Wastes of Stump and Bramble Where Once There Were Singing Groves: 1. Environmental Themes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

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1. Environmental Themes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien's epic novel The Lord of the Rings casts a shadow over modern literature as one of the greatest, most ambitious, and most innovative novels ever written. It is much more than a timeless, captivating, and unforgettable story. It is also a fascinating meditation on the connection between humans and the natural world, and the joys and responsibilities that arise from that relationship. The fact that Tolkiens' is an imagined world is immaterial. His carefully and lovingly created Middle-earth comprises an astonishing and impressive range of landscapes that are far from fantastical: the pastoral farmlands of the Shire, the stony hills and wide meadows of Rohan, the Elven paradise of Lothlórien, the treacherous Lonely Mountains, and the barren wasteland of Mordor are all utterly believable and unexpectedly realistic. Furthermore, these environments are each central to the complex, richly detailed story that centres around the destruction of the One Ring, the instrument of the evil Sauron, by the hobbit Frodo and his companions. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would therefore make an excellent addition to the syllabus of English 3705, "Studies in literature and the environment." The novel's ecological themes are numerous, but two aspects in particular qualify it as an excellent addition to the course readings: the anthropomorphism of nature, or more specifically, of trees, and the study of industry's destructive effects on nature.  

Tolkien's unique treatment of trees in The Lord of the Rings is one of the most memorable and fascinating elements of the novel. Instead of relegating them to the passive role that is traditionally reserved for vegetation, Tolkien anthropomorphizes trees, and gives them emotions, motives, and even voices of their own. The hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are confronted with conscious trees quite early in the novel, when they enter the Old Forest. Merry claims that the trees there "do not like strangers," and refers to old legends about the trees moving and surrounding travellers (Tolkien 108). He speaks of an ancient incident in which the trees actually attacked the hedge bordering the forest, foreshadowing the strange army of Huorn trees that appears much later in the novel. The intense malevolence of the Old Forest provides an interesting introduction to a sentient natural environment. The forest is not simply a setting, but its own character. It watches the hobbits "with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity" (109). The maliciousness of the forest reaches a peak when the willow tree attacks and partially devours Merry and Pippin (115). Only the timely appearance of the mysterious and rather disquieting figure of Tom Bombadil, a sort of guardian of the forest, prevents things from going badly. Tolkien overturns convention by making his human, or in this case, hobbit characters at the mercy of a conscious, deliberately-acting natural environment, rather than some random natural disaster. Later, Bombadil expands on the trees' consciousness by revealing that they have a "hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers" (127), and that they are filled with "pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice" (128).  

The trees of the Old Forest, however, are not the only sentient trees in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien takes anthropomorphism to a new level with the Ents, giant creatures that possess a vaguely human shape, but whose bark-like skin and features more closely resemble the trees that they care for. The Ents are "tree-herds" (457), and it is in their creation that Tolkien is truly innovative. Treebeard, the Ent whom Merry and Pippin encounter following the breaking of the Fellowship of the Ring, becomes, in a sense, the representative of the whole of nature. He is unfathomably ancient: his eyes are "filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking" (452). The close relationship between Ents and the trees they care for is emphasized by the fluid boundaries that exist between the two species. Treebeard explains that many of the Ents are "growing sleepy, going tree-ish," while some trees are "quite wide awake, [...] getting Entish" (457). This is a continual process, one that is "going on all the time" (457). Indeed, the Ents themselves are a sort of endangered species, and must struggle with not only the risk of becoming 'tree-ish,' but also the problem of the long-lost Entwives (464). The conservation of nature, therefore, takes on an entirely different sense: Treebeard fears not only for the trees he loves and protects, but also for the race of Ents, whose survival is all the more crucial due to the non-increasing population.  

Thus, when asked about his position in the war that is being waged in Middle-earth, Treebeard's response is surprisingly and uncomfortably poignant: "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them" (461). Treebeard is essentially the ultimate environmental activist. His main interest is the well-being of the trees and landscape that he loves; issues of good and evil are secondary. It is only the realization that the evil of Sauron and Saruman will adversely affect the Ents and their beloved trees that inspires Treebeard to take action. He says that the Ents "are never roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger" (474). In one of the most touching passages in the novel, another Ent named Bregaland mourns the loss of his rowan trees: "The Orcs came with axes and cut down my trees. I came and called them by their long names, but they did not quiver, they did not hear or answer: they lay dead" (472). Tolkien's language is eloquent and deeply moving; the trees are not so much destroyed as they are murdered. It is Treebeard, however, who articulates his sorrow, guilt, and anger most profoundly:

Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop! (462-463)

Thus, once evidence of danger to the Ents and their trees exists, the Ents are enraged. The "wanton hewing" of trees by Saruman causes the Ents to march to war (474). Indeed, it is not only the Ents who are roused to action; the trees themselves seem to awake and march "over the hills to war" (475). While the Ents inflict their terrible wrath on the stone tower of Saruman at Isengard, the trees, called the Huorns by Treebeard, march to a different battle at Helm's Deep. These trees resemble the trees of the Old Forest, but their maliciousness greatly exceeds that of the old willow. These trees are a terrifying force of destruction: "great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head" (529). They play an active role in the destruction of Saruman's army. Tolkien therefore gives nature a chance to take revenge on the forces that threaten it.  

The Lord of the Rings also contains a probing study of the negative effects of industry on the environment. The mines of Moria are an obvious example. The abandoned mines are a frightening, tomb-like place where the ominous sound of flowing water comes up from deep below to haunt the Fellowship, "as if some great mill-wheel was turning in the depths" (303). There is no doubt that the downfall of the dwarves who mined there was caused by their greed (309), and their abuse of the natural resources awakens a terrible evil in the form of the Balrog, a fiery monster that emerges from the depths of the mines. The Balrog is significant; it is symbolic of the consequences of abusing nature. The motif of fire as an indication of environmental exploitation or destruction recurs throughout the novel. Isengard, where Saruman "tree-slayer" (as he is called by Treebeard), is a place of which smoke is always rising (462). In his efforts to raise an army, Saruman digs pits for armouries, and transforms Isengard from a "fair and green" valley to a "wilderness of weeds and thorns," a sort of tree graveyard in the form of "burned and axe-hewn stumps of ancient groves" (540). The idyllic Shire, the hobbits' homeland, is not immune to the destructive forces of industry. Upon their return, the hobbits discover it much changed, and notice an "unusual amount of burning going on, and smoke [rising] from many points about" (977). The soon discover that the source of this smoke can be traced back to the erection of the new mill, "full o' wheels and outlandish contraptions […] always a-hammering and a-letting out a smoke and a stench" (990). The mill produces nothing; it only pollutes and contaminates the environment around it. The trees that were "cut down recklessly far and wide" are the most crippling loss (999). However, the negative impact of excessive industry is reversed through a careful and conscious healing of the environment. At Isengard, the land is made into a garden "filled with orchards and trees" (956), while in the Shire, the trees are replanted and restored with the quasi-magical earth from Lothlórien. Thus, Tolkien suggests a solution to the problem he believes is inherent in any industrial society.  

If added to the syllabus of English 3705H, The Lord of the Rings would be best placed at the very end of the course, perhaps as the final reading. This placement is ideal for several reasons: the novel is a fantasy, a comparatively new genre, and one that is not represented on the existing syllabus. Also, in anthropomorphising trees, giving them their own voice and allowing them to actively defend themselves against the destructive forces that threaten them, Tolkien presents nature in an entirely different manner than any of the authors studied. Furthermore, the novel would function as an excellent summary of the other texts on the reading list. For example there are echoes of D.H. Lawrence's "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" in the deathlike mines of Moria; Eliot's The Waste Land is eerily paralleled in the bleak and barren Mordor. Wordsworth's thoughtful contemplation of questions of time and memory are similar to the doomed Elven paradise of Lothlórien, and the relentless, almost desperate search for home in Bishop's poetry is not unlike Frodo and Sam's quest to return to their beloved home in the Shire. Finally, and most importantly, The Lord of the Rings should be included at the end of English 3705H because it is eerily and unsettlingly relevant to contemporary environmental issues. The destruction at Isengard and the pollution of the Shire are all too real, too easily associated with current ecological crises. Tolkien seems to have anticipated these dilemmas, and his proposed solutions are a valuable resource. Indeed, there are valuable lessons in The Lord of the Rings, a book that is too often dismissed or ignored by the academic community. Tolkien writes that "the trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves" (122), a warning, perhaps, of the danger of abusing and taking advantage of the environment. His most affecting words, however, are spoken by Treebeard, and should serve as an impetus for contemporary readers: "if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later" (475).  


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: rana

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: Other

Genre: Critical Essay

Rating: General

Last Updated: 10/06/08

Original Post: 08/11/08

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