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The Historical Middle Earth: Tolkien and the Natural World

Welcome to Concerning History’s Annual Hobbit Day blog post. Each year we celebrate the life, times, and works of J.R.R. Tolkien in the first week of Autumn. September 22 was Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays and we like to fuse our love of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and History together by looking at some historical antecedents and inspirations for Middle Earth. 

This year, with wildfires crippling the western United States over the last weeks of summer, Bryan and I decided it was an appropriate time to look at Tolkien’s critique of Modernity through the lens of The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, Tolkien used the Ents and the Scouring of the Shire to level a dual Philippic on both industrialization and modern warfare. 

In The Lord of the Rings, the Ents, sentient tree-like creatures, assault the fortress of the once-good wizard Saruman. Desiring to counter Sauron, the titular Lord of the Rings himself, Saruman devised a plan to make himself into a powerful counter to Sauron and even use the One Ring against the Lord of Mordor. To achieve this goal, Saruman transformed his fortress of Orthanc into an industrial center and started to level the neighboring forest of Fangorn as a way to fuel the fires of his industry. Soon, Saruman could field armies of mighty Uruks armed with steel weapons and even gunpowder bombs. 

Tolkien paralleled Saruman’s corruption with the devastation he wrought on the forest of Fangorn. As Saruman’s orcs despoiled the natural beauty and goodness of Fangorn forest, so too did Saruman’s purity as the first “White Wizard” corrode as he descended into evil. Consequently, the evil of Saruman’s deforestation and industrialization needed to be cleansed. Enter the Ents! These “shepherds of the forests,” spurred to action by the nature-loving Hobbits Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, rallied to war against Saruman once they saw how much wanton destruction Saruman’s war created. The Ents marched to Orthanc, broke open the dams that powered his mills, and laid waste to the furnaces and pits he used as factories. There is not much analysis that needs to go into this to see Tolkien’s rather explicit critique of industrialization: literal sentient trees march down and destroy the furnaces used to create engines of war. 

Later, during the denouement of The Lord of the Rings, Saruman’s spite drives him to invade the Shire and wreak havoc on its Hobbits and natural beauty. Saruman’s followers eagerly devastate the Shire; forests are cut down for no reason, Hobbit holes dug out, and gardens uprooted and defiled. When Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return from the Quest of the Ring, they discover that war and its devastation have scarred the Shire too. 

In many ways, the Scouring of the Shire, as this event is entitled, carries to conclusion Tolkien’s deep antipathy toward modern, industrial society and the wars of the Twentieth Century. It is evident in the idyllic, if somewhat parochial, characterization of Hobbits that Tolkien saw their lifestyle reflected in the towns and counties, or shires, of England where he grew up. To Tolkien, in many ways, Hobbits and their way of life represent the good life — friends and family, an agrarian lifestyle, and a desire for a simple life. In fact, the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings are motivated to leave the Shire with the Ring out of a desire to save their home from Mordor’s wrath. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are compelled out of the Shire in the earnest of their quest; they are not like Bilbo, who leaves willingly with a Tookish desire for adventure. 

Tolkien developed his skepticism and antipathy for industrialization, and the warfare he saw as concomitant with it, due to his experiences as a child and as a young officer in the Great War. While a boy, Tolkien saw a forested area he used for leisure and play replaced by a mill that looked and operated just like the one Saruman’s ruffians created near Bag End after their invasion. Moreover, in the trenches of the Western Front, Tolkien saw the horrifying effects of modern weapons, especially gas attacks and machine gun fire. He even endured the death of his closest friends at the Somme. Tolkien scholars see the genesis of his critique against industrialization in these experiences. 

A caveat to Tolkien’s critique, of course, is that the Industrial Revolution was (and continues to be) a complicated process. For as much environmental devastation the use of fossil fuels has precipitated, or the ways in which mass production of goods contributed to the scale and scope of war in the Twentieth Century, there have also been benefits — a drastic reduction in death to curable diseases as a result of industrialized medicine, the overall increase in people’s lifespans and material well being on a global scale*, and a further specialization of labor that has fueled the technological advancements with computing and A.I. in the last four decades alone. While Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings challenges its readers to seriously wrestle with the correlations between industrialization, environmental devastation, and the inhumanity of warfare, the historical reality is that the consequences of the Industrial Revolution are not as clear cut as the good professor makes them out to be.

 

*This is a factor obviously looking at trends over centuries and not meant to discount the disparities and consequences of industrialization on the people in the underdeveloped and developing world. The point here is that comparing life expectancy and well-being in 1620 to 1720, 1720 to 1820, 1820 to 1920, and 1920 to 2020, the general trend line goes up even if certain events (the First World War, the Second World War, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic, the Covid19 Pandemic, environmental devastation from Global Climate Change) move against the trend line at certain times.

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