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Minas Tirith Forums » Library Council of Minas Tirith » Was Tolkien an environmentalist? (Page 1)
Author Topic: Was Tolkien an environmentalist?
Belthronding
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We have the Ents, the beautifully balanced lifestyle of the Elves, the pastoral and simple Hobbits, and the elevation of Nature to divinity. There is also the condemnation of industrialization and the villification of technology. It all begs the question:

Was Tolkien an environmentalist?

Did he have, as Tom Shippey asserts, a "Green Ideology," or was he some a romantic transcendentalist, or a backward professor hoping for the past, just like his creations, the Elves?

[ 09-10-2007, 03:00 PM: Message edited by: Belthronding ]

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Aulë the Smith
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quote:
Was Tolkien an environmentalist?
My answer would be yes.

His time and place in history allowed man to no longer fear nature, but to have utmost control over it - and the ramifications of that control, the destruction, become evident.

The story of the Ents personifies it: as long as the people consumed only the wood they needed, the Ents slept. But when Saruman started wanton destruction did the Ents come to live to stop it. This mirrors closely with modern-day environmentalism - take only what you need.

-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-
The delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work. His lordship is over all the substances of which Arda is made - the fashioning of all lands was his labour.
http://t2tmud.org/

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Roll of Honor Thorin
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Interesting question. But perhaps we should do what Plato suggests and first decide on a definition for "environmentalist." We have to know what we are deciding upon before it can be decided.
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Belthronding
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I don't generally do Wikipedia, but I like this definition for environmentalism:

quote:
a concern for the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment, such as the conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution, and certain land use actions. It often supports the struggles of indigenous peoples against the spread of globalization to their way of life, which is seen as less harmful to the environment. The study of practical environmentalism is split into two positions: the mainstream ‘anthropocentric’ or hierarchic, and the more radical ‘ecocentric’ or egalitarian.[1][2]

The term environmentalism is associated with other modern terms such as greening, environmental management, resource efficiency and waste minimization, and environmental responsibility, ethics and justice.[3]

I am assuming here that an "environmentalist" would be one who embraces this philosophy.
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Roll of Honor Gna
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I think that Tolkien's philosophy about nature, as expressed in his books and published letters, might be considered more than simple environmentalism, and could possibly fall under Aldo Leopoldesque deep ecology. A few quotes from Aldo Leopold:

quote:
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.
quote:
That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.
quote:
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
The last quote summarizes Leopold's "Land Ethic", as described in A Sand County Almanac ( [] , btw), and I think it fits well with my impression of Tolkien's philosophy.

The Elves would take Leopold's ethic one step further, to include all of nature (stars, rivers, the Sea), not just the biotic community. Saruman's destruction of trees and the landscape is an abomination, described with the horror that only someone sensitive to environmental concerns could muster.

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Belthronding
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Mmmm ... reminds me a bit of the ethic found in Frank Herbert's Dune. It fits.

But Tolkien doesn't seem to offer any practical solutions for reconciling the technology of men and the natural world. The hobbits could be dismissed as pastoral simpletons, and the Elves rely on the magic of Faery for their balanced lifestyle.

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Roll of Honor Gna
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Belthronding

quote:
But Tolkien doesn't seem to offer any practical solutions for reconciling the technology of men and the natural world.
Unlike Leopold, Tolkien had neither the education nor experience to do so, really. Aldo Leopold studied biology and forestry, worked for the US Forest Service, and taught at the University of Wisconsin. He had extensive experience working in the ecosystems of the American Midwest and Southwest, used his property as a field laboratory of sorts, and wrote books on wildlife management.

Yet even Leopold, with all his experience and expertise, didn't directly address a reconciliation between technology and the biotic community...maybe the two can't be reconciled in a significant manner. Our technology is bad for the natural world, period. Look at what our plastics alone have done to the environment. []

Ed Abbey, Dave Foreman, and others, have had ways of implementing deep ecology principles (e.g. monkeywrenching), but it's not exactly a reconciliation.

EDIT:

quote:
Elves rely on the magic of Faery for their balanced lifestyle.
I'm not so sure...with the possible exception of the Noldor, Elves lived simpler lifestyles than many others in Middle Earth. In general, they had fewer material possessions, and left a lighter "footprint" on the land. The original green lifestyle. []

[ 09-13-2007, 01:37 AM: Message edited by: Gna ]

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Belthronding
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Perhaps. They also lived in treehouses in giant trees, or in giant caves protected by magical borders; they had magic rope, didn't kill game for food (Green Elves of FA didn't anyway), didn't have any agriculture (none was noted at least), and produced leavened bread that could feed armies.

Hardly realistic.

Again, one has to ask whether Tolkien's apparent "environmentalism" is really just the stuff of fantasy, rather than a legitimate philosophy.

[ 09-13-2007, 01:13 PM: Message edited by: Belthronding ]

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Roll of Honor Gna
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Belthronding-

quote:
Again, one has to ask whether Tolkien's apparent "environmentalism" is really just the stuff of fantasy, rather than a legitimate philosophy.
I think that Tolkien's fantasy writings (in particular the portrayal of Elves) are consistent with Leopold's Land Ethic, but I wouldn't presume to decide whether JRRT qualified as an environmentalist, on the basis of my interpretation of a work of fiction.

quote:
Perhaps. They also lived in treehouses in giant trees, or in giant caves protected by magical borders; they had magic rope, didn't kill game for food (Green Elves of FA didn't anyway), didn't have any agriculture (none was noted at least), and produced leavened bread that could feed armies.
Of course Elves and Dwarves are fantasy beings, but I don't think one needs to invoke magic to explain all of their actions that are consistent with the Land Ethic. IMO, the biggest suspend-disbelief-magic invoked in all of Tolkien is the special creation of Eä and its contents by invisible singing sky beings.

Menegroth and Nargothrond were built through the efforts and plans of Elves and Dwarves, and both "preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty" of the environment. From The Silmarillion:

quote:
The pillars of Menegroth were hewn in the likeness of the beeches of Oromë, stock, bough, and leaf, and they were lit with lanterns of gold. The nightingales sang there as in the gardens of Lórien; and there were fountains of silver, and basins of marble, and floors of many-coloured stones. Carven figures of beasts and birds there ran upon the walls, or climbed upon the pillars, or peered among the branches entwined with many flowers.
I think the land was well-loved and respected by Tolkien's Elves. A deep ecology philosophy does not require that you kill yourself and feed the scavengers and microbes. It simply requires respect and love for the land, and an acceptance of one's place in the biotic community.
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Eluchil
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Belth :
quote:
[Elves] didn't have any agriculture (none was noted at least),
That was noted (my emphasis) :
quote:
Among the Noldor it may be seen that the making of bread is done mostly by women; and the making of the lembas is by ancient law reserved to them. Yet the cooking and preparing of other food is generally a task and pleasure of men. The ^nissi [Elvenwomen] are more often skilled in the tending of fields and gardens, in playing upon instruments of music, and in the spinning, weaving, fashioning, and adornment of all threads and cloths; and in matters of lore they love most the histories of the Eldar and of the houses of the Noldor; and all matters of kinship and descent are held by them in memory. But the neri [Elvenmen] are more skilled as smiths and wrights, as carvers of wood and stone, and as jewellers. It is they for the most part who compose musics and make the instruments, or devise new ones; they are the chief poets and students of languages and inventors of words. Many of them delight in forestry and in the lore of the wild, seeking the friendship of all things that grow or live there in freedom. But all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi.

Laws and Customs among the Eldar.

Gna :
quote:
IMO, the biggest suspend-disbelief-magic invoked in all of Tolkien is the special creation of Eä and its contents by invisible singing sky beings.
The Music did not create Eä (Ilúvatar did), but only produced a vision of it []
But I'm not surprised that you feel this suspension : this does not belong to the secondary world, but to the "third" (secondary to the secondary [] ) world :
quote:
If we consider the First History, which is called the Ainulindalë : this must have come from the Aratar themselves (for the most part indeed from Manwe, it is believed). Though it was plainly put into its present form by Eldar, and was already in that form when it was recorded by Rúmil, it must nonetheless have been from the first presented to us not only in the words of Quenya, but also according to our modes of thought and our imagination of the visible world, in symbols that were intelligible to us.

Quendi and Eldar.

Anyway, just another quote to come back to the topic :
quote:
‘Though I [Borlas] still think that it was just: untimely maybe, and yet true. Surely even a boy must understand that fruit is fruit, and does not reach its full being until it is ripe; so that to misuse it unripe is to do worse than just to rob the man that has tended it: it robs the world, hinders a good thing from fulfilment. Those who do so join forces with all that is amiss, with the blights and the cankers and the ill winds. And that was the way of Orcs.’
‘And is the way of Men too,’ said Saelon. ‘No! I do not mean of wild men only, or those who grew “under the Shadow”, as they say. I mean all Men. I would not misuse green fruit now, but only because I have no longer any use for unripe apples, not for your lofty reasons, Master Borlas. Indeed I think your reasons as unsound as an apple that has been too long in store. To trees all Men are Orcs. Do Men consider the fulfilment of the life-story of a tree before they cut it down? For whatever purpose: to have its room for tilth, to use its flesh as timber or as fuel, or merely to open the view? If trees were the judges, would they set Men above Orcs, or indeed above the cankers and blights? What more right, they might ask, have Men to feed on their juices than blights?’
‘A man,’ said Borlas, ‘who tends a tree and guards it from blights and many other enemies does not act like an Orc or a canker. If he eats its fruit, he does it no injury. It produces fruit more abundantly than it needs for its own purpose: the continuing of its kind.’
‘Let him eat the fruit then, or play with it,’ said Saelon. ‘But I spoke of slaying: hewing and burning; and by what right men do such things to trees.’
‘You did not. You spoke of the judgement of trees in these matters. But trees are not judges. The children of the One are the masters. My judgement as one of them you know already. The evils of the world were not at first in the great Theme, but entered with the discords of Melkor. Men did not come with these discords; they entered afterwards as a new thing direct from Eru, the One, and therefore they are called His children, and all that was in the Theme they have, for their own good, the right to use - rightly, without pride or wantonness, but with reverence.
‘If the smallest child of a woodman feels the cold of winter, the proudest tree is not wronged, if it is bidden to surrender its flesh to warm the child with fire. But the child must not mar the tree in play or spite, rip its bark or break its branches. And the good husbandman will use first, if he can, dead wood or an old tree; he will not fell a young tree and leave it to rot, for no better reason than his pleasure in axe-play. That is orkish.’

The New Shadow.


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Roll of Honor Thorin
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Some more to back up Eluchil’s tree quote:

quote:
The first paragraph misrepresents Tom Bombadil. He is not the owner of the woods; and he would never make any such threat...

Z does not seem much interested in seasons or scenery, though from what I saw I should say that in the representation of these the chief virtue and attraction of the film is likely to be found...

I deeply regret this handling of the 'Treebeard' chapter, whether necessary or not. I have already suspected Z of not being interested in trees: unfortunate, since the story is so largely concerned with them.

Letter #210


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The Rider of Rohan
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quote:
I wouldn't presume to decide whether JRRT qualified as an environmentalist, on the basis of my interpretation of a work of fiction.
I agree with Gna on this point. The sanctity of the natural world is a recurring theme throughout The Lord of the Rings, but given that he never made reference to an interest in conservation in his letters, taking the Shire and Fangorn and extrapolating to Tolkien's environmentalist inclinations requires a leap of faith with which I am not comfortable.

As Janet Brennan Croft discusses thoroughly in War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, pastoralism was a common theme of much post-World War I Western literature. After four years of trench warfare, former soldiers understandably gravitated toward natural, isolated settings; you see this in Hemingway's short stories ("Big Two-Hearted River," etc.) as well. Are we to regard all these peace-seeking men as environmentalists simply because they appreciate stillness?

Perhaps Tolkien included so many peaceful pastoral scenes in his work simply because he regarded the undisturbed natural world as the ultimate antithesis to war, rather than out of any particular interest in the preservation of the environment. Or perhaps the lives of the Ents and the elves were inspired by some third factor. I don't know the answer any more than you do -- in fact, I probably know even less, given that I've been reading Tolkien for little over a year. The only point I am trying to make is that there are many possible interpretations of his works, and I would hesitate to make conclusive statements about his life based on his books and vice versa.

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Tuor
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I seem to recall several Pro-enviroment comments while reading letters. I'm sorry I did not note them as I read them. The only one I found quickly can be found in Letter 328.

Edit:

A statement found in Letter 165 reflects the fact that Tolkien believed himself to be an enviromentalist.

[ 01-18-2008, 11:47 PM: Message edited by: Tuor ]

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Eluchil
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Which is always quite funny : he believed himself to be something (a concept, somehow) that didn't exist in that time ...
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Tuor
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I guess back then they just used to be called "plant lovers" or something like that.
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The Witch-King of Angmar
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I would say that Tolkien was not an "environmentalist" per se; rather he was skeptical of the rise of industry and technology as the boons which they were claimed to be, so much as the "dark satanic mills" of lore.
And he was right; indeed, many societies rose and fell despite great works of technology-- most notably ancient Greece and Rome, failing for similar reasons that Tolkien cited of being based primarily on power and domination.

Indeed, the Industrial Era brought with it a lot of political upheaval for those very reasons, leading to a drive for expansion of power and mass world-havoc.

Instead, Tolkien wished for moderation in technology as a means to an end, i.e. a useful tool rather than an end in itself.

Here, Tolkien seems to be exanding on the biblical themes of "stewardship vs. mammon," i.e. responsible use of land vs. simpy unbridled gain; in this he emphasized "true" aristocracy, i.e. rule by the best vs. the most popular-- here he made much of the premise that "he that sows lies in the end shall not lack of a harvest, and soon he may rest from toil indeed while others reap and sow in his stead." Saruman, Melkor, Saruon etc. were experts at manipulation of masses-- as were many 20th century dictators who came to power through such.

[ 01-19-2008, 04:20 AM: Message edited by: The Witch-King of Angmar ]

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Tuor
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WK,

Did you read letters 328 and 165?

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Grimwulf Stormspear
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It is clear from Tolkien’s writings — his fiction, his essays, his letters — that he had a deep & abiding love of Nature: of plants, animals & vast wilderness vistas. [] If that adoration were all it took to be an environmentalist, then we could give him that appellation with no worry at all. But modern environmentalism is more than just a love of Nature & a desire to preserve it; modern environmentalism is an ideology & a program of state control over society in the name of protecting “the Environment.” [] Tolkien seems to have little patience with that agenda.

Does anyone recall Tolkien’s own description of the hippies reading LotR at Earth Day & similar events? [] He called them his “deplorable cultus.” [] I’m not sure that Tolkien ever resolved the tension between his love of Nature & his hatred of bureaucracy, but he was never swept up in the enthusiastic radicalism that grew into the modern environmentalist movement.

[ 02-06-2008, 07:03 AM: Message edited by: Grimwulf Stormspear ]

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Tuor
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I guess that response brings us back to what Thorin wrote four months ago.
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Grimwulf Stormspear
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Just noticed this line:

IMO, the biggest suspend-disbelief-magic invoked in all of Tolkien is the special creation of Eä and its contents by invisible singing sky beings.

The philosophical claim here is, of course, ridiculous. [] But — in a matter more relevant to this forum — Tolkien was quite explicit in writing that he did not believe that reading fantasy required “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead, it involves “secondary belief,” or being able to believe according to a different but coherent set of rules. [] This distinction in his thought helps to explain why his fantasies have stood the test of time, while many others have not.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled thread. []

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Mordor
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i dont think he would be a environmentalist as we think of them today but he appearceated trees and such other wise we might have some elves straping themselfs to trees when men try to cut them down
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The Witch-King of Angmar
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quote:
IMO, the biggest suspend-disbelief-magic invoked in all of Tolkien is the special creation of Eä and its contents by invisible singing sky beings.

Unless it's a metaphor for intelligent design and resonant string-theory.... in which case these "beings" were "invisible" because they hadn't yet invented photon-strings.

Therefore in this sense, I guess the suspense is KILLING whoever said that line: in this respect, the Ainulindalë is a far more scientfically creditable version of Intelligent Design, than any other mythological version.

quote:
The philosophical claim here is, of course, ridiculous. But — in a matter more relevant to this forum — Tolkien was quite explicit in writing that he did not believe that reading fantasy required “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead, it involves “secondary belief,” or being able to believe according to a different but coherent set of rules. This distinction in his thought helps to explain why his fantasies have stood the test of time, while many others have not.
This is the purpose of a "parable," or "fable."
In this context, "Rings of power" was a metaphor witnessed during (but not allegory for) the Cold War via empowering and beguiling upstart-factions within sovereign nations, to gain imperial puppets.

[ 02-08-2008, 12:57 AM: Message edited by: The Witch-King of Angmar ]

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Eluchil
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One word : anachronism.
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Mordor
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you didnt right the books during the cold war how could he mean it to represent any thing at that time

[ 02-11-2008, 07:43 PM: Message edited by: Mordor ]

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The Witch-King of Angmar
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quote:
One word : anachronism.
The origin of "Universe" isn't-- i.e. "one song."

[ 02-10-2008, 03:13 AM: Message edited by: The Witch-King of Angmar ]

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