J. R. R. Tolkien: Saving the Ecosystems of Middle Earth


In J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy (1955-56) the ring is at the center of an epochal ecological struggle over the fate of Middle Earth.  Received as fantasy, in its own way this tale nevertheless encapsulates nearly a century of geological, biological, and botanical lore that followed Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).  In particular, Tolkien’s work reflected the emergence of a critical ecology that used life sciences as a shield to defend life on earth and to protect every ecosystem.  Tolkien’s knowledge of nature was derived from the Victorian and Edwardian scientists who revolutionized what had earlier been called Natural History.

It seems that the ideas of Sir Arthur George Tansley (1871-1955), who popularized the term Ecology, had a substantial influence on Tolkien (1892-1973), who was his junior by 21 years.

J.R.R. Tolkien and Sir Arthur George Tansley

In 1925 Tolkien was appointed Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford University, becoming Merton Professor of English Language and Literature in 1945.  He retired in 1959 and in 1968 the Tolkiens moved to Bournemouth on the southern coast of England.  After his wife’s death, Tolkien returned to Merton College at Oxford as resident honorary fellow in March 1972 and died there in September1973 at the age of 81.

While at Oxford, he got to know Tansley.  In 1927 Arthur George Tansley was appointed Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford, from which he retired with the title of Professor Emeritus in 1937.  Tolkien participated in a standing seminar with the senior founder of the British Ecological Society, who was knighted in 1950 while serving as the first chairman of the Nature Conservancy from 1949-1953.1  Tansley died in 1955 at the age of 84.

Tansley took a prominent part in the development of plant ecology in Britain.  In 1901 he founded the New Phytologist, an influential botanical journal which he continued to edit for thirty years.  Tansley was also instrumental in founding the British Ecological Society in 1913, and edited its Journal of Ecology for many years.

He published Practical Plant Ecology in 1923.  Tansley was the founder of the concept of the Ecosystem in 1935, defined as “a distinct unit of interacting organisms and their surrounding environment” in his book Introduction to Plant Ecology.2  In 1939 he published The British Isles and Their Vegetation.

It is no coincidence that there are 64 species of wild plants in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as several invented varieties.  In a June 1955 letter to his publisher, the author said, “There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. . . .  I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.”3

In a BBC interview Tolkien spoke of his love of trees.  Trees abound in his stories — The Old Forest, Fangorn and Lothlorien.  In a letter to the Daily Telegraph of July 4, 1972, he wrote: “In all my work I take the part of trees as against all their enemies.  Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved.”  As to the England of the 1970s, “The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.”4

It has been pointed out that the flora of Middle Earth is largely that of the English Midlands.  From 1896-1900 the family of the young Tolkien found lodgings in Sarehole, at that time a village in Warwickshire.  In the biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien is quoted as saying: “To find oneself, just at the time when one’s imagination is opening out, in a quiet Warwickshire village, engenders a particular love of a central middle England countryside.”5  The handyman mill in Sarehole appears in the Shire Hobbiton, as does the name of the millwright there, Samson Gamgee.

Clyde S. Kilby says, “No book published in recent times creates a more poignant feeling for the essential quality of many outdoor experiences of flowing streams and the feel and taste of water, of light in dark places, of the coming of dawn.”6  As Patrick Curry says, “What is most striking about Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the profound presence of the natural world: geography and geology, ecologies, flora and fauna, the seasons, weather, the sky, stars and moon.  The experience of these phenomena as comprising a living and meaningful cosmos saturates his entire story.”7

Tolkien once confessed, “I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place. . . .  The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”8  There may be no contradiction when Martha Stevenson Olson says, “But in another sense, the book is nothing except an allegory for the passing away of England — all England, in every age.”9

What gives Tolkien’s readers “The experience of these phenomena as comprising a living and meaningful cosmos”10 may reflect Tansley’s influence.  The concept of Ecosystem developed from Tansley’s interest in the plant ecological community, but with the community as an analog of a physical system.  Natural systems involved “constant interchange” among their living and nonliving parts.  The German theorists called this Stoffwechsel, translated in English as Metabolism.

The last fifteen years of Tansley’s life were spent promoting nature conservation in Britain, and although Tolkien was not famous as an ecological activist, there is little doubt that he supported Tansley in these efforts.

Tansley had been a student of Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, FRS, the English translator of Ernst Haeckel (who had coined the term Ecology).  Through his father, Edwin Lankester, M.D., this Lankester had been a friend since boyhood of Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley and became very close to Karl Marx by the 1880s.  Through a combination of these influences, Lankester put together a radical ecology that was passed on to his students, including Tansley, who identified with a Fabian-style socialism.

Lankester was also a friend and admirer of the Marxian theorist, environmentalist, craftsman, and writer of medieval fantasy, William Morris, whose influence on Tolkien was very profound.  That debt is often acknowledged, but never placed in the context of Tolkien’s ecology.  Indeed, the radical roots of  scientific ecology (or scientific fantasy) are seldom revealed when cultural icons are inducted into the Halls of Fame of the conservative establishment.

But the word still seems to be slow in getting out even in this new era of animal and plant extinctions, planetary degradation, and ecological catastrophes.  As John Amodeo says: “Since the trilogy’s initial publication in 1954, many have analyzed, debated, and deconstructed Tolkien on the topics of linguistics, history, anthropology, sociology, mythology, and war, but rare is the discussion on Tolkien’s environmental commentary, though all the signs are there.  Although Tolkien, who died in 1973, vehemently discouraged using his books as an allegory for real events, he favored use of them in ways that are applicable to readers’ own thoughts and experiences.  Looking beneath the fun, the action, and the mysticism of Tolkien’s fantastic creation, landscape architects need only observe the ways in which the forces of good and evil treat Mother Earth to discover that Tolkien wove a conservationist morality tale within its pages (evident in the films as well) that resonates strongly in the society in which we practice.”11


1  John Bellamy Foster, “Re: Tolkein as Environmentalist?” Environment Technology and Society (Listserv), 18 December 2002.

2  Introduction to Plant Ecology, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1935.

3  J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter to the Houghton Mifflin Co.,” June 1955.

4  Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, p. 65.

5  Humphrey Carpenter, JRR Tolkien: the Authorised Biography,  George Allen and Unwin, London, 1977.

6  Clyde S. Kilby, “Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, ed. Mark R. Hillegas, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,1979, p. 282.

7  Patrick Curry, “Defending Middle-Earth,” in Laurence Coupe, ed., The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, London: Routledge, 2000.  Adapted by the author from Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 p. 61.

8  Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, p. 59.

9  Martha Stevenson Olson, “In Frodo’s Footsteps,” New York Times, 25 January 2004. p. 5.6

10 Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, p. 282.

11  John Amodeo, ASLA, “Hobbit Sense: What Can We Learn about Landstewardship from The Lord of the Rings?” Landscape Architecture, May 2003.

Walt Contreras Sheasby, an outstanding Red/Green activist and theorist, died on 20 August 2004.   His life was tragically cut short by the West Nile virus, the spread of which has been associated with climate change exacerbated by capitalism.   For more information on Ray Lankester and Arthur Tansley, see, also, John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Ecology in Historical Perspective,” International Socialism Journal 96 (2002). 

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