Patrick Curry, ‘Tolkien and Nature’
Patrick Curry explores Tolkien’s deep feeling for nature, how this transpires in his work, its relevance in our modern world and the ecological challenges that we face every day.
The natural world in Middle-earth is central to Tolkien’s imaginal world. It is not the only thing that matters in that world, of course, but it is an essential part of it. To begin with, I don’t say “imaginary” because that implies unreality: one of the most striking things about Middle-earth is how real it feels. A common experience of Tolkien’s readers is that they have been there. This phenomenon can be understood as the combination of two dynamics: what Tolkien himself put into his stories, and what readers — naturally drawing on what he called those stories’ “applicability” to their own life-experience — find there.
Tolkien’s own love of nature cannot be doubted. His profound feeling for natural place, variety and detail permeates The Lord of the Rings especially, and is an important part of the reasons why it is so convincing. The story takes in geology, ecosystems and bioregions, flora and fauna, seasons and the weather, and the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. Nor – and this is another key point – are these merely a passive backdrop for the human (and quasi-human) drama. Far from it. Middle-earth is an actor, a character, itself, and so are all its important places and parts. Tolkien’s work is not anthropocentric (human-centred).
Reflecting Tolkien’s special love of flora, there are more than sixty species of plants in The Lord of the Rings in addition to at least eight invented kinds. But center-stage are trees. As he wrote in a letter late in his life, “In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies”. He even once described The Lord of the Rings as “my own internal Tree”.
Important trees therein include the hobbits’ Party Trees (both old and new) and Old Man Willow, and every forest – the Old Forest, Mirkwood, Fangorn and Lothlórien – is unique and plays a key role. Furthermore, underpinning the whole structure are the cosmogonic trees of Laurelin and Telperion, whose light survives in the light of Eärendil (that is, the “star” we call Venus) and thence the phial which Galadriel gives to Frodo. And, of course, there are the Ents: one of his unique and most enduring creations, whose distinctiveness is that they are not humans in the form of trees, but rather trees who are sentient.
The presence in Tolkien’s work of non-human agency and subjectivity is vital. It characterizes not only people (both human and non-human) but entities we are accustomed to think “cannot be alive”, such as plants, rocks and places. Thus, when the herb athelas is crushed in hot water, the air sparkles with joy; the mountain Caradhras deliberately blocks the Company’s way with snow until it is forced to withdraw; the stones of Cirith Ungol listen to Frodo laugh. And these are no mere empty literary metaphors: Middle-earth is alive, as a whole and in all its parts.
Tolkien thus returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it. We can still have the experience that Frodo had when he put his hand on a mallorn tree in Lothlórien: “He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter: it was the delight of the living tree itself.” Similarly, Goldberry tells Frodo that Tom Bombadil does not own the Old Forest and the country around it because “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves.” The kind of spirituality that corresponds to this apprehension of the world is animism.
By the same token, Tolkien’s profound understanding of myth is an inseparable part of nature in his mythopoeic (literally, myth-creating) fiction. The simple reason is that a living nature of more-than-human powers and qualities is inseparable from myth itself. As Aragorn says, “The green earth…is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”
Tolkien’s “ecocentrism” co-exists with another of his fundamental values and commitments, namely to a Christian ethic of stewardship. Thus, he suggested that “Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved.” Sam is honoured as a gardener, and his work of replanting the Shire is blessed and aided by no one less than Galadriel. This point of view is more anthropocentric: nature is blessed as a result of our sub-creative actions (after God), and its fruits are for our benefit (as decreed by God).
The relationship between these two points of view – or rather, ways of life, or even worlds – is one of tension. In a pagan perspective, the natural world has intrinsic value in its own right, and its spirituality is immanent; whereas for theists, its value follows from it being the work of a transcendent and therefore distinct Creator. In Tolkien’s case, the point is that it is not a case of either/or: both are present. And given that some degree of use of some nature is unavoidable, both offer ways to do so sustainably and respectfully rather than ruthlessly and destructively.
Another way Tolkien’s animate and enchanted Middle-earth can be understood is by asking, what is its opposite? I have already suggested the answer: the abstract and lifeless Nature made (not “discovered”) by industrial techno-science. The latter is concerned with power, with dominating things and persons – not least by turning everything, including persons, into things (especially interchangeable units which can then be manipulated and sold). As Tolkien rightly saw, this is our modern Magic. The result is, at best, the way shopping malls and chain-store outlets participate in no particular place, offering a kind of apparent security and reliability in which we are supposedly in control. At its most pathological, however, the result is the social as well as ecological disaster characterized by Mordor, where “Earth, air and water all seem accursed… a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion.”
Contradicting the accusation of escapism (as if that was always a bad thing in any case), Tolkien’s stories have deepened many of his readers’ love of nature and helped in its defence. To pick only two obvious examples, the late David Taggart found solace in The Lord of the Rings during his pioneering campaign against nuclear testing which led to the founding of Greenpeace in 1972. And among those actively resisting (with some success) Mrs Thatcher’s motorway-building programme at the beginning of the 1990s, it was a direct inspiration. No doubt it will continue to inspire in the ecological challenges to come.