Just now joining us? Read Part One of this two-part series, which explores how Tolkien’s life transformed him into the environmentalist he became.

Consider the changes the world went through between J.R.R. Tolkien’s orphaning in 1904 and the publishing of “The Lord of the Rings” in 1954: Cars and combustion engines invaded life’s every nook and cranny; mechanics and scientists threw flying contraptions into the sky in order to rain destruction upon people; the tally of the dead neared one hundred million from just two global conflicts; the natural resources mined and harvested to feed this combat; the nuclear bomb.

These factors powerfully influenced Tolkien’s writing, and his characters deal with deep confusion, a sense of loss, and unsteady stakeholdership in a changing world they no longer understand.

Early in his quest to destroy The One Ring, before Frodo truly had any idea of what he had gotten himself into, Frodo asks the lady Goldberry if Tom Bombadil owned the woods they were walking through. She corrects him, saying “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves.”i

Protestors from Greenpeace called for action against nuclear testing on Alaska’s Amchitka Island, along a known fault line.
Photo Credit: naturalflow/Flickr

This, at the time, was a fairly novel idea in the context of the environment. World War I and World War II, which both inform and bookend the writing of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” marked the end of colonization as it was known to the Western world, as three dozen Asian and African states separated from the European powers and attained autonomy between 1945 and 1960. To add to this, civil rights movements for women and people of color were adding to the radically changing dynamics of power. Neighborhoods were bulldozed in the name of progress, and wars between competing ideologies were fought through proxy countries, such as Korea and Vietnam.

What was happening worldwide was a complete reimagining of ownership, power, autonomy and stewardship — a global conversation of sorts upending the structure of society all the way down to its foundations. It was easy for many of those who spoke out to understand these conflicts in stark good vs. evil frames, while the pain involved led individual members of society to deep confusion coupled with a changing sense of stakeholdership in a world they no longer understood.

The central question in many of those conflicts was that of personhood — who counts, whose rights matter and who gets to make the decision. Not only does “The Lord of the Rings” feature a collection of very different races cooperating to deliver the world from a monolithic, looming evil, but it also features themes of personhood and agency for entities not typically understood as individuals. Tolkien scholar Patrick Curry explains: The presence in Tolkien’s work of non-human agency and subjectivity is vital … these are no mere empty literary metaphors: Middle-earth is alive, as a whole and in all its parts. Tolkien thus returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive ‘resources’ started to bite only 400 years ago.ii There is, in this back-to-basics sort of way, a sense of relatively harmless nostalgia embedded throughout “The Lord of the Rings,” giving readers in the ‘60s and ‘70s an escape from the strife of their time — strife that was directly visible on a daily basis for the first time in history, due to the advent of the television and Technicolor. This nostalgia inspired longing for a return to life before strife caused by the divisive lust for resources – i.e., colonization, industrialization, the traditional Western understanding of how the world worked. Yet part of the success and allure of “The Lord of the Rings” was that it did not let readers off the hook completely; it was not pure escapism. A sense of mission and drive pervades the books, and the ways in which it was relatable to readers in the advent of counterculture movements meant that the causes Tolkien advocated for were easily transposed onto their minds, thus becoming important to them.

In Robert Hunter’s recounting of the origins of Greenpeace, “The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey,” he recounts their inaugural environmental protest effort and the journey to Amchitka to protest the nuclear test sites there:We are on our way to the dread dark land of Mordor, and Amchitka is Mount Doom … somehow we have to hurl the Ring of Power into the fire and bring down the whole kingdom of the Dark Lord.iiiTheir organization’s love for Tolkien’s work survives to this day, sometimes in the form of amusing advertisements, but it wasn’t just Greenpeace who found meaning in “The Lord of the Rings.” Many of the various counterculture movements also laid claim to the work. “What do you fear, lady?” Aragorn asks Lady Éowyn, and her response became a rallying cry for feminists. “A cage,” she responds. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall and desire.”

Some of the most prominent figureheads of the movements — that is, rock stars — integrated Tolkien into their work. The Beatles wanted to film a live action version of the books with the Fab Four as the hobbits. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Rush and Pink Floyd all wrote songs involving Tolkien mythology. The words “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf for President!” were spray-painted everywhere, printed on shirts and buttons, and shouted through loudspeakers — memes before memes were a thing.

At its core, environmentalism is a movement to rethink how the Western world traditionally uses resources. In order to be an environmentalist, one needed to be at least a little counterculture, especially in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. In spring 1968, William E. Ratliff and Charles G. Flinn attempted to illustrate the connections between “The Lord of the Rings” and counterculture, authoring an article titled “The Hobbit and the Hippie.” They summed it up perfectly: When “The Lord of the Rings” was first published over a decade ago it was best known and loved by a small English literary group (of which Professor Tolkien was a prominent member) who were and are traditionalists in manners and morals … Recently, however, the trilogy has also been enthusiastically adopted by some of the most unrestrained modern opponents of the standards agreed upon in traditional Western (and often Eastern) society.iv They continue on to later add this understanding of the work:There is the mature acceptance of the necessity of fighting the evil, even by the use of force. This is not an expectation that any particular effort of their own will finally conquer the evil, but a recognition of a present duty. This is the essence of counterculture, and of environmental work: No single person expects that they can save the world all on their own. We as a species are responsible for the planet because we are part of it, not separate from or above it. And, finally, it is the ordinary people, the hobbits, the smallest of the Free Folk, who make all the difference.