Could it be that the trees of Fangorn were awake, and the forest was rising, marching over the hills to war?
Speeding through the forest, Merry and Pippin stop to drink water from the Entwash River. Munching on some of their few remaining lembas cakes, they worry about their lack of food and supplies. To their surprise, Merry and Pippin are suddenly addressed by what appears to be a fourteen-foot-tall walking tree. The creature is an Ent, an ancient treelike creature, named Fangorn or Treebeard. He is kind to the hobbits, and he explains his history to them. Treebeard identifies himself as one of the oldest creatures in Middle-earth. He is the shepherd of the other trees in the forest, many of which are Ents like him. Fangorn offers to carry Merry and Pippin to his home and to give them food and drink. On the way, Fangorn provides information about the Ents and their history. Many trees in the forest are simply Ents that have fallen asleep, who must be roused to action by some stirring motivation. The Ents have lost their wives, as the Ent-wives wandered off one day long ago. As a consequence, there are no young Ents in the forest.
As Pippin and Merry are being carried to the Ent-house, they ask Fangorn why they have heard stories warning them about the Ent forest. Fangorn agrees that it is an odd land, and expresses surprise that the hobbits ever made it into the forest in the first place. During the hobbits’ meal at the Ent-house, Fangorn gives them some Ent food, a nourishing liquid that they drink greedily. Pippin and Merry learn about the Ents’ growing fury at the Orcs and at Saruman, who has been mutating the Orcs into a new breed of monsters unafraid of sunlight (most Orcs fear the sun, and therefore come out only at night). Fangorn says that Saruman is evil and that Saruman’s Isengard forces must be stopped through an alliance between Rohan, the Ents, and Aragorn’s group.
After a night’s sleep, Fangorn takes the hobbits to an Entmoot, or gathering of the Ents, in which the tree beings discuss a possible alliance with Rohan. The hobbits discover a variety of tree creatures of different shapes and sizes assembled. While the Ents debate in a low murmur, Merry and Pippin wonder how the Ents could possibly move on Isengard, which is a ring of rocky hills with a pillar of rock in the middle—not a place that trees could reach easily.
Merry and Pippin are invited to the home of an Ent named Bregalad or Quickbeam, who explains that the Orcs have been cruel to the Ents, cutting down trees for no reason. The hobbits suddenly hear the mighty roar of the Ent assembly, which has been stirred to action. Pippin at first cannot believe his eyes when he thinks he sees trees in motion, but it is true—the forest itself begins to move. The tree creatures all march toward Isengard to wage battle with Saruman and his Orc forces. Bregalad marches next to Fangorn, who reflects that the Ents may be marching to their doom. Fangorn points the way on to Isengard.
The introduction of the Ents effectively broadens the scope of the battle brewing between the Fellowship’s forces and the Enemy, as the natural world itself becomes involved. What is taking shape is more than just warfare among the various races and peoples of Middle-earth. As Saruman’s Orc armies have begun an assault on nature itself, destroying the forest for no reason, nature itself fights back. The dramatic scene of the Ents marching into battle is a powerful moment, as well as a subtle nod to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which one of the prophecies relating to Macbeth’s demise is that a forest will physically move toward a castle. The episode of the Ents, in reminding us that evil in The Lord of the Rings is a universal force, touching even the lives of trees, forests, and entire landscapes, is an important component of the rich portrayal of the natural world that Tolkien has created in the novel. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in the 1940s, before the blossoming of the modern environmental conservation movement, but he foreshadows this era of ecological concerns in his critical portrayal of the evil Orcs’ thoughtless destruction of trees for no practical purpose. The tree creatures have been patient for centuries, but now that they feel a significant threat to their environment, the power of their anger is formidable.
The Ents offer an example of a benevolent element in the natural world. Continuing the pattern we have seen in The Fellowship of the Ring, nature is rarely just an indifferent backdrop: it is either a force of evil (as in the previous volume’s episodes with Old Man Willow and the pass of Caradhras) or good (as we see here with the Ents)—almost never neutral. Fangorn is willing to help Merry and Pippin from the first moment he meets them, offering to convey them through the forest and treating them nobly and hospitably thereafter. Both Fangorn and Bregalad offer Ent food and shelter to Merry and Pippin out of sheer benevolence, expecting nothing in return. As always in The Lord of the Rings, good brings creatures together and evil drives them apart. The display of hospitality, such as we see here with the Ents, is an important idea in Tolkien’s work, and is one of the ways in which the world of Middle-earth imitates the ancient Greece depicted in epics such as Homer’s Odyssey. In Homer’s world, the true measure of a person’s nobility is the generosity with which he receives guests. While the Orcs are objectionable hosts to Merry and Pippin, the Ents show an ancient and epic regard for giving strangers food and shelter.