Note: If you are not very familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, don’t worry. You can read this entry without any problems, for I am providing some explanations to help you.
This year’s Middle Earth March, it is called that way because the One Ring was finally destroyed on March 25th in Tolkien’s narrative, I discussed on Instagram the topic that the Tolkien Society suggested for this year’s Tolkien Reading Day : Nature and Machinery in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works.
Among the recommended readings for developing such topic, there were some Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, such as letters 75, 78, 131, 155 & 181.
Every Wednesday on March, I posted some reflections regarding the letters and their possible association with Nature and Machinery portrayal in professor Tolkien’s works.
I am concluding those reflections in this post. Here you will also find some discussion that I had already posted on instagram on March.
Letter N° 75
(discussed it on March 4th).
“There is tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot be really done with any real satisfaction “.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter N° 75. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter.
This letter was written to his son Christopher Tolkien, when he was training to become a pilot during World War II.
Professor Tolkien insisted that a second war should not have happened as humanity should have learned from World War I that war only brings suffering and destruction, resolving nothing.
On letter 75, Tolkien refers to “Mordor gadgets”. It is known that during his early development of Middle Earth, Tolkien imagined Melkor creations (Melkor came before Sauron, he is Sauron’s master, this tale is narrated in The Silmarillion) as being similar to machinery. He seems to have imagined them as war aeroplanes that caused destruction, especially to nature and landscapes.
In a draft of The Fall of Gondolin, one of the tales that come before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which can be read in The Book of Lost Tales, Volume II, the description of dragons can be clearly associated with machines:
“the heat the dragons gave off was not eternal, and they could only be filled with fire in the wells that Melkor had built in the bastion of his own lands”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. The Book of Lost Tales. Volume II. Edited by Christopher Tolkien.
This description of dragons seems to associate these creatures with aeroplanes, as they need to be refilled with fuel to keep functioning. It is interesting how this concept evolved with time, as the dragons then become just living beings with their own conscious and intelligent mind, resembling the dragons from the Poetic Eddas, which are Norse tales Tolkien was familiar with, like the story of Sigurd and Fafnir told in “The Lay of Fafnir”. Despite that evolution, from mechanical to biological functioning, dragons were created by Melkor as devices for destroying.
Letter N ° 78
(Discussed on March 11th)
On Letter 78, professor Tolkien writes to his son Christopher. And replies to the complains his son has done about the dry earth he has to see in South Africa when training to become a pilot during World War II. Tolkien also explains more about the Urukai.
But what calls my attention, regarding the discussion on machinery and nature in his works, is this paragraph:
“…much though I love and admire little lanes and hedges and rustling trees and the soft rolling contours of a champain, the thing that stirs me most and comes nearer to heart’s satisfaction is space … My heart still lingers among the high stony wastes among the moraines and mountain – wreckage, silent in spite of the sound of thin chill water”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter N° 78. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter.
When professor Tolkien wrote that letter to his son, he was working on The Lord of the Rings. It seems to be very clear that in his narrative, he wanted to share with his readers the love he had for nature but also show them the sublimity of Nature. In all his works he insists on the importance of being aware of nature to notice the joy and pleasure it produces.
As an example, this can be observed in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo is left alone in Bag End after Bilbo departs, the narrator describes that:
“He [Frodo] found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came to his dream”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. The Lord of the Rings.
Frodo wanders in the wild lands, he looks at the stars, the trees and everything around. And in nature he starts to realize his wish to depart to know and discover more about the natural world that surrounds him. He sees the mountains, which professor Tolkien introduces them not as a mere setting of an adventure, but also as an experience, as the reader will find out as the novel goes on.
It seems to me that Tolkien’s landscapes are more than just settings for the adventures the characters live in the story. Landscapes are described in detail for readers to experience them as if they were also there physically and spiritually. Professor Tolkien insists on the importance of nature in real life and also in literary worlds.
Letter N° 131
(discussed on March 18th)
In Letter 131, Tolkien explains why The Silmarillion is relevant for understanding The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He summarises the main points of The Silmarillion, explains his former ideas and motivation for writing the story.
Rewarding this year theme of the Tolkien reading Day, what concerns us from this letter is the comment he makes about the hobbits:
“They are entirely without non-human powers, but are represented as being more in touch with nature (the soil and other living things, plants and animals) and abnormally free from ambition or greed of wealth”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter 131. Letters from J. R. R. Tolkien.
The hobbits are bound to nature, they take care of it, remember that gardeners are important, think of Sam Gamgee. Hobbits respect and love nature, living in harmony with it.
As such, they succeed in winning over Sauron, who destroys nature with his machinery. The hobbits were allowed to succeed because of their connection with nature, which was more common and ordinary than the ones the elves have, for elves have a more complex relationship with nature, but as it is also a positive one, they succeed over Sauron and Melkor too.
But in professor Tolkien’s words:
“without the simple and ordinary [represented in the hobbits] the noble and heroic is meaningless”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter 131. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.
The love of simplicity in nature, as appreciating its colours, its smells, the taste, the shapes, allows the characters to overcome evilness. Once again, think of Sam Gamgee, the true hero of The Lord of the Rings.
Letter N ° 155
“The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is especially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills. The Enemy’s operations are by no means all goetic deceits… But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate… But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery (often only the same things concealed)… The tyrants lose sight of their objects, become cruel, and like smashing, hurting and defiling as such. It would not doubt be possible to defend poor Lotho’s Introduction of more efficient mills; but not of Sharkey [Saruman] and Sandy man’s use of them”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter N °155. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter N°155 is a draft where professor Tolkien answers questions regarding magic usage in the Lord of the Rings and in The Silmarillion.
He explains that what the elves do cannot really be considered magic, as Galadriel shows Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. He also distinguishes the power used by Sauron and Melkor (the Enemy) saying that rather than magic is the wrong use of machinery.
Tolkien makes clear that he is not against machines to allow society to improve everyone’s lives, but he cannot support when machinery is used for wrong purposes such as destroying and affecting the freedom of others.
This is one of the main themes of The Lord of the Rings, to show that everyone has the right to choose the path and actions you may want to take, but that choice cannot affect other’s will.
“I hope you have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings. Enjoyed is the keyword. For it was written to amuse (in the highest sense): to be readable. There is no allegory, moral, political or contemporary in the work at all… I think that fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism’, and in some ways more powerful. But first of all it must succeed as a tale, excite, please, and even on occasion move, and within its own imagined world be accorded (literary) belief”.
– J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter N°181. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
In this letter, Tolkien is asked if the end of The Lord of the Rings, the Shire reflects the situation of his contemporary England. He neglects that, only saying that he alludes to no political movement but might be showing his dislike for how Oxford forest and landscape is being destroyed by the new motorways.
In every letter we have discussed here, we can see the constant concern about nature that J. R. R. Tolkien has during his whole life, which nowadays can be considered to be an ecological one. Well, he even sold his car after being aware of the damage it caused and used his bicycle for moving around. This ecological awarness is seen in every single work Tolkien wrote, not only in his most popular ones like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings but also in his short stories such as Leaf by Niggle, where the painter can spends almost all her life trying to capture and paint a single leaf of a tree, such a beautiful and unforgettable story. Even in Roverandom, a short story about a dog, originally a toy, that gets lost in the beach and goes to the moon, and in his Christmas letters to his children published in Letters of Father Christmas.
If you do not like fantasy as a literary genre but love nature, you must definitely read some of the works written by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, commonly know as J. R. R. Tolkien, because nature seems to bloom almost in every single page he wrote.