of the Shadow, p363)

It’s possible that this version of the Treebeard character was merely an evil (or at least not good) giant humanoid creature. In February of 1939, Tolkien wrote in a letter that there would be no dragon in Lord of the Rings, but that “there is going to be a giant.” (Letters, No. 35)

This idea may have been carried forward until July of that year, when Tolkien again turned to this large fellow. Seemingly out of nowhere, Tolkien wrote a short narrative describing a meeting between Frodo and Treebeard.

“Suddenly he felt a quiver in the gnarled tree-trunk against which he was leaning, and before he could spring away he was pushed, or kicked, forward onto his knees. Picking himself up he looked at the tree, and even as he looked, it took a stride toward him. He scrambled out of the way, and a deep rumbling chuckle came down out of the tree-top.

“‘Where are you, little beetle?’ said the voice. ‘If you don’t let me know where you are, you can’t blame me for treading on you. And please don’t tickle my leg!'”

In the short few paragraphs that followed, a quick description was given of Treebeard and his garden. But it’s noted that Frodo “is deceived by the giant who pretends to be friendly, but is really in league with the Enemy.” (Return of the Shadow, p382-3)

Though the physical description is as we know him, it’s clear that this Treebeard is no Shepherd of the Forest. The in-story chronology of this passage seems to take place after Frodo was to be separated from the Fellowship. However, Tolkien wasn’t quite up to drafting the Council of Elrond material. Along the way, believing he knew where he was going, Tolkien inserted warnings and mentions of the “giant Treebeard” throughout the text.

Later in 1939, while revising and rewriting the Council of Elrond bits, Tolkien began to reconsider Treebeard’s allegiance. “If Treebeard comes in at all,” he jotted down in a note, “let him be kindly and rather good?” He fleshed out his physical description more, even placing him in a “castle in the Black Mountains,” giving him “many thanes and followers” who “look like young trees when they stand.” The “tree-giants” aid in breaking the siege of Ond (Gondor) and rescuing Trotter (proto-Strider). These were the first Ents, though not yet in name. (Return of the Shadow, p410)

As he did with many things, Tolkien changed his mind. In August of 1940, he switched Treebeard back to his original evil self and reinstated the idea that Gandalf had been held as his prisoner. Curiously, it was also at this time when Saruman (named “Saramund” at first) came into the picture. He was a wizard, like Gandalf, and even betrayed him as in this early version. Even with an out for Treebeard, the poor creature was reverted again to evil. (Treason of Isengard, p9, 70-71, 130)

In late 1940 or early 1941, Tolkien had written the story to the Mines of Moria, where he stopped and contemplated what would come next. After the Fellowship was to be split, he wished for Merry and Pippen to “come up Entwash into Fangorn and have adventure with Treebeard,” who “turns out a decent giant… perturbed by news of Saruman, and more so by the fall of Gandalf.” (Treason of Isengard, p210.) With that, and with the “tree-giants” dreamed up before, Tolkien was basically set.

Except for the name “Ent,” which at this point was only used to mean “giant.” Even the Entwash didn’t quite refer to Treebeard’s species, still called the “tree-giants” or “tree-folk.” This came about in notes written just as he delivered the Fellowship to Galadriel and Celeborn. The Elves warn them of the Fangorn Forest upon the Ogodrûth or Entwash. “He is an Ent or great giant.” (Treason of Isengard, p250)

With this established, Tolkien wouldn’t really return to the Ents until later in 1941, when scribbling down some notes. In these, he tried to come up with some origin for these creatures – Yavanna was no where to be seen.

“Did the first lord of the Elves make Tree-folk in order to or through trying to understand trees?” he asked himself.

Camera: Arguc C3 Film: ORWO UN54

Camera: Arguc C3
Film: ORWO UN54

He continued: “In some ways rather stupid. Are the Tree-folk (‘Lone-walkers’) hnau [basically Men – actually a term coined by C.S. Lewis] that have gone tree-like, or trees that have become hnau?” He also tried to parse the difference between Ents and Trolls. The latter were “stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, stone-giants” – but stopped shot of giving the parallel for the Ents. In these notes, there were only three Ents left, one of whom, Leaflock, had gone off to Isengard and become “tree-ish”. (Treason of Isengard, p411-412)

The story in Lord of the Rings would change a bit here and there until it reached the version we all now know, but shortly after the publication of Two Towers, Tolkien addressed the Ents’ real-life origins. Writing that “the Ents seem to have been a success generally.” They, he continued, “grew rather out of their name, than the other way about. I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar Anglo Saxon word ent for a ‘giant’ or a mighty person of long ago – to whom all old works were ascribed.” (Letters No. 157)

It was four or five years later that he wrote their in-story origins that appear in the published Silmarillion. This was done in a piece called “Anaxartamel” or “Of the Ents and the Eagles,” which was not then intended to be included in the larger book at all. (War of the Jewels, p340-1)

But even this didn’t seem to settle it. In a note made on a letter written in September of 1963, Tolkien penned the following:

“No one knew whence they (Ents) came or first appeared. The High Elves said that the Valar did not mention them in the ‘Music’. But some (Galadriel) were of the opinion that when Yavanna discovered the mercy of Eru to Aulë in the matter of the Dwarves, she besought Eru (through Manwë) asked him 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. (Not all were good [words illegible]) The Ents thus had mastery over stone. The males were devoted to Oromë, but the Wives to Yavanna.” (Letters No. 247)

If you remember my (many) Galadriel posts, it was in the 1960s when Tolkien really wished to build Galadriel up as the most important Elf ever. Though the Ents had nothing to do with Galadriel, she was pegged as the source for the story of their origin. To know this, she would have had to have been intimate with Yavanna – a very lofty position.

When compiling and editing the Silmarillion for publication, Christopher Tolkien combined the two very separate writings about the Dwarves and Ents (and Eagles), and moved them to the Second Chapter slot. It stopped what little narrative there was dead in its tracks, but it became a fan-favorite in the process – something that probably wouldn’t have happened if it would have remained tucked away as his father wished it.

Originally, the segment about the Dwarves was part of what later became Chapter Twelve: “Of Men” and the bits on the Ents and Eagle wasn’t there at all. Just like that, Christopher Tolkien made canon out of speculation.


Some Note:

  • We’re moving to chapter three in the next post, I promise!

Pages & Text

  • Page 46
  • Chapter: Of Aulë and Yavanna, Paragraphs 17-23
  • Starting with:
    “Then Manwë sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna…”
  • Ending with:
    “…and he went on with his smith-work.”

7 thoughts on “Entomology: Studying the Shepherds of the Trees (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p46b)

  1. Hoom, hum. Ents are awesome. I’m so glad they weren’t evil. Evil Treebeard just seems so wrong. Plus then we wouldn’t get the awesome Entish-draught of whoop ass that he gives Merry. Or the metaphorical cup of whoop ass he unleashes on Saruman. Two of my favorite little bits of Two Towers.

  2. There’s also an Old English word ‘ent’ next to ‘eoten’, meaning ‘giant’. It’s found in Beowulf in the combination ‘enta geweorc’ “the work of giants”, but also in the Old English Bible for Greek ‘gigas’.

  3. Hi Eric, I’ve had an absolute nightmare keeping up with this lately, been too bogged down with coursework, need to take the time to catch up with it all now. I think I last got about page 19 haha. When do you think you will be doing The Two Towers and is there any news on the podcast yet?

    • Hey! Honestly, I can’t really blame you. I’m having trouble keeping up with other blogs and even podcasts lately. Even my own!

      As for going back to LotR, I wouldn’t look for it any time soon. Same goes for the podcast. I’m just so swamped with life right now, I don’t know how I’d fit something like that into it.

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