[Marxism] JRR Tolkien: Ecosystems of Middle Earth

Walt Sheasby wsheasby at yahoo.com
Mon Mar 29 22:16:39 MST 2004

Frodo Lives!  Join him at Tolkien_Ecology at 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 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.
Join the Fellowship: Tolkien_Ecology-subscribe at yahoogroups.com 
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. Martin’s 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, “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.
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 
2003. http://www.asla.org/lamag/lam03/may/ecology.html


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