Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien

By McFadden, Brian | Intertexts, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien


McFadden, Brian, Intertexts


Dickerson, Matthew, and Jonathan Evans. Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2006. xxvi + 316 pp.

In the introduction to the second edition of The Lord of the Kings, J. R. R. Tolkien famously wrote that he "cordially disliked" allegory and that he preferred the term "applicability" for his work; "the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." (1) In Ents, Elves, and Eriador, Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans argue that the repeated application of Tolkien's work to environmental issues suggests that Tolkien had an early yet sophisticated environmental vision, and that his nature writing in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings effectively predicts modern calls for sustainable agriculture. In this plausible and well-argued book, Dickerson and Evans argue that the good characters in Tolkien's legendarium use the goods of the earth in a way that preserves both nature and their own freedom, while the evil characters dominate nature with a short-term, profit-based mindset that ultimately harms both the environment and themselves.

In the first chapter, Dickerson and Evans argue that one of Tolkien's main mythological principles in The Silmarillion is that "the beauty and value of [creation] are independent of any practical or utilitarian purposes ... Their importance inheres in nature for its own sake" (11). Dickerson and Evans note that while the race of hobbits is connected closely to this creation, modern technological societies have broken this bond; they have much machinery and wealth, but also much more stress from living in an overly complex system. The authors illustrate such breakdowns through Tolkien's depiction of characters such as Smaug, Saruman, the Dwarves, and the Ores, who ruin themselves by overusing technology and resources. Dickerson and Evans suggest that they are bound to their wealth and "enslaved to the very machines meant to free them from toil" (17), in contrast to characters like Gandalf and Tom Bombadil, who are powerful but do not desire to hoard goods or control people. The authors argue that loving the world without dominating it derives from Tolkien's Catholic belief in a divinely created universe that is inherently good and designed for the pleasure of its people and creator, yet vulnerable to evil. Such a belief calls for reimagining the concept of stewardship; rather than exploiting nature, even with an eye towards its wise use, humans must defend and repair the earth for its own sake and for the sake of posterity. Dickerson and Evans carefully note that non-Christians and persons of a no-faith system may disagree with the spiritual basis of Tolkien's principles, but they may easily agree with the notion that "creativity, love, humility, and responsibility" are "the foundation--if not the only one, then one of the best--for a viable environmental ethic" (35).

Chapter 2 deals with this revised notion of stewardship. The authors cite Jim Ball's work on stewardship and note that Gandalf--and Tolkien--seem to promote "servanthood stewardship" based on service to the world and to others in it, while characters like Denethor refuse to abandon power and manipulate others to promote their own agendas. Dickerson and Evans note that The Silmarillion has been criticized in light of the Judeo-Christian command to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) and the divine wish for humanity to have "dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth" (Genesis 1:26). However, they also argue that Tolkien views dominion as a positive tool with great abuse potential; although Men (to use Tolkien's term), Elves, and Dwarves are made in Iluvatar's image and share in his creative power, they also have the ability to use it selfishly, since "the exploitation of nature is never merely exploitative of the earth; it is always exploitative of other humans too" (53). …

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