Ents were created at the request of Yavanna to guard the trees, and thus were called "Shepherds of the Trees".
Ents are a very old race that appeared in Middle-earth when the Elves did. They were apparently created by Eru Ilúvatar at the behest of Yavanna, after she learned that Aulë's children, the Dwarves, were wont to fell trees. Ents were envisioned as Shepherds of the Trees, to protect the forests from Orcs, Dwarves and other perils. The Elves have tales of teaching the trees to talk, and they also taught the Ents to talk: although the Ents were sentient beings at the time, they did not know how to speak until the Elves taught them. Treebeard said of the Elves "curing the Ents of their dumbness" that it was a great gift that could not be forgotten ("Always wanted to talk to everything, the old Elves did").
Ents are tree-like creatures, having become like the trees that they shepherd. They vary in traits, from everything to height and size, colouring, and the number of fingers and toes. An individual Ent more or less resembles the specific species of tree that they typically guard. For example, Quickbeam guarded Rowan trees and thus looked very much like a Rowan (tall and slender, etc.). In the Third Age of Middle-earth, the Forest of Fangorn was apparently the only place Ents still inhabited, although the Ent-like Huorns may still have survived elsewhere, as in the Old Forest.
Almost nothing is known of the early history of the Ents — they apparently lived in and protected the large forests of Middle-earth in previous ages, and they briefly appear near the end of the First Age, attacking a band of Dwarves, apparently summoned by Beren and Lúthien. Treebeard told of a time when apparently all of Eriador was one huge forest and part of his domain, but these immense forests were cut by the Númenóreans of the Second Age, or destroyed in the calamitous War of the Elves and Sauron of the 17th century of the Second Age. Treebeard's statement is also supported by remarks Elrond Half-elven made at the Council of Elrond. Elrond said that "Time was once when a squirrel could carry a nut from tree to tree from Rivendell to the Great Sea...", further indicating that all of Eriador was once a single vast primeval forest, of which Fangorn Forest was just "the Eastern End of it" according to Treebeard.
There used to be Entwives (literally "Ent-women"), but they started to move farther away from the Ents because they liked to plant and control things, so they moved away to the region that would later become the Brown Lands across the Great River Anduin. This area was destroyed by Sauron, and the Entwives disappeared. The Ents looked for them, but have never found them. It is sung by the Ents that one day they will find each other. In the Fellowship of the Ring, Sam Gamgee says his cousin Hal saw treelike giant in the north of the Shire. When Pippin and Merry tell Treebeard about the Shire, Treebread says the entwives would like that land.
Ents are not hasty creatures, they take their time; even their language is "unhasty". In fact, their language appears to be based on an ancient form of Common Eldarin, later enriched by Quenya and Sindarin, although it includes many unique 'tree-ish' additions. There are actually two different languages:
- Old Entish. Originally, the Ents had a language of their own, described as long and sonorous; it was a tonal language (like Chinese). It is unknown if a non-Ent could even pronounce Old Entish correctly: it was filled with many subtle vowel shades, and was very longwinded. Only Ents spoke Old Entish; not because they kept their language a secret, as the Dwarves did with Khuzdul, but because no others could master it. It was quite an alien language to all others. The Huorns and trees of Fangorn forest could understand Old Entish and converse with the Ents and each other with it. The only extant sample, a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lindor-burúme, the word for hill (or possibly even just part of the name of a specific hill), was described as a very inaccurate sampling. Even the Elves, master linguists, could not learn Old Entish, nor did they attempt to record it due to its complex sound structure. The grammar structure of Old Entish was also quite bizarre, often described as a lengthy, long-winded discussion of a topic. There may not even have been a word for yes and no: such questions would be answered by a long monologue on why the Ent in question did or did not agree with the Ent who asked the question. The Ent Quickbeam was regarded as a very "hasty" Ent for answering a question before another Ent had finished: the end may only have been another hour away. Ents as a rule would say nothing in Old Entish unless it was worth taking a long time to say. For everyday language function, they usually resorted to "New" Entish.
- "New" Entish (Never named as such in the text). Due to contact with the Elves, the Ents learned much from them. The Ents found the Elvish language Quenya to be a lovely language, and adapted it after their fashion to everyday use. However, they basically adapted Quenya vocabulary to Old Entish grammatical structure. Thus, unlike Old Entish, the individual words of "New Entish" that characters such as Treebeard spoke were easily translatable. However, in context they formed lengthy run-on sentences of redundant adjectives that could still stretch well over an hour in length. For example, when Treebeard essentially wanted to tell Merry and Pippin, "There is a shadow of the Great Darkness in the deep dales of the forest", he literally said in New Entish "Forest-golden-leaves, deep-dales-winter, forest-many-shadowed, deep-valley-black". Unlike Old Entish, a non-Ent conceivably could speak "New" Entish. Even when speaking the Common Speech, Westron, Ents fell into the habit of adapting it into their grammatical structure of repeating compound adjectives used to express fine shades of meaning.
Treebeard boasted to Merry and Pippin about the strength of the Ents. He said that they were much more powerful than Trolls, which Morgoth (in the Elder Days or First Age) supposedly made as imitations of the Ents, but did not come near to their power. He compares this with how Orcs were Morgoth's imitation of Elves.
The Elvish name for Ents is Onodrim, singular Onod.
The March of the Ents
- "The Ents are going to war!"
- ― Treebeard
In The Two Towers, the second volume of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the Ents—usually a very patient, deliberate people—do become angry at Saruman, whose armies are cutting down large numbers of their trees. They convene an Entmoot, a meeting of the Ents of Fangorn Forest at Derndingle.
After lengthy deliberation (though from the perspective of the Ents, this is very quick action), they march on Saruman's fortress at Isengard: the last march of the Ents. They are led by Treebeard, the oldest Ent, and accompanied by the Hobbits Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took. They destroy Isengard in an all-out assault and trap Saruman in the tower of Orthanc. Tolkien later noted that the destruction of Isengard by the Ents was based off of personal disappointment in MacBeth, when "Birnham Wood is come to castle Dunsinane", Tolkien was less than thrilled that it amounted to men walking on stage with leaves in their hats; he decided that when he did that scene for himself, he'd do it right.
Portrayal in Adaptions
Ents in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings were portrayed as, perhaps, more tree-ish than in the books (the books describe them as having smooth skin; the movie has them with skin like thick and rough bark. They have been accused of being "stupidified", though the exuse that Peter Jackson gives is that he wanted to give Merry and Pippin a more important part in the scheme of things (though one wonders why, then, Pippin does not kill a Troll at the Morannon). In the movie adaption, the Ents at the Entmoot decide that this is "not our war", despite strong protest from Merry. The scene is also shorter, cutting out Bregalad completely.
Treebeard is about to take them north to the border, when Pippin insists that they go South instead, because "the closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm". This "does not make sense" to Treebeard, but he does as they ask, and sees the ruin and destruction that Saruman has wrought on southern Fangorn. Treebeard then calls the Ents to battle with his booming Ent-call, and they appear out of the forest as if they had been standing there waiting for it. That they do not know the borders of their own forest is another critizism. One wonders why they are named "Tree-shepherds" if they do not know about the trees in their own forest. But others have accepted Jackson's reasoning as valid, because of the seemingly minor actions of Merry and Pippin throughout The Two Towers.
J.R.R. Tolkien most likely had not heard of the phenomenon, but there are actually rare trees which can "walk" by growing roots on the side in which they intend to move and killing the roots on the opposite side.