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Was there any definitive explanation given on what happened to the Entwives?

From: The Tolkien FAQ by William D.B. Loos

No definite answer was given to this question within the story. However, Tolkien did comment on the matter in two letters, and while he was careful to say "I think" and "I do not know", nevertheless the tone of these comments was on the whole pessimistic. Moreover, he doesn't seem to have changed his mind over time. The following was written in 1954 (in fact before the publication of The Lord of the Rings:
    What happened to them is not resolved in this book. ... I think that in fact the Entwives had disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3429-3441) when Sauron pursued a scorched earth policy and burned their land against the advance of the Allies down the Anduin. They survived only in the 'agriculture' transmitted to Men (and Hobbits). Some, of course, may have fled east, or even have become enslaved: tyrants even in such tales must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metal-workers. If any survived so, they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult - unless experience of industrialised and militarised agriculture had made them a little more anarchic. I hope so. I don't know.
    [The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 179 (#144)]
Note that the above reference to a "scorched earth policy" by Sauron makes the destruction of the Entwives' land seem a much more serious and deliberate affair than was apparent from the main story, in which Treebeard merely said that "war had passed over it" (The Two Towers, 79 (III, 4)).

The following was written in 1972, the last year of Tolkien's life:
    As for the Entwives: I do not know. ... But I think in The Two Towers, 80-81 it is plain that there would be for the Ents no re-union in 'history' - but Ents and their wives being rational creatures would find some 'earthly paradise' until the end of this world: beyond which the wisdom neither of Elves nor Ents could see. Though maybe they shared the hope of Aragorn that they were 'not bound for ever to the circles of the world and beyond them is more than memory.'
    [The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 419 (#338)]
(The reference to The Two Towers, 80-81 is to the song of the Ent and the Ent-wife, as recited to Merry and Pippin by Treebeard; the speech by Aragorn which Tolkien quotes is from The Return of the King, 344 (Appendix A).)

While the above comments do not sound hopeful, there nevertheless remains the unresolved mystery of the conversation between Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman in The Green Dragon. It took place during the second chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring and has been pointed to by many as possible evidence of the Entwives' survival:
    'All right', said Sam, laughing with the rest. 'But what about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them? They do say that one bigger than a tree was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back.'
    'Who's they?'
    'My cousin Hal for one. He works for Mr. Boffin at Overhill and goes up to the Northfarthing for the hunting. He saw one.'
    'Says he did, perhaps. Your Hal's always saying that he's seen things; and maybe he sees things that ain't there.'
    'But this one was as big as an elm tree, and walking - walking seven yards to a stride, if it was an inch.'
    'Then I bet it wasn't an inch. What he saw was an elm tree, as like as not.'
    'But this one was walking, I tell you; and there ain't no elm tree on the North Moors.'
    'Then Hal can't have seen one', said Ted.
    [The Fellowship of the Ring, 53-54 (I, 2)]
Now, this conversation takes place early in the story, when its tone was still the "children's story" ambience of the The Hobbit (did the tone the change?). When it is first read the natural reaction is to accept it as "more of the same" (i.e. another miscellaneous "fairy story" matter). However, once one has learned about the Ents it is impossible to reread it without thinking of them. This impression is strengthened by Treebeard's own words to Merry and Pippin:
    He made them describe the Shire and its country over and over again. He said an odd thing at this point. 'You never see any, hm, any Ents round there, do you?' he asked. 'Well, not Ents, Entwives I should really say.'
    'Entwives?' said Pippin. 'Are they like you at all?'
    'Yes, hm, well no: I do not really know now', said Treebeard thoughtfully. 'But they would like your country, so I just wondered.'
    [The Two Towers, 75 (III, 4)]
Taken together, these two conversations make the notion that what Halfast saw was an Entwife seem at least plausible. However, as far as can be determined Tolkien never explicitly connected the matter with the Entwives, indeed never mentioned it at all. So we are left to speculate. (The fact that a creature described as being "as big as an elm tree" couldn't be an Ent doesn't prove anything one way or the other. It could indicate that the story is just a fabrication by a fanciful Hobbit, but it is equally possible that a fourteen foot tall Ent might look gigantic to an unprepared hobbit and that the story was exaggerated in the telling.)

Nor is textual analysis helpful. Tolkien himself, in a discussion of his methods of invention, mentioned that the Treebeard adventure was wholly unplanned until he came to that place in the story:
    I have long ceased to invent ... : I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself. Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents. I came at last to the point, and write the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought: just as it now is. And then I saw that, of course, it had not happened to Frodo at all.
    [The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 231 (#180)]
The rough drafts in The History of Middle-earth Series confirm that Sam and Ted's conversation was composed long before Ents ever entered the story (Return of the Shadow, 253-254; The Treason of Isengard: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Two, 411-414). Thus, Tolkien could not have had them in mind when he wrote it, and it must indeed have originally been a random, vaguely fantastic element. On the other hand, as he said of Tom Bombadil, who also entered the story early: "I would not have left him in if he did not have some kind of function." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 178) The implication is clear: everything in the early chapters which was allowed to remain was left in for a reason. When he did so with the Sam/Ted conversation he must have known how suggestive it would be. But how it fits in with the darker speculations expressed in his letters is not clear (unless he changed his mind later).

This may be a case of Tolkien's emotions being in conflict with his thoughts. T.A. Shippey has noted that "he was in minor matters soft-hearted" (The Road to Middle-earth, 173). (Thus, Bill the pony escapes, Shadowfax is allowed to go into the West with Gandalf, and in the late-written narratives of Unfinished Tales Isildur is shown using the Ring far more reluctantly than the Council of Elrond would suggest (Unfinished Tales, 271-285) and a way is contrived so that Galadriel might be absolved from all guilt in the crimes of Fëanor (Unfinished Tales, 231-233)). It may be that, lover of trees that he was, Tolkien wished to preserve at least the hope that the Ents and Entwives might find each other and the race continue. But the unwelcome conclusions from what he elsewhere called "the logic of the story" must have proven inescapable.

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 178-179 (# 144), 231 (#180), 419 (#338)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring 53-54 (I, 2)
  • The Two Towers, 75 (III, 4), 79 (III, 4), 80-81 (III,4)
  • The Return of the King, 344 (Appendix A, I, v, "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen")
  • Unfinished Tales, 271-285 (Three, I), 231-233 (Two, IV)
  • Return of the Shadow (History of Middle-earth VI), 253-254 (Second Phase, XV)
  • The Treason of Isengard, 411-414 (Ch XXII)
  • The Road to Middle-earth, 173 (7, "The Dangers of Going on")

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