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J. R. R. Tolkien:
Saving the Ecosystems of Middle Earth
by Walt Contreras Sheasby
In J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (1955-56), the ring is at
the center of an epochal ecological struggle over the fate of Middle Earth.
Received as fantasy, in its own way this tale nevertheless encapsulates
nearly a century of geological, biological and botanical lore that followed
Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). In particular, Tolkien's work
reflected the emergence of a critical ecology that used the life sciences
as a shield to defend life on earth and to protect every ecosystem.
Tolkien's knowledge of nature was in part derived from the Victorian
and Edwardian scientists who revolutionized what had earlier been
Natural History. The generation of scientists who wrote in the decades
before World War I reached a level of radicalism that later seemed
The combination of Ecology and Socialism that had been at the
core of the famous novel News from Nowhere (1891) by William Morris,
had scarcely any reflection in the industrial competition of East and
West in the cold war days when Tolkien published Lord of the Rings.
The 1955 Election Manifesto of the British Labour Party declared:
*In order to strengthen our Welfare State still further and at the same
time to play our part in assisting the under-developed areas of the
world, our own production must rise every year. Only a government
prepared to plan the nation's resources can do this. ... Atomic energy
and other new inventions can bring dramatic increases in productivity
and therefore in wealth and leisure.* (1) In this mainstream 1950s
*modernism* there was no room for someone of Tolkien's ecological
In early 1956 Tolkien wrote to the editor of the New Republic magazine:
*I am not a socialist in any sense - being averse to planning (as must be
plain) most of all because the planners, when they acquire power become
so bad - but I wouid not say that we had to suffer the malice of Sharkey
[Saruman] and his Ruffians here. Though the spirit of Isengard, if
not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of
destroying Oxford in order to accomodate motor-cars is a case. But our
chief adversary is a member of a Tory Government. But you could apply
it anywhere in these days.* (2)
William Morris had disparaged the State Socialism that opposed the
working class democracy of the First International and the Paris Commune.
At the height of the Cold War few made such distinctions between what has
been called The Two Souls of Socialism. (3) Despite interpretations that
try to transform Tolkien into an Edmund Burke type of reactionary, it seems
clear that Tolkien would have welcomed the workshops of News from Nowhere
in preference to the mills bossed by Sharkey.
Tolkien's style of fantasy and his landscapes were clearly indebted to
Morris. In Oct. 1914 he told his future wife of his plan for *a short story
somewhat on the lines of Morris' romances,* and in Dec. 1960, towards the
end of his career, he said some of the bleak landscapes in Lord of the Rings
*owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of
the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.* (4)
It also seems that the ideas of Sir Arthur George Tansley (1871-1955), who
popularized the term Ecology, had a substantial influence on Tolkien (1892-1973),
who was his junior by 21 years.
J.R.R. Tolkien Sir Arthur George Tansley
In 1925 Tolkien was appointed Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of
Anglo Saxon at Oxford University, becoming Merton Professor of English
Language and Literature in 1945. He retired in 1959 and in 1968 the
Tolkiens moved to Bournemouth on the southern coast of England.
After his wife's death, Tolkien returned to Merton College at Oxford as
resident honorary fellow in March 1972 and died there in September
1973 at the age of 81.
While at Oxford, he got to know Tansley. In 1927 Arthur George
Tansley was appointed Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford, from
which he retired with the title of Professor Emeritus in 1937. Tolkien
participated in a standing seminar with the senior founder of the British
Ecological Society, who was knighted in 1950 while serving as the first
chairman of the Nature Conservancy from 1949-1953. (5) Tansley died
in 1955 at the age of 84.
Tansley took a prominent part in the development of plant ecology in
Britain. In 1901 he founded the New Phytologist, an influential botanical
journal which he continued to edit for thirty years. Tansley was also
instrumental in founding the British Ecological Society in 1913, and
edited its Journal of Ecology for many years.
He published Practical Plant Ecology in 1923. Tansley was the
founder of the concept of the Ecosystem in 1935, defined as *a distinct
unit of interacting organisms and their surrounding environment* in his
book Introduction to Plant Ecology (6). In 1939 he published The British
Isles and Their Vegetation.
It is no coincidence that there are 64 species of wild plants in The
Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as well as several invented varieties.
In an allusion to such tomes as Tansley's, Tolkien wrote: *One writes
such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not
by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the
dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind....* (7)
In a June 1955 letter Tolkien said, *There are of course certain
things and themes that move me specially.... I am (obviously)
much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have
been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as s
ome find ill-treatment of animals.* (8)
In a BBC interview Tolkien spoke of his love of trees. Trees occur
often in his stories - The Old Forest, Fangorn and Lothlorien. In a letter
to the Daily Telegraph of July 4, 1972 he wrote: *In all my work I take
the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien is beautiful
because there the trees were loved. As to the England of the 1970s,
*The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees
are still found growng.* (9)
It has been pointed out that the flora of Middle Earth is largely that of
the English Midlands. From 1896-1900 the family of the young Tolkien
found lodgings in Sarehole, at that time a village in Warwickshire. *And
there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really
significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years
in 'the Shire' in a pre-mechanical age.* (10)
*Four years,* Tolkien said in his old age, *but the longest-seeming
and most formative part of my life.* (11) Tolkien is quoted as saying: *To
find oneself, just at the time when one's imagination is opening out, in
a quiet Warwickshire village, engenders a particular love of a central
middle England countryside.* (12) The handyman mill in Sarehole, which
still exists, makes its appearance in the Shire Hobbiton.
Clyde S. Kilby says, *No book published in recent times creates
a more poignant feeling for the essential quality of many outdoor
experiences of flowing streams and the feel and taste of water, of
light in dark places, of the coming of dawn.* (13) As Patrick Curry
says, *What is most striking about Tolkien's Middle-earth is the
profound presence of the natural world: geography and geology,
ecologies, flora and fauna, the seasons, weather, the sky, stars and
moon. The experience of these phenomena as comprising a living
and meaningful cosmos saturates his entire story.* (14)
Tolkien once confessed, *I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary
time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place. ... The theatre of
my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical
period is imaginary.* (15) There may be no contradiction when Martha
Stevenson Olson says, *But in another sense, the book is nothing except
an allegory for the passing away of England - all England, in every age.*
What gives Tolkien's readers *The experience of these phenomena as
comprising a living and meaningful cosmos ...* (17) may reflect Tansley's
influence. The concept of Ecosystem developed from Tansley's
interest in the plant ecological community, but with the community as an
analog of a physical system. Natural systems involved *constant
interchange* among their living and nonliving parts. The German
theorists called this Stoffswechsel, translated in English as Metabolism.
Tansley's early work was in the tradition of Social Imperialism. A
Fabian style socialist, he seems to have fit well within the doctrine of
Social Imperialism, applying Ecology in his early work, or perhaps an
Anti-Ecology, to the care and feeding of the Empire's colonies.In his
1927 inaugural lecture, he proposed that the ecologists should focus their
attention on the colonies because of the enormous job opportunities there.
According to Tansley, *It was urgent for the department to develop imperial
ecology: most economic support would come from the colonies, and most
future posts in agriculture, forestry physiology, mycology, ecology, and
pastoral science would emerge in the colonial administration .... The most
common task for such ecological entrepreneurs throughout the empire
was to transform forests to farmland, deserts to grassland, thus
creating environments fit for various colonial interest groups....*
In Tansley's view, Ecology was an ideal science for such activity
because its main concern was precisely transformation or succession
of landscapes. Tansley also envisioned an academic network that
included forestry, agriculture, and zoology under the wings of ecology.
The last fifteen years of Tansley's life were spent promoting nature
conservation in Britain, and although Tolkien was not notorious as an
ecological activist, there is little doubt that he supported Tansley in these
Tansley had been a student of Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, FRS, the
English translator of Ernst Haeckel (who had coined the term Ecology).
Through his father, Edwin Lankester, M.D., this Lankester had been a
friend since boyhood of Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley and
became very close to Karl Marx by the 1880s. Through a combination of
these influences, Lankester put together a radical ecology that was passed
on to his students, including Tansley, who identified with a Fabian-style
Lankester was also a friend and admirer of the Marxian theorist,
environmentalist, craftsman, and writer of medieval fantasy, William
Morris, whose influence on Tolkien was very profound. That debt is often
acknowledged, but never placed in the context of Tolkien's ecology.
Indeed, the radical roots of scientific ecology (or scientific fantasy) are
seldom revealed when cultural icons are inducted into the Halls of Fame
of the conservative establishment.
But the word still seems to be slow in getting out even in this new era
of animal and plant extinctions, planetary degredation, and ecological
catastrophes. As John Amodeo says:
*Since the trilogy's initial publication in 1954, many have analyzed,
debated, and deconstructed Tolkien on the topics of linguistics, history,
anthropology, sociology, mythology, and war, but rare is the discussion
on Tolkien's environmental commentary, though all the signs are there.
Although Tolkien, who died in 1973, vehemently discouraged using his
books as an allegory for real events, he favored use of them in ways that
are applicable to readers' own thoughts and experiences. Looking
beneath the fun, the action, and the mysticism of Tolkien's fantastic
creation, landscape architects need only observe the ways in which the
forces of good and evil treat Mother Earth to discover that Tolkien wove a
conservationist morality tale within its pages (evident in the films as well)
that resonates strongly in the society in which we practice.* (19)
There is a strong certainty that the ecologists of today could not
celebrate the contribution of Tolkien and Tansley without their direct
predecessors, William Morris and E. Ray Lankester, who turn the
history of ideas to the more vexing Victorianism of Marx and Darwin.
In future articles Amodeo's question, What can we learn about land
stewardship from The Lord of the Rings? will be taken up in detailed
reference to the story and film.
Join the Fellowship: Tolkien_Ecologyfirstname.lastname@example.org
1. Election Manifesto of the British Labour Party, 1955.
2. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, New York:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 200, p. 235.
3. Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism, included in Socialism From
Below by Hal Draper, essays selected, E. Haberkern, Ed., Humanities
Press, 1992. www.sirendesign.net/solidarity/socialism.htm
4. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 200, pp. 7, 303.
5. John Bellamy Foster, Re: Tolkein as environmentalist? 18 December
2002 22:49 UTC, www.csf.colorado.edu/envtecsoc/2002/msg00692.html
6. Arthur George Tansley, Introduction to Plant Ecology, London: George
Allen and Unwin, 1935.
7. Humphrey Carpenter, JRR Tolkien: A Biography, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000, p. 131. [George Allen and Unwin, London, 1977].
8. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220. Letter to the
Houghton Mifflin Co., June 1955. Quotes:
9. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and
Modernity, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, p. 65.
10. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 288.
11. BBC, Tolkien and Warwickshire.
12. Clyde S. Kilby, *Meaning in The Lord of the Rings.* Shadows of
Imagination: The Fantasies of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles
Williams. Ed. Mark R. Hillegas. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ.Press,
1979, p. 282.
13. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, in Laurence Coupe, Ed.,
The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, London:
Routledge, 2000. Adapted by the author from Defending Middle-Earth:
Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997 p. 61.
14. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, p. 59.
15. Clyde S. Kilby, *Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,* p. 282.
16. Martha Stevenson Olson, *In Frodo's Footsteps,* New York Times,
Jan 25, 2004. pg. 5.6
17. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, p. 282.
18. Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the
British Empire, 1895-1945, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
19. John Amodeo, ASLA, *Hobbit Sense: What can we learn about land
stewardship from The Lord of the Rings?* Landscape Architecture, May
Cited by Michael Perelman, Re: JRR Tolkien: Ecosystems of Middle
Earth, Marxmail, 30 Mar 2004.
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