Friday, July 22, 2011

Hobbiton and the Global Crisis

(Here's my paper on The Lord of the Rings and environmental stewardship, it's just a first draft, but there's a very real chance I won't get around to revising it, so I thought I'd post it. It's not a poem, but I still think it's entertaining and worth a read. The formatting turned out weird, but I'm no wiz with that type of stuff so I'm just letting it be.)

In his book TJ Gorringe notes the global population grows between 75 and 80 million people per year; to feed this many people, the grain harvest has to increase 21 million tons per year. The problem with this is that only ten percent of land is arable, and that number is shrinking due to desertification, overgrazing, and urbanization.[1] The potential for significant food shortages is one of many weighty problems lurking in the near future. The Earth is in very real peril. Climate change, soil degradation, deforestation, and over-fishing are only a few of the calamities humans are currently causing the planet. These problems are closely connected to many troubles impacting the human population: overcrowding, slums, disease, and malnutrition. The big problems facing the world are intimidating; the impotence one feels when considering them can be debilitating. The question is: how can humans start to solve these problems and not lapse into apathy and cynicism? I believe what is needed is an abundance of creativity and imagination.

Personally, cynicism is my natural reflex to these types of issues. Creativity and imagination help to counter cynicism because they expand the possible. Stories and pictures are key aids to creativity and imagination. In thinking about the current global ecological problems I have found J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic The Lord of the Rings (hereafter LOTR) particularly stimulating. Tolkien’s creatures and landscapes offer pictures that both critique the global situation and offer interesting alternatives. In this paper I hope to use images and characters in LOTR to argue for a particular vision of what a proper relationship between people and their local environment ought to look like.

In addition to stimulating creativity and imagination, using LOTR in discussions of such somber issues also brings a crucial element of fun. I am not unaware that character attributes of Samwise Gamgee to critique industrial modes of production is a little silly, but I think these discussions could afford to have more thoughtful silliness.

Before moving on, it should be noted that in the paper I will be assuming a certain level of familiarity with the LOTR. Given the enormous success of the films as well as the books, I feel confident that this assumption is warranted.

One potential difficulty with using a fantasy novel in a paper on stewardship is hermeneutical one. There is the real danger of using this story and it’s characters as allegorically, and painting the author as an environmental activist who naturally agreed with every point I make in this paper. Such an approach would see the character Saruman as Tolkien’s rebuttal the industrial militarism and its effects on the environment. In the prologue to LOTR Tolkien discusses how to interpret and use the novel:

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes of views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.[2]

This paper resides in the freedom of the reader (myself). I will be drawing on my own thought and experience, as well as the other thinkers to apply this story to global ecological and human problems. The usefulness of Tolkien in this paper does not reside in his purposing LOTR to aid in thinking about these problems; I am not sure how immediate these issues were in his mind as he wrote LOTR. Rather, LOTR is useful in that it is a well-told story, and creates a stunningly expansive world of surprising depth.

Within the LOTR universe the character whose story most mirrors the global moment is Saruman. Saruman is a traitor Wizard bent on power and domination. The ways in which he works to achieve this power and domination wreak havoc on both people and the environment in ways which parallel many of the problems facing the world today. Saruman illustrates three general types of problems worth analyzing: destruction of the environment, “global” thinking, and extractive economy.

In The Two Towers Treebeard (a tree-creature known as an ent) explains to the hobbits Pippin and Merry the offenses of Saruman. He summarizes the mindset of Saruman, saying “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[3] In the story Saruman’s industrialism is at the cost of the local environment. Imprisoned atop Orthanc (the tower in center of Isengard), Gandalf looked out over Isengard and noticed the formerly pleasant and green valley was now barren and marred by pits and forges; over all this hung a dark haze of smoke.[4] The ‘metal and wheel’ represented by the forges and pits of Isengard led to the destruction of parts of the ancient forest that grew near him. Treebeard goes on to describe Orcs under the control of Saruman cutting down trees to fuel the fires, and some even cutting down trees and leaving them to rot.[5]

This environmental destruction was not limited to Isengard. Shire, under the domination of Saruman, also experienced a degradation of the local environment. Upon returning to Shire after the destruction of the Ring of Power in Mount Doom the four hobbits (Pippin, Merry, Sam, and Frodo) find a reordering of their home. They notice an “unusual amount of burning” and a cloud of smoke coming up from the midst of Shire.[6] When they get to Hobbiton they find that whole rows of trees have been ripped up, and to Sam’s particular horror, Saruman’s men had hewn the Party Tree.[7]

Saruman’s destruction of the local environment under his control is too recognizable for comfort. The current approaches to environmental stewardship echo the mechanistic and utilitarian approach of Saruman. Though Saruman counted himself as wise, his actions showed otherwise. David Abram notes a parallel in the current civilization. He points out that this civilization has forfeited any kind of kinship with the Earth and understands truth primarily as static instead of acknowledging a relational element to it. This is fascinating in relation to Saruman, because before he began construction on pits and forges and the destruction of the forests, he used to walk and speak with Treebeard.[8] There was a relational element to his knowledge of his environment. When the relational element was abandoned he began the destruction of the Isengard’s forests, and eventually hewing trees in Fangorn Forest. Abram puts this type of destruction in opposition to authentic knowledge: “A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world.”[9] Wendell Berry comments on the results of civilizations and economies which do not have a relational understanding of their environment, and understand in mechanical terms, writing “When the industrial principles exemplified in fossil fuel production are applied to field and forest, the results are identical: local life, both natural and human, is destroyed.”[10] It is an ominous fact that Saruman’s loss of relationship with his local environment, and his underestimation of the power of it, is what led to his downfall.[11]

Saruman’s attempt to persuade Gandalf to join him illustrates his own global thinking. In his speech Saruman waxes on the growing of a new power, and the rewards of joining with this new power:

As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow, and the Wise such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.[12]

The language Saruman uses prioritizes the large over the small, the global over the local. The ‘deplorable evils done by the way’ are acceptable because of his ‘high and ultimate purpose.’ This ‘ultimate purpose’ is control of Middle-Earth in the name of ‘Knowledge, Rule, Order.’ The ‘ultimate purpose’ ends up being nothing short of domination of the weak—as evidenced in Saruman’s scouring of Shire at the end of the LOTR. One wishes that Gandalf had quoted Wendell Berry to refute Saruman’s “knowledge”: “Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.”[13] Berry’s own thinking about the global in relation to the local is counter to Saruman’s. Berry argues: “In order to make ecological good sense for the planet, you must make ecological good sense locally.”[14] Saruman’s seeking of a ‘high and ultimate purpose’ for Middle-Earth came at the expense of the one corner of it which was under his care—this for Berry would illustrate the non-sense of Saruman.

The economy of Saruman not only leads the destruction of the local environment but also the exploitation of the people of the surrounding country. As Saruman began seizing control of Shire, its economy began to change. As Farmer Cotton explained the happenings in Shire to the well-journeyed hobbits he noted that much of the best “leaf” of Southfarthing (a region of Shire) was being exported out of Shire, and eventually other goods, so that there began to be shortages. Saruman’s men began carrying off goods in wagons to the south (towards Isengard).[15] Under Saruman’s control there were even more food shortages even though the harvests had been good.[16] The relationship between Saruman and Shire is paralleled in many ways by the relationship between producers and consumers in the current global economy. T.J. Gorringe notes that less than ten percent of the retail value of coffee actually stays in the places where it is grown.[17] The Kenyan study shows that the current trade agreements under the World Trade Organization benefit wealthy nations at the expense of poorer ones.[18] In the global economy it seems that wealth is being extracted from poor nations. Those producing the means for wealth are not in a position to enjoy, just as the hobbits who grew the pipe-weed were unable to enjoy it under Saruman’s rule.

Against the Sarumanic injustice of the current world order, David Orr argues for an increased agrarian consciousness. Orr understands agrarianism as being rooted in the land, respectful of its limitations as well as its properties.[19] Orr argues this type of consciousness is opposed the “market-driven industrial mentality that perceives no natural limits and treats the land as mere raw material.”[20] Orr echoes Treebeard’s complaint about Saruman. The fight between the agrarian consciousness and the ‘market-driven industrial mentality’ seems to be a mismatch, with the latter winning out the majority of the time. It is difficult for a largely urban population to grasp the agrarian mindset, and this is where I believe LOTR proves particularly helpful. When one reads LOTR one cannot help but fall in love with Shire. It captures the imagination. As one follows the story through LOTR Shire is always kept in the back of one’s mind. Mordor is made more distasteful and evil in comparison to Shire and the comforts of the Green Dragon, hot tea and cold beer. Shire and the hobbits bring a romantic picture of agrarian life into the mind of an urban reader, and this is a very good thing.

The life of a hobbit is lived in stark contrast to Saruman. They are local to a fault, ignoring the happenings in the larger world around them. They not only know their land, but have a kindly affection for it. Hobbits are also peaceful. Many of the problems caused by the “market-driven industrial mentality” which has enjoyed nearly free rein in this global moment would be diminished, if not solved, if more of the world emulated hobbits in their lifestyle.

Tolkien comments that Sam’s knowledge of geography was limited to the twenty-miles around of Hobbiton, but extended no further.[21] I take Sam as a representative hobbit: a hobbit’s hobbit. He exemplifies the description of hobbits given in the prologue of the LOTR, and in the appendix of LOTR, Tolkien notes that he was elected Mayor of Michel Delving (one of the only official position in Shire) a record seven times.[22] It seems reasonable to take Sam as a model hobbit, and his geographical knowledge as representative of hobbits in general. Sam’s knowledge was such that a day’s walk from his home in Hobbiton he knew specific trees.[23] After Saruman’s domination and ruin of Shire, Sam went around Shire planting trees in places he remembered particular trees which he thought beautiful before they were chopped down.[24] He illustrates an impressive knowledge of the local environment, and I think shows a rooted-ness in a particular place. David Orr comments that agrarian thinkers have always seen this type of rooted-ness in land, and respect for it, as key to stable and decent organization of human affairs.[25]

Hobbits not only knew their land, they loved it. Affection for the actual soil which one lives on is a key part of the agrarian mindset. This affection is illustrated in Sam and Frodo’s return to a deeply marred Hobbiton: “This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.”[26] Fondness for ones home marks the hobbit’s outlook on life. Norman Wirzba points out that this type affection for land is a necessary precursor to ethical use and treatment of the land: an ethical relation to the land can only exist when there is a certain amount of love, respect and admiration for the land.[27] The delight in the land comes before the right treatment of it. Saruman had no love for the his local environment, or Shire. He did not delight in Fangorn Forests or the rolling hills around Hobbiton. As a consequence he treated these places harshly. In contrast hobbits love for their land led to their delight in “good tilled earth” and a “well-ordered and well-farmed country-side.”[28] That is to say their delight in the land led them to cultivation and stewardship of that land.

This love of cultivation and land is part of another peculiar attribute of hobbits, their peaceful nature. Throughout their history hobbits were never prone to war.[29] Faramir, when speaking to Frodo and Sam, I believe hits on the reason for this peaceful lifestyle. His farewell to the two he remarks: “Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and here must gardeners be in high honour.”[30] The astute captain links the high regard for gardeners to peace and content. To put it another way, the cultivation of the earth is linked to peaceful living.

The difficulty in the current global moment is that it seems the world is still under domination of those who would follow Sarumans lead. The Earth is, like Shire and the regions surrounding Isengard, being exploited for it’s resources. Population growth and uncheck free market philosophy have pushed this exploitation of the land. The results have been environmental degradation, food shortages, global warming. . . Up till now this paper has been concerned with showing the parallels between the global crisis and LOTR, and what a what a better relationship to the Earth would look like, but it had little to say about how to begin to set things to right. I believe the last chapter of LOTR offers an inspiring picture of what setting things to right could look like. Central to this picture is the anti-Saruman figure: Samwise Gamgee.

Early in the novel Sam is given a precious gift from the Lady Galadriel. He is given a tiny chest with dust from her own orchard, which was blessed by her.[31] Sam’s own personal horror at the felling of the beautiful trees of Shire, he began to fix. He began planting saplings throughout Shire, wherever he remembered a particularly delightful tree, with a sprinkle of dust from Galadriel.[32] At this point I will lean heavily on the freedom of the reader: I believe in planting these trees Sam was acting as a guerrilla gardener. In his book Guerrilla Gardening, David Tracey defines this practice as “gardening public space with or without permission.”[33] Tracey argues that guerrilla gardening causes a shift in posture, from passive to active:

When you’re a guerrilla gardener, you’re an active participant in the living environment. You’re no longer content to merely react to what happens to the spaces around you. You’re a player, which means you help determine how those spaces get used. And when you’re in tune like this, every plant counts.[34]

Samwise was a guerrilla gardener, who cared about the common good of Shire, and believed in the power of trees to inspire aesthetic delight enough to go around planting these trees. Emulated Master Samwise in this would mean that a person sees themselves as part of the environment, a participant with a particular relationship to the Earth and it’s creatures. Wendell Berry pointed out “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, to many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”[35] The ‘real work of planet-saving’ I believe will look a lot like Samwise Gamgee’s labors to beautify Shire. Reversing the work of Sarumanic forces in the world will not be done in one outburst like the raising of the Ents. It will not be one marked by epic heroic feats. It will be done by small, loving, hobbit-sized changes to ones local environment. It will be done by many people, replanting many party trees.

[1] Timothy, Gorringe, The Common Good and The Global Emergency: God and The Built Environment, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 190-191.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings (NY: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987), 6.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, (NY: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987), 76.

[4] Tolkien, FOTR, 273.

[5] Tolkien, TT, 89.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, (NY: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987), 280.

[7] Ibid, 283, 291.

[8] Tolkien, TT, 76.

[9] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), 264.

[10] Wendell, Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 22.

[11] For those unfamiliar with the story, the Ents eventually mustered their strength, attacked Saruman while he had sent his forces elsewhere, and overthrew the wizard.

[12] Tolkien, FOTR, 272-273.

[13] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in Collected Poems, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 151.

[14] Berry, SEFC, 23.

[15] Tolkien, RTK, 291-292.

[16] Ibid, 278.

[17] Gorringe, 193.

[18] Ibid, 193.

[19] David Orr, “The Urban-Agrarian Mind” in The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Freyfogle, Eric T., ed, (Washington, DC: Island Press :, 2001) 93-94.

[20] Ibid, 94.

[21] Tolkien, FOTR, 81.

[22] Tolkien, RTK, 378.

[23] Tolkien, FOTR, 81.

[24] Tolkien, RTK, 303.

[25] Orr, 99.

[26] Tolkien, RTK, 283.

[27] Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 111.

[28] Tolkien, FOTR, 10.

[29] Ibid, 14.

[30] Tolkien, TT, 290

[31] Tolkien, FOTR, 391.

[32] Tolkien, RTK, 303.

[33] David Tracey, Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto, (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2007), 4.

[34] Ibid, 32.

[35] Berry, SEFC 24.


Unknown said...

This is great, and I will use many of your points in my future conversations with people who want to destroy the earth for their own gains.

david said...


This is thoughtfully presented.

I thought this was a super point you made:

"Norman Wirzba points out that this type affection for land is a necessary precursor to ethical use and treatment of the land: an ethical relation to the land can only exist when there is a certain amount of love, respect and admiration for the land."

Lord, help us grow in this direction.

(It is a pleasure to know you, friend.)