Over the past century — and especially in the last decade — there have been many successful fantasy writers. But one stands out in particular. Tolkien’s epic novels remain both commercial sellers and literary classics. Countless hours have been invested in the study of Middle-Earth, its people, and its history. Websites teaching Elvish have sprung up, and entire books have been devoted to almost every aspect of Tokien’s fantasy world.
However, there is one side of Tolkien that is not often explored. I have recently been reading a book titled Ents, Elves and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien. While a bit scholarly for my taste, this book has brought to my attention a message in TLotR that I, surprisingly, had not thought much about before. I realized that his work includes some subtle hints at a belief in conservation and stewardship. Let’s take a look at some of the points Tolkien makes.
I’ll start with the beginning of the journeys in Tolkien’s most well-known tales. The Shire, home of the Hobbits, is a pastoral realm based on the English countryside. It is presented affectionately, and could be considered a model of a sustainable agrarian society. Furthermore, the development and industrialization of the Shire is portrayed as a dark, fearful possibility.
The theme of nature versus industry is seen throughout the trilogy. The villains of Middle-Earth fell ancient trees and burn them to fuel forges, which are used to build machines and weapons of war. Orcs ravage the forest indiscriminately, and Sauron, the supreme enemy, is infamous for laying waste to once-beautiful lands. In TLotR, these actions are portrayed as purely evil, yet they are not so different from the exploitation of nature by today’s industries.
In addition, the novels contain numerous positive references to the word “green.” The Elves are fond of trees and birds, while eagles and Ents (tree-herders) are some the most respected beings in Middle-Earth. The Elves also practice responsible stewardship. Those two words are distrusted by many modern environmentalists, and with good reason, but Tolkien’s Elves are stewards in the positive sense.
And if you look closely, you will find other themes that could be references to an environmental ethic.
So, was Tolkien an environmentalist? Probably not. For one thing, he wrote his novels before the modern green movement existed. He was also quite conservative and was displeased that his books were championed by the counterculture. But this makes his message all the more significant, because it shows that appreciation and respect for nature can be independent of political views.
Environmentalism is by no means the most prominent undertone in Tolkien’s work, but it is definitely worth paying attention to.