Tolkien and Theology: The Natural World Part I

Yes, the series is back. (Bonus points if you can name the tree in the picture)
If the names confuse you, keep Google/Wikipedia handy. I might add links later to make it a bit easier, but this won’t be interesting to non-Tolkien fans anyway…

The natural world has a very important place in Tolkien’s work. As usual, I’ll be focusing on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but this is a generalization that is true about everything Tolkien wrote that I’m aware of.

There are a lot of ways I could handle this topic, but to avoid being overly theoretical, I’ve decided to ground the discussion in particular characters, or groups of characters, from the Trilogy. I’m going to talk about, on the one hand, examples of evil or villainous characters (or groups) who despoil the natural world, and then contrast them with virtuous or heroic characters (or groups) who honor the natural world. As I think about this, I actually get the feeling that this topic will have to span two posts, but we’ll see.

Really, all I have to say about this could easily become a book in and of itself, but I’ll try to spare you.

Villains Despoil the Natural World

Ted Sandyman is the closest thing to a Hobbit villain in the Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of the story, he’s the Hobbit who makes fun of Sam Gamgee when Sam talks about rumors of walking trees in the Old Forest and about Bilbo’s dealings with Elves. Ted Sandyman sees this sort of foolishness as “daft” and scoffs at it. At this point, he’s essentially a nuisance and a foil for Sam’s gleaming-eyed enthusiasm.

Ted Sandyman comes up again, however, at the end of the trilogy, in the chapter The Scouring of the Shire. In this chapter, the evils that the Hobbits have faced in the wide world have come home to corrupt the Shire, and one of the loci of that corruption is Ted Sandyman’s mill. The mill has changed into a looming, threatening structure that belches out black smoke day and night, and Sharky’s men are known to congregate there, as are their supporters.

The key insight here is that Tolkien’s shorthand for Ted Sandyman’s corruption is the fact that his mill belches out black smoke. It is part and parcel for the corruption all over the Shire, which mirrors what Tolkien felt was the corruption (industrialization) of the English countryside he loved. This corruption takes the forms of increased industry, pollution, and the destruction of homes to be replaced with drab, uniform housing with no aesthetic sense. (More on this topic when I talk about Tom Bombadil)

Orcs are a no-brainer. They are depicted as, among other things, taking sheer delight in despoiling nature. They not only move at a rapid pace, but as they go they go out of their way to destroy anything beautiful they pass. They destroy beautiful things because they are beautiful, and they corrupt and pollute nature through their way of life. Wherever they go, they carry senseless and filthy industry with them, filling natural places with wheels and furnaces and pollution.

(Interestingly, when corresponding with his son Christopher while he served during World War II, Tolkien referred to the soldiers Christopher served with who seemed to enjoy warfare and revel in it as “the Orcs”. In this sense, Orcs were a kind of person that Tolkien had learned about during WWI when he was a fusilier, representing in general a modern violent nihilism.)

The key insight here is that, for Tolkien, the world around him was becoming more Orcish all the time. Human life was valued less, the natural world was exploited more, and people seemed to care less. Think about Blackwater and tell me Orcs only exist in fantasy stories. There is nothing that Orcs do, functionally speaking, that Elves do not also do – build homes, cultivate food, create weapons and tools, even wage war. The difference is in how these things are accomplished.

Its common to see Saruman as corrupted by his study of the One Ring, but the way it is depicted by Tolkien is more subtle. Saruman is the Maia who was instructed by Aule, who was the Vala otherwise known as the smith (who created the Dwarves, for example). Saruman’s interest in the crafting of beautiful and useful objects isn’t presented as a problem in and of itself – it is, however, the door through which corruption enters.

Which leads us to Sauron – another Maia who was not so much talented at crafting as talented at theft. He learned how to craft from the Noldor, and used his skills to create things of power and beauty in order to earn their trust. The Elves of Eregion in the First Age called him “Annatar”, Lord of Gifts. Skipping ahead, it is through this stolen craft that Sauron was able to forge the One Ring.

As Saruman studied the craft of Sauron, presumably in order to learn how to more effectively combat him, he became ensnared. It is never spelled out explicitly, but he seems to have been corrupted by a desire for power. (The topic of the just use of power is another blog post at least)

Saruman turns Orthanc into a seething cesspit almost overnight when he finally reveals his corruption. He immediately begins cutting down Fangorn Forest to feed the fires of his hellish industry. There is the incessant sound of hammers and chopping and shouting, the churning of hidden machinery and smoke and ash from the huge furnace fires. This is the sound of corruption, the sound of evil, to Tolkien at least.

The key insight here is that Saruman is not corrupted by craft per se, but by its misuse. As I’ll talk about later on with Elves, craft rightly used, in harmony with nature, is a good. Craft wrongly used, for personal empowerment and war, is an evil. Saruman’s patron Vala, Aule, was a deity of good. He created the Dwarves specifically to be able to resist Morgoth, the Vala who fell from grace to become Melkor (Sauron’s boss). There is no reason Saruman could not have followed the same path. But for Tolkien, things like industry must be very carefully managed. They are a constant temptation to break harmony with nature and with justice and to fall into the pattern of exploitation and violence – which invariable follow one another.

So, what does this tell us about God? I think that Tolkien probably would not reject industry and technology, and even war, as such, out of hand. He clearly believed in evil, and that at times it is necessary to resist evil with violence. He also lived in Europe after the Industrial Revolution had already had a lot of its impact.

What Tolkien seems to reject is 1) turning from harmony with nature to exploitation of nature and 2) turning from a sense of beauty as a good to a reductionist materialism that is concerned only with function and efficiency. Tolkien is a good Catholic who believes in a good creation and to some degree in natural law in the traditional sense. There is a God-ordained order to the world, and we violate that order at our peril. He also connects, as I said above, exploitation of the natural world and violence – and this is exactly what I see in our own world, repeated over and over again.

If you are willing to exploit the natural world for selfish gain, it is a small step to move toward exploiting other human beings. You’ve already demonstrated that you have an instrumentalist view of your surroundings, and that you will use power against that which cannot resist you. What about human beings who can’t resist you? Or who you think are beneath you?

I think that there is no solid distinction between human beings and nature. We are nature, and we are in nature. We are of nature. Genuine care for other human being entails care for the natural world and vice-versa.

Next up is the positive side of this discussion, where I will talk about, among other things, Tom Bombadil, hiking, starlight, Elves, Ents and possibly, virtue ethics again.

4 thoughts on “Tolkien and Theology: The Natural World Part I

  1. The bulletin for Sunday is finally finished, and so is a very busy week, yet unlike you, I cannot put two words together coherently. I enjoy reading whatever theological insights you have about Tolkien and his literature. Thank you!


  2. That is worth one thousand points, Paul.And an excellent question. While I think that Tolkien’s beliefs about good and evil are caught up in the relationship to the natural world, I don’t think he has a monochromatic view of nature itself. Nature has its own power inherent to itself and is not merely an instrument, or a context, for human activity.He also expressed, in letters from time to time and otherwise, that he always wished that nature was able to fight back against the powers that exploit it. Enter OMW and the Huorns with black hearts – they represent the threatening power of nature, whereas creatures like the Ents represent that power – justly used.There is also the sense that he has that exploitation corrupts in a spiritual sense. It turns otherwise lush and fertile land into steaming mounds of ash and slag, and for the few conscious parts of nature, it will corrupt them just as readily as it would corrupt, say, the Ringwraiths who were of course once great rulers of the Dunedain. So if you have conscious Huorns, you have the chance for evil Huorns, twisted by their suffering.


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