Friday, April 15, 2011

Revaluing Nature to Enlighten a World: The Environment in Tolkien's Legendarium

I enjoyed Wednesday’s discussion on how Tolkien claimed that he wrote of the real world of men and only imagined its historical moment, not the actual habituation of it. Tolkien imagined that his legendarium filled the depths of human history from before artifacts of known historical record like Stonhenge and even the enigmatic Tinkinswood Burial Chamber. To Tolkien, his imagined history inevitably led to real history. In the introduction to her Atlas of Middle Earth, cartographer Karen Wynn Fonstad similarly argued that Tolkien wanted to avoid creating a “totally new Secondary World.” He instead “took our world, with its processes, and infused it with just enough changes to make it ‘faerie.’” Accepting this imagined world as the object of, as Christopher Tolkien claimed, academic “contemplation or study,” I hope that we could broaden the discussion to the role of nature and place, particularly the environment, in both Tolkien’s legendarium and his own historical context.

To me, Tolkien used nature and the environment to establish more than a form of verisimilitude or spatial grounding for his legendarium. Despite his allusions to British locales in works like Farmer Giles of Ham (1937), Tolkien made the physical landscape and its living components essential parts of his mythopoeic process. In his Mythopoeia poem, Tolkien argued that trees were not trees until human consciousness perceived them and recognized that they were objects of divine will. To Tolkien, there was a moment between divine creation of the trees themselves and the human sub-creation of granting them adjectives and differentiating them from one another:
“God made the petrous rocks, the arboreal/ trees, tellurian earth and stellar stars…/Yet trees are not ‘trees,’ until so named and/seen--/and never were so named, till those had been/who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,/faint echo and dim picture of the world…”
By sub-creating these distinctions and enlightening the “dim picture of the world,” man reflected the creative work of G-d while not worshipping the artifacts of God’s creation, like trees. However, this process of enlightening the world required man to not merely be cognizant of his surroundings but see the value of each person, beast, plant, and rock in his landscape. Tolkien’s sub-creator drew the “wisdom from the only Wise/and still recall[ing] him,” to gain this vision of his environment.

Throughout his legendarium, Tolkien crafted detailed portraits of landscapes and assigned significance to flora like trees. In addition to his many annals on the histories of Valinor, Beleriand, and the line of Númenorian kings, Tolkien mapped their major vegetative features and described their climates. But Tolkien did not use these elements to simply enhance the realism of his world.  In an interview response featured in Fonstad’s introduction, Tolkien claimed that the basis of his world was his ‘“wonder and delight in the earth as it [was], particularly the natural earth.’” As a sub-creator, Tolkien used his sensitivity to his surroundings to imbue his own value to artifacts of creation, especially trees. In his life, Tolkien practiced this with an endearing fondness for trees, like a neighbor’s giant poplar, to which he paid tribute in Leaf by Niggle (1945). In his literature, Tolkien sub-created characters and cultures that valued beasts, plants, and rocks enough to name them or even commune with them (as do the Istari Gandalf the Grey and Radagast the Brown). For instance, in his Description of the Isle of Númenor, Tolkien noted that the “greatest delight of Númenor” was the evergreen and fragrant trees brought out of the West and that grew all about Eldalondë the Green. Among these Nisimaldar, the Fragrant Trees, was the “mighty golden tree malinorn”, whose fruit Gil-Galad gifted to Galadriel and “under her power they grew and flourished in the guarded land of Lothlórien…” The Númenorians and, later, Elves and members of the Fellowship valued these trees. Living through over two ages in Tolkien’s world, malinorn and its descendants sustained the inner-consistency of reality that enhanced both the verisimilitude of places like Númenor and Middle Earth and the relations between them.  Lastly, unlike his chronicle of the kings of Númenor in the Line of Elros, Tolkien used his description of the isle’s physical and natural amenities to define an appreciation of the natural earth, the very same environment in which Tolkien himself lived.  

Beyond the mythopoeic process, Tolkien seemed to make this sensitivity to nature a component of the ‘recovery’ for the modern reader of fantasy. In his 9 December 1943 letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien wondered if, after the war, there would be any “niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers [like him and Christopher]. The bigger things get the smaller and duller of flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one provincial suburb.” Tolkien argued that the “terrifying” Americo-cosmopolitanism of morale-pep and mass production was “qua mind and spirit.” Because this homogenizing, sanitizing force neglected the “piddling fears of timid flesh which does not want to be or chopped by brutal and licentious soldiery,” Tolkien was not certain if an allied victory would benefit the world as a whole. However, I suspect that he was also concerned about the extent to which the spreading cosmopolitanism would disrupt peoples’ sensitivities to nature and, ultimately, ability to sub-create. Tolkien removed his readers from that reality and placed them in a world in which characters and cultures interacted with nature, often on its terms. Through this journey, readers would experience the eucatastrophic grace of revaluing nature and enlightening the world through sub-creation. Thus, upon their return to the increasingly Americo-cosmopolitan world Tolkien lamented above, they would maintain an engagement with and value for their surroundings, perhaps as sub-creators themselves.



  1. Tolkien’s emphasis on the natural processes of the world always stood out to me as I read his stories. Whether it was his references to athelas or elanor, or his attention to the climatic rhythms (and sometimes lack of rhythm), there seems to be a reverence for the overall power of nature. I agree with your analysis of Tolkien’s use of nature and his concern over the loss of nature’s beauty. Nature is not just a beautiful force in these stories- the failed journey over Caradhras is a good example in which nature’s power is beyond even the best of intentions.

    In addition to your argument that Tolkien uses nature to create an inner consistency of reality as well as show his respect of the natural forces and sense of place he saw being slowly eroded by American cosmopolitanism, I can only add one thing. Since the Lord of the Rings is a journey- a journey for its protagonists, and a journey for its readers- the use of nature not only creates a sense of place, but a sense of movement. This sense of movement not only pushes the story forward, but is gripping to the reader.

    -SG (sorry, I forgot my initials)

  2. Thanks for bringing up a topic so important to Tolkien’s literature, and yet not much discussed in class so far. Doubtless he had a passion for trees and most things green (and possibly mushrooms), which he used to great effect in creating a sense of place and a kind of underlying mysticism in Middle Earth. However, he seems less fully embracing of animals—wolves, bats, crows, ravens, and spiders in particular. He certainly does not categorically dislike dogs or birds, but these species in particular are singled out a servants of evil and darkness. Was he merely importing N. European cultural baggage, or did these animals represent something else. Surely wolves were routinely demonized in N. European folklore. They were, however, revered by the Romans. Crows and ravens are more positively regarded in Slavic folklore. I’m not sure if bats and spiders were anyone’s favorites. So, it would appear that not everything in nature is good, but rather some natural things are indeed enclined to evil. Or are these particualr animals merely unfortunate dupes, seduced, enslaved, or corrupted by an external evil will, but otherwise as good and noble a Gwaihir?

    It would be interesting to explore the role of nature in the process of redemption. For example, the lineage of the White Tree from Valinor to Gondor is the link between the successive falls in Middle Earth (Noldor, Numenor, Gondor) and primordial paradise. As the destruction of a tree often accompanied a fall from grace, the planting of a new tree is the marker of a renewal or even a passing on of grace from one generation or people to another. Is this glorification of nature an atonement for past failings, and an attempt to restore and reclaim a bit of paradise on earth? Is this link with nature a personal quest of Tolkien's to to seek divine grace? I think parallels with the banishment of mankind from Eden are salient, but then again, Tolkien was not writing allegory.

    -Jason A Banks

  3. Another thing that I suspect Tolkien would have found particularly upsetting about Americo-cosmopolitanism: its near indifference to the importance of habitat for the flourishing of human as well as vegetal forms. Absolutely: when Tolkien talks about landscape, he is always thinking in terms of climate and flora; the two go together just as history and place, language and culture for him.


  4. Tolkien is a genius when it comes to evoking in the reader's mind these beautiful, near surreal, landscapes that (and I apologize beforehand for the upcoming comment) the movies did a pretty amazing job at captivating!

    His attention to flora - and his sub-creations of new species of which our primary world unfortunately cannot engineer for itself - share in a simplicity of such an elevated beauty that only Tolkien has yet been able to describe. I did not find surprising therefore, that in his letter to one Miss Beare (Letter nº211) Tolkien confesses that, upon writing his stories "I visualize with great clarity and detail scene and 'natural' objects, but not artefacts [such as clothing, etc.]." (Letters, 280)

    On a side-note; His level of skill - not only in describing but also in drawing the nature he envisions - is quite out of this world. It is nearly as though these images were given to him by some awesome higher entity and that, as an author, Tolkien only had to receive these divine transmissions and lend his hands as a vehicle for their materialization.

    Back on track;
    Upon realizing the inherent contrast between the breath-taking natural imagery in Tolkien's work and that of the artificially organized 'natural' flora/landscapes which we experience in our primary reality, the reader inevitably feels sad for state of nature that surrounds him. SG's comment above, reminding us of the function of the landscapes to engender 'movement' therefore comes to mind, and the reader is experiences a sort of 'calling' towards his responsibility for his own world - our primary reality.

    In fact, it is near impossible not feel heartbroken and to share in the sorrow of the Elves at the darkening of the Trees of Valinor. We are caught once again in another of Tolkien's eucatastrophes which so effectively immerse us in his stories while giving us conscience of our own reality.

    - J.Machado