In this week’s episode, we’re talking about something that’s big and also true—from a certain point of view. We’re kicking off an intermittent series called Big If True in Literature and Culture with a discussion of ents, giant tree-people in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. We learn about what they are, what they do, and why they’re so cool.
Guest bio: David Montgomery
David H. Montgomery is a Minneapolis-based journalist and podcaster. Currently he works as a data reporter with MPR News, using data and visualizations to cover politics and COVID-19. He is also the host of The Siècle podcast about France’s overlooked history in between Napoleon and World War I. He graduated from Grinnell College and enjoys the Chicago Cubs, board games, and overthinking everything.
Maggie: Have you ever been walking through a forest, and you look around, and all of a sudden it feels like the trees are alive?
Abby: Or maybe you’ve seen a shadow in the woods and you weren’t sure whether it was a tree or a person?
Maggie: Of course, once you’ve walked past, you might realize that it was nothing more than an oddly shaped branch, or the wind blowing in just the right way.
Abby: But… what if…
Maggie: those tree shaped things were actually creatures who just looked like trees, but weren’t really trees? That’s what we’re talking about today!
Abby: Today we’ve got a special literary episode of
Maggie and Abby: Big If True,
Maggie: Where I, Maggie,
Abby: And I, Abby,
Maggie: explore the truth about big things.
Maggie: Today we’re talking about something that actually isn’t true—or at least, it’s not exactly real.
Abby: Yes, today we’re starting a recurring series called Big If True in Literature and Culture, where we talk about things that aren’t real in our world, but they are real in someone’s imagination.
Maggie: Our topic today is ents, which are giant tree-people in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. We’re talking about this today because today is National Tolkien Reading Day. Millions of people all over the world love reading Tolkien—I guess that’s why there’s a day dedicated to doing it! But if you’ve never read Tolkien before, that’s ok! Today, you can learn a little bit about the world he created, along with us, and maybe this will make you want to read some of his works! The Lord of the Rings series is also a series of movies, so you can get your Tolkien that way too. So here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge.
Abby: Which Lord of the Rings book has the most ents in it?
Maggie: A: The Fellowship of the Ring; B: The Two Towers, or C: The Return of the King.
Abby: We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show! Our guest today is a Tolkien fan who has been reading about ents for a long time.
Montgomery: My name is David Montgomery, I am a journalist and podcaster. And my day job, I am a data reporter in Minnesota, covering making charts and graphs and doing data analysis of all sorts of stuff from politics to COVID-19. And in my spare time, I’m the host of the Siecle, a history podcast about France in the 19th century.
Maggie: When did you first learn about Lord of the Rings?
Montgomery: Oh, almost as long ago as I can remember, I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings back in third or fourth grade, I can’t remember exactly when. But was just obsessed. Especially with the maps, I loved the maps and the front of the books and would draw my own versions of the maps and make up my own worlds and drop, like, kingdoms like Gondor and Rohan into them. And then when I was in high school, The Lord of the Rings movies came out and I watched those over and over again, until I basically can hear a fragment of the soundtrack and know exactly what part of the movie it’s set during.
Abby: So, quick 1-minute synopsis of the Lord of the Rings series. There are elves, dwarves, men, wizards, and especially hobbits. The hobbits are very short and they live far away from most of the problems in the world called Middle Earth. But the problems find them when one hobbit finds a special ring. It turns out the ring is the property of the greatest bad guy in Middle Earth, a guy named Sauron. Sauron wants to obliterate all the good people and creatures in Middle Earth so he can rule the whole world. If he gets the ring, he’ll be able to do it. So a hobbit named Frodo, and some friends, have to figure out how to destroy the ring, and also fight off Sauron’s armies at the same time. I won’t spoil the ending for you, though.
Maggie: We’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings series out loud together, where there are a lot of unusual creatures. But ents seem like some of the most unusual. Can you tell us what an ent is?
Montgomery: In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books, ents are walking, talking trees, who serve as protectors of the forests. The most famous ent in the books is named Treebeard, and he makes friends with the hobbits Merry and Pippin in the book The Two Towers.
Maggie: How big are ents? What do they look like?
Montgomery: So they’re really big. Treebeard, we are told, is “at least fourteen feet high.” As for the others, we’re told the ents all look different, “as different from one another as trees from trees.” Some were like chestnut trees, with big hands and “short thick legs,” others were like ash trees, “tall straight grey Ents” with “long legs.” Tolkien says the ents who were like fir trees were the tallest, so the tallest ents were probably even taller than Treebeard, who was like an oak.
Maggie: So they look like trees…do they sound like trees? They must be able to talk if they can make friends with the hobbits.
Montgomery: Tolkien describes them as talking very slowly with deep voices. They also have their own language, but most of them also speak the tongues of humans. In the movies, Treebeard is voiced by John Rhys-Davies, who also portrays Gimli, the dwarf, and he has a very rich booming slow voice, which he portrays Treebeard with lots of hmm rooms and drawn out, drawn out sounds. So it’s it’s a very distinctive way of speaking.
Maggie: What do ents eat?
Montgomery: They have a beverage that they have called the ent draft, which tastes like sort of a earthy natural water that you might get from a spring. But it has a magical quality to it that when the hobbits Merry and Pippin drink it, they grow. It has the ability to make other things big. So Merry and Pippin ended up being several inches taller than they were when they started out their adventure because of their stay with the ents and their abundant consumption of the draft.
Maggie: Can you tell us about the history of the ents?
Montgomery: Tolkien wrote about the backstory in a separate book called the Silmarillion. The ents were originally created by the gods to serve as the defenders of plants. “Would that trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!” wished one of the gods of Middle Earth, named Yavanna, which I may be pronouncing incorrectly. I don’t speak any of Tolkien’s invented languages. That’s how the ents were created. But when we meet them in the Two Towers, the ents have largely been doing nothing. They move at a slower pace than humans or hobbits, who they consider hasty. Many of the ents have been growing sleepy or going tree-ish, as Treebeard says. So the question in the books is whether they’ll continue to sit around gathering moss, so to speak, or if they’ll go to war against the forces of evil, and that’s the key decision that the ents have to face in the book.
Montgomery: The ents live in the forest of Fangorn in Middle Earth, which is near the country of Rohan and Isengard is described as a very old ancient forests with lots of scary stories about it. Some of those scary stories end up being nothing but stories and some of them end up being true.
Maggie: Do ents have special powers?
Montgomery: Oh, they sure do! the most obvious power of the ents is they’re really big and really strong. So we’re told they can pick up and throw huge boulders, and their punches are so strong that they crumple up iron. Their skin is thicker and tougher than bark, and it’s almost impossible for ordinary swords and bows and stuff like that to penetrate. On top of that, the ents also have some magical powers concerning trees and plants. They are tree shepherds, and they’re capable of waking up trees and guiding them, leading entire armies of walking trees.
Maggie: Which do you think is the ent’s coolest power?
Montgomery: So I think the coolest thing sort of depends on your perspective, it might be the way in which they go to war and are just incredibly strong and able to tear down walls with their bare hands, rip apart gates, etc. But for me, it’s, it’s something a little bit more general, the way in which they’re characterized as incredibly slow moving, but incredibly dangerous once aroused. They sit around doing nothing, but they’re like a boulder rolling downhill: once they get moving, you cannot stop them.
Maggie: All the ents you’ve mentioned so far are boy ents. Are all ents boys?
Montgomery: All the ents we meet in Lord of the Rings are boy ents. But Treebeard says that there used to be girl ents who he calls the entwives. The wives are also walking talking trees like the boy ents. But Treebeard says that, while the boy ents focused on the great trees in the wild woods, the entwives “gave their minds to the lesser trees and plants.” So instead of wild woods, they tended gardens and fields. They taught men and hobbits some of their skills with plants, helping them to grow crops. But long ago Treebeard says the entwives disappeared. The ents looked for them everywhere. But by the time the events of The Lord of the Rings, they’re only a memory to the ents. It’s a sad story and one that Tolkien never really resolves.
Maggie: Which books are ents in?
Montgomery: The ents are mostly in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, which is the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re mentioned a little bit in the third book, The Return of the King, and Tolkien talks about their backstory in the Silmarillion, which is his collection of myths and legends of Middle Earth. But interestingly, there’s a moment in the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, that might or might not be an appearance of an ent, or even one of the missing entwives. So early on in this book, while the hobbits are still in the Shire, and haven’t yet set off on their adventure, the hobbit Sam is at a tavern talking about odd goings on in the area, spooky things that people have seen and tall tales, etc. And he mentions that his cousin saw a tree man walking in the countryside, not long back, “as big as an elm tree and walking seven yards to the stride.” This early in the books, this is dismissed as a tall tale. But of course, later on, we meet actual walking talking trees. So it’s possible that this could be a sneak preview of the ents.
Maggie: Hey, there’s the answer to our quiz question: Ents are mostly found in the middle book of the Lord of the Rings series, called the Two Towers. They’re actually a really important part of the story!
Maggie: David, thanks for talking to us about Ents and Tolkien! This was fun!
Abby: So now, listeners, it’s your turn. Remember, today is Tolkien Reading Day. The Lord of the Rings books are pretty fun to read out loud, right, Maggie?
Maggie: Yes! We’ve read three Tolkien books so far: The Fellowship of the Rings, the Two Towers, and the prequel to the Lord of the Rings, called The Hobbit. We’re just starting in on the final book of the series, The Return of the King.
Abby: So why not try out some Tolkien today? Now, Tolkien wrote these books in the 1950s, so it might be a little different from the books you’re used to. So if Tolkien feels too hard to read or understand, you could ask your adult to read the books aloud to you. Reading with an adult is a great way to start loving new books. Or follow along in the book while you listen to an audiobook. An audiobook can help you out with some of the unusual names, too—like Faramir and Lothlorien.
Maggie: And that’s our show for today! Join us again next time for another episode of
Maggie and Abby: Big If True!
Abby: Big If True is produced by me, Abby, and Maggie. Our theme music is by Andrew Cote, but this week Maggie and I composed the incidental music! Special thanks to David Montgomery for being our expert guest this week. Make sure you check out his podcast. And most of all, thank YOU for listening.