Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Balance of Nature and Industry, Why Trees Can Be Bad Sometimes

As we discussed in class, it’s easy and simplistic to characterize Tolkien’s work as a morality tale against the dangers and corruption of modern industry fighting against the purity and majesty of nature. The battle between the Ents and Saruman is the clearest example of this clash, depicted in the movies, at least, as a battle against an army of a dark, soot-covered, factory built creatures and giant, wild, uncontrolled force of nature. But as with most things regarding Tolkien’s work, the relationships depicted in Middle Earth are not so simple. In fact, characterizing nature as only a force for good an industry and civilization as the main source of bad overlooks the way agriculture is celebrated in places like the Shire and how dwarfs are portrayed positively, despite their technological advancements. Indeed, both the trees and jewels we discussed in class, although often associated with highly positive values, both within the realm of Middle Earth and our own, are also often twisted and corrupted by forces of darkness. Things like the Rings of Power, which all but the One Ring had jewels in them, and the monsters that lurk among the branches of dark forests like the Mirkwood show us that both jewels and trees can be vessels of evil when not tempered with the sensibilities and morality of civilization.

Samwise Gamgee is a great example of how Tolkien positively portrays the balance of civilization and nature. He is a gardener, a tamer of nature. The reader first gets to know the character through descriptions of his gardening and his yardwork from the Bagginses. Most notably, when he encounters Galadriel, she gifts him with earth from her land and calls him “little gardener and lover of trees”. As a gardener, Sam grooms and tames nature, cutting back wild growth to fit within the confines of a garden, civilization. Galadriel, an idealistic being who is also heavily associated with trees and nature, acknowledges Sam as a fellow ‘lover of trees’ and identifies this association as his defining trait. Sam, albeit not as idealized and mystic as the other pure and good characters of Middle Earth, represents a healthy balance of trees and civilization, loving both the comforts of his home in the Shire, while also caring deeply for the plants that thrive under his care. It’s this love of nature combined with his role as a cultivator of trees that becomes significant when he is able to take the One Ring and freely give it back to Frodo, remaining untouched by its power.

As we discussed in the monsters portion of class, the monsters of Middle Earth fall in a wide variety of categories, which cover a wide range of intelligence, malice and antagonism. In our discussion of the spiders in the Mirkwood, we likened the monsters to a type of natural disaster, an unstoppable force of nature with mysterious origins and faceless numbers. This is a prime example of how Tolkien, a lover of trees himself, is able to turn trees and forests, normally an agent of good, into something dark and malicious. As he describes Bilbo and the Dwarves entering the Mirkwood, he sets the scene with a detailed description of two tree at the entrance of the path, “too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blacken leaves.” These trees are a far cry from Galadriel’s trees in Lothlorien’s Golden Woods, describes as “arrayed in pale gold”. This thing that separates the trees of the Mirkwood from the trees of Galadriel’s Golden Wood is the aspect of cultivation. It is mentioned that when the Lady of the Wood, Galadriel, leaves for the West, the woods start fading with her. It is Galadriel’s hand, representing morality and order, which keeps her trees so full of life and goodness, while the Mirkwood, untended and overgrown with ivy, under the influence of the Necromancer, becomes corrupted and twisted, home to a host of monsters within the boughs of the trees.

Jewels also occupy a similar role as trees, good when tempered and forged by a moral or civilized force, but also capable of being agents of evil and an object of corruption when in the wrong hands or allowed to run wild. The rise and fall of the Dwarf Kings demonstrates both the good of well-made jewels and the dangers of unchecked greed and mining. The Dwarfs are considered the most technologically advanced civilizations in Middle Earth, and they have both prospered and fallen as a result of this association. It’s important to note that the Dwarf’s industrialization is not portrayed as badly as Saruman and Sauron’s factory-like, sooty realms. Tolkien often takes great pains to describe the beauty the dwarfs were able to produce, the fantastic scale and amazing workmanship contained within the Mines of Moria, before the dwarf’s greed drove them to dig too deep, disturbing Balrog and forcing the dwarfs to abandon their home. As we can see in that simple backstory, the dwarf’s technological prowess is treated ambiguously, unlike Tolkien’s treatment of Saruman. Their technology produces indescribably beauty but also, when unchecked by morality and allowed to run free, they pay the consequences by having their home destroyed by an almost unstoppable “natural disaster” in the form of Balrog or Smaug.

It’s also interesting to note that the Dwarf Kings remained outside of Sauron’s influence through the Rings of Power. While they did end up destroying themselves through greed and pride, the Dwarf Lords did in fact prove resistant to the ring’s power, unable to even harness the invisibility power the rings conveyed all the other races. The final downfall of the Lords provides another example of good things that go bad when not checked by morality or civilization, as the rings took away the Dwarf Lords’ sense of morality, making them greedy and rich, ultimately leading them to ruin, once again, jewels leading to a fall due to a failing in morality.

As we can see, the characterization of Nature vs Industrialization, Trees vs Civilization is overly simplistic. Tolkien takes great pains throughout his characterization of his Middle Earth to emphasize how both trees and jewels, ordinarily symbols of nature’s beauty and good, can be twisted through either neglect and overgrowth or malicious forces. Tolkien characterizes pure nature as a scary unstoppable force through the presence of monsters like Balrog, the spiders and dragons, while he demonstrates the failings of industry through antagonists like Saruman and Sauron. It’s only when nature and civilization come together do true beauty and good emerge.


  1. Nicely observed that "Nature" left to itself in Tolkien tends to the evil--think, for example, of Old Man Willow as well or the Huorns with dark hearts whom the Ents cannot reach. This fits with Augustine's understanding of Evil as a deprivation of Good: it is proper to Iluvatar's children to participate in sub creation. Indeed, as you show, it is necessary for the good of creation that they should! RLFB

  2. In response to both your post and Professor Fulton-Brown’s comment, I never really interpreted anything natural within the story to be “evil” per se. It always seemed to me more that trees and other natural entities were simply independent, and if they took actions against our protagonists that it wasn’t necessarily a result of evil intentions but more looking out for their own self-interests. In the example of Old Man Willow trying to eat the hobbits and influencing the rest of the Old Forest to be hostile to human/hobbit travellers, to me this never seemed so much an indication that he was evil, just that he was deeply mistrustful of and had a lot of anger towards civilization. Putting yourself in the shoes (or I guess roots) of an ancient tree of the Old Forest, he has presumably seen, over the many long years, thousands and thousands of his friends killed by those who were claiming their actions were done in the name of “progress” or “civilization.” You have to remember that the Old Forest and Fangorn were once connected, and so it seems to me that the malice in Old Man Willow is more akin to the malice that the Ents feel toward Saruman cutting down their friends than the evil exhibited by Sauron trying to dominate all of the people in Middle Earth.