Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tending Caves: Blending the Living and Non-living, Nature and Art

One of the central questions Prof. Fulton Brown presented in Monday's class is this: what is the relationship between the living and non-living, between nature and art? The answer, at least in Tolkien's world, seems to be that they are in many ways one and the same; nature can be crafted, art can be grown, and living and non-living frequently blend into one. The Silmarils are jewels, resembling flowers or fruit, imbued with the light and life of the two trees of Valinor; through the concept of creation, the living and non-living parts of Middle Earth become unified, as things crafted by Ilúvatar; and Lothlórien, bearing the colors of precious materials—gold, silver, white, and green—is exceptionally well-preserved, thanks to the art of Galadriel, emanating in part from her gemstone-bearing ring. This last example is particularly useful, because it offers a means to achieve the blending of nature and art that is not dependent upon deific powers or grand magic; though Galadriel's instrument for making the forest gem-like is a ring of power, her acts of careful preservation and love toward the forest can be fully emulated by mundane means.

A certain passage in The Lord of the Rings makes this ability of non-magical beings to craft nature especially clear, while also reinforcing the unity of living and non-living things in non-magical terms: Gimli's conversation with Legolas, about the caves of Helm's Deep. Gimli opens his description by saying that “when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel” (The Lord of the Rings, 547). In the light of torches, and in Gimli's descriptive language, the jewels and stones attain the qualities of living things, becoming “shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel.” The reference to Galadriel, in addition to showing the esteem in which Gimli holds the caves, also helps to create an association between them and Galadriel's domain, so that when Gimli goes on to describe “columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose,” these floral colors of the non-living caves of Helm's Deep end up recalling the precious material colors of the living forests of Lothlórien, which Galadriel preserves and amplifies (The Lord of the Rings, 547).

The give and take between Gimli and Legolas also juxtaposes the caves with another forest, Fangorn, which emphasizes the similarities between Dwarves and Ents, as care-taking crafters of nature. The conversation begins with Gimli disparaging the forests of Fangorn, and Legolas doing the same to the caves of Helm's Deep, but ends with a bargain, suggested by Legolas, that “if we both return safe out of the perils that await us, we will journey together. You shall visit Fangorn with me, and then I will come with you to see Helm's Deep” (The Lord of the Rings, 548). Directly before this reconciliatory bargain, and perhaps prompting it, Gimli speaks, in the terms of living nature, of the obligation all Dwarves would feel to preserve and amplify the wild beauty of the caves, saying “None of Durin's race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap – a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day – so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark” (The Lord of the Rings, 548). The Dwarves' role with respect to the caves distinctly parallels the Ents' role with respect to the forest; they oppose their exploitation for resources, they “tend” them “with cautious skill,” rather than aggressively changing them, and they work with extreme patience, “as the years went by.”

The parallel between Fangorn and Helm's Deep raises some interesting questions, however, because the two regions do maintain a distinctly different feel, with the woods appearing as far more terrifying than the caves, in spite of the assistance they provide the forces of Good, through the work of the Ents. In class, we speculated that the idea of a moving forest might be so frightening because it gives trees the ability to exact a vengeance that readers can recognize as well-justified within their own context, as well as that of The Lord of the Rings. The reader encounters the army of Huorns—terribly powerful, full of righteous, but still bitter wrath—and starts to worry: what if our own trees, which we have used and abused for so long, with so little purpose, suddenly became aware and active? No such question directly haunts the caves of Helm's Deep, probably because they have never been despoiled by the likes of Saruman, but the parallel to Fangorn forest does make one wonder what the embodiment of an exploited cave's justified wrath would look like. One does not have to wonder long, however, since Tolkien has already provided at least two answers: in The Lord of the Rings, the greed of the dwarves in Moria awakens a Balrog, while in The Hobbit, their greed in Erebor summons the dragon Smaug. Though these monsters are not drawn from the constituents of caves in the same way that Huorns are drawn from the constituents of forests, they do seem to embody caves quite successfully, with the Balrog controlling both the darkness of deep tunnels, and the flames of magma, and Smaug employing similar flames, as well as gemstone armor on his underbelly, and the destructive power of an earthquake, when he cracks the mountainside to trap the dwarves inside his lair. These creatures are, however (and I am very curious to know why this might be the case) conspicuously more evil, and more singular, than Huorns. One could hardly imagine anyone “tending” a Balrog, or a dragon—or at least not anyone Good.

-James Brooks


  1. James,

    Thanks for the post; I think you do a great job comparing and contrasting the cultivation and naturality of both the caverns below and the forests above. The citations of the hazards inherent in both is especially good.

    Do you think this could be extrapolated into a general theory of the natural world in Tolkien? I don't know if he describes other environments to this degree, but these would be two solid pillars supporting the theory…

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This is an interesting comparison of how caves and forests are utilized in Tolkien’s writing. In particular, you present some of the parallels of the Glittering Caves of Helm’s Deep with the beautiful forest of Lothlórien that arise during Gimli and Legolas’ conversation following the Battle of the Hornburg. The Caves are described in arboreal terms that, with the reference to Galadriel’s hands, could only be allusions to Lothlórien. The parallel that Tolkien is drawing reveals Tolkien’s understanding of the relationship between nature and art. Nature and art are closely entwined.
    You move the discussion to an examination of the role of ents and dwarves as keepers of their respective domains. Another interesting examination, in vein of the examination of the relationship between the Glittering Caves and Lothlórien, would be the examination of the Elves and Dwarves as keepers of their domains. Galadriel tended Lothlórien much like Gimli and his kin would tend the Caves following the War of the Ring. However, the Dwarves would begin their watch at the dawn of the Fourth Age, after the Elves had left. Are there any statements that we can read from the fact that the Dwarves succeed the Elves as the keepers of beauty?

    N. Malaqai Vasquez

  4. I found it interesting how your post started with jewels ranging from common gems to the jewels of Galadriel and ended with forests, caves, ents and dwarves. I especially like your take on the similarities between the dwarves and the ents, and their care with building and growing their homes and environments. Both areas are home to these creatures and have so much care and love put into them, and this love is expressed by the creatures that live there with pride and recognition. I admired the phrase you used to connect the ents and dwarves, “caretaking crafters of nature.” They definitely fall under this category, and it’s interesting that something similar between the forests, the caves, AND the jewels you mentioned previously are that all require immense amounts of time to build to greatness. Not only do all three require time to build, but they are also built to withstand time. Jewels, trees and caves are all also creations of nature, not just the ones who sculpt them. They cannot be created by will but require patience and skill to sculpt once they have been produced in nature. All three have equal value to their residents/owners, and the immense beauty seen in them is appreciated and admired by all creatures of middle earth.


  5. The observation of the similarities between caves and trees throughout much of Tolkien's work is very apt, and as I reflect on it more and more, I find many examples of how caves and forests can either be places of great natural beauty and splendor or places filled with darkness and terror. One need only compare Mirkwood to Lothlorien or Moria to the Glittering Caves to see this. More interesting, however, is the connection you seem to draw between the Huorns and Smaug in that they are both in some way a denizen of either the forest or a cave. To me, there seem to be two key differences which produce the feeling that Smaug is distinctly evil as opposed to the Huorns which feel dangerous but not evil per se. First, if one looks at the origin of these creatures, one can see that Smaug, being a dragon, descended from the monsters breed by Morgoth, so they are evil as an effect of their making for an evil purpose by an evil force. Huorns, on the other hand, were not explicitly made for such a purpose; they have become embittered and full of malice through years of abuse and the decline in tending from the Ents. In the end, this notion of tending (or perhaps gardening may be a better term) is very important for Tolkien. Good gardener such as the ents, dwarves, or elves bring out natural beauty, but a gardener such as Morgoth only serves to corrupt and bring destruction. Note that Smaug had no cave, but had to take the lonely mountain from the dwarves. Evil does not create, but it defiles.