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Tolkien and environmentalism

The author of The Lord of the Rings despaired of the modern world

Artillery Row

Since the publication of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1954, scholars have pored over the book’s layers of symbolic meaning, focusing on its author’s Roman Catholic faith and themes of resurrection and redemption. Enduringly relevant, too, is Tolkien’s championing of the natural world and critique of what he referred to in his letters as “the machine”.

The triumph of war machine over natural beauty is Tolkien’s original tragedy

This critique emerged in Tolkien’s youth, as he narrates in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings. Born in South Africa in 1892, he moved to the West Midlands as a child, where he saw its bucolic countryside “shabbily destroyed” by Birmingham’s southward sprawl. His sense of loss was deepened by his mother’s death, after which he moved into the tumult of the inner-city to continue his education. In 1915, after completing his studies at Oxford, where he developed his love of languages, Tolkien fought in the First World War. He served at the Battle of the Somme and witnessed the brutality of mechanised modern warfare first-hand. He returned to England, struck down with trench-fever, with “all but one” of his closest friends killed. Recovering in a hospital bed, he poured his feelings into fiction. 

The Fall of Gondolin is an account of the rise and fall of an idealised city in a fantastical, pre-modern land. Its people, who live in harmony with nature, are defeated by a mechanised army, wrought by the evil Morgoth “out of fire and flame”. The triumph of this war machine over natural beauty is Tolkien’s original tragedy from which the rest of his “mythopoeia” springs.

These themes re-emerged in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s masterpiece, which he began writing in 1937. The inhabitants of Middle-Earth — those on the side of the good — live in harmony with nature. The Hobbits, the book’s unlikely heroes, are inhabitants of the idyllic Shire and have a passion for gardening. They make use of tools, but do not use machines more complicated than a water-mill.

The forces of evil, in contrast, use machines to bend the world to their will. The One Ring, forged by Morgoth’s successor, Sauron, is an advanced technology which gives him dominion over others. The corrupted wizard Saruman, meanwhile, has a “mind of metal and wheels” and pillages the ancient forest, Fangorn, to feed his war machine. His stronghold, Isengard, is transformed into a dark satanic mill.

The destruction of the ring and defeat of Sauron is the triumph of the natural world over the industrial one. Victory is precipitated by the uprising of Fangorn itself: the trees attacking and flooding Isengard. Even then, it is Saruman’s war machine the Hobbits must defeat in the book’s conclusion. Whilst he is newly installed as dictator in the Shire, the Hobbits oust him and begin restoring their idyllic home.

Climate change may only be comprehensible at the level of myth

Tolkien was suspicious of allegory, but these scenes are analogous to his feelings about the Second World War, which raged as he wrote. In its systematisation of killing, it had left “only one thing triumphant: the Machines”. A staunch conservative, he leaned “more and more towards Anarchy”. Despairing of modernity, he identified as a hobbit “in all but size”, taking pleasure in “gardens, trees and unmechanised farmland”. He did not travel much or own a car. Tolkien might have been dismissed as an eccentric Oxford don, but in the 1960s his love of nature tapped into a new ecological consciousness. For the counterculture, which arose in England on the wings of the folk revival, Tolkien’s fantastical worlds offered a radical alternative to capitalism. The likes of Donovan and Vashti Bunyan built utopian communities, aspiring for a Hobbit’s life. The summer festival, which outlasts them, remains an attempt to return to the Shire.

A half-century on, Tolkien’s popularity is undiminished. But it is surely his championing of the natural world that is most relevant to our times: an age of anxiety about our alienation from nature. The English countryside, so beloved by Tolkien, is degraded and depleted. Climate change is a problem so vast and existential, it may only be comprehensible at the level of myth.

Like his fellow mythographer, Joseph Campbell, Tolkien believed in the power of myth to illuminate the “eternal truth” about human experience. Far from literary escapism, Tolkien’s myth-making is an attempt to create new myths for the modern world so we might better understand it. For him, one of our “primordial desires” is “connection with other living things”, symbolised in his work by the side of the good. Through myth, he attempts to bring us closer to that connection.

Were he alive today, Tolkien would not be surprised by how far we have fallen. A devout Catholic, the myth he internalised most is the Christian story of the Fall: the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, which brought sin and corruption into the natural world. For Tolkien, so long as we try to imitate God through the creation of machines, we will “not only fail” but create “a new and horrible evil”. Only myth can awaken us to our destruction of nature and bring us closer to our creator.

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