A version of this paper was presented at the Southeastern Medieval Association Conference on November 17, 2017, at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, SC.
J.R.R. Tolkien once claimed that he would “take the part of trees as against all their enemies” (Letters #339). Nature, especially trees and forests, holds a central place in his works, its highest expression being the Two Trees of Valinor, from the roots of which all his stories stem. His shameless love of nature might suggest a simplistic, idyllic, and glorified depiction in his works, but this could not be further from the truth. As an Oxford professor of Old and Middle English, his work on poems like Beowulf, “The Wanderer,” and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, profoundly influenced his fictional works. Especially in The Lord of the Rings, the medieval ideas of nature’s decline and hostility to human culture often color the story’s mood; but he also explores the idea, incipient in medieval poetry, that nature too suffers with us, and develops this into an ethic of reconciliation between wilderness and hearth.
The fact that reconciliation is sorely needed is clear in medieval poetry. Though it is true, as Gillian Rudd observes, that the agency of containing and othering nature lies in human hands (55), the sense that medieval poets were responding to an otherness that they actually perceived (whether it exists from an objective standpoint or not) is found throughout the poetry of the age. Wild places, particularly forests, are often completely outside of human control, and are often the sites of otherworldly encounters. Only after passing through the wild forest of Wirral does Gawain encounter the castle of the Green Knight and Morgan le Fay. “The Wirral,” Rudd asserts, “is thus finely balanced between actual geographical place and archetypal forest of romance text: a place of personal trial” (57). Emphasizing its otherness, it is also “the parallel world of ‘faerie’ that exists in romance” (59), for there are not only animals and wildmen there, but also giants (“etaynes” in the poem, line 723) and possibly dragons.
In Tolkien, the forest realm of Lothlórien can play either role in the human / nature dichotomy. Home to an elven enclave, it is a decidedly otherworldly place, one feared by the men of Rohan who live south of its borders. Even Faramir, heir to the stewardship of Gondor and more well-educated than most humans, admits that his people have come to “speak of the Golden Wood with dread” (IV.5). Like the Wirral in Sir Gawain, Lórien is a real, physical place that borders human lands, but it is also a mythical place, a strange fairyland through which few pass unchanged. More strikingly, the trees of the Old Forest actively resent humans for their mobility and tendency to cut wood for fire; and the peak of Caradhras in the Misty Mountains hurls snow and malice at any who would tread its slopes. Nature, in both medieval poetry and in Tolkien, is thus linked with the supernatural and often bears hostility to humans, who pass its boundaries only at their peril.
The threat of nature, as seen in Anglo-Saxon elegies like “The Wanderer,” is to embody the transience of all human things, because nature itself is inherently temporal and entropic. The poet laments the loss of his lord and kinsmen, a loss due to the fact that “this middle-earth / droops and decays every single day” (lines 62-63). And not just in his home, but “All is toilsome in the earthly kingdom, / the working of wyrd changes the world under heaven” (106-107). Though ultimate loss has not yet occurred in “The Seafarer,” another elegy from the same collection, Martin Green has observed how “the imagery of the cycles of nature, the never-ending pattern of spring following winter, [suggests] that time is not cyclic and static but linear and transitory. . . . the speech turns from a celebration of renewal and continuity to a lament over decline and decay.” The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight similarly observes, after describing the passage of seasons, that “winter returns, as is the way of the world / through time” (530-531). His ending and emphasis on winter seems to echo and reinforce the icy loneliness of the elegies.
Closely linked to the theme of nature’s trend toward decline is the sense that human culture is besieged by nature. The “Wanderer” poet’s lament that “throughout this middle-earth / walls stand blasted by wind, / beaten by frost, the buildings crumbling” (75-77) is doubly striking, given that the mead-hall’s destruction is not merely the physical loss of property and of the glory of human craftsmanship, but also of the social center of their culture, so in a real sense its ruin is also their own.
Thus, when stretched across time, the perception of nature’s decline takes the shape of a belief in the fading of society.
The opening lines in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight trace Britain’s founding to Felix Brutus and the ruin of Troy, an origin that not only glorifies Britain, but also casts a pessimistic shadow on its future, foreshadowing the fall and death of Arthur. The Golden Age of Camelot, after all, has already long ended by the poet’s time. This pessimism is even starker at the end of Beowulf, where the hero’s death has enabled the Geats as a nation to pass away, a development which, again, has already happened from the poet’s perspective in time. Both poets, then, look back to a lost glory with the desolate longing of wanderers and seafarers.
The Lord of the Rings is practically drenched in this sense of decline. Despite their otherworldliness, the elves of Lothlórien are no less subject to entropy. They have lost much already, and mourn for what they know they will lose. At first glance, the realm appears, if anything, a place untouched by time. “It seemed to [Frodo] that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. . . . [T]he shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever.” Not even the seasons flow as they should: “in the autumn [the] leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers. . . . In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring” (II.6).
These conditions are far from permanent, though. Galadriel explains to Frodo that she uses one of the Elven Rings of Power to create this timelessness. If Frodo fails to destroy the One Ring that rules them all, then all of Middle-earth will fall to the enemy, including her realm; but even his success will result in nullifying the Elven Rings, and therefore the end of Lothlórien as she has known it. In a line that encapsulates the sadness of the Elves in the face of time, she laments that “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (II.7). Not defeat at the hands of Sauron, the dark lord, but at the hands of time and nature. This is what it means to live in Middle-earth, even for the immortal elves: enduring the fading and loss that are part of this mortal world.
Even in Tolkien’s human cultures, the loss of a golden age is commonly felt. The men of Rohan, whose speech Tolkien even translates into Old English, have been called by Tom Shippey “Anglo-Saxons on horses,” a link which is most obvious in one of their poems, based heavily on lines 93-96 of “The Wanderer,” the archetypal ubi sunt passage:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
To the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons alike, human culture and glory fades in the hands of time and nature. Harps, horns, and crops burn away like dead wood and are eroded by the seaward flow of rivers.
In Gondor, whose people were once the wisest and most powerful and enlightened humans in Middle-earth, the loss is even more apparent. The realm still has beauty and glory, and its capital is “vaster and more splendid than anything [one of its visitors] had dreamed of”; but Tolkien emphasizes much more the things that the city has lost.
…it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court . . . whose doors and arched gates . . . were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window. (Tolkien, Rings 752)
But even at the apex of Gondorian glory, this realm was itself only a faded version of Númenor (Tolkien’s version of Atlantis), and was founded by a remnant who (like Felix Brutus and his men in Sir Gawain) alone survived the destruction of their home and arrived in their new lands as exiles.
Middle-earth is rife with such faded kingdoms whose glory will never return, and indeed Middle-earth itself has been greatly diminished by the time of The Lord of the Rings, having first lost the entire subcontinent of Beleriand, then the island of Númenor. Within Middle-earth, the forest of Fangorn once “was just the East End” (III.4) of a broader wood, as is the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire.
Despite their sense of nature’s otherness, hostility, and inevitable decline, medieval poets also show in it glimpses of empathy to human suffering. It is probably too far a stretch to say that nature mourns with us in these poems, but it is clear that nature, too, participates in the pain of its own decay and decline. As Jeffrey Cohen reminds us, sometimes nature “is deployed as a meditation on the burdens of human identity.” Seabirds express the loneliness of “The Wanderer”’s narrator, who has only “the wild swan’s song / . . . , the gannet’s call / and the curlew’s cry for the laughter of men” (lines 19-21). The birds show no direct empathy to the wanderer himself, but they nonetheless suffer the same hardships: terns plea before storms, and frost-laden eagles scream in the cold. (23-24). Cohen also points to the way in which trees, vines, and birds express Sir Gawain’s own gloom as he approaches the Green Chapel, lost and bewildered, in lines 744-747 of the poem:
Hazel and hawthorn are interwoven;
decked and draped in damp, shaggy moss,
and bedraggled birds on bare, black branches
pipe pitifully into the piercing cold.
The Beowulf poet similarly evokes the fear and dread of Grendel not by describing how terrified the Danes of Heorot are of him, but by describing the lonely gloom through which he travels, marshes and heaths that are made desolate by his presence (lines 103-104). He comes “In off the moors, down through the mist bands” (710), “Under the cloud-murk” (714), and, defeated by Beowulf, he slinks off “under the fen-banks . . . / to his desolate lair” (819-820).
The watery gloom continues when Beowulf and the Danes travel to that lair in search of Grendel’s mother. The lair is found near “windswept crags / and treacherous keshes [log bridges], where cold streams / pour down the mountain and disappear / under mist and moorland” (1358-1361), and the warriors’ path leads “up fells and screes, along narrow footpaths” (1410), through a “dismal wood” (1414) and out to a “bloodshot water” (1416).
It is not merely nature that is hostile here. Nature itself, as much as the Danes, suffers from the monsters’ presence, and its suffering is expressed parallel to theirs. Through landscape, the poet paints an emotional image of despair, foreboding, and loneliness that not only mirrors the mood of the characters, but also of the poet’s audience and us as readers. Significantly, when Beowulf finally kills Grendel’s mother, the bleakness seems to have vanished from the landscape. They return, we are told, “With high hearts . . . / along footpaths and trails through the fields, roads that they knew” (1632-1634). The atmosphere has become one of familiarity and ease, and their biggest worry now is the weight of Grendel’s mother’s head.
In Tolkien, Nature suffers most evidently in the Ents, a giant arboreal race who act as shepherds of the trees. Their thoughts are the thoughts of a forest, and their main representative, Treebeard, gives voice to the forest’s pain and resentment: “Many of those [felled] trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost for ever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves” (Rings III.4). It is not hard to see, in the vanished voices of the forest, echoes of the wanderer’s ruined hall and its lost warriors.
Nor are the Ents any less subject to the inevitable loss of their culture. They have lost their women long ago, the Entwives, and therefore the ability to restore their ranks. “Forests may grow,” Treebeard grieves, “Woods may spread. But not Ents. There are no Entings” (VI.6). In his slow, booming speech, nature is given a quite literal voice, and with it, proclaims the wanderer’s same grief.
Tolkien clearly empathizes with medieval poets’ views of nature; but he also attempts to develop these themes, often finding in these sorrows a testing ground and a source of growth. Galadriel’s motivation, Tolkien explains in a letter, stems from an essentially Elven perspective. They viewed change “as a regrettable thing”, and were
obsessed with ‘fading’, the mode in which…time (the law of the world under the sun) was perceived by them. They became sad, and their art (shall we say) antiquarian, and their efforts all really a kind of embalming — even though they also retained the old motive of their kind, the adornment of earth and the healing of its hurts.
While this is noble, it is also problematic. As Lucas Niiler points out, often those who wish to enjoy nature even for its own qualities still, in doing so, view it as a commodity.
Galadriel’s wish to preserve her land’s beauty, after all, is a resistance to “the law of the world under the sun,” an effort to elevate her own desires and preferences above nature’s own tendencies. She wishes for “trees and grass…that do not die — here in the land that is mine” (Tales 250, emphasis added), a line that betrays her possessive and somewhat paternalistic view of the natural world.
Her moment of truth comes when Frodo offers her the One Ring, and in doing so unknowingly tests her. “For many long years,” she says, “I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands.” She knows it has the power to ensure that the beauty she longs for will never fade away. But she has lived, and has seen the effects of nature and time outside of her lands, long enough to know that doing so would not be the land’s flourishing, but its conquering.
“I will diminish,” she says, rejecting the Ring, “and go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (II.7). By accepting the natural way of things, she endures great loss and gives up her greatest desires; but in doing so, she regains herself.
Grief over nature’s decline also becomes, under Tolkien’s pen, an agent of catharsis. Often his books’ strongest, most piercing moments of hope occur in the most bitter and sorrowful moments, such as the night when Samwise, surrounded by the ruin and desolation of Mordor, sees a single star shine through poisoned skies. Smitten by its beauty, he realizes “that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (VI.2).
This goes into the bones of Tolkien’s philosophy, where sorrow and hope are so closely linked that his pantheon of Ainur, beings that play the dual roles of gods and angels, contains Nienna, who “mourns for every wound that [the Earth] has suffered. . . . She does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope” (“Valaquenta”). Though sorrow and entropy pervade all of Middle-earth, they are not the final word. Where medieval poets see ruin and meaninglessness, Tolkien sees a spring overflowing with meaning.
Finally, Tolkien’s depiction of nature begins to blur the boundary between it and human culture, primarily by showing that culture is not, in fact, unnatural. Jeffrey Cohen reminds us that seeds of this idea are already discernible in medieval poetry, such as when Sir Gawain fails to realize as he is lost in Wirral that “his subjectivity is entangled in hazel and hawthorn, his embodiment completed by a flock of shivering birds, his knightly identity inseparable from his good steed Gringolet”; but also that it is we as modern readers, not Gawain, who are able to see this. While the idea is there in the poem, it is present only as a seed, not fully realized.
Tolkien, though, makes the idea explicit. Treebeard and the Ents march to war because they recognize that nature and humans ultimately have the same interests. In their very persons, the Ents are themselves a blurring of the boundaries between nature (in their essential treeishness) and culture (in their speech, songs, memory, and society). And through them, readers can sympathize with the side of nature and feel nature’s side as their own.
Having thus undermined the medieval human/nature dualism, Tolkien concludes The Lord of the Rings with an image of culture restored in balance with nature. The Shire, in the absence of Frodo and his friends, has been exploited and ruined by the proto-industrialist wizard Saruman. The land has suffered land-grabbing mechanization, and commodification, and in a parallel way, the hobbits have been cowed into submission. Even after proper order is restored, the river is still fouled, trees cut down, crops lost. The hobbits must renew their connection to the land, a connection that once allowed their simple society to flourish not despite, but within nature, and vice versa. This is achieved when Samwise uses the soil of Lothlórien, given to him by Galadriel, to heal the places where nature has been most scarred. It is not so much the soil that allows nature to flourish, but the Elven reverence and awe for nature that it represents.
Samwise, and the hobbits in general, embody the balance that Wendell Berry points to when he writes that “we may rightfully require certain things of [nature] — the things necessary to keep us fully alive as the kind of creature we are; but we also belong to it, and it makes certain rightful claims upon us.” Though they can be insular, unimaginative, narrow-minded, and parochial, the hobbits satisfy these claims, and the flourishing of nature under Samwise’s cultivation is evidence of this.
[There was] an air of richness and growth . . . and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword.
The hobbits’ society melds an intimacy with nature with a well-developed culture, again undermining the human/nature dualism. They live in comfortable, well-provendered holes dug in the hillsides, with their feet bare and their hands in the earth, able to vanish into the landscape at need. Can their culture (and by extension, human culture) rightfully be considered separate from nature when the nests of a bird, the dam of a beaver, the web of a spider, or the warren of a rabbit are just as much works of architecture — of deliberate construction — as gardens, hearths, and even cities?
Tolkien suggests otherwise, by depicting the interconnected relationships we have with nature in vivid detail, where medieval poetry (as with Gawain in Wirral) contains them only implicitly, perhaps unconsciously. His stories encourage the recovery of awe and humility, the catharsis felt by feeling nature’s suffering (and feeling that nature feels our suffering), and the consolation that comes with a sense that we are perhaps not so fully exiled as we had feared. This reconciliation is very different from what is found in medieval poetry. Yet its presence in Tolkien is not in spite of medieval views of nature, but because of them. Its flowering is in modern fantasy, but its roots stem from medieval traditions.