Friday, June 6, 2014

The Wild vs. the Cultivated: Different Perspectives on Nature in Tolkien

We discussed in class at length why trees might be scarier than monsters, a possibility that is highly interesting given the conclusion we came to of an ideal relationship of cultivation between trees and subcreators (elves, men, etc.).  Trees are not very rare.  Given the right climate, you can find them every few feet.  You can’t really get rid of them, because they aren’t solitary.  They can’t run, but if you run, there are always more of them.  They’re taller than people, and they don’t die if you rip leaves off of them, don’t react visibly as though in pain as we would to a physical wound.  It seems significant that Tolkien sets up trees as a kind of neutral-hostile force: as opposed to corporeal monsters, which function as animals rather than plants, and therefore behave in almost a more familiar way than trees do, despite their fantastic qualities, and are at the same time far less pervasive than trees.  Accustomed to see trees more like ornaments to the backdrop of our everyday lives, as readers we are asked to pay new attention to them, as a present and powerful living force in Tolkien’s stories.
The idea that one should need mediators when dealing with trees – elves, ents – suggests something curious about how Tolkien seems to believe we should approach the natural world, as if we should not have direct contact with it, or it takes a certain kind of person to do so.  Like Faerie, woods seems to need an elf friend of sorts.  The idea of a necessary mediator seems to conflict with the ideal of the elves which we discussed in class, of harmony between nature and human art (as both a kind of art, in the context of created Middle-earth), and between humans and nature as both created things.  A mediator being necessary between a pure forest such as the Old Forest and a people such as hobbits for them to get along and for each to exist in a most fulfilled manner seems a bit of a tall order – how does one create something like that?  One cannot import ents and elves when needed.  Cultivation was suggested as a solution to a wild forest, but I have an uneasy feeling that the Old Forest would not appreciate cultivation, and is beyond it in some way.
It also seems troubling to suggest that cultivation by men or elves is necessary for trees and forests.  There is something conflicting between such a human/humanoid-centric universe and the sheer power of the natural world that Tolkien presents us with throughout the Lord of the Rings.  That is to say, how can we say that a forest is not at its fullest and most beautiful without human (or elf or hobbit) cultivation, if we do not demand that humans (and elves and hobbits) be cultivated by forests to reach their fullness as beings/creatures?  One might suggest that the difference is that the humanoids are exclusively subcreators in the world (and therefore have the status of things that make art rather than just existing), but I don’t necessarily buy it – beavers?  Ants?  Trees themselves, as things that reproduce?  (We discussed in class that childbearing was a form of subcreation.)
I wonder if we can say that the humanoids of the Lord of the Rings are cultivated by the natural world.  The elves and hobbits seem like good candidates, as they live close to nature, though of different sorts, and in harmony with it.  Caras Galadhon seems like the best example of harmony between the art of elves and the natural world, but reading its description does not give the impression that the elves have been shaped by the forest.  Celeborn and Galadriel are clad all in white (LotR, 354), all the worse to get covered with twigs and leaf-litter.  The whole place is hung with lamps (354), a great fire-hazard in a wind – if there is wind there?  Does removing aspects of the natural world for the convenience of humanoid inhabitants constitute real harmony, or domination?  Is there a compromise here where the elves give up something of their nature?
Sam, at least, seems to think that the trade-off between the elves of Lórien and Lórien itself may be equal.  “ ‘These folk … seem to belong here, more even than Hobbits do in the Shire.  Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say, if you take my meaning’ ” (360).  But the hobbits, for all their enmity with the Old Forest, at least look like the earth they inhabit – rolling and sunny, green and brown and yellow.  Perhaps, though, it is fair to say that Lórien is simply an example of one of the many different kinds of forest in the Lord of the Rings, and that it hasn’t become solely an elf-house and lost its character as a forest, but that its character as a forest happens to fit the character of the elves that inhabit it.
Be that as it may, Tolkien’s idea of living with and caring for the natural world, even wild forested parts (and not just fields and gardens), is one of the ideas that affects me most when I read the book.  As a non-religious reader, it was not the fight against Sauron as evil or the problem of possessiveness or the characters’ moralities or (im)mortalities that mattered to me, but the great presence of the natural world, pitted against the destruction of Saruman and Sauron, and the fact that every second person is out to protect it.  That the characters love Middle-earth as a natural world and interact with it constantly is what made the books magical to me when I first encountered them, and continues to do so.  Everything – Athelas, the Falls of Rauros, the Old Forest, the mountains – is participating, every aspect of nature that appears in the books might as well be a character in and of itself.  And perhaps, as a non-Christian, it is particularly easy for me to say this, but for me their doing so does not have much to do with whether they were created or not.  In fact, Caras Galadhon, the best example, as we discussed in class, of harmony and cultivation between subcreative creatures and trees, seems to me rather an inactive and character-less landscape, as compared to the rich, wild, untamed Old Forest – creepy, bushy, bright green and darkly shaded and mysterious.  If the Christian reading of trees as relating to jewels, things of light and craft, is there, a very different reading of trees seems also to be there to oppose it: a wood, and world, in its might and glory precisely when it is powerful and un-walked-in – one which has worth in and of itself, even if it will not tolerate travelers, much less inhabitants.  Tolkien’s description of the Old Forest is full of details of nature that suggest wonder, fascination (113-15) – while his description of Caras Galadhon has more light, speech, and song than it has trees (353-54).  In the presence of the great power and agency of elves, the trees of Lórien, despite what Sam might say about their forming each other and belonging together, have become the background.



  1. I wonder if it is simplifying the issue too much to say that I think Tolkien would not have designated specific caretakers of nature. For him it’s a universal obligation and one that we all, as created in creation, have. This of course hinges on the understanding of the world as created and we as creation, but I think you could probably secularize it too. I don’t think Tolkien would be opposed to the reading that regardless of how we got here, we are here now and the wonder and glory of nature is too, therefore we should take care of it. I do think, along these lines, Tolkien is not for a smothering or over fondness of nature either; balance seems to tie in nicely with the idea of caretaking. This ties into the idea of the Old Forest too. I don’t think it get its “might and glory precisely when it is powerful and un-walked in.” I think it gets its power and glory for Tolkien because it’s a creation. I think that is magnified by it’s unapproachability, but that facet of it runs parallel to it as a creation, not in opposition to.

  2. I was also struck by the absolute and overpowering presence of the natural world while reading LOTR; for me, the basic problem in Tolkien's world is a love for the world, and a desire to protect it from the forces of corruption. Those forces, though, come from both the obviously evil (like Sauron's marauding orcs) as well as from the good, such as men and dwarves who "delve too greedily and too deeply" (the relationship between elves and the natural world does seem more symbiotic). The elves seem to represent an ideal relationship with nature; that is, living within it without disturbing it, and even bettering it through one's works. But Tolkien's message throughout his legendarium paints that relationship as such; that is, ideal. The reality is that men (including their offshoots, the hobbits) are fundamentally in conflict with the primal forces of nature, whom they seek to cultivate and order. Men have little love for the deep, dark places of Fangorn, and even the earth-loving Hobbits want to turn places like the Old Forest into nice, little gardens. It's a very human impulse, and not one that Tolkien (I don't think) wanted to vilify - it's just the way of things.

  3. I’ve come back to this after our conversation about religious duty, and it’s raised some questions for me. If hobbits’ sin is a lack of attention to the world around them, does that relate to nature as well? For Tolkien, nature and humanity are inextricable--as Sam says, elves shape the forest, and the forest shapes them. But what, then, would the proper relationship with nature be? What would the proper cultivation of appreciation be? I think the best example of that is Gimli’s description of the Glittering Caves, and the dwarves’ treatment of it: “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, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.” This is not a cultivated cave, but a judiciously enhanced one. Rather than attempting to change the natural world, the dwarves appreciate and enhance it, rather than mining it for ore. Would this sort of enhancement of the forests of Middle-Earth be tolerated? Trees seem more alive than stone.

    Marguerite Meyer

  4. Marguerite’s comment ends on an interesting point about whether trees or stones are more alive. Biologically-speaking, of course, stones are not alive and therefore have less life than trees, but it feels at times that in Tolkien’s conception because of the high value he places upon nature as having come of creation and being beautiful in its own right whether it is alive or not, he would have valued the glittering caves of Gimli as much as the well-tended trees of the elves (though perhaps not as much as those of Lorien, because Lorien is, as discussed, a very special place). It is an interesting exercise, however, to consider what the different layers of creation and subcreation mean. There is inherent beauty in creation, in nature, in rocks and stones, cliffs and forests, the landscape around us, even were one not to believe in creation itself, as the original blogger points out. Similarly, even were one not to believe in Tolkien’s ideas about subcreation, there is still something inherently beautiful and impressive about acts he would interepret as thus, which we could generally characterize as artistic or creative – i.e. the Argonath, the various prized swords in the books, the architecture of various regions. Now, one partakes of nature/creation to reach a state of artistic endeavor/subcreation, and both of them are beautiful in their own right, but what is the relative value of the original material, the subcreated material, and their combined whole? Is there a reliable way of assessing these values? I feel as if these are questions that need to be answered before one can reliably assess the true “value” of these things in Tolkien’s conception, though for my own part, I, like the author, am content to be impressed by the landscapes and vistas in the books even without understanding all the intricacies of subcreation.


  5. Upon reading the previous few comments, I was left wondering where all the fauna of Middle Earth fits into the picture--humanoids and Ents (do they count as flora or fauna?) aside. As Jack writes, Tolkien seems to imply over and over again that all creatures are obligated to protect Nature and it is indeed a "sin" of the hobbits to begin to turn away from this obligation. However, is it only the Eagles out of all non-humanoid creatures who have the sentience to communicate in the first place? The Eagles remain loyal to Manwe and only help worthy others in the utmost need, but is this "need" determined by the need of nature? Do the servants of the Valar share the duty of men, elves, hobbits, etc. to preserve nature? Because, as ridiculous as such an image may be, I would imagine that any being loyal to the world would have attacked Isengard with the Ents, so why was there not an enormous army of squirrels, birds, deer, etc? Is this merely a question of sentience? Or rather is it just that only men and hobbits would ever seek to dominate nature rather than living as a part of it and thus it is their duty to check their fellows?
    --Alex Hale