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Can You Truly Find the Ent-wives in The Lord of the Rings?

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.

About the Author: Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.


  • Chris McCreary

    This comment has nothing to do w/the Entwives question, but is another example of concubinage that isn’t explicitly mentioned by Tolkien: there is an implicit detail that when Saruman bred the Uruk-hai, which are said be hybrids of men and goblins/orcs, it was a “black evil” and the worst of Saruman’s doings, according to Treebeard. That probably means there were women forced to copulate w/orcs or possibly vice versa (goblin women w/human men).

    Didn’t Tolkien respond to a question about the wives in his letters or am I mis-remembering.

    • Yes, Tolkien actually addressed the question a couple of times. But most people feel he was less than definitive in his responses. Hence, the temptation to seek a trace of them is very strong for some.

  • Jeremiah Burns

    “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.”

    Great summary. πŸ™‚

    I certainly appreciate the vague nature of the fate of the Entwives. I feel as though if I knew more, the magic would break.

    We’re not *supposed* to know everything about history, real or imagined. There are *always* going to be gaps in our knowledge. Tolkien’s gaps, intentional or otherwise, give a credibility and authenticity to the work…making it feel more like actual history.

  • Grant Hudson

    There are clues throughout the key passage where Treebeard describes what happened to the Entwives and I don’t think Tolkien meant this to be any kind of unsolvable mystery. The Entwines ended up in the Shire. Re-read the passage and consider what you know about the Shire and its inhabitants and lifestyle. “Plain as a pikestaff,”as the Gaffer might say.

    • pinstripedfanny

      I’m writing this a year after you posted, but I was doing some research about the Ent Wives and stumbled across here. This was always my interpretation of the Old Forest in the Hobbit. The Ent Wives were in the Shire, and though they might have changed somewhat and become unrecognizable to their consorts, I never saw them as truly gone.

  • Beleg Strongbow Cuthalion

    That’s a very good article, I agreed completely with it!

  • LOTR_Nerd_3791

    Excellent article, I agree with your opinion that the Ent-wives were killed by Sauron.

  • HΓ₯kan Olin

    Link to original debate on the Minas Tirith Forums: http://www.minastirith.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=001541

  • robertstarkcba

    Just because you do not see them in the book or movie, doesn’t mean they do not exist. Maybe they are in the shire as some think or maybe they are leaving middle earth like the elves, or many other possibilities. I think saying they were destroyed is too big of an assumption. That would be like loosing contact with a relative. You do not just assume they were murdered.

  • jadmontenegro

    I want the Ent-wives to exist because I wish for the Ents to continue existing, as a means to proliferate. Pronouncing them obliterated also pronounces doom for all Ents, rendering their presence finite in the story, and that saddens many readers. It’s not out of sympathy for the Ent-wives, who are a vague and historic blurb at best, but a love for the Ents and Treebeard, who was very present, very real, and very loveable, that the riddle of the Ent-wives has become such a matter of interest.

  • charmy

    To me it was no mystery. Ent. wives live with Lady of the Golden Wood (lady Galadriel).

  • charmy

    Look at the lore of T.B. why else would T introduce another Elven Queen.

  • Sam Meals

    After reading this article and the passage in The Two Towers, I have come to the conclusion that the Ent-Wives are gone, either killed by Sauron or some other way. Treebeard states that the Ents and Ent-Wives will only reunite after “we have both lost all that we now have.” This leads me to believe that they will be reunited in Tolkien’s version of the afterlife. I also believe that Treebeard and the other Ents honestly think that the Ent-Wives may still be out there (hence his interest in the Shire); however, they have all but given up looking for them.

  • Yearstretch

    Pretty sure I saw them at billing garden centre.

  • Liz

    ‘What actually happened to the Entwives was something Tolkien wanted to keep a mystery, even to himself, but in one of his letters he said, “I think that in fact the Entwives have disappeared for good being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance.”[3]’

    Just found this elsewhere on the internet- apparently the Tolkien quote is from a book of his letters published by Christopher Tolkien

    • Fox

      In my experience…

      Writers: not everything needs to be explained. Mysteries help create the illusion of a greater, unknowable world. And, more often than not, a mystery becomes less interesting once it is solved.

      (Some) Reader: TELL ME THE EXACT DETAILS TO EVERYTHING!

  • Fox

    Some solid arguments here, but I think you’re point is somewhat weakened by all the attempts to to draw parallels to other women in the setting. The tragedy of the human or elfish wives affected by war is inherently personal… the Entwives? Not so much. Theirs is a more profound tragedy because it is implied to be *universal*.

    Some human wives were widowed or enslaved or killed.
    Some elvish wives were widowed or enslaved or killed.
    Some dwarfish wives were widowed or enslaved or killed.

    But *all* of the Entwives are gone.

    The human race will persist in the future because human women remain; the elves will persist in the future because elf women remain (even if not in Middle-Earth itself); the dwarfs will persist in the future because dwarf women remain; the ents will not.

    The tragedy is the Entwives is not that Treebeard lost his lover… it’s that his people have lost all hope for their future. There will never be any new generations of Ents. Their loss is a profound one: it is not profound and resonant because it is analogous to the fates suffered by others elsewhere in Middle-Earth, but rather because it is portentous–the doom that came to the Ents is a doom that all face in the wake of Sauron’s rise.

  • alice

    It seems to be an unpopular theory, but I always liked the theory that the Ent-Wives aren’t actually female Ents. Like plants the Ents don’t really have genders, but like most plants they also require an intermediary force to reproduce. So the Ent-wives were actually a separate species who had a symbiotic relationship with the Ents. Likely in exchange for protection the Ent-wives would aid the Ents in cross pollination, or taking cuttings, and they would also tend to the Ents sapling. In essence they aren’t wives, but rather midwives.

    This still leaves the question of why the ent-wives left, and where they went, but I think that second question can be answered by looking at one of the other big questions posed by the books. Where did the Hobbits come from. I think the answer is that the Ent-wives, and the Hobbits are one in the same.

  • Dante Kenpachi

    The ents have an emportant role in the LotR. Only makes sence ppl wondering what happend to the entwives.
    I do want to leave a remark, No one wonders what happen to the widows of Arnor, since their city wasn’t destroyed at the time, and only the soldiers went of, so it’s fair to say life went on. Widows found new husbands after a month or so, like it goes IRL Dwarf women look like their male counterpart so is easy to mistake there, And the nordsman and hill ppl who had war with Rohan? Yeah well, that’s also a normal thing on the world. Minorities get relocated by the ruling class.

    • Dante Kenpachi

      oh and i do believe that Sams gaffer’s walking tree is/was and entwife

    • Dante Kenpachi

      oh and i do believe sam’s old gaffer’s ‘walking tree’ was an entwife.
      The soung goes they’ll be waiting in the west for the ents to go to their ‘promiced land’
      So they’re probly in the blue mountain regions Forlindon

      • Dante Kenpachi

        here’s another fun theory: what if the shire and the hobbits are the entwives their legacy? The Entlings? πŸ™‚

      • Dante Kenpachi

        here’s another fun theory: what if the shire and the hobbits are the entwives their legacy? The Entlings? They have simular traits in all mathers of things πŸ™‚