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JRR Tolkien: Ecosystems of Middle Earth

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  • Walt Sheasby
    Frodo Lives! Join him at Tolkien_Ecology@yahoogroups.com J. R. R. Tolkien: Saving the Ecosystems of Middle Earth by Walt Contreras Sheasby In J.R.R. Tolkien s
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 5, 2004
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      Frodo Lives! Join him at Tolkien_Ecology@yahoogroups.com

      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
      truly extraordinary.

      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_Ecology-subscribe@yahoogroups.com


      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,
      pp. 79-80

      19. John Amodeo, ASLA, *Hobbit Sense: What can we learn about land
      stewardship from The Lord of the Rings?* Landscape Architecture, May
      2003. http://www.asla.org/lamag/lam03/may/ecology.html
      Cited by Michael Perelman, Re: JRR Tolkien: Ecosystems of Middle
      Earth, Marxmail, 30 Mar 2004.


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