One of the most amusing fan debates (for me) has been the legend of the Ent-wives, launched by an anonymous forum member using the name Teleporno. Teleporno’s thread, “I found the Ent-wives!”, became infuriatingly long and devoid of helpful information for many fans, although it certainly drew a lot of interesting comments and facts.
Teleporno claimed to have contacted the Tolkien Society about a passage that no one had noticed in 50 years of people reading The Lord of the Rings. The TS, of course, never came out and said anything about the alleged find.
The Ent-wives are an example of Tolkien’s skill at illusion. They never actually appear in the story (if you accept that any old birch stump is nothing more than that) except in anecdotes shared by Treebeard. But the reader feels their presence through the void that Treebeard creates. This is an example of literary misdirection, the illusionist distracting the audience with a simple fact (people are talking about the Ent-wives) to obscure the not-so-obvious fact (there are no Ent-wives).
Many an essay on the Ent-wives has attempted to examine every reference to tree and garden in the hope of finding some trace that Tolkien never directly acknowledged. The mystery of the Ent-wives’ fate has spawned one of the greatest conspiracy theory communities of literary fiction. Once in a while people ask me what I think happened to the Ent-wives. I think Sauron killed them all. Period. No more story. But my opinion is rather boring.
There have been times when I was tempted to respond, point-by-point, to some of the most detailed arguments about where the Ent-wives could or should have ended up, but having walked that rocky path many times I have never wanted enough to bruise my feet again to plunge into this argument. Frankly, anyone who wants the Ent-wives to be hidden in Tolkien’s tale, staring out at the reader with a patient expression that anticipates a Great Reveal is hardly going to be convinced by my logic; nor would my logic be authoritative enough to convince even me.
I see no evidence of the Ent-wives in the story, no trace of their survival, and so I choose to believe they did not survive the War of the Last Alliance. But that is my choice, my belief, and it is an opinion that I thankfully do not have to defend.
Why, though, should we care about the fate of the Ent-wives? No one has ever shed a tear for the Widows of Arnor (the wives of the soldiers who never returned home from the war). Even Tolkien reduced them to nameless wives for Elendil and Isildur. And has no one ever thought to ask what became of Mrs. Amandil? We know she did not accompany her husband on his last tragic voyage. Poor lady: did she die in Numenor, did she flee to Middle-earth? Is she forever trapped on some enchanted island left over from the days of the Shadowy Seas?
And where are the great debates and essays seeking meaning in the loss of wives and family by the Northmen who were driven from their homes in the East Bight by the Wainriders? How many broken hearts were there? Tolkien never mentions them but you know what happened to the girls left behind: they were forced into concubinage by their conquerors.
There is only one story where Tolkien provides any such detail about the fate of the women of a conquered people: the tale of Turin, whose mother was enslaved by Easterlings, and at least some of her kinswomen were taken as wives. This is the fate of women throughout history, when men go to war with each other. Whole tribes have been wiped out in the male line, but the daughters and wives still capable of bearing children are taken by the conquerors. We even have the ancient Roman story of the Rape of the Sabine Women, which tells us how men can become desperate for wives.
There are many stories of captive women in classical literature: the Amazon slaves who escaped Greek thralldom to go on to found the Sauromatae tribe with Scythian husbands, Achilles’ dispute with Agamemnon over the Trojan slave girl Briseis, and many more. But Tolkien only shares one story in Middle-earth where he names any of the women who suffer such a fate.
The Ent-wives, of course, could not be taken as concubines by any creatures serving Sauron, not even trolls (I think). And so having no use for them as slaves of debauchery or reproduction, Sauron’s only possible use might be to force the Ent-wives to be his agricultural slaves. And yet, if Mordor was thoroughly searched after the War of the Last Alliance, why did no one mention the Ent-wives? Why were they kept from the Ents who went searching for them?
I can see a new conspiracy theory emerging (or perhaps the plot of someone’s fan fiction): a small group of Gondorians did find Ent-wives, but they were so horribly treated by Sauron that the Men were sworn to secrecy so as to preserve the memory of the Ent-wives for what they had once been. But such a thought was never expressed by Tolkien.
There are no wives of slain Dwarves in The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Rian they don’t throw themselves on the great mound of burned Dwarves in the vale of Azanulbizar. There are no echoes of Elvish widows wandering across Eriador on their ways to the Havens. They have no place in The Lord of the Rings, even though they must have been there in Middle-earth in the back of Tolkien’s imagination.
The Ent-wives are accorded a special place, a unique function. By their very absence and loss they engender reader sympathy for the Ents and they make the Ents more human in the process. For who has not seen an aged friend or relative living on without a beloved spouse, seeking to fulfill the emptiness that once was filled? We don’t all come to know such loneliness but J.R.R. Tolkien surely saw it in his mother, who had to live on without Arthur Tolkien.
The Ent-wives hold a special place in all of Middle-earth. They stand in for all the lost wives of Middle-earth, sacrificed to insane wars that made no real sense, except that everyone understood “this was for our survival and freedom”. The Last Alliance of Elves and Men was every bit as meaningful as we want wars to be, fought for the cause of all people and not for the sake of powerful men’s egos and selfishness. But great wars must come with great loss. Maybe for Tolkien it was not enough, as author, to write about warriors slaughtering each other on the battlefields. Maybe he wanted to include the loss of innocents in such a way as not to affront his human readers.
The Ent-wives represent what everyone is fighting for in the War of the Ring: freedom, life, and happiness. They had all of that and it was taken away from them. They never asked to be included in any wars.
Perhaps in 50 years someone will write a convincing argument that persuades everyone alive then that, yes, J.R.R. Tolkien really did leave a clue buried in the pages of The Lord of the Rings and that somehow he meant for the Ent-wives to survive. But it’s doubtful anyone will stumble upon some long lost or hidden Tolkien text that explains the mystery of the Ent-wives, and if such a text surfaced today while people who knew Tolkien are still alive I am sure they would dispute it. The Great Reveal will have to wait at least another generation.
In the meantime we can appreciate the Ent-wives for their contribution to the story: they helped us to connect emotionally with the Ents, and assured the reader that the Ents themselves were vulnerable to deep, tragic loss. Leaving the mystery unsolved, unexplained creates intended dissatisfaction in the reader. Tolkien would never have wanted every question answered, every possible detail revealed. He wanted us to feel the sense of loss and mystery that his characters felt.
For now, if you feel the loss and are puzzled by the mystery, then that is enough. You have found the Ent-wives in The Lord of the Rings.