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Tolkien and Nature
"We woke (late) on St Stephen’s Day to find all our windows opaque, painted over with frost-patterns, and outside a dim silent misty world, all white, but with a light jewelry of rime; every cobweb a little lace net, even the old fowls’ tent a diamond-patterned pavilion. I spent the day out of doors, well wrapped up in old rags, hewing old brambles and making a fire the smoke of which rose in a still unmoving column straight up into the fog-roof … the rime was yesterday even thicker and more fantastic. When a gleam of sun got through it was breathtakingly beautiful: trees like motionless fountains of white branching spray against a golden light and, high overhead, a pale translucent blue. It did not melt. About 11 p.m. the fog cleared and a high round moon lit the whole scene with a deadly white light: a vision of some other world or time. It was so still that I stood in the garden hatless and uncloaked without a shiver, though there must have been many degrees of frost…
--Letters, #94
"He walked along the terraces above the loud-flowing Bruinen and watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains, and shine down, slanting through the thin silver mist; the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush."
--Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"

Much has been made of Tolkien’s pro-nature, anti-industrial outlook on life. Or maybe not. Perhaps it’s just a widely-known fact that has not been "made much of," per se. I don’t really know, because excepting biographies, I’m the type that would rather concentrate on the words of Tolkien himself rather than read what other people have to say about him [and then inflict what I have to say about him on you, of course!], so I’ll freely admit I haven’t read those books that do a lot of heavy-duty analysis of Tolkien or of his works. ("Frodo’s journey represents the passage from the Romper-Room of Childhood to the Corporate Cubicle of Adulthood, with incidental travels through the Hallway of Fear and the Bathroom of Friendly Guidance, much as Tolkien’s own life was shaped by blah blah blah…..") I like to simply draw my observations out of his writings themselves and then just discuss possible points of view that made his writing what it was. Sometimes things are obvious, like the face-off between good and evil and the representation of the heroic spirit. Other things are a little more open to interpretation, such as the religious implications of Lord of the Rings, even though we know enough to know that Tolkien himself was deeply religious.

So reading Tolkien’s works gives us an interesting mix of obvious truths about the man, along with conclusions that are more open to interpretation–such as about his devout, almost worshipful attitude towards nature and his hatred of all things industrial. His point of view is established fact, but what I’ve heard discussed less often is why he held it and its effect on his convictions about other aspects of human societal life. The tried-and-true explanation for the "why" is that he associated the beauties of nature with his happy childhood home at Sarehole, before the death of his mother. A perfectly reasonable supposition. What one lives with in childhood becomes imprinted on that one for life, and the images from his country home (the little mill and its Miller, the spreading trees and quiet country lanes) are so infused into his writing that we have no trouble recognizing pastoral England in the Shire. As for a hatred of industrialism, well, how many of us who have even a little country in our soul can pass over a car-jammed interstate freeway, hemmed in on both sides by the dregs of industrial life–abandoned factories, ditto vehicles, mean alleys and dirty streets, giving way to working factories that look and smell almost as bad–without wishing at least a bit that we could have our modern comforts with less noise, less dirt, less nastiness–in short, less industry? Again, not hard to fathom.

"Okay, Anwyn, tell us something we don’t already know." Well, I’m going to try. I want to focus on the second half of that statement up above: "its effect on his convictions about other aspects of human societal life." The "why" of his views is fairly established. But what intrigues me more is the "how"–how did all this affect his views of society? I believe the effects were shown in a couple of different, very important ways. His love of nature permeates every chapter of Lord of the Rings. I could give example after example like that above, where almost every new event is prefaced and concluded with a paragraph or two about what the day is like, what the weather is doing, and how everything looks. This love of nature led him down two distinct paths, one more obvious than the other.

Firstly, he was led to a settled and decided distaste and even hatred for all kinds of machinery and for the minds of the men who invented such things as internal combustion engines and airplanes.

"It is full Maytime by the trees and grass now. But the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 a.m. and 7 p.m.–unless the day is too foul to be out. How I wish the ‘infernal combustion’ engine had never been invented. Or (more difficult still since humanity and engineers in special are both nitwitted an malicious as a rule) that it could have been put to rational uses–if any…"
--Letters, #64

What a sweeping condemnation! Our modern "political-correctness-checker" (similar to a spell-checker, only society-wide) would damn Tolkien as prejudiced towards engineers and be done with him. Certainly it is a strongly-worded diatribe. Consider, however, the changes that must have been taking place from the time of Tolkien’s childhood to the time of this writing (circa WWII). Cars, once scarce and newly-invented, had become commonplace, filling the streets with their rumble and emissions. Airplanes, unknown in his boyhood, filled the skies on their mission of Nazi-killing. Factories, certainly fewer and farther between when he lived at Sarehole, were polluting the air, more than ever in the machinery of war. All very different and disagreeable to our quiet Professor. Still, I can’t excuse Mr. Tolkien from the charge of near-unreasonable hatred of the man-made.

"It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would burn all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it could for me burn all the works of art–and I’d go back to trees."
--Letters, #83.

It seems Tolkien was convinced that he would be willing to give up some of his modern comforts in exchange for the destruction of the intolerable conditions that produced those comforts. But more than that, he had a higher, more spiritual reason for looking upon the "man-made" with dubious skepticism. Not only the comparatively smaller crimes of factories and airplanes came under his attack.

"The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace’. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we’re in God’s hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders."
--Letters, #102

The ultimate Tolkien-reason for despising the man-made: because it affronts God. "But Anwyn, what about sub-creation??" Yes, I know. But I would say firstly that nuclear devices are hardly in the category with art and literature (to which Tolkien’s "sub-creation" principle was mainly applied), and secondly, that again, I simply cannot excuse him from the charge of prejudice against the more scientific/engineering minds on the planet, at least so far as they are directed towards industry and "modern" applications. He hated cars and planes and factories because they represented the opposite of what he most loved in this world, and thus the minds that invented them, whether they were applied to "infernal combustion" or nuclear fission.

Secondly, the less obvious conclusion. I’ve basically said all the rest to pad out my column so that I could make this point. I came on it unexpectedly while reading up some quotations for some other work–a previous Counterpoint, or some Q/A, who knows, but it stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away, so now I give it to you. Tolkien felt that the industrialization of society created and fostered a "lower class" of people.

"Take Sandyman’s mill, now. Pimple knocked it down almost as soon as he came to Bag End. Then he brought in a lot o’ dirty-looking Men to build a bigger one and fill it full o’ wheels and outlandish contraptions. Only that fool Ted was pleased by that, and he works there cleaning wheels for the Men, where his dad was the Miller and his own master."
--Return of the King, "The Scouring of the Shire"

Italics my own, there, to highlight my point. Sandyman was the Miller and his own master. He ran the mill, set things up, ground the hobbits’ corn and wheat and whatnot, and helped keep their agrarian society running smoothly. In other words, he did his own part in the "sub-creation" scheme. Remember last month? I postulated the theory that Faramir’s governing skills, Sam’s gardening ditto, and Aragorn’s healing hands are all part of the same "sub-creation" that gives us Andúril, the Doors of Moria, and the Rings of Power. So it was with Sandyman and with every responsible Shire-folk. Each contributed in his own way to the way things ought to be. Rush Limbaugh had nothing on Tolkien. In his mind, it was all laid out and each had his or her part, to be played to the best of his or her ability, whether it be milling, cooking, shirriffing, or mayor-ing. But old Lotho Pimple was a "progressive." Industrial. "Pimple’s idea was to grind more and faster, or so he said." So he brought in the Machines and accomplished two things: he tore the fabric of Hobbit-society, and he nurtured a class of people like Ted Sandyman, who would rather "clean wheels for the Men" (he might just as well have said "clean wheels for the Machines") than to run the Mill and think for himself and be a "sub-creator."

A small disclaimer before I wrap up. Please do not think that I am showing a stripe of prejudice of my own against factory-workers or engineers or anybody who deals with machines. I’ve worked summers in hot factories, and I consort with Purdue engineers. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with either honest work or using your brain to dream up new ways of using our resources. But Tolkien’s position was that to allow the machines to take over was to de-value the human mind and to abdicate a responsibility both to nature and to the real business of humanity–sub-creation and using it to form a happier, more well-conducted society based less on power and more on contribution to the Good.

"Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter–leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?" --Letters, #96

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