“I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”
– Letter 163 (to W.H. Auden)
For me, one of the things that really makes Tolkien stand out from other authors is the fact that although I first read “The Lord of the Rings” thirteen years ago and have returned (in full or in part) countless times since, I never fail to spot something I’ve never noticed before, or to suddenly see a familiar passage in a new light. (And yes, I am fully aware that there are people out there who’ve been reading the book for sixty years who could say much the same thing!) On my most recent re-read over the Christmas holidays, the fact that I’ve been writing this blog meant that I found myself thinking consciously about the roles played by the various female characters for the first time, and one of the things that most struck me was the fundamental distinction that Tolkien draws between the Ents and the Entwives when it comes to their attitude towards nature.
Ents (at least according to Treebeard in Chapter 4 of “The Two Towers”) appreciate nature for itself, and have no desire to control it or force it into a mould: “The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slope of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain-streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees”. This laissez-faire attitude towards wild things is in stark contrast to the approach favoured by the Entwives, who are not content to leave nature to its own devices but rather seek to control it in order to serve their own ends, an attitude more reminiscent of modern agriculture than of the Ents’ uncomplicated love of the wild. According to Treebeard (perhaps not the most objective of sources, but there’s no reason to believe he’s lying) “They did not desire to speak with these things (the lesser trees and grasses which the Entwives favoured above the tall trees of the forest); but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them)”,
This could be taken as a distinction unique to this particular race, distinguishing Ent from Entwife in the same way that the peacock’s plumage distinguishes him from the dull peahen, and not as a broader comment on the respective attitudes of men and women towards nature – were it not for that fact that Tolkien himself, in a letter to W.H. Auden, explicitly identifies the difference in philosophies between the Ents and Entwives as a reflection of one he has observed in real life. In a footnote describing the origin of the idea of the Ents, he finishes by saying that “into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference between the “male” and “female” attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”. Furthermore, the same distinction pops up elsewhere in Tolkien’s work: in the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” essay in “Morgoth’s Ring”, we learn that the women among the Eldar tend to be interested in “the tending of fields and gardens”, while the males “delight in forestry and in the lore of the wild, seeking the friendship of all things that grow or live there in freedom”.
What Tolkien is saying here is pretty clear – while both men and women appreciate nature in their own ways, in his view the “female” attitude is to seek to control it and check its wildness, the “male” approach is to love it for what it is. What’s less clear is why he thought this way, as this is not a distinction I’ve come across elsewhere, either in real life or elsewhere in literature. (Indeed, the equally reductive stereotype we have today is that women are the natural, intuitive ones, while men are always seeking to control and improve on what they see around them!) The best explanation I can think of is that this stems from his own observations of people he knew. We know that Tolkien was fond of nature and of walking (including in my own beloved Malvern Hills!). Maybe Edith and other women in his close circle were more drawn to formal gardens and to flowers in a vase rather than beside a forest path, leading Tolkien to interpret this as a universal distinction? Really, of course, we’ll never know – though as a woman who loves a good walk in the woods but hates gardening, I would be fascinated to find out!