[Marxism] JRR Tolkien: Ecosystems of Middle Earth
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Mon Mar 29 22:16:39 MST 2004
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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 derived from the Victorian and Edwardian
scientists who revolutionized what had earlier been called Natural
It 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 and 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. (1) 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 (2). 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
a June 1955 letter to his publisher, the author 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 some find
ill-treatment of animals.* (3)
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.* (4)
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. In the
biography by Humphrey Carpenter, 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.* (5) The handyman mill in Sarehole appears in
the Shire Hobbiton, as does the name of the millwright there, Samson
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.* (6) 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.* (7)
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.* (8) 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 ...* (10) 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.
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.* (11)
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.
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1. John Bellamy Foster, Re: Tolkein as environmentalist? 18 December
2002 22:49 UTC, www.csf.colorado.edu/envtecsoc/2002/msg00692.html
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, Introduction to Plant Ecology, London: George Allen and Unwin.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to the Houghton Mifflin Co., June 1955. Quotes
J.R.R. Tolkien. http://www.tolkienonline.com/quotes/index.cfm?id=45&startnum=181.
4. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and
Modernity, New York: St. Martinâs Press, 1997, p. 65.
5. Humphrey Carpenter, JRR Tolkien: the Authorised Biography, George
Allen and Unwin, London, 1977.
6. 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.
7. Patrick Curry, âDefending Middle-Earth,â 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. Martinâs Press, 1997 p. 61.
8. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, p. 59.
9. Martha Stevenson Olson, *In Frodo's Footsteps,* New York Times,
Jan 25, 2004. pg. 5.6
10. Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, p. 282.
11. John Amodeo, ASLA, *Hobbit Sense: What can we learn about land
stewardship from The Lord of the Rings?* Landscape Architecture, May
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