Sunday, September 2, 2012

My environmental interpretations of The Lord of the Rings


The Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy is truly a titan of 20th century literature. I first read Tolkien's masterpiece when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. On top of completely falling in love with the story and the genre, I connected deeply right from the beginning with the theme of greedy industry versus Nature. 

Even as an adolescent I imagined Tolkien being inspired or more likely appalled by the coal dust encrusted portions of England and the factories that besmirched what had once been a green land. This was an image I could relate to immediately and I felt keenly the abuses heaped on Nature depicted in his novels. When the trees of Isengard were killed to fuel the furnaces of Saruman's war machine, I thought of how my native state of Michigan was thoroughly deforested in the late 19th and early 20th century. I recalled the places where I had seen the big stumps with new young forest growing up around them. I was always shocked to learn that the whole state had been deforested and the white pines sent to the mills with a total disregard for the land and the ecosystems. How could people cut down a whole forest? I could understand cutting down some trees, but all of them? I understood well Treebeard's dismay when he looked upon his massacred forest.

Moving on from Isengard, the trilogy also presented the land of Mordor, a volcanic hell of rocky rubble, tainted waters, and despair where the slaves of Sauron hunkered in a bleak wasteland. Mordor is the metaphor for all wanton acts of pillaging against Nature. Think of all the fair places around the world that were once wild and have been reduced to toxic tangles of fuming equipment or blasted rock. The mountaintop removal strip mining for coal in Appalachia takes green forested mountains and reduces them to barren rubble pockmarked with ponds of toxic slurry. Another horrendous example of Mordor on Earth is the Alberta tar sands in Canada. Forests are destroyed and the ground mined for tar sands that yield a thick type of oil after excessive processing that uses large amounts of energy and pollutes vast quantities of water. Find some pictures of tar sands extraction and you will truly see monstrous destruction of our biosphere on an epic scale.


Although Alberta is far away from my home, its toxic reach goes far. In 2010 a pipeline that goes through my county burst because it was moving tar sands oil that is very difficult to move through a pipeline. It has to be mixed with benzene, a known carcinogen, so it can be pumped. A massive spill of this benzene laden tar entered the Kalamazoo River and irrevocably polluted my watershed. The forces of Mordor are on the march!

Like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, the shadowy captains of the oil industry are determined to destroy all that is fair and good and replace it with squalor, decay, and poison.

This is an assault on Nature that has been going on for a long time. Tolkien witnessed one of the most horrific results of the Industrial Revolution when he served in the First World War. In that conflict, war machines turned millions into human hamburger and blackened Europe. No wonder Tolkien imagined a shining white city that would resist such evil madness. Gondor was not perfect and it was corrupted by despair as illustrated by its insane Steward, but it remained worth fighting for.

Healing our tender biosphere will not be as simple as casting the Ring into the volcano. Its power cannot be resisted but it will ultimately consume itself. As Tolkien said much that is fair will be lost in the battle to push back the darkness, but the magic remains for a new and fertile world to grow again. I loved the symbolism of the little box of soil that Galadriel gave Samwise to put into his garden when he got home. We all must try to take a little bit of Galadriel's seemingly simple gift and till it into our lives.

In the Fellowship of the Ring Galadriel said to Samwise:

"In this box there is earth from my orchard, and such blessing as Galadriel has still to bestow is upon it. It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril; but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there. Then you  may remember Galadriel, and catch a glimpse far off of Lorien, that you have seen only in our winter. For our spring and our summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory."


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