T-Minus 5 Days - Middle Earth: Innocence and Mercy Against the Cruel World

Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel

Mordor_Square.jpgBEYOND THE level of fantasy and myth, Tolkien also offers a subtle way of looking at nature.

For Tolkien, the world has a magical aspect which imbues nature with a dualistic quality. On the one hand, nature is made cruel and malignant by dark forces; on the other hand, it is beautiful and unspoiled by the forces of light and goodness. Tolkien thus overlays the natural world with a moral quality. Contrast Mirkwood Forest with Rivendell, or Mordor with Lothlorien.

Tolkien's world can be a cruel place. In Middle Earth, the cruelty of nature is exaggerated by the forces of evil: turned, used, and built upon to make 'super-natural' forms of evil, all geared toward the effort to control, malign, and destroy.

In our world, just as in Tolkien’s mythological one, nature can be cruel; it can kill. Where there is cruelty there is fearfulness and defensiveness. And there is a choice: do we remain in a state of fear or do we step out the front door and down the road into that world of cruelty and risk.

In Middle Earth, the truest defense against this twisting of nature—against this cruelty gone amok—is not strength alone. It is not science, gear and weapons, physical preparedness, aggression, or defiance alone that can equal the task. Tooth against tooth is not a sufficient condition for success.


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Look at what happens to Sauruman the White. He shatters his own allegiance to his good order to become Sauruman the Many-colored. His fear of the dark powers drives him to a kind of strength that becomes a cruelty all its own. 

But neither is passivity a condition for successfully encountering the cruelty of nature. Just as the Mirror of Galadriel revealed to Frodo the dangers of remaining passive—of pretending the problem is not real—we should not let passivity rob us of our strength or enslave us to nature’s more subtle decay.

Whether it is a picnic in the park, a portage through the Canadian boundary waters, a trek through the deserts of Big Bend, or ascending a fourteener—whatever we choose to do that places us in direct contact with the natural world—we will inevitably face one degree of cruelty or another. In our comfortable day-to-day, even mosquitos can prove to be a barrier to achieving anything beyond the presumed safety of our four walls.

So we prepare. Like men of all ages, we use science and technology to insulate our fragile frames from the hazards to come. We prepare a defense. And we build up an offense. We make a trip to the outfitter, and cover every inch with specialized gear. We ready ourselves to conquer.

But behind all of these outward preparations (which may be necessary to one degree or another), two quiet and unassuming qualities move. They are the requisite antidote to moral cruelty: innocence and mercy.

Innocence does not presume. Innocence accepts the cruelty for what it is—whether simple risk or twisted danger. And in accepting it, it asks the basic questions: what can we do about it? Simple me, what can I do? It's the opposite of hubris. And it's this innocence, this honesty, this humility that might save your life, and the lives of others.

Mercy doesn't look to conquer at all costs. It acknowledges the flaws—the risks, the cost of doing business with a stream in high run-off, or a mountain peak with lightning bearing down through the valley. And in acknowledging the flaws in the thing and in the self, mercy takes appropriate steps. Mercy is careful, and careful not just for oneself, but for others who might be effected by your actions.

I am no giant of exploration. I am no world-class wanderer. But I enjoy the challenges and rewards that come when I listen to the call to leave my comfortable chair from time to time. And one of the things I have learned is that the human ego can cloud judgment along the entire spectrum of experience. We can forget that we are communing with a living, breathing, cold—and sometimes cruel—world that can turn on us in an instant. I like to go into those times of communion with an innocent and merciful state of mind that reminds me of my limits, that speaks to the possible dangers with clarity, that reminds me to pack an extra thing or two (a bit of extra rope, perhaps), that leaves behind some way of contacting me, that buckles the life-vest or sinches up the belt on my waders.

Because, like it or not, the moral imperative does not rest on nature, and its cruelty is indiscriminate. The moral imperative is on us.

Thanks to Tolkien, I look at nature in a particular way. I don't see elves or goblins. But I do see something that can become what I bring to it. If I make myself too bold, or too eager to conquer, I may find myself breakfast for a grizzly, or some other untold cruel end. I have the moral obligation—to myself, to others who might have to take risks to assist me—to keep a clear head and to know my place. And while I am at it, to also (as the scouts say) leave no trace behind, and so help preserve Lothlorien.


Daniel Brake lives in Wichita, Kansas. He is a designer and developer of digital stuff (including this website!), and a painter of pictures. When not working you might find him out on a stream or pond somewhere.

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