In a few days the final installment of the Hobbit films will be coming to cinema screens across the UK. With dragons (well, just the one, but a big one at that), huge armies and a healthy dose of CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) effects, the Hobbit films are quite an arresting spectacle, and in this respect they follow in the line of the Lord of the Rings films. The author of the works on which these films are based (in the Hobbit’s case, loosely), J.R.R. Tolkien, was a committed Christian, and hints of this can be seen from some of the themes in his stories, such as those of providence, forgiveness, sacrificial love, and so on.
But I wish to highlight another important aspect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories and worldview – his concern for nature. The natural world is a central part of his stories; natural conditions such as the weather area closely associated with the forces of good and evil; mountains are personified as being resentful of trespassers; some gifted horses can understand the speech of elves and men; even the trees take part in battles in The Lord of the Rings!
However, Tolkien, over and above merely using and featuring nature, also values it highly in his stories. Evil characters are frequently depicted as wantonly destroying and ravaging the land, cutting down trees and polluting the water either out of sheer malice or in order to further ‘industry’ (‘Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot – orc-mischief that; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc.’ – Treebeard, The Two Towers). Nature, in its way, retaliates against such aggressors, and is almost like the unspoken character in Tolkien’s stories – it brings hope where there is none, and deliverance in dire straits.
Moreover, Tolkien’s concern for nature in his stories arguably derived from or accompanied a concern for nature in this world. Being a Christian, he would have been aware of the Christian idea of sin separating us from other entities, severing relationships, and a remark made by one of his characters can be taken to express his own view: ‘nobody cares for the woods as I care for them’. He disliked ‘industry’ and ‘machinery’, and he again associates this with evil in his stories, with one corrupted wizard being condemned as having ‘a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.’ It is this solely instrumental view of nature – the valuing of it as a means but not an end – the desire to use and exploit rather than to interact with and relate to – which is arguably the core aspect of what a corrupted relation to nature constitutes for Tolkien.
He notes in an essay On Fairy-Stories a ‘primal’ desire of humans: ‘the desire of men to hold communion with other living things’ – this is the antithesis of corruption and separation, and accordingly, the exploitative intentions of corrupted people in Tolkien’s stories can be contrasted with the elves’ role in waking up and teaching the trees to speak, for example. A further passage from this essay ties in his thoughts on nature and story with his religious belief: he says, concerning the ‘sense of separation of ourselves from beast’ that ‘it was a severance: a strange fate and a guilt lies on us. Other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations, and sees now only from the outside at a distance, being at war with them, or on the terms of an uneasy armistice.’
This can almost literally be seen today in the way in which, in various western nations, there has been an increasing divide between what people eat and where it came from, and a related shift towards viewing ‘food animals’ (but not, of course, adorable kittens!) as machines in factories to be exploited for maximum yield. Tolkien’s world and his stories can help to remind us of the vital connections which exist between us and the natural world, which we can either recognize and value, or ignore to our detriment.
He can also remind us that ultimately, these connections are deeply related to our connections with other entities – to other people, and to God – and how we choose to relate to them. To quote M. Dickerson and Jonathan Evans (Ents, Elves, and Eriador), ‘Tolkien’s vision of environmental ethic was firmly rooted in a deeply Christian, Catholic understanding of the world and its creator. This tradition sees the necessity of right relationships between the creator and humankind and between humankind and the rest of creation.’
That is something important for all of us to remember as we get our brains blown out at the cinema watching the larger-than-life antics of Bilbo Baggins and his fellow dwarves!
Aaron Hanson is a PPE student at the University of Oxford. He loves J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, and doesn’t really know what to add to that.