Lord of the Rings – Tolkien as nature writer

I’ve just finished re-reading Lord of the Rings and it struck me how much of a nature writer Tolkien was. As readers we are unceasingly immersed in the natural environment of Middle-earth and made to feel every subtle shift of climate; notice every change of vegetation and geology; sense every texture and smell (“reek” is a characteristic word). LoTR is a novel of quest, obviously, but it is also a novel of journeying, of walking and riding. I was reminded of writers like Richard Jefferies and Richard Mabey, tramping a favourite beat and noticing celandines and buds in Spring; waxwings in winter.


The first of the numerous journeys in LoTR sees the four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin flee Frodo’s home in the Shire, pursued by Black Riders. At first they follow lanes that they know, but soon they have to decide between following the road and striking across country. They decide on the latter, and the wisdom of their choice is soon confirmed by the sighting of a Black Rider on the road they have just left. From this point on, however, their battle is with forces that are familiar with any naturalist, or walker, who choses to leave the beaten track. All of this is described with the naturalist’s precision and love of detail.


“Going on was not altogether easy. They had packs to carry, and the bushes and brambles were reluctant to let them through. They were cut off from the wind by the ridge behind, and the air was still and stuffy. When they forced their way at last into more open ground, they were hot and tired and very scratched, and they were also no longer certain of the direction in which they were going. The banks of the stream sank, as it reached the levels and became broader and shallower, wandering off towards the Marish and the River”.


A few lines further on: “they came again to a belt of trees: tall oaks, for the most part, with here and there an elm tree or an ash. The ground was fairly level, and there was little undergrowth; but the trees were too close for them to see far ahead. The leaves blew upwards in sudden gusts of wind, and spots of rain began to fall from an overcast sky”.


I’m tempted to quote a passage from Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London (1883), which I think has the same feel for the subtly charged atmosphere of a wood. Jefferies has a similar sort of sensitivity to the small changes in the ‘feel’ of a place as one moves even a few paces through it. In the passage I’m about to quote, Jefferies has described the passage of a track from the vibrant buzzing life in the bright sunshine into a small wood. “The green lane as it enters the wood, becomes wilder and rougher at every step, widening, too, considerably”. A little further into the wood:


“There are woods, woods, woods; but no birds. Yonder a drive goes straight into the ashpoles, it is green above and green below, but a long watch will reveal nothing living. The dry mounds must be full of rabbits, there must be pheasants somewhere; but nothing visible. Once only a whistling sound in the air directs the glance upwards, it is a wood-pigeon flying at full speed. There are no bees, for there are no flowers. There are no butterflies. The black flies are not numerous, and rarely require a fanning from the ash spray carried to drive them off”.


In LOTR, the pregnant silence of the woods becomes threatening and oppressive.


Thus far in the story, the resistance offered by Middle-earth is of the same nature of that which would not have faced Tolkien and his tramping Inkling friends in deepest England, because the hobbits are still within the bounds of the Shire. Aside, of course, from pursuit by Black Riders, which are also foreign to the Shire. Once they leave the Shire, the natural environment itself begins to be warped and subtly malevolent in its own right. It takes on a hue of enchantment, which grows the further from the Shire the companions travel. In the Old Forest, the very grain of the forest constantly forces the hobbits down into the valley of the enchanted river Withywindle, which they have been trying to avoid.


“Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles. These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their ponies. Each time they clambered down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right; and they had to go some distance along the bottom before they could find a way up the further bank. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards”.


Thus the companions are forced down into the enchanted valley, where they are lulled to sleep and trapped by the malevolent tree Old Man Willow. The description of a wood which seems to have a will of its own and to be willfully impeding your progress can be recognised by anyone who has tried to scramble through one, enchanted or otherwise!


Tolkien’s sensitivity to vegetation comes out constantly as the characters of LOTR travel through Middle-earth. There are numerous locations characterised by their vegetation. In this, LOTR is similar to Richard Jefferies’s post-apocalyptic novel After London. However, Tolkien, who is a far greater storyteller, allows the detail to help the story along and never to smother it, as it does in After London, and Tolkien’s story doesn’t peter out like a path in the woods, like the story of After London does. The latter book feels like a natural history essay with a story tacked on (it is at it’s best when describing the putrid ruins of London – a description worthy of Mordor).


The main action of LOTR, beginning with the hobbits’ departure from the Shire, takes place over a number of months, with the principal journey, that of the Fellowship of the Ring from Rivendell south towards Mordor and Gondor, spanning the winter. The seasons play a key role in the journey, alongside a dose of magic, in thwarting the Fellowship’s attempt to cross the mountain Caradhras and forcing them through the Mines of Moria instead. Sauron’s magic works in tandem with the season to create the snowstorm which defeats the mountain crossing, and the seasons also mirror the fate of the mission and, hence, of the world. A detail I noticed this reading is in the chapter entitled “The Palantir”. Sauron’s ally Saruman has just been defeated and there is a hope that the tide may turn. By this point, we are reminded, it is the start of Spring:


“Going westward a mile or so they came to a dale. It opened southward, leaning back into the slope of round Dol Baran, the last hill of the northern ranges, greenfooted, crowned with heather. The sides of the glen were shaggy with last year’s bracken, among which the tight-curled fronds of spring were just thrusting through the sweet-scented earth. Thornbushes grew thick upon the low banks, and under them they made their camp, two hours or so before the middle of the night. They lit a fire in a hollow, down among the roots of a spreading hawthorn, tall as a tree, writhen with age, but hale in every limb. Buds were swelling at each twig’s tip”.


The buds of a hawthorn tree are a small pivot on which the story begins to turn. Aside from its function in the story, I love the precision and care with which this passage is crafted. (The word ‘writhen’ is classic Tolkien).


Later on in the story, Merry is confronted with the immense mystery behind all things as he stands before the sheer faces of the mountains: “He loved mountains, or he loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire”. The weight is, of course, the weight of events and responsibility – of destiny – as well as of stone. This, for me, is a little turning point, or telling moment, in the development of Merry the hobbit as a character. Merry and Pippin in the novel are more mature and less silly at the outset than their counterparts in Peter Jackson’s films of LOTR, but they still undergo a process of development by which their appreciation of weight and import is recalibrated from that of the Shire to that of the wider world, in which they must shoulder new responsibilities. (Pippin’s moment is when he realises the awfulness of his childish mistake in looking into the Palantir). The poignancy of the moment is brought out sharply by the contrasting image of the cosy Shire room. It is characteristic that this epiphany is brought about by the natural world.


There is obviously much more to be said about Tolkien’s use of landscape and natural features in LOTR, but I have just written about those that stood out to me in this reading of LOTR. (The transplanting of the sapling of the White Tree also struck me; and the fact that there were plants in Mordor. The twisted weeds of Mordor would sit well in Richard Mabey’s book of nature around London, The Unofficial Countryside (1973). Mabey’s city margins are less bucolic than those of Jefferies). The literature on LOTR and Tolkien is vast, and I haven’t read more than a tiny fraction of it, so I’m sure my thoughts are far from original, but I just wanted to share them as they are.