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The Sound of Trees, the Softness of the Wind…

Quoth Gollum,

And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound  of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.

The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.

Are we the wolf, or are we the child?

Are we the wolf, or are we the child?

At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.

This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.

But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.

Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.

Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.

Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?