Representations of Nature in Middle-earth
Martin Simonson (editor)
Cormarë Series No. 34
Tolkien's portrayal of nature in Middle-earth has been interpreted in a variety of ways, often depending on the context of the reading. Some have seen Middle-earth and its potential destroyer, the Ring, as an allegory of the European continent under the threat of the atomic bomb, while others have embraced it as an artistic expression of the Green movement's agenda in the face of industrial abuse. Some have read nature in Tolkien's work in terms of myth and religion; yet others take the exhaustive descriptions of the physical environment as a sign that Middle-earth itself is the central protagonist of the stories. All in all, nature in Middle-earth plays a crucial role not only in the creation of atmospheres and settings that enhance the realism as well as the emotional appeal of the secondary world; it also acts as an active agent of change within the setting and the story. This collection of essays explores Middle-earth as an ecological entity, a scene for metaphysical speculation, an arboreal depository of cultural memory and a reflection of real-world natural and imperialistic processes.
Gabriela Silva Rivero
Tolkien's writing reflects twentieth-century debates about the definition of wilderness and responds to the increasing deforestation and science of forestry that arose in Great Britain as a result of the war. Using Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1993), geographer Douglass Davies's "The Evocative Symbolism of Trees" (1988), and E. P. Stebbings's Commercial Forestry in Britain (1919), this essay proposes to examine how Ents, being neither trees nor Men, demonstrate the biocentrism of the biotic Other as central components of ethical stewardship. As separation of place and culture is a cornerstone of his mythos, Tolkien portrays Ents as a sustainable cultural community – one that cares less for humanity than the biotic and ecological environments. They have their own history, language, artifacts, and architecture – all heavily steeped in silvaculture. Further, Ents represent a geography of non-planning (the anarchical development favored half-jokingly by Tolkien). Their stance is that of a culture on the brink of extinction. Further, the Ents act as a barrier between other cultural groups of Middle-earth, separating cultures and regions physically in a way that fosters diversity of local communities.
When discussing the concept of nature in Tolkien's work, there is a tendency among scholars, critics, and even Tolkien himself to privilege the Elvish and Hobbitish love of growing things. This essay argues that the Dwarvish connection to mining and stone represents a celebration of the natural world, and an alternative ideal of beauty which privileges practicality along with aesthetics. This examination will be driven by a textual analysis of the Dwarves' relationship with geology in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. While Tolkien paints a mostly positive picture of Dwarves throughout his works, there remains a thematic connection between the Dwarvish love of gold, jewels and stone, and the negative traits of materialism and greed; but there is a multi-dimensionality to the natural world and the beauty to be found within it. Like their creator Aulë, the Dwarves see the potential of their natural environment, and interact with it in a uniquely utilitarian but nonetheless beautiful manner.
Water has traditionally been a symbol of healing and rebirth, from baptism and ritual ablutions to straight-out water deities. In Tolkien's mythology, I will argue, water serves more as a vehicle towards healing, not of the body but of the world-weariness that affects many of his characters. In my paper I will explore this by examining how the people of Middle-earth, in particular Elves and Hobbits, relate to water and healing, as well as the melancholia that this healing often brings.
As Tolkien readers and scholars have long noted, nature holds a special place in Tokien's primary and secondary worlds. As such, nature is constantly on the central stage, even when it is not the primary narrative plot. Intertwined with the centrality of the natural world, brought to life on numerous occasion by Tolkien, we find an ever-present but veiled hope for a renewed natural environment. The thesis of this paper is that this very hope is central to Tolkien's works, as particularly seen in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but also in The Silmarillion and other lesser works. However, hope for such a renewal of nature always seems so distant as to be merely a dream. Songs and stories assume this, but only on rare occasions is this hope clearly expressed.
This paper aims to demonstrate that Tolkien's hope for a future restoration of nature rests upon a fundamentally Catholic understanding of nature and history, and more precisely Thomistic. To do so, the paper will first look at central aspects of this future 'natural hope' in Tolkien's works. References to Christopher Tolkien's History of Middle-earth will serve to underline Tolkien's conception of what theologians call "eschatological hope." References to other mythological works, particularly those well-known to Tolkien, will serve to enhance the specifics of Tolkien's mythopoeic vision. Secondly, this paper will argue that the future dignity, integrity, and beauty of nature is determined by a specific vision of time and history. Only because history moves towards its fulfillment, can hope in a final and glorious restoration of nature be truly held.
What I want to accomplish in this paper is thinking about an environmental ethic that Tolkien builds throughout his work as it encounters object-oriented ontology. The "natural" world is complicated in his mythology as he presents objects that resist an easy romanticizing of nature as some sort of pastoral ideal. In Tolkien's text the changing environment is best described as an actant: a very real landscape that can manipulate and be manipulated, and ultimately transforms and changes non-teleologically. The various agents at work in Middle-earth – Elves, Hobbits, Humans, Ents, horses, rings – all work within and are affected by the landscape. They affect this landscape, as well. Tolkien's work puts forth the problem of thinking with the object: What would a fox say if it saw a hobbit? How would a ring feel if it was taken up by an unintended force? What does a horse think of its rider? The environmental ethic in Tolkien's universe resists complete revelation and challenges mastery to reveal a dark ecology that underscores the problems of war, greed, and evil in Middle-earth.
Trees are the central motif of numerous mythologies; they symbolize the whole universe, indicate the axis mundi, or grant life and wisdom. Therefore, one is not surprised that J.R.R. Tolkien reflected his literary inspirations and deep respect for trees in his own mythopoeia. The cosmological myth included in Quenta Silmarillion indicates the important role played by the sacred trees of Valinor. Being the primeval source of light and heavenly bodies, the trees symbolically link all tales in the legendarium. Trees in Middle-earth are equally wondrous for they are alive, literally. They have their own distinct characters and are able to actively influence their surroundings – they may become a threat or provide help; consequently, the forests of Middle-earth are autonomous and unique. In equal measure being entangled in the conflict between light and darkness, the woods are as varied as the protagonists themselves. In order to highlight the majesty of trees Tolkien created beings that do not have their direct counterpart in European mythologies. The Ents are the embodiment of forces lying dormant in woods; they are the eldest beings inhabiting Middle-earth, nevertheless, their vitality is connected with the existence of the primordial forests whose destruction indicates the Ents' extinction. Tolkien voiced his anxiety connected with the mechanization of the contemporary world, as he saw the threat of dehumanization in the devastation of forests caused by the rampant technological development. The article describes the symbolical meaning, significance and role of trees and forests in Tolkien's mythology. It focuses on various connotations of sacred trees either as the guardians of peace and happiness, the symbols of authority, or the indicators of development of a given community. Additionally, the article traces the protagonists' attitude towards trees that indicates their character and moral bearing.
Trees and wooded environments dominate many of Tolkien's narratives. In woodland realms, beyond the bounds of the familiar world, protagonists get lost, have unexpected encounters, undergo transformations, and confront their destinies. Under trees they find help, protection, and comfort. But the function of trees and forests transcends that of natural protagonists and spaces of initiation. I propose following the trail into the woods as a path to social memory and examining trees and forests in Tolkien's epic as constructions, expressions, and repositories of the cultural imagination.
Tolkien modelled his Middle-earth on lands of which he had knowledge: England and selected parts of continental Europe. However, on occasion he describes volcanic eruptions and his landscapes carry the imprint of successive episodes of mountain-building and submergence beneath the sea. These events have been interpreted previously as the result of Middle-earth being tectonically active by applying aspects of the theory of plate tectonics – a theory that post-dates Tolkien's writing. This paper provides evidence that the tectonic history of Tolkien's Middle-earth resembles that of New Zealand: each land's geography resulting from changes between episodes of extensional and compressional tectonic regimes, and between times of vigour (typified by raising mountains and volcanism) and quiescence. Of course the details vary, but there is sufficient similarity to provide a justification for requiring Middle-earth to be recognised as tectonically active and for selecting New Zealand as a locale for the filming of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Lothlórien is an ecological utopia whose harmonious enchantments contrast with the destructive magical technologies of Sauron and Saruman. Yet the Elves have their own imperialist history, and due to the power of the One Ring, the Elves' sustainable civilization is inextricably entangled with Sauron's eco-catastrophic magic. They must let their civilization fail to save Middle-earth. The fall of Mordor and Lothlórien, though, cannot guarantee Middle-earth a socially or ecologically harmonious future, but simply creates space for new generations to determine their own destinies. We cannot directly map the power dynamics of our world onto Middle-earth, but there are enough intriguing parallels for some profitable borrowing. Our first world consumer civilization, for all of its positive aspects, is entangled with socially and ecologically harmful global structures, and even the conservation movement has historical links to colonialism. Unlike the Elves, though, we cannot retreat from this world, so we must seek a solution within it.
Representations of Nature in Middle-earth published (7th July 2015)
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