Upon first read, it is easy to interpret The Lord of the Rings as a sort of environmentalist manifesto. This provides a very tidy explanation for several unique chapters in the book. The untamed natural forces of the Ents wreaked havoc on Saruman’s unnatural stronghold of rock and magic in Isengard. Horrific anxiety is induced by The Scouring of the Shire, in which the hobbits return home from their journey to find the Shire has been brutalized by wasteful new machinery (more of Saruman’s doing, of course). Are we not supposed to glean a lesson from these chapters? It feels obvious that Tolkien is providing us with a message loud and clear—we should protect our wild, uncultivated, and natural places, disdaining industrialization, mechanization, and greedy human consumption. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it is too obvious. It is also problematic for two very important reasons. First, there are plenty of examples in which cultivation and civilization are completely celebrated, including the magnificent city of Gondor, as well as the Shire itself, which is highly cultivated under the watch of the Hobbits. Furthermore, those who read The Lord of the Rings in this way risk falling to the temptation of reading the books allegorically, failing to take heed of Tolkien’s explicit warnings and assertions that his work is not allegorical. Despite the rich symbolism, allusions, and metaphors within the book, we are not supposed to read the story as a metaphor for real life.
I argue that these chapters are not meant to be read as a symbolic struggle between nature and man, the wild and the uncultivated, the natural or the fabricated. Instead, when we focus on the relationship between jewels and trees, we see that these concepts form false dichotomies. Rather than opposing the natural and the fabricated, the association Tolkien makes between jewels and trees shows that the two are two halves of the same natural coin, and both need one another to thrive.
As Verlyn Flieger explains at length, green trees are highly symbolic of the natural world. The Elves who live in Mirkwood and Lothlórien are very closely associated with trees, living both among them and within them. Tolkien, as demonstrated through his story Leaf by Niggle and his personal letters, has a deep love of trees. Normally, when humans interact with trees, it is to cut them down to make room for industry, agriculture, and less natural endeavors. Jewels, by contrast, are usually wrought by human hands to make jewelry. They are closely associated with the Dwarves, who search for precious jewels and for their crafts. Jewels are far more contrived than trees. We know that due to these opposing tastes and some history that Dwarves and Elves do not always get along.
However, that is not to say that jewels are unnatural and trees are natural. Even though jewels are more often used in Human (or Dwarvish) endeavors than trees, they are still formed by natural processes that take place deep within the earth. It also absurd to make claims that Elves are somehow more natural than Dwarves or Humans. Although the Dwarvish creation story is different, we know at the very least that Humans and Elves were both conceived by Ilúvitar and are his children. Therefore, just because humans often manipulate their natural environments does not mean that their manipulation is inherently unnatural. It is unclear how could someone natural working with something natural make something unnatural. In fact, it is not even textually supported that the endeavors of the Elves are more natural than the endeavors of the other peoples of Middle Earth. They are also carefully manipulating their environment, as Sam notes while he and the Fellowship are in Lothlórien, “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.” In other words, the dichotomy is not between nature and ‘un-nature.’ Rather, it is between wild nature and cultivated nature.
We see both in Lothlórien and with the Ents that Tolkien does not favor wild nature to cultivated nature, but rather a balance between the two. The forest of Lothlórien is symbolic of this harmony because it is described both in tree-terms and jewel-terms, with silver bark and a golden hue. We also note that this is where Gimli and Legolas begin to form closer bonds with one another, eventually culminating in Gimli nearly falling in love with Galadriel. The Ents, although not associated with the cultivation of jewels, are also symbolic of this balance. The Ents lost the Entwives because a balance could not be stuck between the more wild and the more cultivating habits each shared, resulting in the Ents being unable to reproduce. Furthermore, the Ents themselves are not even purely natural or wild. They are not just trees, but shepherds of trees, meaning that they also do a sort of guiding and caring of what would otherwise go uncultivated.
It is clear that there are negative consequences to allowing the land to go completely uncultivated, as agriculture and artistic endeavors are often celebrated throughout The Lord of the Rings. As such, we should not consider jewels (which are more manipulated more regularly) or trees (more associated with untamed nature) as opposing ideals. While they are opposites, Tolkien is not advocating for one over the other. All of the peoples of Middle Earth are naturally derived, and as such their sub-creation should also be considered natural. A balance between cultivation and wild is what Tolkien is striving for. The books is not an allegorical rallying cry for anti-industrialists. They represent a symbolic harmony intrinsic only to that imaginary world.