22

Background

Gandalf, when prompting Théoden to get him to understand from his memory who might have brought the forest to fight the Orcs at Helm's Deep, states (bold added):

It is not wizardry, but a power far older ... a power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang.

The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter 8: "The Road to Isengard"

Théoden does not solve the riddle at that time, but eventually learns the power Gandalf speaks of that summoned the forest are the Ents, the Shepherds of the Trees. So Gandalf is stating that the Ents "walked the earth" before (ere) elf sang.

Yet it is the elves that taught the Ents to speak, as Treebeard testifies:

It was the Elves that cured us of dumbness long ago, and that was a great gift the cannot be forgotten

The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter 4: "Treebeard"

Part of the process of learning to speak appears to be the "old lists" of living things, for

Elves made all the old words: they began it [the list]

It seems that the list is designed to sing, but that may not be so. Still, that Elves were speaking implies they were able also to sing, and circumstantially, it appears that Tolkien's history would flow something like this:

  1. Ents were created fully capable of walking and shepherding the forests (having such power as exhibited here to move a forest overnight) prior to ever having speech.
  2. Elves were created and thus began to sing.
  3. Ents were taught by the Elves to talk.

But in fact, the trees that moved to Helm's Deep were, as Merry testifies in a discussion (bold added):

The Huorns, or so the Ents call them in "short language". Treebeard won't say much about them, but I think they are Ents that have become like trees, at least to look at. ...

   'There is a great power in them, and they seem able to wrap themselves in shadow: it is difficult to see them moving. But they do. They can move very quickly, if they are angry. ... They still have voices, and can speak with the Ents—that is why they are called Hurons, Treebeard says—but they have become queer and wild.

So it could be the power Gandalf referred to that is "ere elf sang," which brought the forest, is the "great power" within the Huorns themselves. Yet Huorns are distinguished from trees in part precisely because "they still have voices," which means they are a creature related to the elves teaching the Ents to speak (whether Huorns are directly related to Ents or not).

This implies a few possible alternate historical orders:

First option

  1. Ents were created fully capable of walking and shepherding the forests (having such power as exhibited here to move a forest overnight) prior to ever having speech.
  2. Elves were created and could speak, but did not yet sing.
  3. Ents were taught by the Elves to talk.
  4. Huorns come about, whether from evolving trees that the Ents taught to communicate or from devolving Ents, but they obtain a voice.
  5. Elves begin to sing.

Second option

  1. Ents and Huorns (whether evolved trees or devolved Ents) were created fully capable of walking prior to either ever having speech.
  2. Elves were created and could sing.
  3. Ents and Huorns were taught by the Elves to talk or Ents were taught by Elves to talk, and Huorns by the Ents.

Third option

  1. Ents and Huorns were created unable to walk (or Ents shepherd) the forests.
  2. Elves were created and could speak, but did not yet sing.
  3. Ents and Huorns began to walk at the time they were also taught by the Elves to talk.
  4. Elves begin to sing.

Questions

So the questions related to all this are:

  1. Is it recorded when Elves first sang in Tolkien's history/writings? Did they always sing from first being created or not?
  2. How does their being able to sing fit historically in time with the power that brought the forest? That is, which power is Gandalf more directly referring to as being older than Elves singing—the power of the Ents or the power of the Huorns (or is it both, and this is a "proof" text that indeed the "walking" trees are related to one another in some way)?
  3. Is it discussed in Tolkien's writings that the Ents (and/or Huorns) did walk prior to ever learning how to speak?

Ultimately all these questions are seeking to figure out what is the proper timeline for Elves singing in respect to Ents (Huorns) walking and talking, and thus was there a period of time in which the Elves talked, but did not sing; and a period of time in which the Ents/Huorns walked, but did not yet talk.

  • 1
    This should really be three separate questions. – TylerH Oct 3 '16 at 14:05
  • @TylerH: I disagree, simply because my main question relates to the timing between Elves singing and Ents (Huorns) walking (Gandalf's statement) versus the latter's talking (i.e. were they walking and shepherding without speech). The subsidiary questions are all in relation to resolving that. – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 15:15
  • it's your prerogative you disagree of course but a question should ask one question, not three. – TylerH Oct 3 '16 at 15:56
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    @TylerH The question is large and complex, but the sub-questions are intertwined. It's perfectly fine. – isanae Oct 3 '16 at 16:07
  • @isanae again, perhaps in your opinion, but the sub-questions should be phrased as suppositions wondered out loud rather than posed as explicit, discrete questions. But let's not let this burgeon into a large discussion in the comment section. – TylerH Oct 3 '16 at 17:23
10

Ents were likely born at the same time as Elves

Elvish speech and song

The Elves awoke without speech or song:

By the starlit mere of Cuiviénen, Water of Awakening, they rose from the sleep of Ilúvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuiviénen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven.

The Silmarillion, Of the Coming of the Elves, p. 45

They developed both before Oromë found them:

Long they dwelt in their first home by the water under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder; and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived. Themselves they named the Quendi, signifying those that speak with voices; for as yet they had met no other living things that spoke or sang.

ibid.

I could not find anything about the order in which they learned speech and singing. I would guess that they developed both concurrently, but I have nothing to support this.

Ents and Elves

Ents awoke at the same time as Elves:

And Manwë said: 'O Kementári, Eru hath spoken, saying: "Do then any of the Valar suppose that I did not hear all the Song, even the least sound of the least voice? Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared."

The Silmarillion, Of Aulë and Yavanna, p. 41

Indeed, Ents were alive at a time when Elves had neither speech nor song.

Ents walking and talking

Ents were able to walk when they awoke. As quoted above:

they will go among the kelvar and the olvar

But also:

"In the mountains the Eagles shall house, and hear the voices of those who call upon us. But in the forests shall walk the Shepherds of the Trees.'

The Silmarillion, Of Aulë and Yavanna, p. 41

As for talking, your quote seems to be satisfactory: although Ents could walk from the moment they awoke, they did not have speech. Elves taught them how to talk and sing.

Huorns

As for Huorns, they seem to be between Ents and trees:

"Some of us are still true Ents, and lively enough in our fashion, but many are growing sleepy, going tree-ish, as you might say. Most of the trees are just trees, of course; but many are half awake. Some are quite wide awake, and a few are, well, ah, well getting Entish."

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Treebeard, p. 77

I couldn't find any mention of Huorns outside of The Lord of the Rings, so I don't think we'll be able to find a very precise definition. I would guess that Ents were Ents and trees were trees for a long time before Huorns appeared.

I would say they are of a form less mighty than Ents, but more so than trees. I guess you could say they are "devolved Ents" and "evolved trees" (even though evolution has nothing to do with this and "de-evolution" is certainly not a thing anyway).

All citations from the Harper Collins editions, all emphasis mine.

  • 1
    It is worth noting that Yavanna wanted vegetation to be sentient as a response to Aulë's creation of dwarves, because she feared that the forest would be plundered without being able to protect itself. Thus leading to Eru's answer that he knows every sing of its children and that he accepts Yavanna's plea for the "forest sheperd" creation. – Tjafaas Oct 3 '16 at 6:41
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    @Tjafaas That is correct. I didn't include it because it was irrelevant. It's difficult, though. Every time I quote something from Tolkien, I end up wanting to quote the whole chapter because it's so damn good. – isanae Oct 3 '16 at 6:47
  • Great answer. The fact that Elves walked before speaking lends much to the idea that Ents could well have done likewise. Regarding your comment that Ainur could not be the spirits in Ents, what spirits then were "summoned" to dwell and be Ents (per p.41 quote)? As to the last point, devolve is definitely "a thing," and exactly reflects Treebeard's idea of Ents "becoming tree-ish." – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 15:24
  • Also, p.41 actually states that "the thought of Yavanna will awake" (emphasis added) at the same time as Elves, and then summon spirits, so the Elves were "prior" to the Ents, for the call of summoning occurred when the Elves awoke, then the embodiment of spirits. I think Tolkien's Letter 31 quote of Ents being "oldest of living rational creatures" and Appendix F "most ancient people surviving in the Third Age" both refer to Middle-Earth (3rd Age), when the oldest living thing from any people was the Ent Fangorn (Treebeard). This would resolve the summoning being after Elves awakening. – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 15:36
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    I bet Eru had a thing or two to say to Aule about all this. "See what you started? Everyone wants their own sentient race now!" – void_ptr Oct 3 '16 at 20:00
20

Ents are likely older than Elves

On at least two occasions, Tolkien notes that the Ents are the oldest sentient race in Middle-earth (bold is my emphasis, italic is Tolkien's):

That is a long and yet bald resume. Many characters important to the tale are not even mentioned. Even some whole inventions like the remarkable Ents, oldest of living rational creatures, Shepherds of the Trees, are omitted.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 131: To Milton Waldman. 1951

Ents. The most ancient people surviving in the Third Age were the Onodrim or Enyd. Ent was the form of their name in the language of Rohan.

Return of the King Appendix F I: "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age" Of Other Races

Appendix F goes on to suggest that the Elves awoke in Ents the desire to begin speaking, though the Entish language was of their own devising:

They were known to the Eldar in ancient days, and to the Eldar indeed the Ents ascribed not their own language but the desire for speech.

Return of the King Appendix F I: "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age" Of Other Races

The exact relationship between the Ents and the Huorns is indeterminate from Tolkien's writings1, but it's clear that they are related, and were almost certainly created at the same time.

The Elves, for their part, are implied to have begun speaking (and singing) some time after their first awakening, not literally from their first moments:

Long they dwelt in their first home by the water under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder; and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived. Themselves they named the Quendi, signifying those that speak with voices; for as yet they had met no other living things that spoke or sang.

The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 3: "Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"


1 Merry, of course, believes that Huorns are Ents that have "gone treeish"; but he, like Treebeard, is merely a character and not omniscient

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    I'll confess to being surprised by this, since it seems unusual for Ilúvatar to have allowed any sentient creatures to predate his Firstborn, but there we are – Jason Baker Oct 3 '16 at 1:30
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    So we have Ents being rational, but non-speaking until the desire was awakened by the Elves. The implication from Letter 131 is that the Ents were also walking from the first, since it would be hard to be a "Shepherd of the Trees" in a stationary spot (unless their shepherding came later). But Gandalf's testimony supports that the Ents were walking prior to the Elves being created (and hence, singing soon after). So it seems my second option is likely the historical order. – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 4:36
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    Hm. The Silmarillion even says "before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West." So the Eagles came before the First-born and they are definitely sentient. I don't know anymore. – isanae Oct 3 '16 at 7:05
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    Screw it, I've asked a question about it. – isanae Oct 3 '16 at 7:23
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    @isanae perhaps because trees (and I suppose Ents) are not born. They grow. – ypercubeᵀᴹ Oct 3 '16 at 10:49
6

While not specifically answering when the Ents started to talk, this quote from Tolkien mentions that the elves didn't know where Ents came from, implying they actually existed before they sang to them (not such thing as Ents being awakened by Elves).

"No one knew whence they (Ents) came or first appeared. The High Elves said that the Valar did not mention them in the ’Music’. But some (Galadriel) were [of the] opinion that when Yavanna....besought Eru (through Manwe) asking him to give life to things made of living things not stone, and that the Ents were either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else that slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees."

JRR Tolkien - Letter 247

It would seem strange that Ainur lost the abilitie to speak when embodied, but that's just my reasoning. However this quote seems to contradict the one you already quoted from TreeBeard in The Two Towers. Yet I'd like to add what Tolkien said about quotes from his characters:

"Treebeard is a character in my story, not me; and though he has a great memory and some earthy wisdom, he is not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand"

JRR Tolkien - Letter 153

Who talked first seems unknown, the best quote I recall about the Elves speaking is inconclusive:

"...and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived. Themselves they named the Quendi, signifying those that speak with voices; for as yet they had met no other living things that spoke or sang."

JRR Tolkien - The Silmarillion - Of the Coming of the Elves

  • 1
    This does not really answer the question (or at least not clearly) of the order of when elves sang, when ents walked vs. when they talked, etc. – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 0:22
  • @ScottS not clearly, but it's interesting to note that if the Elves don't know where they came, they were already there. The Nature of the Ents can also say something about their nature and, consequently, if they talked since the beggining. Iknow is not direct but it's the best quote I know from Tolkien on the Ents, maybe someone can come with something better – Ram Oct 3 '16 at 0:46
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    Your edit improves things. Regarding Treebeard's knowledge, his statement about Elves making the "old words" and the "old lists" of living things matches the information from your last quote about the coming of the Elves from The Silmarillion, and that quote indicates they were then singing. So that seems to place a time frame on the Elves singing prior to curing the Ents of dumbness. If I understand you correctly, the Ents may be Ainur who inhabited trees? If they lost speech, that actually makes sense that Treebeard phrased it as "cured" of dumbness. – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 4:27
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    @isanae Ents are spirits that came in response to Yavanna plea to dwell in trees or took resemblance to trees. I said in my Answer that ist's speculation from my part that they're Ainur, but if they were Children of Eru they would be named so and they were not. Maybe there are other spirits other than Ainur but nobody knows and my best guess is that they're probably ainur. – Ram Oct 3 '16 at 17:43
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    "Spirit" just means "fëa", or "soul". It comes from the Flame Imperishable. It is separate from the "hröa", or "body". All sentient beings have a fëa, whether they be Ainur or Hobbits. Ents are not "Children of Ilúvatar" because they were not conveived by him (much like the Dwarves). They were conceived by Yavanna. – isanae Oct 3 '16 at 17:53
2

Elves are Likely (Just) Older than Ents

Fourth option

This seems to be the correct sequence from my take on the information from the answer I accepted (see my comments below that answer also) along with the quotes given in the question and other answers here, but particularly how these things relate to the quote from Gandalf that sparked the question.

I felt a summary like within my question would be a fitting, useful addendum as an answer.

  1. Trees were created (significant to the history of the Ents and Treebeard, see below*).
  2. The second star creation occurred (significant to the history of the Elves).
  3. Elves were created, but did not themselves yet talk, and in fact walked the earth under the stars without speaking for some time.
  4. Ents were created (nearly simultaneously to Elves, but I think just after), as spirits summoned by Yavanna's awakened thought to inhabit some of the trees, and these Ents were walking from the start while also not speaking.
  5. Elves began to talk and sing.
  6. Elves taught (or awakened the desire in) Ents to talk.
  7. The Huorns (likely) descend in some way from the lineage of the Ents after they could speak, for the Huorns also have a voice.

So the power that walked to which Gandalf refers is almost certainly the power of the Ents as Shepherds of the Trees, even before they were speaking.

That Ents are the oldest and most ancient of people (see my discussion under the accepted answer), my take is that the references are all in relation to the 3rd Age time frame. That is, Fangorn is the most ancient of any people group still surviving into the 3rd Age, and he belongs to the Ents. So through him, at the time of the 3rd Age, Ents are:

  1. "oldest of living rational creatures" (emphasis added), i.e. the people group that still has a representative living as of the 3rd Age; I cannot imagine a non-living rational creature, nor do I think did Tolkien, and so that fact seems key to what is being stated in that quote from Letter 131 given in this answer.
  2. "The most ancient people surviving in the Third Age" (emphasis added), i.e. the people group that still has a representative surviving as of the 3rd Age, which is Fangorn/Treebeard. The Elves had Círdan, and Tom Bombadil is not part of any "people" per se.

But also, see further thoughts related to "oldest" below.


* The quote from the Treebeard entry on Tolkien Gateway says:

Treebeard was the eldest person of Middle-earth, obviously being created along with the Ents during the Years of the Trees [me: but this is not so obvious, per the whole discussion here], before the creation of the stars; although he said that there were trees in Fangorn that were "older than he" [bold added].

The last statement actually fits with the time frame above and with the fact that spirits were summoned upon the awakening of the Elves to inhabit trees. So now we end up with some possible "overlapping" time frames for Treebeard even, namely:

  1. Treebeard's tree "body" (hröa) likely existed before the Elves creation, then...
  2. His "spirit" (fëa) joined the body, which occurred just after Elves awakening.

In this way, he is both "older" than Elves (in body), yet slightly younger than the Elves as a sentient combined body/spirit being (but as of the 3rd Age the oldest of any such species still surviving), and thus still younger than some of the trees in Fangorn forest that did not become Ents.

  • 1
    Nicely written. Interestingly, there's a rejected, early story called "Gilfanon's Tale" where Nuin the Elf finds sleeping Men in a valley, before they first awoke. It could be that the Elves' hröar have been near Cuiviénen, waiting to awake, for much longer and could even have been placed there by Eru before trees were created by Yavanna. Still in Gilfanon's Tale, they actually woke a pair of Men themselves, which leads me to believe that Elves and Men already had a fëa when they slept. – isanae Oct 3 '16 at 18:00
  • @isanae: That is an interesting point of possible distinction between Elves/Men (sleeping with a spirit after creation of body already having a spirit) and Ents (spirit [whatever that is] summoned and joined afterwards to the body creation). Thanks for you original answer, as it certainly helped me work through my thoughts here. – ScottS Oct 3 '16 at 18:11

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