By this point in the game, I believe it’s generally understood by all that whenever we encounter a new race in Middle-Earth, there is much world building to be had. This chapter is all kinds of long, and not a lot happens in terms of action, but there is a richness found here that opens up Tolkien’s lore. In the process, it also introduces one of the great quandaries that Tolkien scholars wrestle with.
Merry and Pippin run as fast as their Hobbit legs will carry them into the forest, not knowing which forest it is, and at this point not really caring. Safety from Orcs first, questions later. Eventually they stop for a much-needed drink of water. They come across a rock wall of sorts and climb up natural stairs, coming face-to-face with one of Tolkien’s most magnificent creations. He has many names, but he is known as an Ent — the Ent, though there are more than one, and though there are other beings that are called Ents even when they are not. Some call him Treebeard, and it is by that name that Merry and Pippin may address him. He’s a fourteen foot being with the characteristics of the trees of the forest, but there are also traits of the fleshy beings of Middle-Earth about him as well. Treebeard is cautious by nature — “Don’t be hasty” — but also hospitable once he becomes aware of the Hobbits and determines they are not Orcs. He takes them to an Ent house and offers drink and shelter. He knows Gandalf, and learning that the Hobbits are friends of Gandalf, he asks for news of the outside world. He becomes angry when he learns how Saruman and has tamed Orcs to serve him and resolves to gather the Ents to march on Isengard. The thing is, there aren’t many Ents. The Entmaidens and Entwives are missing, and the Ents cannot find them, so their population has dwindled considerably without new Entings being born to replace the elders.
Treebeard leads our Hobbits to a meeting of Ents at Entmoot. Two dozen Ents are gathered, and more come. The next day they march on Isengard, angry at their “young” neighbor Saruman for cutting down the trees, burning them without cause, and training Orcs to not fear the might of Fangorn Forest. When Pippin looks, the whole forest is moving. The trees have awakened. The march of the Ents has begun.
Ok, so I say not a lot happens in this chapter, but those who know Ents from the film version only will say this chapter really sped things up considerably. Quite the reverse is true, obviously, as Jackson stretched things out and really exaggerated the glacier speeds of the Ents in terms of speech and decision making. Dramatic license. Go figure. It’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of that decision, but Tolkien sees the matter as pretty much cut and dried for the Ents. It takes only one lengthy chapter for the Ents to gather. This is how far gone Middle-Earth is, when even the slow and cautious are roused to arms in righteous cause.
Let’s dive into some of the world building, shall we?
I’ll start by calling your attention to my discussion of the Prologue for The Lord of the Rings. I talked about how war isn’t the devil, but in Tolkien’s world it’s the manifestation of dragon-sickness writ large throughout Middle-Earth. Everything in this book is often misinterpreted as being a corollary to World War II, and it’s easy to see that. But remember that WWII is the sequel to the First World War, and Tolkien was there for that. At the battle of Verdun, great forests were torched and chewed to splinters in hails of bullets in minutes, turning the landscapes into something resembling the surface of the moon. The same happened at the battle of the Somme, which Tolkien experienced firsthand. That sort of thing is the memory that does not ever go away. That was the foundation for the land of Mordor. The hand of destruction is manifest in the Orcs who blindly serve the All-Seeing Eye. Such destruction has a face, a personification.
In Middle-Earth, nature fights back in all her majesty against those malevolent forces. The Ents, and Treebeard in particular, are manifestations of Tolkien’s grief at seeing such dark forces. The war left Europe changed by the fires and black smoke of industrialization. Green places of the world were minimized and reduced to ash. Middle-Earth does nothing on a small scale, for even Hobbits have big hearts. The forests of the world were once one forest, Fangorn being but one remnant of a more bountiful bygone age. Again, that old Tolkien nostalgia for “the good ole days.” By the time we reach the end of the Third Age, the forests are dwindled considerably, probably because the guardians of the forests have also dwindled in number. As a result, war and development have overtaken the world, both in the long-reaching gaze of Sauron, and in the lesser but no less destructive hand of Saruman.
As the aim of this project is all about full spoilers in the interest of enlightenment, I’m jumping ahead a bit in saying this, but Gandalf (who will return in the next chapter) will make the statement that Treebeard is the oldest living being in Middle-Earth. I did say before we started this project that sooner or later Tolkien would contradict himself. This is one of those times, and it’s become an interesting point of contention among enthusiasts because it paints Gandalf as perhaps a bit less knowing than he should be considered.
The Ents were created during the Years of the Trees, before the creation of the stars, though there are trees in Fangorn said to be older than Treebeard. He had memories of the destruction of the great forest from the Elder Days, memories of the willow-meads of Tasarinan, the elm-woods of Ossiriand, the pine-trees of Dorthonion, and the beeches of Neldoreth. He was with his beloved Fimbrethil, but she and the other Entwives left for the gardens of the Entwives, missing ever since. Sauron destroyed those lands in the Second Age, and it’s anyone’s guess where either are now, the Entwives or where those gardens used to be.
I probably could have saved some of that history for a later paragraph in this discussion, but I got caught up. So let’s backtrack a bit to the Years of the Trees. The reason this point of Treebeard being the eldest being in Middle-Earth is in dispute is because it is the Elves who awakened the trees, marking them older than Ents. Regardless of whether or not we want to maybe concede a point that all of the elves who were there when the trees awakened are now dead, we’ve already met Tom Bombadil, who is older still, and still ever the study of contradiction itself. So there are two possibilities. The first is that Tolkien has overwritten himself into a corner and is plainly wrong, and the second is that Gandalf is wrong. Neither explanation seems “correct” nor satisfying to me, and I refuse to point fingers. I’ll leave it to each reader to make the determinations as they will. I simply wanted to shine that light on the point and acknowledge that this situation exists.
There are three songs and poems in this chapter that beg for attention, for as we know, that’s where Tolkien plants his seeds of world building genius.
“The Long List of the Ents” is a catalog of sorts of every living in Middle-Earth known to the Ents. Treebeard recites it in the attempt to identify Hobbits, who have simply slipped beneath the histories and out of knowledge from the wider world. A verse for Hobbits is suggested by Pippin, and we’ll see later at the parley with Saruman that Treebeard has acted upon that suggestion.
“Treebeard’s Song”… I’ve actually discussed this one already, above. It’s essentially a rundown of Treebeard’s history, where he’s been, what he’s seen.
“The Ent and the Entwife” explores the longing that one might imagine is there between these beings. Treebeard recites it for the Hobbits and claims it to be Elvish, quick-worded, and soon-ended, which to my mind says that he thinks it’s insufficient to carry the emotional weight it hints at. He might be right. For my money, a straight reading of this one just doesn’t do it justice. I’m particularly enamored with how well it translates to song, and how much more the longing is ratcheted up in such an expression. My touchstone for this, of course, is The Tolkien Ensemble. As always, where there are poems and songs to be found in Tolkien’s pages, The Tolkien Ensemble offers their renditions, and I’m happy to share because my appreciation for their interpretation of Tolkien knows no bounds. You can find this chapter’s offerings at the links below. You may be delighted hear from old Golden Throat himself, the late, great Sir Christopher Lee.
There are other lines of poetry as the chapter closes. The Ents use poetry to great effect when memorializing their dead as they rally against Isengard. You can hear that in the mournful strains of “Bregalad’s Song.”
There are rhymes of battle cry. It’s powerful stuff. “The Ents’ Marching Song” is taken from the few lines of poetry in the text as well as Treebeard’s prose. Hearing Treebeard’s lines performed by Christopher Lee is just weird to me in the wake of his performance as Saruman, but I do so love the irony. Truly, did any greater fan of Tolkien’s work ever live than Christopher Lee? His enthusiasm remains!