Ents, Elves, and Eriador

Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien

Matthew Dickerson
Jonathan Evans
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Ents, Elves, and Eriador
    Book Description:

    Many readers drawn into the heroic tales of J. R. R. Tolkien's imaginary world of Middle-earth have given little conscious thought to the importance of the land itself in his stories or to the vital roles played by the flora and fauna of that land. As a result, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion are rarely considered to be works of environmental literature or mentioned together with such authors as John Muir, Rachel Carson, or Aldo Leopold. Tolkien's works do not express an activist agenda; instead, his environmentalism is expressed in the form of literary fiction. Nonetheless, Tolkien's vision of nature is as passionate and has had as profound an influence on his readers as that of many contemporary environmental writers. The burgeoning field of agrarianism provides new insights into Tolkien's view of the natural world and environmental responsibility. In Ents, Elves, and Eriador, Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans show how Tolkien anticipated some of the tenets of modern environmentalism in the imagined world of Middle-earth and the races with which it is peopled. The philosophical foundations that define Tolkien's environmentalism, as well as the practical outworking of these philosophies, are found throughout his work. Agrarianism is evident in the pastoral lifestyle and sustainable agriculture of the Hobbits, as they harmoniously cultivate the land for food and goods. The Elves practice aesthetic, sustainable horticulture as they shape their forest environs into an elaborate garden. To complete Tolkien's vision, the Ents of Fangorn Forest represent what Dickerson and Evans label feraculture, which seeks to preserve wilderness in its natural form. Unlike the Entwives, who are described as cultivating food in tame gardens, the Ents risk eventual extinction for their beliefs. These ecological philosophies reflect an aspect of Christian stewardship rooted in Tolkien's Catholic faith. Dickerson and Evans define it as "stewardship of the kind modeled by Gandalf," a stewardship that nurtures the land rather than exploiting its life-sustaining capacities to the point of exhaustion. Gandalfian stewardship is at odds with the forces of greed exemplified by Sauron and Saruman, who, with their lust for power, ruin the land they inhabit, serving as a dire warning of what comes to pass when stewardly care is corrupted or ignored. Dickerson and Evans examine Tolkien's major works as well as his lesser-known stories and essays, comparing his writing to that of the most important naturalists of the past century. A vital contribution to environmental literature and an essential addition to Tolkien scholarship, Ents, Elves, and Eriador offers both Tolkien fans and environmentalists an understanding of Middle-earth that has profound implications for environmental stewardship in the present and the future of our own world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7159-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    John Elder

    Over the past several decades, a form of literary scholarship has evolved that is now commonly referred to as ecocriticism. This approach to the dialogue between literature and the natural world seems, in retrospect, to have tracked fairly closely with certain phases in the environmental movement. It grew originally out of the study of “nature writing”—Thoreauvian nonfiction in which solitude amid wild landscapes was one central theme. Authors such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey came to be prized not only because of their tangy voices but also because of their strong advocacy for preserving wilderness. The...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxiv)

    The modern environmental movement, like any significant large-scale social development, does not represent a single monolithic agenda or set of procedures; it is, rather, a varied collection of diverse subgroups. These subgroups often differ significantly not only in their means but also in the ends or goals toward which they are working. As such, they are often at odds; where there ought to be harmony and collaboration, we sometimes find disagreement and division. This is illustrated, for example, in the distinction between preservation and conservation, terms that describe two divergent extremes and two differing environmental agendas. Whereas conservationists may laud...

  6. Conventions and Abbreviations
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  7. Part I. “The Tides of the World”:: Gandalfian Stewardship and the Foundations of Tolkien’s Vision
    • Chapter 1 Varda, Yavanna, and the Value of Creation
      (pp. 3-36)

      In setting out to explore the legendarium of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and to comprehend his imaginative vision, environmental or otherwise, the first thing one must realize is that Tolkien communicates through myth and story, not primarily through a set of abstract propositions. His ideas are expressed mythically, mythologically, and mythopoeically. He works mythopoeically because artistically he creates narratives meant to be understood as myths within his fictional world (the wordmythopoeiameans “the making of myths”). He works mythologically because his created myths are modeled, at least partially, on mythologies that already exist in our own world: Greek,...

    • Chapter 2 Gandalf, Stewardship, and Tomorrow’s Weather
      (pp. 37-68)

      InThe Lord of the Rings,when Gandalf first appears in Rohan at Meduseld, the golden hall of King Théoden, the notorious Gríma (son of Gálmód) gives him an icy reception. Gríma first calls Gandalf “Master Stormcrow”—repeating Théoden’s earlier use of the pejorative nickname—and then adds the title “Láthspell,” which means “ill news.”¹ Gandalf responds by calling Gríma by his better-known nickname, “Wormtongue,” a title that is equally pejorative and far more accurate.² Gandalf’s purpose in this encounter is to restore Théoden to health so that he can take action against the evil that threatens not only the...

  8. Part II. “The Succour of Those Years Wherein We Are Set”:: A Complex Ecology of Agriculture, Horticulture, and Feraculture
    • Chapter 3 Hobbits and the Agrarian Society of the Shire
      (pp. 71-94)

      One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s closest friends for many years was fellow writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis is the one other author whose influence on the modern genre of fantasy comes close to that of Tolkien; the two names are often mentioned together. Lewis’sChronicles of Narniaintroduces readers to the fantasy world of Narnia, and as the landscape and history of this world unfold over seven books, we see a growing portrait of what appears to be a preindustrial agrarian society. Most of the natural descriptions of the realm are either pastoral or wild, and until the final...

    • Chapter 4 Horticulture and the Aesthetic of the Elves
      (pp. 95-118)

      Tolkien’s imaginative creation and portrayal of a culture devoted to the cultivation and conservation of the soil—that of the Hobbits—is one important facet of a comprehensive environmental ethic. To illustrate a contrasting dimension of Tolkien’s environmentalism, we now turn to another race of people in Middle-earth: the Elves.

      The first appearance of Elves in the story line ofThe Lord of the Ringsoccurs on the second night of Frodo’s journey through the Shire on his way to Rivendell. Preparing to sleep alfresco in Woody End, beside the road to Woodhall in the Eastfarthing, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin...

    • Chapter 5 Woods, Wildness, and the Feraculture of the Ents
      (pp. 119-144)

      “I don’t know about sides. I go my own way.... I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays” (III/iv). These remarks, vocalized by Treebeard the Ent in conversation with Merry and Pippin, capture in a few words another crucial part of the environmental ethic espoused by Tolkien inThe Lord of the Ringsand elsewhere in his writing. Wilderness in general, and forests in particular, must be cared for and preserved, and the necessity of doing...

    • Chapter 6 The Necessity of Margins in Middle-earth’s Mingled Ecologies
      (pp. 145-162)

      The moral, ethical, philosophical, and theological issues contained in J. R. R. Tolkien’s writings justify our claim that although his work is not generally acknowledged in contemporary “ecocriticism,” his treatments of ecological responsibility and environmental stewardship are not merely gratuitous additions but reflections of the author’s deeply held convictions. In the previous chapters, our exploration of Tolkien’s threefold vision of environmental responsibility looked at the agrarianism of the Hobbits, the aestheticism of the Elves, and the preservationism of the Ents as valid responses of sentient creatures in the context of the created world they occupy. Although we examined the farmlands...

    • Chapter 7 The Ecology of Ham, Niggle’s Parish, and Wootton Major
      (pp. 163-182)

      So far, we have focused on the mythology, characters, settings, and imagery related to the environment of Middle-earth as illustrated in Tolkien’s legendarium. We now turn briefly to his best-known shorter works of fiction: “Farmer Giles of Ham,” “Leaf by Niggle,” and “Smith of Wootton Major,” about which less has been written. As with the major texts, it would be inaccurate to describe any of these stories as works of environmental literature or as nature writing.

      “Farmer Giles of Ham” is a comic piece whose rather unheroic protagonist is something of a rustic simpleton who is not taken very seriously...

  9. Part III. “Uprooting the Evil in the Fields That We Know”:: Following the Vision, and the Consequences of gnoring It
    • Chapter 8 Three Faces of Mordor
      (pp. 185-214)

      Just as Tolkien’s environmental vision in his Middle-earth mythology is complex and comprehensive, including models of agriculture, horticulture, and feraculture and the principles of both conservation and preservation, so too the threats to that vision inThe Lord of the Ringsare distinguished by their breadth and complexity. The evils of Sauron and the dangers he poses to the ecology of Middle-earth are threefold: they appear in descriptions of the land of Mordor itself, in portrayals of Saruman’s Isengard, and in the picture of a degraded Shire under Sharkey at the end of the story. Such a presentation not only...

    • Chapter 9 Rousing the Shire
      (pp. 215-234)

      The three-part picture of environmental woes painted in the previous chapter is bleak but far from hopeless. “The Scouring of the Shire” is only the penultimate chapter ofThe Lord of the Rings.In the final chapter, “The Grey Havens,” Tolkien leaves his readers with an inspiring picture of hope for the restoration of the Shire—one that represents the culmination of his environmental vision in a kind of qualified optimism. In addition to the hope of healing and restoration at the end of the story, the reader also faces the sorrow of the Elves’ departure from Middle-earth, and Sam’s...

    • Chapter 10 Environmentalism, Transcendence, and Action
      (pp. 235-258)

      In the previous chapter we examined how and why the various good stewards in Middle-earth are motivated to restore the regions of the environment for which they are responsible. We found that the formidable problems confronting them require a significant individual commitment to overcome complacency, take responsibility, embrace hope, and rouse others to meet the challenges they face. For all of them, environmental restoration in Middle-earth is motivated not by a desire for personal profit or economic gain but by a selfless and celebratory love of creation. But in practical terms, we still must ask how these principles and prerequisite...

    • Conclusion: Some Practical Matters
      (pp. 259-268)

      In the introduction to this book, we stated that in the strictest sense of the word, J. R. R. Tolkien was not an environmentalist. But after more than two years spent researching and writing, we are not nearly so sure of the unassailability of this position. As our project unfolded and we examined Tolkien’s works in the light of books and articles by recent and contemporary environmental writers, our initial intuitions about Tolkien’s environmental views were confirmed: concepts compatible with those of John Elder, Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, Aldo Leopold, Barbara Kingsolver, Wes Jackson, and a host of others...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 269-272)
    Tom Shippey

    It has been rightly said that the true hero ofThe Lord of the Ringsis not Aragorn or Sam Gamgee or even Frodo but Middle-earth itself: Middle-earth, with its astonishing range of habitats, from the tilth of the Shire to the Riders’ prairie, from the managed woodlands of Lórien to the deep dales of Fangorn, where the Huorns lurk in the hundreds. And the Great River; Tom Bombadil’s willow-choked Withywindle; the Glittering Caves of Aglarond; Ithilien, with its “dishevelled dryad loveliness”; and Hollin in Wilderland, which still remembers the Elves, are all described with careful and loving attention. In...

  11. Appendix: Further Reading
    (pp. 273-276)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 277-298)
  13. Index
    (pp. 299-316)