Where are the ents?

December 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

I was playing Boggle today with my wife and good friend (and beta reader) when my wife tried to take points for spelling “ent.” For those of you who don’t know, ents are the tree-like shepherds of the forest from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  My wife claimed the word in jest because I always write it down and it always leads to fellow players accusing me of making up words.  We’ve played out this scenario dozens of times, but for some reason, today it gave me pause.

It struck me this time how interesting it is that ents remain on the geeky fringe of culture, while other creatures have snuck into the mainstream. If someone tried to claim elves or dwarves in Boggle, I wouldn’t bat an eye. More to the point, if someone found “orcs,” I would totally give them points. Now Tolkien didn’t invent dwarves or elves (though he deserves the credit for pushing them in the direction of the mainstream), but orcs were Tolkien’s entirely.  Just this year I can think of a half-dozen different places (mostly video games) that orcs have had a significant role, ranging from World of Warcraft and Orcs Must Die, to Skyrim and Warhammer 40k.  When was the last time that you read a book or played a video game (that wasn’t Lord of the Rings) that featured hobbits or ents?

What is it that has helped orcs make the leap while these other two haven’t? (Admittedly, there are several stories and worlds that have used “halflings,” but not as prominently or regularly as “orcs,” [and there’s a big difference between “halfling” and “hobbit,” in my opinion, even if Tolkien coined both terms].) Not only that, but orcs’ march towards the mainstream began long enough ago that for a long time I didn’t even realize orcs were a creation of Tolkien. I assumed they fell into the category of elves and dwarves, which Tolkien borrowed from various mythologies. If someone today tried to write a story about ents and hobbits there would be public outcry about plagiarism.

I don’t have any deep insight here, I just think the discrepancy is interesting to note (and I’m going to start claiming “ent” in Boggle). Do you have any deep insight into why orcs have made the leap while other races haven’t? My Boggle partners’ theory was that orcs were borrowed because they were generic bad guys, as compared to the distinct races of tree-giants and hairy little Shirelings. My only other thought is that I’m tired of Tolkien-esque nature-loving elves, heavily bearded and heavily drinking dwarves, and brutal clans of orcs. Watercoloring orcs. It’s happening.

End note: Having read over this post, I’m rather certain that the average, non-geek response to this whole debate is “I wouldn’t count orcs, dwarves, or elves in Boggle either.”

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§ 2 Responses to Where are the ents?

  • Maybe ents (and hobbits) are sacred characters that no one else wants to touch for fear of ruining the idea? Or people want to leave them in Middle Earth out of respect for Tolkien? (I suppose those can be the same thing..) Elves, dwarves, and orcs are pretty easy. That’s a very interesting question.

    Oh, I’d let any of them slide in Boggle 😀

  • yakyakgak says:

    I had to browse the net to confirm that Orcs were actually Tolkien’s. I had not realized that they were genuinely his either.

    You hung the lampshade on the hobbits, they’re just another halfling in geek culture. While they aren’t just halflings, nor are all halflings hobbits, it is a nice that is occupied and willing to share.

    But I hadn’t really thought about the absence of Ents. Reflection says that it was because I supposed they were one of the few purely Tolkien creations, as I’d thought orcs were common. My revised reasoning for why they’re limited is because of their character.

    They’re only vaguely humanoid, and obviously their habitat is nearly strictly the woods. They don’t produce anything (aside from their drink) that makes them notable, nor do they consume anything which relives on the outside world. So nobody has a reason to wander in to meet the Ents, nor for the Ents to wander out and engage the world. Orcs can roam anywhere and, as you noted, provide the generic bad guy.

    Also, I’d let them slide in Boggle or Scrabble.

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