The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien

9780813124186Many 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. 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. 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.

In celebration of the tenth anniversary of the publication of Matthew T. Dickerson and Jonathan Evans’s Ents, Elves, and Eriador:The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, we’re sharing an excerpt from this groundbreaking and charming work of ecocriticism:

Food, Cheer, Song, and Well-Tilled Earth

The idea that nature has an inherent goodness is affirmed not only in the lofty mythological passages of the Silmarillion. It is apparent also in the more homely world of The Hobbit and in the opening passages of The Lord of the Rings. Turning for a moment from the distant and mythic realm of Valinor to the more familiar farms and fields of the Shire, we can see Tolkien’s ideas further developed in the earthiness of the Hobbits and the simplicity of their lifestyle. Hobbits in general, and particularly those who are central to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, show us that the common stuff of life—including, perhaps especially, the material things of this world—should be valued and appreciated for what they are in and of themselves.

The first two paragraphs of The Hobbit afford several valuable insights. The first thing we learn about Bilbo is that he lives in a hole in the ground. As a now famous anecdote tells us, it was this seemingly accidental sentence that Tolkien wrote on a blank piece of paper while marking examinations one day in the 1930s that led to the book’s being written in the first place: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” A philologist both by trade  and by passion, Tolkien immediately wondered, “What is a hobbit?” and “Why do they live in the ground?” The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be seen as something of an exploration on his part into the possible answers to these questions.  It is not until Appendix F—written in 1955, after the trilogy had been completed and the first two volumes had reached print—that the reader finally learns the answer to these questions from a pair of Old English words: hol (“hole” or “hollow”) and bytla (“built structure, building, or dwelling”). There, on the last page of the book preceding the indexes, Tolkien explains that he used Old English to represent the language of the Rohirrim and that the word hobbit is “a worn-down form of holbytla, if that name had occurred in our own ancient language,” for the original Westron term kûd-dûkan, or “hole-dweller.”

Still in the first two paragraphs of The Hobbit, we can also discern something from a comment about the layout of Bilbo’s dwelling on the Hill: “The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.” There
is a subtle suggestion here about the value Hobbits place on nature: their “best rooms” are not the ones with the most conveniences, the best paintings, the largest beds, or even (tellingly) the most food—they are the ones with the clearest views of the landscape. Their best rooms look out not only on gardens—that is, nature in cultivated form—but also on meadows and the river, natural features that, though by no means truly wild, are less domesticated or cultivated.

[ . . .]

[D]welling in the ground is fundamental to the nature of Hobbits, and although in Buckland and in Bree some live in houses aboveground, Hobbits of the Shire consider this aboveground life to be unnatural. Hobbits are close to the earth, and they are closely associated with the material substance of the soil. They wear no shoes, and their walking around barefoot keeps them in direct physical contact with the earth. This literally down-to-earth image is extended further when we learn in the fourth paragraph of The Hobbit of their uncanny ability to blend in with nature: “There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along”—a point repeated at the start of the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings.

Likewise, the Hobbits’ love of growing things can be seen throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo’s love of nature and gardens is evident in the fact that, though there is no mention of a housekeeper or a cook, he has a paid gardener. We see it in the names that Hobbits give to their children; little girls are most often named after flowers:
Rose, Elanor, Daisy, Primrose, Marigold. More generally, we see their appreciation for the simple pleasures of life in the songs they sing and the things they choose to take delight in: a bath at the end of the day, a mug of beer with friends, good food, a quiet walk in the woods and meadows, and—again, from the opening scene of The Hobbit—simply standing on the front step enjoying a pipe and some sunshine. They value these things over machines and technological contrivances, which do not make an appearance in their songs. When the four hobbits are imprisoned by the Barrow-wights and Tom Bombadil rescues them, he sends them running naked over the grass, thereby restoring their contact with the earth (I/viii). After hearing Merry and Pippin describe Hobbits, Treebeard comments about their earthiness, “So you live in holes, eh? It sounds very right and proper” (III/iv).

In the BBC radio interview quoted earlier, Tolkien associates the Shire with the English countryside of the central Midlands and its “good water, stones and elm trees and small quiet rivers and so on.” Hobbits, and especially our hobbits, are able to take delight in these simple things for their own sake, and not merely as means to an end or as excuses for achieving power. This is one reason—perhaps the most important reason—that they are able to resist the seductive influence of the Ring for so long: they are not fundamentally concerned with the manipulations of power, so they are able to take things for what they are.

The Value of Simplicity

Perhaps the most important overall picture we get of Hobbits and their lifestyle is one of simplicity. They are simple people with simple tastes, and they are fond of the simple comforts of modest living. As the narrator of The Hobbit tells us in the book’s second sentence, Bilbo’s home “was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” At certain points in the novel, the narrator seems critical of the Hobbits’ extreme love of comfort, suggesting that at times it can manifest itself as something other than virtue. However, there is much that is good about the Hobbits’ values. Even the particular types of comforts they prefer are associated not with modern gadgets and machinery but rather with living simply. To be sure, they are not averse to the ownership of possessions, but the Hobbits derive pleasure principally from good food, friendship, and an unhurried lifestyle that is made more leisurely not through the use of modern technology by the absence of it.

This idea runs counter to the modern orthodoxy of “bigger, better, more, faster” that lies at the heart of the relentless pursuit of technical and mechanical innovation in advanced societies. It has been pointed out that modern life can be characterized by, among other things, its frenetic pace. Colin Gunton, for example, calls “the paradox of modernity” the fact that technological advances have brought less, not more, leisure time: “The modern is less at home in the actual time and space of daily living than peoples less touched by [technological] changes. . . . The paradox is that there is to be found more genuine leisure in ‘undeveloped’ societies than in those dedicated to the creation of leisure.” Gunton cites E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 Small Is Beautiful, a classic of its time that had widespread social impact and, among other things, helped inspire the “Green” movement of environmental activism. Schumacher wrote, “The pressure and strain of living is very much less in, say, Burma, than it is in the United States, in spite of the fact that the amount of labor-saving machinery used in the former country is only a minute fraction of the amount used in the latter.”

Schumacher was a cultural forerunner in popularizing an alternative orthodoxy of simplicity that could seemingly offer people greater satisfaction in their lives. The title of Schumacher’s book became a catchphrase for an enduring theme in popular culture, championed recently in Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful. It is interesting —though perhaps not surprising—that Pearce also has written about J. R. R. Tolkien and sees environmental implications in Tolkien’s portrayal of Hobbits. In an essay entitled “Tolkien as Hobbit,” Pearce discusses Tolkien’s anti-industrialism in connection with Schumacher’s, seeing both writers as participants in “a long tradition of opposition to the
evils of the industrial age.”

Similarly, in his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes about the “discipline of simplicity,” which in his opinion requires both an internal spirit and an external application. Perhaps the most important application of simplicity is in the lifestyle we live and its effect on both world ecology and those who suffer most from degradation of the environment. Discussing the lack of simplicity in modern society and in most modern lifestyles, he writes: “We must clearly understand that the lust for affluence in  contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. . . . Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.”

By contrast, simplicity is one of the defining features of the Shire. Rather than craving things they do not need, Hobbits enjoy what they have. They do not hoard but give freely, an attitude reflected in the habit of giving (rather than receiving) gifts on one’s birthday. Thus they practice the third of Foster’s ten principles of simplicity: “Develop a habit of giving things away.” They also do well on the fourth: “Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.” Unlike many of us, Hobbits are not collectors of gadgets. Foster’s sixth principle is “develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.” He says, “Get close to the earth. Walk whenever you can. Listen to the birds . . . enjoy the texture of grass and leaves.” Foster, Schumacher, and other advocates of simpler living might have derived this principle directly from studying Tolkien’s Hobbits. An overarching principle, and one that Foster suggests separates the positive virtue of simplicity from the negative one of asceticism, is that “the creation is good and to be enjoyed.”

The values of the Hobbits are seen most sharply when they come into contrast with those of others around them. Hoarding tendencies are most clearly exhibited by dragons, particularly the dragon Smaug, who is the archvillain of The Hobbit. But Tolkien also shows this hoarding tendency and its sad result in Dwarves, who appear frequently in connection with dragons. This connection seems to have been a commonplace of early medieval culture. A seminal source for Tolkien— both professionally and creatively—can be found in the Old Norse Völsunga Saga, where the dwarf Andvari has a golden treasure and a magic ring that are seized by Fáfnir, a man transformed into a dragon by the curse of greed, the curse of the hoard, or both. One of the most moving scenes in The Hobbit is the death of the Dwarf king Thorin, whose dying words to Bilbo are, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (H, 348). As Thorin acknowledges only moments earlier, the specter of impending death—of going to “the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers”—forces a clearer vision and a reevaluation of what is really important. Thorin repents of his earlier unkind words to Bilbo, contrasting the traditional values of the Hobbits, which are vindicated throughout the story, with those of the Dwarves, which have brought such trouble.

Wendell Berry might take the principle of Thorin’s dying words a step further, seeing hoarding, a problem addressed by Foster as well, as the central problem to be corrected. Among other things, the hoarder cannot fully appreciate what he or she is hoarding. Tolkien certainly makes this point with respect to the dragon Smaug, who appreciates the monetary value of objects but not the objects themselves—their beauty or inherent worth. More significantly, perhaps, land itself cannot be appreciated or cared for properly when it is made the object of possessive accumulation: “It is well understood that ownership is an incentive to care. But there is a limit to how much land can be owned before an owner is unable to take proper care of it. The need for attention increases with the intensity of use. But the quality of attention decreases as acreage increases.”This idea is stated in many of Berry’s essays as a contrast between small family farms and the agricultural empires of agribusiness. For the former, success is defined in terms of producing good crops, in an environmentally sustainable manner, for the consumption of the farmer and his family, the surplus being made available for the needs of neighbors. For people involved in agribusiness, success is defined in terms of the money economy; the agribusinessman must accumulate larger tracts of land, more equipment, and larger storage capacity to survive in the agricultural market, creating an endless cycle of acquisition and dependency. Hoarding fits the goals of agribusiness; by means of hoarding, there are “corporations that have bought cheap and sold high the products that, as a result of this agenda, have been increasingly expensive for farmers to produce.” Thus hoarding is sometimes a good way to make money, but it is always a bad way to live life.

An even greater contrast can be seen between Hobbits and Orcs. When we first meet Orcs—called Goblins in The Hobbit—we learn a good deal about their values, and they are not entirely without what one might call virtues. Although “they make no beautiful things,” they at least “make many clever ones.” Cleverness or ingenuity might be seen as having the positive value of problem solving. Mechanical solutions to the problems of the physical world often bring problems of their own, however, and the Goblins are said to have invented “some of the machines that have since troubled the world,” ingenious devices that make use of “wheels and engines and explosions.” Like us, Orcs are interested in saving labor, but they are described as “not working with their own hands more than they could help,” suggesting not a pursuit of efficiency to liberate them from tedium for the sake of higher interests but rather lethargy or slothfulness. Their slothfulness has a particularly sinister side, too: whatever labor cannot be done by machines, the Orcs avoid by using slaves, who “have to work till they die for want of air and light.” Tolkien’s narrator passes judgment on the Orcs’ badly applied value system, calling them “wicked and bad-hearted” (H, 108–9). The implications for modern life in the real world should not be lost. People in technologically advanced, consumer-oriented societies often find themselves enslaved to the very machines meant to free them from toil—machines that contribute in no small way to pollution of the soil, water, and air and thus to the general endangerment of life and health.

By contrast, Hobbits not only love beautiful things but also love to work with their hands. They particularly like good earth and wellfarmed countryside. Though they are “skilful with tools,” they dislike and do not understand any machines “more complicated than a forgebellows, a water-mill, or a handloom” (Pro). We will postpone lengthier remarks on the agrarian nature of Hobbit society until chapter 3, but for now we want to connect this with several earlier points. The first is that the Hobbits’ appreciation for the simple pleasures of good food, singing, hot baths, and the like is related to the value they place on nature: the grass, the brown earth beneath their feet, the river in the meadow, the blue sky overhead. The second is that they turn away from the sort of power over others—enslavement and war making—that technology affords: the kind of technology devised by Saruman and employed by Orcs. Instead, Hobbits prefer the work of their own hands and closer connections to the things of the earth they love.

Here it must be noted with some concern that neither of the Bagginses—neither Bilbo nor Frodo, the primary heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—do any such work themselves. As far as the reader is informed, Bilbo and Frodo never actually get their own hands dirty in their gardens; instead, they pay the Gamgees to do it for them. However, there are four important observations to make with respect to this fact. The first is that although the Bagginses are not farmers or even gardeners, their personal sympathies seem wholly consistent with those of their surrounding culture. Early in The Lord of the Rings, the fellow hobbits with whom the Bagginses are most closely and even affectionately related—Sam Gamgee, Hamfast “the Gaffer” Gamgee, Farmer Cotton, and Farmer Maggot, for example—do perform such work. Pippin is also from a farming family. Second, and more important, the narrator (at least in The Hobbit) seems critical of the Bagginses precisely because they are becoming too much like the snobby upper class: people who say the opposite of what they mean and make others do their work for them. As Tom Shippey points out, Gandalf is trying to rescue Bilbo from being a member of the bourgeoisie—a simple, selfish materialist like his relatives the Sackville-Bagginses, whom the narrator is clearly critical of. Bilbo is not there yet, but he is “heading that way.” Third, upon the return of the four heroes in The Lord of the Rings, the reconstruction of the Shire is clearly supported by Frodo, even though Sam and many others do the actual work of rebuilding, requiring simple manual labor. And finally, it is not Frodo but Sam, the gardener and forester, who emerges as the real “hero” of the reconstruction—and the only Hobbit ever elected mayor for four terms in the Shire—while Frodo, for various reasons, is unable to cope.

In the words of environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, “[a]nyone who ever thrilled to Tolkien’s fighting trees, or to the earthy Tom Bombadil, or to the novel charm of the Shire will want to read this important and lovely book.” We hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Ents, Elves, and Eriador:The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien by Matthew T. Dickerson and Jonathan Evans.

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