Eden, The Spoiling of Middle-Earth, and Hope


In the afterword of Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tom Shippey writes:

“In a letter he wrote to his son Christopher in 1945, Tolkien remarked, ‘certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and are constantly glimpsing it’ (Letters, 110). He provided many glimpses of it himself.

“But the critical word in the passage is ‘was,’ and in the same letter Tolkien notes the ‘many sad exiled generations’ that have lived since the Fall. His fiction also shows again and again that the small bit of Eden left to us has been constantly betrayed and destroyed and is forever under threat. The wars of Middle-earth created the Dead Marshes, where the fair turns foul; Saruman’s activities turn ‘singing groves’ into a ‘waste of stump and bramble,’ all ending in the ghastly polluted plain of Gorgoroth, where nothing can live. In ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ we are presented with the start of the Gorgoroth process in the most homely terms—trees cut down, filth poured into the river, black smoke spewing unchecked from chimneys—all backed by a vague (and unconvincing) ideology progress. It is true that the process can be reversed, as it is in the Shire with the aid of Sam Gamgee and Galadriel’s gift. And the recuperative powers of nature are also strongly present, especially in Ithilien, where Faramir and Éowyn are the counterparts of Sam and Galadriel: the wreath of stonecrop growing round the old king’s brows, the ‘briar and eglantine and trailing clematis’ that cover what was once a ‘place of dreadful feast and slaughter.’ Just the same, Tolkien leaves no doubt about the threat hanging over Middle-earth. It is not just the Elves and Ents and Hobbits that can vanish, but health and beauty as well.”

Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien does not leave us without a glimpse of hope. He writes:

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beeches boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

. . .

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