Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are so environmentally sensitive. Like Sam Gamgee, Tolkien loved things that grow and good tilled earth. He loved walks–long walks beyond his garden through English towns and villages and vast, untouched countryside. His Middle-earth writings are layered with a rich and expansive architecture of nature. It is a land that Tolkien gives us, not just a people or a quest.
Perhaps his books are so environmentally rich because he saw the results of the industrial revolution first hand. In his mind, WWI, with its crush of men like bags of bones scattered upon a pulverized Europe, was the natural end of an absolute human commitment to bend Nature to the will of economy and progress. In France, Tolkien saw only black mud stained with blood, and he felt that rapid urbanization and industrialization would lead to about the same result.
What’s so surprising about Tolkien’s love for creation, however, is how very prophetic it is. His creation care is not merely about the love of growing things, but about a sensitive, living balance between all living things. Legolas laments that,
“No other folk make such a trampling…. It seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way.”
And it is Treebeard the Ent who divines what Saruman’s real purpose is:
“I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. And now it is clear that he is a black traitor.”
Saruman is a traitor because he has turned from a caretaker of creation to its overlord. In the end, all the industry of Men cannot withstand the equilibrium of the nature he intends to bend to his will. It is not merely magic and cunning and the force of arms that tips the balance of the war on two fronts in The Two Towers. It is nature taking up the battle that changes everything.
It is a lesson that we might do well to remember.
I would encourage you to enjoy this lecture by Matthew Dickerson, “CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, & Wendell Berry and their Agrarianism.” Dickerson wrote the brilliant medieval-era novel, The Rood and the Torc, and, of course, Ents, Elves, And Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien, and with David L. O’Hara, Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.
And this short video about new Zealand and the LOTR films captures a few of the great scenes that have helped fill out my reading of the book. It is also a smart mini-essay in film criticism.
A fuller clip of the Last March of the Ents:
And, gratuitously, Tolkien discussing his work in an interview where a perceptive quality about the “autumnal quality” of The Lord of the Rings that leads to a question of religion, a contrast with Lewis’ approach in Out of the Silent Planet, and his “Atlantis complex.” So intriguing, though I would liked to have heard more about the natural synchronicity in the rhythms of the text.
A great reminder here. I’ve been on a Le Guin bender lately (thanks, thesis!) so her work and love for the earth comes to mind, too. An interesting reminder from her is that animals, too, are a part of nature and the earth. We tend to think “Earth Day = trees” and we think of Tolkien’s love of trees, but it’d also be neat to take a look at animals in Tolkien’s mythology, from Huan to a fox to Bill the pony. Also spiders. But those are yucky.
“It is nature taking up the battle that changes everything.” – This isn’t only the Ents and their trees, I’m sure. Off-hand I can think of the Eagles and Huan, too.
Thanks for some food for thought to connect some dots!
Sed contra: Hurray for spiders (if not on the ceiling right above my face in bed)! There’s some lovely positive Patristic stuff about spiders, but I cannot remember any in Tolkien – maybe The Nature of Middle-earth will give us some… 😉
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There’s a fascinating contrast to Saruman in “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife” in the combination of shipbuilding and forestry on Núminor – though not without a lot of (shall we say) ‘interpersonal tensions’.
I love Tolkien’s environmentalism. So different from the frequently too politicized version we usually encounter today.
I clearly recall the grand celebration at my high school–in southern California, no less–which marked the inauguration of Earth Day in 1970. Hippies were still in fashion, and some of them were my teachers. Oh, what we have lost…
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