JRR Tolkien and Nature began a love affair in early childhood that lasted for the remainder of his days. This love of nature was a driving force behind the creation of Middle Earth and becomes a major theme in the works themselves.
Tolkien was born in South Africa, but returned to England with his mother when he was only four years old, retaining very few memories of the South African landscape.
Shortly after returning to England, the Tolkiens moved to the idyllic small village of Sarehole. Sarehole was very near to filthy, industrialized Birmingham, but retained yet the isolated beauty and simplicity of the pre-industrialized English countryside.
The marked contrast between Birmingham and Sarehole, separated by only a couple of miles, likely contributed later to Tolkien’s love of nature and distrust of anything mechanical.
Tolkien wrote later in his life that these were the “happiest and most formative years” of his life. Here originated Tolkien’s love of trees and plants, a passion that is very apparent both in his early Middle Earth mythology and in The Lord of the Rings particularly.
In Tolkien nature lives and breathes. It participates as a character. Old Man Willow, Treebeard and the Ents, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, the tainting of Mirkwood, these elements of the story are as essential as any of the main characters.
Trees, plants, animals…these all play an integral role in Tolkien’s mythologies, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s love of nature shines through on every page – his lush descriptions, environmental involvement, his characters. One cannot enter Middle Earth without becoming overawed by the utter “greenness” of it all.
Evil, in most of its manifestations, is fundamentally a warping of nature. Tolkien’s villains are destroyers and polluters, going clear back to Melkor’s destruction of the Two Trees in The Silmarillion and moving on through Sauron and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
The land of Mordor is blasted and bleak. Almost nothing living goes there. Indeed, Sauron is symbolized throughout The Lord of the Rings by the dark pillar of smoke from Mt. Doom and the “Eye wreathed in flame”.
Saruman destroys the land around Isengard and cuts down great sections of Fangorn Forest to feed his war machine, incurring the wrath of the Ents.
Industrialization, machines, and technological progress in all its forms are seen as destroying forces, as moving away from simplicity and nature. Living in dirty, industrial Birmingham and observing the horrors and destruction of World War I and II, Tolkien had born witness to the many drawbacks of industrial progress.
“The Scouring of the Shire”, a chapter much downplayed by many readers of The Lord of the Rings, is very significant and speaks to Tolkien’s worldview.
There is little doubt the Tolkien viewed ideal life as very much like that of a hobbit – natural, quiet, restful. But he also knew, as his characters found out, that the outside world, and technological progress, could not be shunned or ignored.
As Gandalf says of Sauron in The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Shire – he may be seeking for it now, if he has not already found out where it lies” (FOTR pg 68).
This is a chilling comment, both in its own context of the book, and in its larger “real world” implications.