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Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (review)
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Reviewed by
Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, by Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans. Foreword by John Elder. Afterword by Tom Shippey. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006. xxvi, 316 pp. $35 (hardcover) ISBN 0813124182.

This book is a major new contribution to the subject of Tolkien's work in relation to the natural world and environmentalism. Whether it is a good one, however, is much less clear.

Let me start by sketching out some of the context necessary to understand and evaluate it. Much of that context comprises what is now called "green studies" or, more narrowly but increasingly, "ecocriticism." Inspired by the environmental and ecological movements, this new field in the humanities is concerned with the relationships between human culture and non-human nature in all possible respects, including the political, social, religious, aesthetic and ethical. It can thus be seen as a major new addition to the slightly earlier critical perspectives of socialism (class), feminism (gender) and post-colonialism (race).

Ecocriticism as a discipline began in the late 1980s in the U.S.A. and slightly later in the U.K. Its leading American scholars include Cheryll [End Page 238] Glotfelty, William Howarth, Karl Kroeber, and Laurence Buell; in Britain the work of Jonathan Bate has been especially influential. The principal academic organization is ASLE: the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.

Traditions of ecologically-oriented literature, of course, are much older. Major figures include William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, William Morris, Edward Thomas, and D. H. Lawrence. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau are central. And, to bring matters somewhat closer to home, in a collection edited by Laurence Coupe entitled The Green Studies Reader (2000), I argued that J.R.R. Tolkien deserves a place in such a context and company.

Turning to the volume under review, then, what is indisputably good? The authors have devised an ingenious and useful distinction between agriculture for food (the domain of Hobbits), horticulture for aesthetic beauty (that of Elves), and feraculture—from Latin ferus/fera, wild—for wilderness preservation (Ents). Also original is the application of certain concepts from the interface of ecology and literary studies: liminality, ecotones and thick margins. More generally, the thorough discussion of Christian stewardship as an environmental ethic, and especially its central role in Tolkien's thought and writings (including his lesser work) is lovingly detailed and well-supported by a good grasp of Catholic theology.

However, the central hope of the authors is to provide "a good introduction . . . to the whole environment of Middle-earth." Here there are serious problems about which readers must be warned, lest they are tempted to accept the book in such terms. To begin with, novices (who will probably form the majority of readers) are given almost no idea of just such a context as I have outlined. Further serious problems follow from the authors' three subsidiary and closely-linked positions: (1) that a Christian environmental ethic is the best one; (2) that Tolkien's attitude to nature as found in his books is fundamentally Christian; and (3) that no non-Christian work on the subject is worth discussing. I shall take these in order.

"In our view," the authors write, "the best foundation for an environmental consciousness is a Christian one identical with, or at least comparable to, Tolkien's" (26). In practice, however, "best" translates in this case as something quite different, namely "only." (Later on they aver that "Christianity is by no means the only religion that recognizes the spiritual significance of nature" [253] but this is a purely token gesture.) In a book with ambitions to join the ranks of contemporary ecocriticism (as mentioned in John Elder's Foreword), such exclusivity is unacceptable.

No one judging by this book would realize that Christian stewardship is but one of several kinds of environmental ethics, the others being very [End Page 239] different and at least equally important and influential. The reader of this review is referred to my recent introduction to the subject; suffice it to say that these authors omit any mention whatsoever of Deep Ecology or its variants (e...