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  • The Myth of the Ent and the Entwife
  • Corey Olsen (bio)

In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis defines a myth as "a particular kind of story which has a value in itself—a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work" (41). Seeking to illustrate this principle, he points to several examples in modern literature, including two from The Lord of the Rings: Lothlórien and the Ents (42-43).

Lewis here bestows rather extraordinary praise on Tolkien's depiction of the Ents and their "long sorrow" (TT, III, v, 102). By placing them in the same category as the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and of Cupid and Psyche, Lewis attributes to the Ents a sublimity that greatly transcends their role in the Lord of the Rings. Although Lewis's compliment to his friend's achievement is profound, it is equally tantalizing; Lewis immediately moves on from his Tolkienian examples without analysis or explanation. He alludes to Treebeard and the Ents again briefly in his essay "The Dethronement of Power," remarking that "Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book" (13), but he never does elucidate exactly what it was that he saw in Tolkien's Ents that he believed to resonate so deeply with the human psyche. That argument he seems to have left to future generations of Tolkien's readers.

Unfortunately, no modern Tolkien critics have yet taken up the interpretive challenge implicit in Lewis's high praise. Indeed, few critics have shown much interest at all in the Ents and Entwives as literary creations. The critical literature is remarkably silent about them; few critics give them more than a passing glance. Of those who do consider them, some critics have contented themselves simply with discussing the Ents' possible mythological forebears. In The Mythology of Middle-earth, for instance, Ruth Noel observes that the Ents are "most like the huge, wild, hairy woodsprites of Teutonic myth" (130) and discusses possible connections between the division of the Ents and the Entwives and a similar separation and debate over different kinds of land in Norse mythology (131). However, no discussion follows regarding how Tolkien might be melding these mythological elements and what the literary results of such a blending might be.

Some critics do pay a modicum of attention to Tolkien's depiction of the Ents in his story, but often without going further than viewing it as some kind of allegorical representation of highly generalized ideas. Paul Kocher, for instance, characterizes the Entwives' departure from the forests to practice agriculture as "almost a parable of how Earth's [End Page 39] originally nomadic tribes settled down in one place when they learned to till the soil" (155), but he gives no explanation of the function that such a parable would serve in Tolkien's story, or of how it might fit into the larger patterns of Tolkien's thought. David Harvey concludes that the Ents are "symbolic personifications of raw elemental power," adding that as a race, the Ents "reflect the essence of nature" (111). These claims certainly point to clear correlations that Tolkien invites his readers to make with the Ents, but they still do not provide much beyond the broadest generalities. There is nothing in these observations to distinguish, for example, between the Ents' relationship to nature1 and that of the Elves, or of Tom Bombadil, or even of the Entwives. Harvey's slightly more substantive claim that the loss of the Entwives "is symbolic of the irreplaceability of nature once it has been destroyed by the black, smoky, reeking powers of an industrial society" certainly points to an idea that is very important to Tolkien, but it does more to trivialize than to illuminate the delicacy of Tolkien's myth (111).

In their recent book, Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans engage in a much longer and more careful consideration of the Ents and Entwives, but their reading is premised on the same kinds of symbolic abstraction that Harvey relies upon. Dickerson and Evans see the Ents and the Entwives...


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