Thursday 19 May 2011

Thoughts on reading about Ents

I have been running late with just about everything this month (for an explanation, see the latest edition of my  Tolkien Transactions), including reading the April issue of Mythprint (vol. 48 no. 4, whole no. 345) — the bulletin of the Mythopoeic Society.

The first article is about Ents, “Tolkien's Ents: Sylvan and Pagan Influences” by Professor Fernando Cid Lucas and translated by the editor, Jason Fisher.

The first thing that caught my attention (that is, it took my attention away from reading the text) was the description of the topic of the article as ‘the Ents (or tree-men).’ It was the use of ‘tree-men’ that caught my eye: why ‘tree-men’ rather than ‘man-trees’ or some other phrase? Of course I can't know what Professor Lucas wrote in the original (presumably Spanish) text, but I was strongly reminded of Gamling's words in The Lord of the Rings when he speaks of ‘these half-orcs and goblin-men that the foul craft of Saruman has bred’ (LotR, book III,7 ‘Helm's Deep’), and in particular of Tolkien's description in text X of ‘Myths Transformed’ in Morgoth's Ring when he speaks of Saruman committing his vilest deed in ‘the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.

What is the difference between Men-orcs and Orc-men?

The ‘large and cunning’ as opposed to ‘treacherous and vile’ makes me think that the Men-orcs were probably the Uruks of Isengard, while the Orc-men probably were of the same kind as the Southener the four hobbits and Aragorn saw in Bree. But is my reasoning correct, and can this be presumed to follow common usage — I can't say.

In Danish, I would say that the last part of the compound word is the most important, that this is the base that is modified by the prefixing of other words (we don't use hyphens or spaces in our compounds, which occasionally creates some very special compound words such as ‘sporvognsskinneskidtskraber’ — tram rail dirt scraper). If the same is the case in English (Tolkien's usage in Morgoth's Ring would at least suggest that the last part signified which of the parent creatures the half-breeds most closely resembled physically), then the legend of the Ent and the Eagles (The Silmarillion, part III chapter 2 ‘Of Aulë and Yavanna’ or The War of the Jewels part 3 chapter VI  ‘Of the Ents and the Eagles’) would suggest that it was better to say ‘Man-trees’ of the Ents.

Having now spent this much space splitting hairs on a single term, let me say a few things about the main thrust of the article.

The article posits the so called Green Man tradition as well as the possibly related Jack-in-the-green tradition as influencing Tolkien's concept of the Ents. This in itself is hardly controversial (even if the article doesn't mention that the term ‘Green Man’ was coined by Lady Raglan and published in the journal Folklore in 1939, not long after Tolkien had started writing The Lord of the Rings and before he got to the giant Treebeard), and it does leave me slightly disappointed as there was nothing new for me to learn about the Green Man, Jack-in-the-green, Tolkien or Ents. I am probably slightly better versed in matters of English folklore than the average Dane, but the readership of Mythprint are the members of the Mythopoeic Society, whom I would assume to be familiar with both the Green Man and Jack-in-the-green at the level at which they are dealt with in this article (this may not have been the case for an original Spanish-reading audience).

I am not as such averse to source-criticism, but I do believe that it must contribute more than just a source. A source is, to me, uninteresting if it doesn't tell me something new about the thing, the author, or perhaps even the source itself. In this case I think that there are several routes that could be pursued if the article had been a little longer — could, for instance, the symbolisms of fertility and growth that are present in both the Green Man and Jack-in-the-green help us understand the Ents? We do see the growth aspect realized in Merry and Pippin when they drink the Ent-draughts, so could we use the fertility / spring-rebirth aspects of these figures to learn something about the Ents and their role in Tolkien's stories and in Middle-earth?  Or could we use our knowledge of the Ents to say something about what Tolkien may have believed about the Green Man?

And how is this related to the etymology of Ent? The word is cognate with Norse jotunn which were the opponents of the Aesir in the Norse mythology, and at least some of the jotunn were clearly personifications of natural forces (e.g. Surtr who is the jötunn of fire and heat). Is there a synergy to be found here that might tell us more about the role of Ents in Middle-earth?

So, all in all this was, in my view, a very promising article that was unfortunately cut too short, stopping without fulfilling the promise. I hope that Professor Lucas will take up the topic again with an eye to how the sources may inform our understanding of the Ents or some other angle that will teach us something new.


  1. I think that there are several routes that could be pursued if the article had been a little longer […]. So, all in all this was, in my view, a very promising article that was unfortunately cut too short […].

    Yes, this is true, and it's an unfortunate side-effect of the size of the publication. Lucas's piece was about 1,000 words, and very seldom can I give an author more space. I wish I could. I would like to increase the length of Mythprint, but because one-third of our subscribers are still taking the publication in print form, the costs of postage make this impossible.

    Your own thoughts above are very welcome indeed, and I would be happy to pass them on to the author. As for "tree-men" versus "man-trees" … As in Danish, in English the most important element comes last and whatever precedes it is a modifier. I would say, in spite of the chapter on their origin which Tolkien added to his "Silmarillion" material after the fact, that "tree-men" is the better solution. Wouldn't you agree that the Ents are more like men than they are like trees? They do resemble trees, but in their cognition, speech, movement, moods, etc., they are far more like men than trees. (The original Spanish compound Lucas used is hombres-árbol. In Spanish, unlike Danish and English, modifiers follow their key nouns.)

  2. You are very welcome to pass my ideas on to Lucas -- I'd be proud if they should prove useful.

    I am aware of the limititations of Mythprint and I wondered if I should post this, but if I can contribute to prompting a follow-up article, it will certainly be worth it.

  3. As for the Ents, I think good arguments could be made either way.

    Visually (which appears to have been Tolkien's primary guide with Orc-men and Man-orcs) they do look like trees, and I think that Tolkien did think of them as somehow representing the view of trees and forests ('nobody cares for the woods as I care for them')

    On the other hand, I appreciate that their designation as the shepherds of the trees gives them a rather human-like role to fulfil - shepherding trees rather than being trees. And of course they are, in their reactions to the world, remarkably human.


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