When you live in a house full of J.R.R. Tolkien fans, it wasn’t unusual to hear one of the kids scream from the basement “Don’t touch my precious!” It was confirmation that my three children were playing yet another Lord of the Rings role-playing game and the battle for Middle-earth was underway. With the debut of the epic series The Rings of Power, I found myself standing around the coffee station talking to a group of workmates about our connection to Tolkien’s magical storytelling. We all had our own unique perspective on what makes his writing special, but we agreed he is among the best when it comes to world-building. In fact, Tolkien is credited with helping to create the fantasy genre as we know it. For some working in the field of conservation and environmental education, Tolkien is more than just the author of one of the most read fictional series of all time. It’s his emphasis on nature and respect for the planet that resonates with many of us.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, like many epic narratives, features a strong sense of good and evil. Saruman, who cuts down trees and rips open the earth to build his army for world domination, is one of the story’s main antagonists. As for Mordor, it’s a wasteland of decay and destruction. The power and hope to mitigate this darkness was found in the Elves, the Ents and, of course, the Hobbits. Academics argue these characters represent Tolkien’s deeply held belief that we should honour our connection to the planet. The Elves were stewards of the forest. The Hobbits burrowed into the earth to build their homes and were fiercely protective of their beloved Shire. It’s widely reported Tolkien abhorred England’s industrial growth in the early 19-hundreds. He was quoted as saying; “The tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare is the modern attempt to enhance our control over the world around us, regardless of the consequences.” Saruman is described by the author as a wizard with a mind for metal and wheels who doesn’t care for growing things, except as they served him in the moment. Mordor is well-known for representing what Tolkien viewed as the black engines of machinery and factories.
It would be easy to talk about these themes with young readers. I wish I made the point of connecting the dots for my kids about Tolkien’s powerful environmental message. I had an invested audience! They already loved the story so there was an opportunity to simply point out a few examples of Tolkien’s worldview. While hiking in my local forest, when the light breaks through the canopy in a certain way, it can remind me of Fangorn Forest. Or at least how I picture this magical place where the Ents live. This would be another great opportunity to share observations out loud with the kids. Making real world connections with a favourite book can be incredibly meaningful when parents share their love of a story with something in their surroundings.
As for Tolkien’s enduring environmental message; with his recent surge in popularity, there’s a chance a whole new generation will connect with his vision and remind us all that “the precious” can be planet Earth.