Ah, now, what might this word repres-ent? Could it be an ant, an insect, an ent-omological ent-ity? Or is it an ENT, an ear, nose, and throat doctor? If I look in the Oxford English Dictionary I find two words, one obsolete and the other obsolesc-ent: the first refers to a scion, sprig, or graft, and the second to an existing unity (as opposed to a nonent, which does not exist) – an ent has entity and is an entity, and a nonent has no entity and is a nonentity.
But if you find a token of this word in a crossword puzzle, it will be a Tolkien word, naming a treelike being, about four metres tall and slow moving and very long lived. Much larger than an insect; like a tree with ears, nose, throat, feet, legs, arms (branches?). Long past being a scion, sprig, or graft, and – thanks to the loss of the female of their species and the endangerment of the forests – close to becoming a nonent. A short word for a long being with a long life. A root with ramifications.
And what of the above was Tolkien’s source for this word? None of the above. He took it from Old English: a couple of references to enta geweorc, ‘work of giants’ – enta being the genitive of ent. (Ignore the orc in geweorc; it just became the ork in modern work.) So an ent was a giant. As it is in Tolkien, a special kind.
And why would Tolkien imagine a tree-like being, leader of a doomed race, guardian of a threatened forest? Tolkien had a great fondness for forests – he grew up in a sylvan area just outside of Birmingham, with the trees towering over him, characters in themselves. But by the time he wrote his novels, the trees and pond of his childhood were long gone, built over. The destruction of forests in Lord of the Rings is a replaying of that. And the ents are the champions and repres-ent-atives that the forests of the English midlands should have had, ents to save them from their ends.
Tolkien liked to write songs for his characters. You may remember a few of them from the movies. Treebeard, the oldest ent and the leader of the ent-ire group, sings a song, “In the Willow-Meads of Tasarinen.” It’s been set to music a few times. Here’s Christopher Lee performing it on YouTube: an old, slow voice with orchestration, a voice suited to a tree being. But now here’s a much younger, lighter voice, singing her own tune for it: Adele McAllister. There is nothing about her voice that seems like it might be an ages-old leader of a dying race; it is rather the fresh spring of new growth. And that also has its place: the scions, the entities – give throat, ear, and nose to them.
Incidentally, Adele McAllister has recorded a whole bunch of Tolkien’s verse. Listen to it all at soundcloud.com. You will also find from her bio, as I just did, that she is a drama student at Tufts University. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I was one too, in the graduate program. At least some things regenerate.