Reflecting on Middle-earth’s fantastical ecology, and its call to environmental action
By Rachel Ooi
When I was a child Middle-earth was my favourite place. Its shoreless seas and stars uncounted seemed to exist alongside, yet so far from, the abjectly modern city-state that was my home. In Singapore my situation was concrete and clipped shrubs, and the skyscrapers had scraped so much sky there was little left for anything else. ‘A Elbereth Gilthoniel!’ I would sigh the elvish hymn to the stars as I inhaled a night sky stained pink by my city’s harsh lights.
As I grew up my world got bigger – too big, and far too quickly – but much of it seemed to be an iteration of a place I already knew. I learned about strip mining, industry, and deforestation; I recognised Tolkien’s villains Sauron, Saruman, their machines and their orcs. The elves were the first to show me what it means to love the earth, and struggle for it. Tolkien’s vocabulary for the earth would become both bedrock and touchstone for my experiences with the more-than-human.
My profound contact with the wild, through The Lord of the Rings, recalls experiences that many activists have. In her book For the Wild, Sarah Pike walks with radical environmentalists, following the people who tree-sit and ram whale ships to their roots. When asked why they barter themselves for lives that most perceive as insentient, many activists alluded to outdoor play or childhood relationships – family camping in a dwindling wilderness perhaps, or deep friendship with a cow destined for slaughter. At the core of these experiences was wonder, grief, and the germ of a greater awareness of humanity’s place within the ecosystem, as one among many. As journalist Dean Kuipers remarks of the Animal Liberation Front’s leader Rod Coronado, Coronado ‘saw that he was connected to something bigger, a wholeness, and that even the yard back home was a version of that wholeness’. To him, the wilderness was personal and close; it was ‘part of his self, a bigger Self’.
Tolkien himself had such intimate experiences while growing up in Birmingham’s Sarehole countryside. He loved being with trees, drawing them, even talking to them, and throughout his life he abhorred their destruction: ‘There was a willow hanging over the mill-pool and I learned to climb it […] One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that’. Tolkien’s four years in Sarehole fermented in his imagination; its idyllic, sublime, and tragic aspects were distilled into Middle-earth’s enchanted ecology.
Writing to the Daily Telegraph in 1972, Tolkien declared: ‘In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies’. The primacy that he allots to nonhuman entities, inflected with the sense of an immense and ancient “wholeness”, creates Middle-earth’s landscape as something like a platonic form of wildness. It distinguishes itself from the contemporary ideal of wilderness as the vestiges of Eden, the immaculate home of our broken civilisation’s “true selves” – a conceptual and territorial demarcation that displaces humans from nature. In contrast, Middle-earth is not wild because it is other from humans, but because it encompasses humans and so much else that otherness ceases to mean anything. Here, humans are one among myriad sentient bodies continuous with the land, and the powers of speech, cognition, and memory are so widely distributed as to whittle human exceptionalism down to a mocking husk. The profound realisation that we are not primary – that to some we are not even important – is expressed in the hobbit Pippin’s musings about his first encounter with Treebeard the Ent, or tree-herder:
‘It felt as if something that grew in the ground […] just feeling itself as something between roof-tip and leaf-tip, […] had suddenly just waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.’
This reciprocal perception is self-evident in human encounters, as phenomenological philosopher David Abram points out in The Spell of the Sensuous. The empirical evidence of our sight suggests only that all other persons are objects for our gaze. It is when they speak that we are confronted with the fact of their sentience (which we assume – but cannot confirm – to be like our own), and realise that we are, in turn, objects for their gaze. But what of those that cannot speak, at least not in ways that we readily understand? Abram considers that all interactions between living things involve mutual interpretation: ‘to touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree’. Yet to many, the trees of our world remain dull and inanimate objects, because they cannot announce the fact of their perception, the proof of their sentience. Middle-earth’s Treebeard, however, can. ‘Very odd you are, indeed,’ he says, scrutinising Pippin; as he measures Pippin against his own assumptions and experiences, Treebeard reveals that he is his own axis of interpretation. He is a person in his own right.
Seen thusly, people in their environments are more than just foreground and background, or subjects acting on objects – they are thinking, feeling entities enmeshed in each other. Tolkien shows us that verbal communication is only the most overt aspect of a connection that reaches far deeper; how people and place relate to each other shapes both. ‘Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved’. Its glamour is not comprised of the elves’ art or the trees’ bodies, but by the synergy between both. As Sam observes, ‘whether they've made the land, or the land’s made them, it's hard to say’. The same is true for the Old Forest, whose rotting, twisted wood has suffered many hackings and burnings at the hands of the Shire hobbits. Culture is part of the ecosystem, and each creature is enmeshed in its matrix of multidirectional, reciprocal flows.
Such is the enchantment of Middle-earth; it resides in and emanates from the more-than-human. In Tolkien’s legendarium, it is the elves who are most acutely attuned to Middle-earth’s wild lifeblood; through their eyes, we are invited to sense the world (theirs, and ours) anew. As Tolkien writes in his seminal essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, one of the central preoccupations of fantasy is the liberation of our senses from settled dust. We are victims of our desire to possess what attracts us; we hoard them until they grow familiar and cease to appeal. Our salvation lies in 'simplicities […] made all the more luminous by their setting’. We experience this transformation vicariously as we trace Frodo’s steps into Lothlórien. The colours that he perceives are elemental – gold, white, blue, and green – but refreshed, ‘as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful’. The stuff of the world is the same throughout, but in Lothlórien it is cast with a light that pierces the veneer of triteness. Stepping into Lothlórien, we step out of anthropocentric spheres of interpretation that accustom us to reducing other living things to their use values. Here, a hand on bark is free to be more than the potential for new tools or raw materials. It becomes the conduit of shared subjectivity: Frodo ‘felt delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself’.
By the end of The Lord of the Rings, the light through the leaves is waning, and the land grows silent. The elves depart Middle-earth, and the Ents become like the trees that they herd: sleepy and strange. Dusk falls over Tolkien’s pre-industrial, pre-human, enchanted earth, and something is lost in the night. The sun rises on a new age, the age of Man’s dominion. Middle-earth’s humans are left to feel their way through a transfigured world, alone. A state that we ought to know, perhaps – such permanent loneliness might strike anyone reading in 2018 as hauntingly familiar.
Seven months ago Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, passed away. Photojournalist Ami Vitale shared the news: ‘Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind’. Human activity is driving our earth’s biodiversity off a precipice, impoverishing ecosystems and the people who live with them and rely on them – namely, all of us. Treebeard could be speaking for any human of the 21st century when he grieves for the forest devastated by orcs:
‘Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost for ever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves.’
Our earth is made of the same stuff as Middle-earth: gold, white, blue, green, and persons of unthinkable variety. The difference lies in how we have shaped our land around us. Singing streams, weeping stones, and trees that speak – though perhaps not to us – these are the self-same ones that we pollute, drain, mine, quarry, blast, burn, clear-cut, pave over, or use to ornament our yards. Middle-earth’s Age of Men converges with our own. We have placed ourselves at the top of the food chain, denying this anointed spot to any other species; the realisation that there is no one else here seems to be only just sinking in. Now we cast about for company, and our own voices echo back to us through silent springs, tremulous and thin: is anyone home?
The Lord of the Rings is not a work of escapist nostalgia, as some have accused it of being, but an elegy. And like all elegies, it calls us to task – to the task of mourning. Grief is inextricable from the human experience (as much as, and in proportion to, loss). Yet we don’t hold funerals for toxic bays and barren seas; hurricanes and pipeline projects beget news reports, not obituaries. ‘Some lives are grievable,’ as philosopher Judith Butler writes, ‘and others are not’. The first casualties of environmental disaster are always the less visible, the less vital – the poor, the indigenous, the nonhuman. The last, in particular, are not generally considered valid objects of grief. We reserve mourning for severed relationships, not diminishing resources, so our loss finds expression as anger, fear, or a vague, uncomfortable sorrow – emotions that threaten to overwhelm or anaesthetise. We stifle grief, stopping it from doing the one thing that it is supposed to do: change us.
‘One mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly forever’, Butler suggests. In Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, she argues that as we change and lose our former selves we gain the possibility of being more open to the suffering and destruction of other bodies. This ecosystem of empathy, vast yet intimate, could draw us into interdependence and a quest for common justice. One might justifiably scoff at the idea that a thousand or so pages of fantasy could partake in so big, so real a scheme. Yet it has. Tolkien’s legacy marks environmentalism the world over: from Texas, where Tar Sands protesters built a tree village named ‘Middle-earth’ to disrupt the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction, to French nuclear testing waters, where David McTaggart made a voyage that he likened to the hobbits’ struggle against Sauron and which catalysed the founding of Greenpeace, to Singapore, where it piqued a little girl’s lifetime of interest in braided roots and soaring crowns, ambling bugs, and the lofty hush of stars.
The spirit of our times is panic, written in the language of disasters and ‘two degrees’. Researchers, journalists, and activists urge that the behemoth of globalised industrial civilisation is rapidly devouring the time we have left to make a change. But amidst the mounting pressure, perhaps simple acts of mourning and celebration have their own power. I return to The Lord of the Rings every few years, to Tolkien and his willow-friend, to the Tar Sands tree-sitters, founders of Greenpeace, and anyone who has ever been touched by Middle-earth – all witnesses, testifying to earthen magic across generations and places. It is always an immense release to just sit for a while, together, in the ringing silence of lost voices. I go to Middle-earth to rediscover the poignancy of our struggle to protect what we have left, but also the joy of having something to lose. The Lord of the Rings is a lasting reminder that if we seek them, we will find souls in trees, life in stones, and strength in ourselves and each other.
Rachel Ooi reads an BA Hons