When I was a kid, I loved to look at maps. I collected the folded map inserts that came with National Geographic and would post them on the walls of my room so that I could just stare at them and contemplate the wonder that is the Earth. I was particularly fascinated by the vastness of the Asian continent, and especially by the two huge bodies of water that lay at its heart: the Caspian and Aral seas.
A few years ago, I was perusing Google Maps and was astonished to find that the smaller of the two, the Aral Sea, was no longer there. That had to be some kind of error on the part of Google, right? A quick search on Wikipedia told me otherwise. The Aral Sea is basically gone, the victim of a man-made environmental disaster.
And such man-made disasters really do abound these days. Here’s a a list of some others.
Now it’s no news that Tolkien’s works are infused with a sort of proto-environmentalism. To be sure, it sometimes seems like what he said of the Catholic faith and The Lord of the Rings could be said of environmentalism as well: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally environmentalist work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Heck, the book contains a whole section that could essentially be known as “revenge of the trees”!
On June 18th, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Laudato Si’, which most are referring to as his “environmental” encyclical. However, as I read the document last week, I was struck by just how much the work goes well beyond the pale of standard environmental issues to connect said issues with the world of economics, social problems, and the human heart. And of course I couldn’t help but sense a number of themes that resonated deeply with Tolkien’s work and thought.*
On the Domination of Nature
Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. – Laudato Si’ ,106
In a 1953 letter, Tolkien explained that one of the main themes of his Middle-earth works is “the Machine.” By “Machine” he meant the technologies we devise for “making the will more quickly effective.” By contrast, he finds virtue in what he terms “Art,” the “development of the inherent inner powers or talents” of a thing. For Tolkien, legitimate creativity and innovation involves a deep respect for the nature of the thing being developed as opposed to the will to dominate and change its nature. Similarly, Pope Francis says: “Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” Man, through the Machine, has gone from seeing nature as something to be tended, cared for, and developed to seeing it as an object to be dominated and put to maximum use.**
Humans Are Called to the Creative Development of Nature
“…a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety.” – Letters of Tolkien, 188
Though some environmentalists can come across as Luddites and “tree-huggers”***, being against any form of technology or work that involves human manipulation of the environment, Tolkien’s environmentalism was not of this sort. In fact, he posited the idea that all men are by nature “subcreators,” those called to further the beauty of nature through contemplation and creative action. In a similar vein, the Pope notes the capacity of each human person to be “inventive” and “create art” and furthermore states that God “created a world in need of development” (80). And just to be clear, the Pope is a fan of human creativity put to right use: “It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity” (81). Just as the Elvish subcreators of Middle-earth created the wondrous realms of Rivendell and Lothlórien in complete harmony with their natural surroundings, so too mankind is capable of respecting and working with nature as he innovates rather than bulldozing it.
Towards a Contemplative Interaction with the World
“The desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it.” – Laudato Si’ ,112
Over the last few weeks, I have been trying to make a more concerted effort to spend time outdoors. Even as I write this, I have the windows to my backyard open and can listen to the wind blowing through the leaves in the trees. Something about it feels…sacramental. My reliance on computers and other electronic devices often leaves me with a sense of confinement and a myopic vision of reality. The Pope urges us to put these things down and just go sit out in the open for a while, and consider everything going on around us. How shut-off from reality – the primal reality of the natural realm – we have become! As I read The Lord of the Rings, I am struck by just how immersed in the natural realm the first several chapters of Fellowship are. With the incredible descriptions of landscapes and vegetation it almost seems other-worldly, but it’s really just the hobbits’ back yard. The natural world rings with a sense of the sacred (as readers of The Silmarillion understand), and contempt for nature and little things is one of the chief marks of malicious pride in Tolkiens’ works. In stark contrast to such a mindset stands St. Francis of Assisi, from whom the title of the encyclical comes, and who serves as something of the patron saint of it. St. Francis spoke of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien speaks of the idea of the literary idea of Recovery, the ability to see something not as it is (per se) but instead as it was meant to be seen. A contemplative interaction with the world breaks us out of the prison of our own myopia and allows us to see the everyday things around with a wonderful, creative freshness.
Do Not Be Discouraged
While environmental tragedies like the Aral Sea seem insurmountable, the Pope encourages us not to become overwhelmed into inaction by the magnitude of the problems we face: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile” (212). When I read these words, I am reminded of Tolkien’s deep love for “the little guy,” for the “seemingly unknown and weak” whom he was convinced were the ones who really turned “the wheels of the world” rather than the “Lord and Governors.” He said all of this was owed to “the secret life in creation”, the way the field plowed today yields a bountiful harvest or the oak tree grows mighty from the humble beginnings of an acorn.
UPDATE: After posting this article, I was interviewed by a Brooklyn TV station about the intersections between Francis’ and Tolkien’s thought. You can see that interview here.
Have you read Laudato Si’? What other Tolkienian themes did you note?
* Just to be clear, I’m not even sure that Pope Francis has read Tolkien or that he even knows who he is. These are merely coincident patterns of thought that I noted, probably arising from their shared Catholic spirituality.
** Interestingly, Tolkien uses the term “Magic” and “Machine” interchangeably here. His conception of “Magic” seems to be that of the magician, the trick-maker. He goes into this deeper in On Fairy-Stories.
*** Actually, Tolkien really was a tree-hugger. He openly admitted that “I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I found maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals” (220). Honestly, though the term was created as a put-down of enthusiastic environmentalists, the more I contemplate trees, the more I think them worthy of hugging.