Feast of St Nicodemus the Righteous of Mt Athos
NATURE, and its beauty, figure prominently in the works of Tolkien. Middle-Earth is a land of striking beauty, a land of vast woods, rolling meads, mighty rivers, and soaring mountains. Yet in Middle-Earth, at its best (and worst), Nature is never simply Nature. It is Nature changed by its inhabitants, and it exists in relation to some ‘personal’ being.
This is perhaps most evident in Lothlorien, where the power of the White Lady has fashioned an elven paradise. There we see the natural world luminous and beautiful; corruption is curbed, time is slowed, and natural beauty is raised to a sublimity that surpasses the experience of mortal men. Yet we find it also in the deserted wastes of Hollin where Legolas hears the stones sing: “Deep they delved us, fair they fashioned us, high they builded us, but they are gone.” It sounds almost like a lament; the Elves are missed, and the stones now lie without purpose. We find it present too in the ancient woods of Fangorn Forest where there reside caretakers of a sort: the Ents. And while what they do with the forest is quite different than what man, or even elf, would do, they still do something, even if it is simply watching over the woods as the shepherds of the trees.
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It is as if Nature is the raw material that calls forth an act of will by some intelligent being, and is incomplete until this comes to pass. Consequently, there is a danger that in the absence of a benevolent will another may step in. The Old Forest is the last remnant of a once mighty and ancient wood, and like Fangorn, it seems to embody a sense of primordial Nature, sometimes wholly unconcerned with man, and at other times hostile or malevolent. It is moved by a dark will that is both a part of it and yet also apart from it: Old Man Willow. It was under his influence that the hobbits, as they walked through the wood, found palpable the tree’s malice toward all that went on two feet.
Whereas Fangorn has the Ents, the Old Forest has Tom Bombadil. He is undoubtedly the most enigmatic character in all the lore and legends of Middle-Earth. Whatever else he is, he is the ‘Master’. At least that is how Goldberry described him. He is both a principle of order and control and a power of benevolence, albeit one wholly carefree and unconcerned about the things outside his little realm. Still, the order he imposes upon Nature is one extrinsic to it. Goldberry herself seems to be representative of the Springtime of Nature, of its birth, of its vernal beauty, and of its simple and pure innocence. But, interestingly, Tom also had to master her as he did the rest of the Wood.
Elsewhere we also find Nature under the sway of an evil will, but one vastly more potent than Old Man Willow, even if not necessarily of greater malevolence. In the case of Southern Mirkwood, the trees under the influence of Dol Guldur are black and twisted, and vie with one another, each striving to choke its neighbor. In the Morgul Vale, under the shadow of the fortress of the Ringwraiths, Nature still produces her flowers. But only in mockery, for they are flowers misshapen, “like the demented forms in an uneasy dream,” giving forth a reeking charnel-smell. Beyond this vale lay Gorgoroth, a lifeless desert where nothing can grow. Here Nature, ravaged, reflects most completely the dark malice and destroying will of its tormenting master.
The modern desire to leave Nature free and untainted by man is certainly not the emphasis in Tolkien’s works. We see something different. For in Middle-Earth, Nature and the natural world are to reflect, in some way, the rational world. Sometimes this falls out for the better, sometimes for the worse. But Nature needs reason, and it is man’s task to bring something extrinsic into the natural world, a kind of ordering principle—neither exploitation on the one hand nor non-interference on the other. Rather, Nature herself is to become a kind of medium for man’s artistic impulse. For Nature was not made for herself but for something other. Such a vision calls for a stewardship by man, but arguably one of a different kind than that proposed by the modern environmentalist trends.
Father Benedict Armitage is a member of the Monastic Brotherhood of St. Silouan and an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church. He presently serves as the headmaster of Christ the Savior Academy, an Orthodox Christian classical school in Wichita, Kansas.