::: Andrew Light
I’m talking to my friend Julia who asks what I’m working on at the moment. Somewhat sheepishly I tell her that it’s an essay on The Lord of the Rings for a book in a series that has included collections on Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Matrix, and other bits of popular culture. I’m somewhat embarrassed because she’s a serious art historian and I worry that she’ll mistakenly think I’m dabbling in cultural studies.
Her response, however, surprises me: “Tolkien is wonderful!” she says. “Seriously, I read The Lord of the Rings twice as a kid and his writing made a huge impression on me. For years I forbade my brother from reading it because I wanted to have this world all for myself.” For many people like Julia, Middle-earth is a world of importance to them, not simply a fictional realm; it’s a safe haven of sorts that they visit over and over again to find re-enchantment and renewal.
But Julia and I both agree that my assigned task, to write a chapter on the environmental elements in The Lord of the Rings, is a daunting one. Isn’t the entire series about the environment, or nature, and aren’t all the characters in the novel representations of some part of nature? Scholars such as Patrick Curry have argued that Tolkien’s works are thoroughly infused with a strong environmentalist message. Curry goes so far as to claim that The Lord of the Rings served as a kind of clandestine environmental manifesto that was later most appreciated during the rise of the radical environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tolkien himself, who disliked allegory, would have demurred if offered such a characterization of his own work. When faced with comparisons between the plot of The Lord of the Rings and the events of World War II, he insisted that there was no intended connection to any contemporary events.
Yet it is impossible to ignore the strong environmental themes in the book, especially in the devastations wrought by Sauron and Saruman, keepers of the fictional two towers. For example, at the end of the cycle when the hobbits return to the Shire to find that Saruman has transformed their pastoral Eden into a nineteenth-century industrial wasteland (a kind of Middle-earth version of turn-of-the-century Manchester or Pittsburgh), don’t we get a clear critique of the ravages of industrialism pulling apart the traditional connections between people and the land? Couldn’t this be used as a launching pad for a discussion of sustainable development or globalization today and the struggle to prevent what happened in the industrialized North from happening in the rural South?
Probably. But it is a virtue when appreciating any text to try to respect the unique integrity of a work and what it does differently from other texts. Discussing this issue with Julia I hear myself saying that if I wanted to write something about the representation of struggles for sustainable development in novels or films I wouldn’t choose Tolkien as my focus. The reason is not because we can’t distill such a message from The Lord of the Rings but because such a claim seems more peripheral to the power of these texts to create a world where other more unique things are happening. This is not to pander to Tolkien’s wishes on how he should be read, but to try to do justice to the very real magic that these works have played in people’s lives.
This chapter, then, will not go so far as a reading like Curry’s but will still highlight one important aspect of the environmental associations to be found in these works: the representation of a kind of geologic or naturally scaled time in The Lord of the Rings. Though not literally a representation of geological time as we know it (which measures the billions of years of existence of the earth from its primordial birth to the present through the geologic record), The Lord of the Rings nevertheless embodies a time scale attuned more to the natural world and upon which the main drama of the cycle of the story is played out. Especially through the characters of Tom Bombadil and the ents, The Lord of the Rings makes comprehensible a sense of the past through which “nature” sets the context for events in the present. From this long perspective, which I will call “green time,” Tolkien helps us understand the importance of nature as the foreground and background of all events of any significance to us, while at the same time encouraging our responsibility for it. Once we recognize this part of the text we may be in a better position to appreciate how it can help us to overcome our current environmental problems, whether those solutions were intended by Tolkien or not.
On a first pass it is tempting to take the various peoples of Middle-earth, especially the nonhuman ones, as stand-ins for various parts of nature. According to such a view, appreciation of those peoples should in turn help us to appreciate different parts of the natural world. We might see elves as embodying the forest, dwarves the mountains, and hobbits the domesticated countryside. After all, each of these peoples almost exclusively occupies these places. While they will venture between these locations in the course of the story, they appear to feel truly at home only in their own environment.
Gimli the dwarf, for example, is the only one in the Fellowship who seems to relish the idea of taking a route through the Mines of Moria underneath the Misty Mountains. While this is partly because he hopes to find his relative Balin still holding the dwarf fortress there, he also seems the only one truly unbothered about being underground. Later, in The Return of the King, we are given a description of the passing of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and others underground through the Paths of the Dead from the perspective of Gimli. This is done to impart to us how unusual it was for him to be so disturbed by a place under a mountain and so magnify how terrifying it must have been for the rest of the party.
Humans, in contrast, are interlopers in Middle-earth, as too many environmentalists see them today in our world, living in all of these environments as well but not intimately connected with them in the same way as the elves, dwarves, or hobbits seem to be. We know, too, that after the end of the Third Age, which concludes with the War of the Ring, the Fourth Age will see humans as the dominant people in Middle-earth, much as they are now the dominant species on our own planet. With the passing into memory of the other peoples of Middle-earth we have a possible allusion to the evolution of humans from only one among equals of other species in our prehistoric past to our current state as undisputed master of all.
But a view connecting Tolkien’s peoples to their environments confronts a significant hurdle: the existence throughout the narrative of other characters and peoples who are more direct extensions of parts of the natural world itself. Take the example of the forests. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, as well as in The Hobbit, the elves are strongly associated with the forests of Middle-earth, especially Mirkwood, home of Legolas’s kin, and Lórien, where Galadriel and Celeborn dwell. There is a constant fascination with forests, evinced for example by Legolas’s desire to see Fangorn, the mysterious wood near Isengard. Just as with Gimli and Moria, Legolas is the only one of the Fellowship who seems genuinely interested in visiting Fangorn, another place with a bad reputation. While it is true that elves live in other places as well, there is nonetheless a temptation to see them as more closely connected with this environment than the others they inhabit.
A bigger problem with such an association however is that Fangorn, at least, is home to another people entirely. In The Two Towers we are introduced to the ents, another of the “free peoples” of Middle-earth by their own reckoning. They are first encountered by Merry and Pippin after their escape from the Uruk-hai, the powerful subspecies of orcs bred by Saruman. Merry and Pippin have escaped by hiding in Fangorn and there meet Treebeard, leader of the ents, who goes on to play a critical role in the overthrow of Saruman.
Upon meeting Merry and Pippin, Treebeard is confused. He cannot figure out what sort of thing they are since he has never encountered one of their kind. When they tell him they are hobbits, Treebeard realizes that he must amend the “old lists” which each ent commits to memory. The lists include descriptions of other peoples of Middle-earth such as the elves, described as the “eldest of all” peoples. Indeed, it is the elves, we are told, who awakened the ents and trees in the early days of Middle-earth. “The Elves cured us of dumbness,” according to Treebeard, and even though we know that the ents were not literally created by the elves, in some sense they helped to animate them (TT, p. 75). What does Treebeard mean by this? Apparently that the elves helped to nurture in the ents a capacity for reason and eventually for speech. But the ents were not bred by the elves in the same way that “the Dark Power of the North” originally bred the orcs (RK, p. 457). The elves enlightened, if you will, part of the raw material of the earth that was before them. Though the ents are not trees themselves, we know from Treebeard they are very close to them. Treebeard says that many of his kinsmen were barely moving at all now, essentially becoming trees, and perhaps in some sense returning to their primordial state. The ents are represented as thinking much as one would imagine trees would think—slowly and methodically and unhurriedly—and they act essentially as anthropomorphized trees.
If we were to argue that the elves personify the forests of Middle-earth, for something along the lines of the reasons offered earlier, we would be confronted with a hurdle in explaining the ents. Do they also stand for the forests along with the elves? And if so, who stands for the forests more? Treebeard certainly has an opinion, telling Merry and Pippin that “nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays” (TT, p. 75). But what he and the other ents do is not simply care for the forest as much as they serve as a narrative device that allows part of nature to speak for itself. In the end it is the ents, not the elves, who best represent the forests. The same could be said for the relationship between the mountains and the dwarves even though the latter do not have as clear a competitor as the ents for representation of one of their preferred environments. Though at home in underground places, the dwarves share these places with other races as well and do not personify them as such. In this sense no one stands for anything in Middle-earth, but the place itself is fully animated so that it stands for itself, and even speaks for itself at times.
But if parts of Middle-earth stand and speak for themselves, what makes such representations of natural entities and places different from other anthropomorphic representations in other forms of literature? One significant difference is that the ents, Tom Bombadil, and other primordial inhabitants of Middle-earth either implicitly or explicitly acknowledge a different time scale than the other peoples and characters in the story. If what they offer is not literally a different time scale (for remember that the elves are immortal and certainly exist in a different temporal perspective than humans), then at least it is a time scale more attuned to the rhythms of the natural world. Most striking, in terms of the main events of the story, we can see this point in how this set of characters appears largely indifferent to the outcome of the War of the Ring. Though drawn into one side or another at times, most often their participation in the War is more a matter of circumstance than anything else. Though they can be harmed by the other peoples of Middle-earth, they are largely indifferent to the events of the story, just as the earth is to us.
In The Fellowship of the Ring we find this perspective expressed most clearly in the character of Tom Bombadil. Tom is first encountered by the four hobbits on their journey from the Shire to Rivendell. Along the way, the party travels through the mysterious Old Forest. As we learn later, this is just a small fraction of a once tremendous forest described by Elrond as a place where “a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard” (FR, p. 297). There they fall under the spell of Old Man Willow, an ancient, conscious tree that tries to devour Merry and Pippin by trapping them in its trunk. Just in the nick of time Tom happens by and sings a song that compels the tree to free the hobbits. Tom invites the four to his nearby house on the edge of the forest and the Barrow Downs where he lives with his lady, Goldberry, the “river daughter.” The hobbits experience the stay with Tom and Goldberry in mystical and magical terms, reveling in a kind of trance of natural purity, wanting for nothing and for a time fearing nothing. When the hobbits ask Goldberry who Tom is, she answers first simply that “He is,” and then adds, “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill” (FR, p. 140). This is not to say that he is master over the things themselves (“the trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to them”), but that he thoroughly understands them. Part of the reason is that, as he explains, he is “eldest . . . here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn” (FR, p. 148).
Unfortunately, Tom remains wrapped in mystery, and among Tolkien scholars and die-hard fans, a matter of some debate. The most common interpretation of this character is that Tom is some kind of anomalous nature spirit, different from everything else in the book, but accounting for his understanding and power over the natural world. Some however claim that he is a Maia (a kind of powerful immortal spirit, such as Gandalf or Sauron), or even one of the Valar, the archangelic guardians of the world. In a letter, Tolkien explains that Tom represents “a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and . . . entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ . . .” (L, p. 192; italics omitted). Tom could certainly be lots of things and still embody this ethos of investigation, either as an independent nature spirit or as a god.
Regardless of what or who Tom is, what is important to us here is that he is represented as essentially unconcerned with the events of the War of the Ring. At the Council of Elrond, when it is debated what to do with the Ring, a suggestion is made that it be given to Tom. Frodo had told the Council that when he gave the Ring to Tom he was able to control it (making it temporarily disappear) and that moreover he could see Frodo when the latter put on the Ring and was invisible to everyone else. Perhaps Tom could keep the Ring safe from Sauron. Gandalf however argues against the idea, saying that it is not so much that Tom has power over the Ring but that “the Ring has no power over him.” Even if Tom were persuaded to keep the Ring, “he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough” (FR, p. 298).
Whether angel, god, or spirit, Tom is attuned to the natural world above all things. This is his chief concern, and no matter the explanation, he has been in Middle-earth since its creation watching all things slowly evolve, take root, and grow. In part this may be why Tom would be unconcerned with the Ring, since the struggle over it happens at only one snap-shot in time and is important mainly to the self-conscious peoples of Middle-earth rather than to the earth itself. Though one of the elves at the Council of Elrond does point out that both Tom and the earth will suffer if Sauron wins, since he can “torture and destroy the very hills” (FR, p. 298), still, we are told that Tom would fall last of all, and then “Night will come.”
But if this were true wouldn’t Tom be concerned with the victory of Sauron and so want to help the Council? Such an outcome for Middle-earth sounds like the hypothetical future of our own world where the planet is made uninhabitable for any life forms by a nuclear holocaust. But just as we should be skeptical of any claim that the earth itself would be concerned in any coherent sense with such a turn of events, Tom as the embodiment of the natural world in some form is also believed to be indifferent. Part of the explanation for Tom’s indifference may be temporal. Time for him is green; it is bound with the long-rhythms of nature as they come and go, and not with the relatively brief experiences of the self-conscious beings (and especially mortals) of the planet. In addition, this perspective is not only temporally different but green also in terms of its different perspective. It is more “collective” than “individual.” From Tom’s perspective, attuned to natural cycles, the welfare of individuals does not matter as much as the sustainability of the continuing and evolving processes of nature. Tolkien saw something of this in his reflections on Tom’s relationship to the Ring. From Tom’s perspective we see that “The power of the Ring over all concerned . . . is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe” (L, p. 192). As I will point out below, however, this does not imply that we should be unconcerned with the fate of our own planet because it is unconcerned with us, just as it is not the case that the free peoples of Middle-earth should be indifferent to the destruction of their own world.
We see a similar kind of indifference to short-term affairs, as well as a kind of collective perspective on the world with the ents. For example, shortly after the battle of Helm’s Deep, as Gandalf leads the victorious men of Rohan through the mysterious wood that had appeared at the end of the battle, a group of ents are seen walking swiftly towards them. Surprised, “The riders cried aloud in wonder, and some set their hands upon their sword-hilts” (TT, p. 168). Gandalf calms the company, saying, “You need no weapons. These are but herdsmen. They are not enemy, indeed they are not concerned with us at all.” What does Gandalf mean by this? Arguably that the ents are unconcerned with the riders in part because to them the men of the company are only fleeting figures who will come and go on the larger timeline of the world, eventually passing into oblivion, no matter what they do.
The perspective of the ents is again quite different from the other characters, and it is not just their long individual lives that seems to differentiate them. The ents, as the forest given the power of speech and human-like locomotion, see the affairs of men in much the same way as we might imagine our own forests might view our affairs if they were made conscious. But even more peculiar is that their perspective appears to be more collective than individual. While there is not much direct evidence for this suggestion in the text, it is a reasonable inference given how closely connected the ents are to the forest. While they must be individuated in order to be characters that we can more effectively empathize with, their orientation is driven by their intimate collective identity with the forest. We can learn the personality of a particular ent, such as Treebeard, but they do not appear to exist as independent from each other or independent from the forests that they protect. The ents in the scene just mentioned do not notice the riders of Rohan but they do take care to notice what each individual tree is doing.
This perspective makes sense given the kind of things they are supposed to be. Particular trees live and die, just as individual humans live and die, but a forest goes on as a collective ecosystem and does not exist as a single tree. So too, it seems, with the ents. The temporal perspective they have is thus most likely not one confined to their particular life-span, but is more akin to what we would imagine to be the perspective of a whole forest as it continues from a past into a future with different individual entities coming into being and passing away as part of a larger life cycle. When a tree dies in a healthy forest it does not simply pass away but becomes nourishment for both flora and fauna in a forest that regenerates into yet more forest continuing on into the future. And the same, we can assume, may be true of the ents, or, at the very least, we can imagine that this is how they see themselves in relationship to the larger ecosystem of which they are a part. As Treebeard puts it, “We are made of the bones of the earth” (TT, p. 91). In contrast we humans (either here or in Middle-earth) can more easily abstract ourselves away from the ecosystems which nourish us and reshape our environment to suit our particular needs. The ents however are so intimately connected to their environment that they cannot live outside of it. Indeed, the population of ents is said to have diminished as the forest has dwindled.
There is however another reason why the ents are diminishing which may also help make the case for their collective identity as tied to the forests. Treebeard tells us that the ents are also in decline because they have lost their mates, the “entwives.” The entwives are represented as beings that both nurture and personify domesticated agricultural environments in a similar way to the relationship between the ents and the forests. As Treebeard tells the story to Merry and Pippin, the entwives evidently became so caught up in their agricultural environments that they abandoned the forests entirely and the ents eventually lost touch with them. While this may be evidence that the entwives did not care for the future of their overall species, it instead points to the very different perspective taken by these characters in their intimate relationship with their environments. The ents and the entwives grow distant from each other because they are drawn toward more involvement with the environments that they personify, or perhaps grew out of. In this sense they do not really act as one species at all—with a species interest in procreation and reproduction—but rather two different species concerned with the flourishing of two different environments. It is a strange tale, and one of the mysteries of the book as Tolkien saw it, himself admitting that he did not know for certain what had become of the entwives (L, pp. 179, 419). The situation that is represented, however, is one of a kind of mutual loss. The ents must have been as preoccupied with the rhythms and time scale of the forests as the entwives were with their environments in order to have let them stray so far and disappear. But it is evidence of a close collective identity between the ents and the forests, one that is even closer than that to beings of their own kind.
This perspective of the ents again points to a kind of representation of the indifference of nature. While the temporal view of the ents again is not that of billions of years of geologic time, it is at the very least a green time from the perspective of the long history of nature that pre-exists humanity in Middle-earth and which, it is assumed, will continue after humans are gone. Though the ents are brought into the War of the Ring, this occurs mainly because Saruman and the orcs have destroyed part of Treebeard’s forest. Without Saruman’s sins against the forest it is not clear the ents would have become involved in the War at all.
Just as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could talk we could not understand it,” no doubt if a forest or ecosystem could talk we wouldn’t understand it either. Its perspective would be too foreign to us. But when we anthropomorphize a natural entity it is not simply to imagine what a thing would say if given a voice, but also to say something about how we can look at the world differently from our own limited perspective. In part, Tolkien’s representation of a green time in the experience of ents and Tom Bombadil does just this: it encourages us to take a longer view of our own history and our relationship to the other living things with which we share the earth.
With the benefit of the sciences of geology and cosmology we know that our earth was in existence for billions of years prior to the appearance of humans on the planet. The evocative metaphors invented by geologists and evolutionary biologists to represent this deeper sense of time are familiar to most of us: we humans are relative newcomers on the scene, here in only the last few seconds of the earth’s history as represented by a twenty-four-hour clock. Assuming that the extinction of all life on earth does not happen at the same time as the end of our own species, then life will go on without us for billions of years after we are gone. Many like myself are certain that the universe itself will go on for billions of years after the earth is destroyed by the inevitable death of the Sun.
It’s extremely difficult to imagine ourselves in relation to this deeper time and history, even if we consider only the history of life on earth. Failure to consider the consequences of our own actions in relation to this longer time span is therefore quite understandable. But if we could take on even a little of that perspective, it would help us to acquire the humility to recognize that we are part of a story much longer and grander than ourselves.
I said above that part of the power of Tolkien’s representation of green time was that it showed the basic indifference of nature to even the most momentous events in the book, and by extension of our own brief existence. This indifference results partly from the long time spans of the green-time characters and partly from their ecosystemic or collective perspectives. Still, the representation of this form of green time in The Lord of the Rings does not ultimately encourage the principal characters to become indifferent to what happens to the natural world. When nature becomes personified it does fight back in the story, and the forces allied with the Fellowship mourn the loss of parts of the natural world spoiled by Sauron and Saruman and want to defend it too. The different perspective of the green-time characters in The Lord of the Rings is something that the others must engage with and which they come to respect. They can then count among their ultimate victories not only protecting their respective peoples and places but also the personified earth itself. If we were to take a lesson from these themes then I think it would be that we should also try to similarly empathize with the nature of our own planet whenever possible and to defend it when it needs defending. The indifference of the green-time characters in these works should not be taken as a reason to be indifferent to nature. Rather, it should help us to feel all the more awe-struck by the more ancient and in some ways more complex forms of life with which we share our world.
Can such a view help us? It could. Daily we are confronted with global environmental problems that challenge our ability to understand their long-term implications and our part in either causing or mitigating them. Daily we are given reasons not to worry about these problems or, more commonly, confronted with trade-offs that require us to set them aside. Global warming is a good example. Fifteen years ago there was clear disagreement in the scientific community about global warming. Today there is near-unanimity that the planet is heating up and that the consequences could be dire, especially for poorer countries in the Southern hemisphere.
The worst consequences of global warming however are far off in time and space, most likely only harming those places that cannot retool their economies in the future to respond adequately to such a change. How do we encourage people to become concerned about such remote harms they are causing? What will motivate people now to set aside short-term economic gains through continued use of technologies that aggravate global warming in favor of long-term environmental sustainability? In part, it will involve taking a longer view of human welfare than we are accustomed to, one where we take responsibility for our actions that create consequences in the future for people and places we will never know. Such a perspective begins to approximate Tolkien’s green time. Though it would be too much to suggest that we think like a forest (though many environmentalists have said things very similar to this), The Lord of the Rings at least helps us to imagine what it is to care for things as a process and into a future that may or may not include our species. It is a challenge for us to live our lives without only considering the space of our own lifetime as always the most important.
Reading Tolkien is surely no panacea for our environmental ills. Still, there is a recognizable call here for us to appreciate the longer perspective of other things in the world and to take responsibility for our actions given our dominant position on our planet. This is something Tolkien understood and represents in the book by means of the diminishment of the non-human peoples of Middle-earth. As the War of the Ring comes to an end and the Fourth Age begins, the future of humanity is uncertain. At one point, Legolas and Gimli become philosophical about this issue:
“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”
“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.
“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas. (RK, p. 153)
Our future is uncertain. But Tolkien is an entertaining and engaging guide for us to think about that future. When those like my friend Julia go back to Middle-earth, they enter into a landscape populated by very different kinds of relationships than are possible in our own world, though not ones that we cannot imagine ourselves taking part in. In Middle-earth we can be put in relationships with the natural world where we come to take responsibility for it because it is so wonderfully different from ourselves. This seems a lesson we can take back to our own world and put to good use.
Andrew Light, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Environmental Philosophy, Director of the Environmental Conservation Education Program and Co-Director of the Applied Philosophy Group at New York University. He is the author of Reel Arguments: Film, Philosophy, and Social Criticism (Westview 2003).
 Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-earth (London: HarperCollins, 1998).
 Some may see the immortality of the elves as a counterexample to the long-temporal perspective that I am attributing to green time. If the elves are immortal, why are they not green and hence indifferent to the affairs of humans? But a clear difference is that the elves are the historical enemies of Sauron (and the earlier manifestations of evil that preceded him) and so do take an interest in the affairs of men, rather than only of nature or something else, at least for the reason of overthrowing their enemy. The relationship between elves and humans is actually unique and quite intimate. As Tolkien tells us, the elves stand for the perfected capacities of humans to one degree or another. According to Tolkien, “The Elves represent . . . the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane Nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (L, p. 236).
 My thanks to Eric Katz, Meg Kilvington, and especially Julia Voss for helpful advice on this chapter.