Book Review | The Environmental Visions of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

By Monika Hilder

Flourish magazine, Winter 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien was most unhappy to realize that The Lord of the Rings had achieved cult-like status among American hippies and the drug culture. Would he be equally unhappy, or at least questioning, to learn that he is now considered an environmentalist author? Would C.S. Lewis be bemused, or even rejecting, to learn the same? (We can almost hear them chuckle, as in the movie Shadowlands, “Must be American!”)

Authors Matthew Dickerson, Jonathan Evans, and David O’Hara (all American), think not. While admitting that neither Tolkien nor Lewis were environmentalists or writers of explicit “environmental literature,” these critics insist that the writers’ mythic fantasies celebrate a strong environmental vision.

The two famous and well-loved Inkling authors, like many authors who predate ecocriticism (including Shakespeare and Milton), exhibit in their fiction an implicit concern for the natural world. And while Dickerson, Evans, and O’Hara do not wish to construe or reduce the Inkling authors’ fiction to mere vehicles for environmentalism, they argue that it is crafted out of a keen sense of what ecological well-being should look like. In that sense the mythic stories prove once again that their secondary worlds are in fact about the only world we can know—ours—and that their fictions mirror the human condition.

Bringing Christians’ favorite fantasy writers into ecological discourse
In ents, elves, and eriador and Narnia and the Fields of Arbol, Matthew Dickerson, with Jonathan Evans and David O’Hara, respectively, investigates the prophetic contributions of Tolkien and Lewis to environmental discourse. Instead of co-opting the Inkling fiction for the discourse, these critics consider the ways

C.S. Lewis’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s literature has a very clear, unambiguous ecological message: nurture the earth in community, or continue in unhealthy, unsustainable practice to our peril.

in which the mythic fiction of these authors illustrates an ecological thinking that arises out of their Christian worldview. They assert that the transcendent Christian vision of a created—and therefore meaningful—cosmos inspires Tolkien and Lewis’s “green” vision. The Christian belief in a Creator (and Sustainer and Redeemer) of the world is at the heart of these authors’ passion for nature, the subtle differences of Lewis’s Anglican Platonism and Tolkien’s Catholic Aristotelianism notwithstanding. The critics emphasize that Christian faith is obviously not a prerequisite for ecological sensibility and at the same time show how this faith informed the authors’ shared vision.

A claim made in ents could be said of both volumes: The “goal is to elucidate [their] vision, not to reduce that vision to a set of environmental principles or Christian doctrines.” These works of fantasy are “not . . . ecological tracts,” nor religious tracts, as Tolkien and Lewis’s joint protests over the question of allegory attest to. Nor are these scholars’ two volumes “tracts.” But there is a difference between these volumes and much academic work to date.

Dickerson, Evans, and O’Hara seek to do much more than engage academic reflection as a guilty pleasure that does not demand social impact. In widely accessible prose, and in keeping with Terry Eagleton’s argument—referenced in the forward to ents by John Elder—that we have arrived at a time in history where criticism must “speak directly to the larger challenges of social transformation,” these studies are intended to “motivate and inform our practices” towards a healthier ecological response. Out of the ivory tower and into the actual world, or, from the pens of visionary writers of literary fantasy to environmental application, these critics fly in the face of the now somewhat dated idea that literature should not be thought of as having a message. Others say, indeed it should, does, and always has had. Arguably, it has been said throughout Western, and perhaps global, history that the highest aim of literature is to educate for moral virtue. Although the term “moral imagination” does not appear in these volumes, the authors affirm this quest. “What is the moral of the story?” they boldly ask.

It is also an interesting and telling fact that the three critics represent an array of academic disciplines: environmental studies and computer science (Dickerson), philosophy and classical Greek (O’Hara), English and Medieval studies (Evans). Whereas the discipline of literature itself has suffered from an absence of ethical discourse for several decades—though some voices have pointed to literature precisely for its power to educate for the moral imagination—the combined efforts of these critics contribute to literature studies in profound ways. One hardly wonders if this could have been achieved solely by literature scholars. Indeed, the “good ecological practice” of the “communal” effort of interdisciplinary discourse almost seems to be a requirement for academic work that is rigorous as well as applicable, and helpful to ethical studies in the discipline of literature in particular. It is a refreshing sign of a commitment to hope that these two volumes are part of a series of studies on agrarianism that the University Press of Kentucky has undertaken.

C.S. Lewis’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s literature, these scholars claim, has a very clear, unambiguous ecological message: nurture the earth in community, or continue in unhealthy, unsustainable practice to our peril. Perhaps readers of Tolkien and Lewis might be surprised by these readings, or perhaps the ideas will seem very familiar indeed. Given both the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia and the increasing global concern for healthy environmental practice, these books deserve attention.

ents, elves, and eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (2006)
As the lowercase e.e. cummings signature-style title implies, the subject of this book is the small ecological footprint of Middle-earth. Eriador is a region of Middle-earth in which earlier generations left an ecological legacy that the Shire enjoys.

One strength of this book is the discussion of “old-fashioned . . . stewardship” in chapter two. Stewardship is a contentious term in environmental discourse, “as if the main understanding of stewardship has come from Denethor rather than from Gandalf.” Dickerson and Evans emphasize that this proper sort of ecological leadership is not optional, as even the etymology indicates, but they mention that custodianship may be a more helpful metaphor. A good leader, like Gandalf, exercises “servanthood” care for the earth and its inhabitants. Like Aragorn, a good king frees the slaves and restores the social and ecological freedom of agrarian-like farming. In Gandalf’s words, we must “do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.” Such leadership requires “taking responsibility for one’s actions,” unlike “much modern . . . blame-shifting and the adoption of a ‘victim-mentality.’” It is characterized by “vigilance, hard work, and . . . wise counsel.” Dickerson and Evans also apply this challenge to the environmental movement itself, citing the conflict between preservationists and conservationists as mirrored in the “environmental disunity” between the Ents and Entwives, respectively. All are called to ecological leadership and harmony.

Another major strength is the discussion in chapter eight of the long shadow of Mordor that extends to Saruman’s Isengard and Sharkey’s degradation of the Shire. Sauron’s farming is compared to modern agribusiness or totalitarian collectives. He is considered by Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey to be the most contemporary character whose progressive rhetoric results in a “tortured ecology” where free moral agents are enslaved by the corporate direction of capitalism (or communism).

Saruman reflects a technologist’s lust for power that results in the destruction of nature and its replacement with machinery. The third representation of Mordor, Sharkey’s damage to the Shire, is considered most important because here “[r]eaders are shown what Mordor looks like when it is no longer far away but has come into their own backyards.” Dickerson and Evans point out that Peter Jackson’s omission of this in the film version of the books is unfortunate. Indeed, we identify with hobbits most because they “are presented as normal people suddenly placed in situations that require them to be heroic.” Typically, they are slow on the uptake, but once roused to awareness they can become valiant effectors of healing change. Like all who serve Mordor, hobbits may do so through direct action or passive complicity. Had Bilbo or Frodo and his friends become selfish materialists, the doom of the Shire would have been ensured. Dickerson and Evans explore three prerequisites to counter the “desire for money, property, and power” in the rousing of Middle-earth: recognizing “that inaction results in further harm”; exchanging despair for hope; and care for the created world.

It would have been useful to point out that Tolkien, like the author of Beowulf, is writing about the pagan past in which Middle-earth, the mortal lands subject to natural laws, has no permanent happiness. Although Tolkien hints at eschatological hope, and indeed wrote that The Lord Of the Rings “is about God, and His sole right to divine honour,” the novel is characterized by a northern melancholy, articulated for example in Elrond’s words: “I have seen three ages of the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.” The evidence of hope fulfilled even in this fated world is bittersweet, and therefore perhaps all the more striking.

Dickerson and Evans attribute the flaws of their book to its limited focus on the biosphere of Middle-earth; many other facets of Tolkien’s vision remain to be explored (e.g. alpine ecology, aquatic environments). But in tandem with Shippey’s comment in the book’s afterword that Middle-earth is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings, we might concur that this book is a fine introduction to Tolkien’s environmental achievement.

Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.
In this volume, Dickerson and O’Hara explore the ecological significance of the Chronicles of Narnia, the space trilogy, and The Great Divorce. The title’s reference to “Arbol,” Old Solar for the sun, and “the fields of Arbol,” the name of our solar system, underscores Lewis’s emphasis on space as “charged with meaning,” one that “entails ethical relations among all living things.” Their discussion follows Lewis’s work with the “dis-enchantment and de-sanctification” of nature, which leads to the exploitative position of philosophical materialism, to an imaginative Christian re-enchantment and re-sanctification that leads to ecological care and renewal.

In addition to the detailed textual exploration of ecological themes, including an insightful comparison with Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the authors’ discussion of Lewis’s relation to philosophical and related theological views is particularly welcome. While Lewis is sometimes accused of dualism, Dickerson and O’Hara explain that Lewis’s medieval Platonism, not to be confused with Gnosticism, “doesn’t so much devalue the physical world in favor of a separate spiritual realm as it sees the spiritual permeating the physical.” As Lewis summarized in Mere Christianity, “[God] likes matter. He invented it.”

The authors’ reference of philosopher Peter Kreeft’s helpful discussion of Cartesian dualism adds to this feature of the book. And while the Christian belief in heaven is sometimes construed as an excuse for ecological irresponsibility, Dickerson and O’Hara point out that in Lewis’s view materialists might fare even worse on this point out of despair or narcissism, whereas theists have strong reason to be ecological because this world is the sacred shadow of heaven. Also, nature, “a good creature corrupted,” will, in Lewis’s words, “be cured,” mysteriously perfected in the greater reality of the new heaven and the new earth.

Chapter seven, on That Hideous Strength, offers a rigorous discussion of the scientism of the N.I.C.E., complete with contemporary parallels: Francis Crick with James Watson’s 1971 suggestion of forced sterilization and selective breeding; Ray Kurzweil’s “spiritual machines” and related ideas of virtual experience. The exploration of the “ecological sanity” of St. Anne’s community offers a compelling hope in the face of such anti-human, anti-material aspirations.

Dickerson and O’Hara usefully refer to the distinctions between magia, related to Merlin’s access to “the power of enchanted nature,” and goeteia, which channels spirits for the purpose of “exploitation, oppression, and domination.” Here the erroneous binary, pagan/Christian, a confusing and contentious issue, could be developed somewhat further. Lewis’s view of mythic truth in paganism is distinctive. In addition to his essay, “Myth Became Fact,” in which he speaks of Christianity as the historical fulfillment of pagan mythology, in “De Descriptione Temporumhe states, “[i]t might be rather fun” if we could relapse into paganism, for example, “to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall,” but that this cannot happen because post-Christian Europe is “cut off . . . doubly from the Pagan past.” Dickerson and O’Hara might have more deeply explored the idea that enchanted paganism has a closer affinity with Christendom than materialism has.

Still, this book is a shrewd and vital contribution to Lewis scholarship.

Continuing the conversation
It is a sign of a good book that you want it to do even more than it can. Likewise, it is futile to say what these

How do environmental virtues such as community and humility affect us in the spheres in which we find ourselves?

particular books could yet have done. In the ecological spirit of community then, which would not only conserve paper but also empower future work, I suggest that Dickerson, Evans, and O’Hara’s books invite further discourse. For one, it would be useful to explore the false binary of technology/ecology. It is all too easy to respond to the environmental dilemma with quick rhetoric of good and evil. As Jacques Ellul has pointed out in The Technological Society, any human method, from weeding a garden bed to creating a machine, involves a technique, a technology. The better question, always, is to ask to what extent one’s technology is healing or destructive. Granted, fuller discussion of this binary goes beyond the scope of ents, elves, and eriador and Narnia and the Fields of Arbol, though it is perhaps implied in chapter 10 of ents: “Technology, Skill, and the Habit of Hard Work.”

It will also continue to be important to what extent Tolkien and Lewis’s ecological vision is a metaphor for all of human existence. After all, these authors are in love with a passing world that bears signposts of eternal joy to come. The reason they care so much about this world is precisely because they are so heavenly minded. The business of this life in all the nitty-gritty details of domestic, pedagogical, artistic, economic, political, ecological, and religious domains (often falsely separated) is so vital because it is the business of heaven. So, when we next bemoan a high density housing development that replaces a favorite bit of wilderness or a generous older estate, it is challenging to hear C.S. Lewis’s response to A.C. Harwood’s similar complaint: “‘But if you could see not the houses, but the souls of the people in them, it might look very different.’” After all, The Great Divorce depicts hellishness as the desire to “live” further and further apart from other souls. To what extent is opposition to density housing a fear of community and shared resources? To what extent does it conceal the desire for bigger-is-better when smaller-is-enough-and-more-ecological? Such questions could temper the tendency to anti-human attitudes in environmental thinking.

Additionally, how do environmental virtues such as community and humility affect us in the spheres in which we find ourselves? It is all too easy to despair that the apparent little we can do has no effect on the suffering planet. But, as these critics underscore, Tolkien and Lewis choose hope instead of despair. The challenge to each of us is given in Gandalf’s admonishment to the Captains of the West, also cited in ents: “Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

How does the ethos of care affect the fields we know: how we speak, write, teach, garden; create art; design and run machinery; raise children; practice business, medicine, law, architecture, or politics? The struggle to address these questions may help curb the arrogant tendency that our best ecological technologies alone will save us.

Finally, it would be useful to continue to explore the erroneous binary of pagan/Christian, to the extent to which Tolkien and Lewis regarded this to be false, and to the extent to which many others agree and disagree. This is an enormous and much needed task that these three critics have already undertaken in these and previous books (such as From Homer to Harry Potter). More discussion is needed.

In short, these two volumes are timely contributions to environmental and fantasy literature studies. The fact that they are well researched, respectful of all voices, and beautifully written suggests that the deeply meaningful conversation will continue.


Monika B. Hilder is Associate Professor of English at Trinity Western University. She specializes in children’s literature and fantasy literature and has published on C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, L.M. Montgomery, and literature as ethical imagination.





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