The last fifteen years have seen an uptick in scholarly treatment of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. This growth in scholarly interest seems in some ways to respond to what was previously a conspicuous lack of attention paid to such a widely read and, in some circles, highly influential author—even as the privilege lent to the traditional literary canon was being slowly withdrawn. But even now, these projects tend to emerge from one of two fields: medieval studies that undertake examinations focusing on Tolkien’s use of medieval sources or genre analyses that approach his works as founding examples of the fantasy genre. That is to say, scholarship emerges from fields that already have a natural thematic overlap with Tolkien’s subject matter. With some exceptions, his works have remained generally absent from [End Page 547] broader literary discussions of the twentieth century. This de facto critical silence seems particularly curious given his works’ engagement with war and empire, as well as issues of environmentalism. There is an enticing opportunity for scholars of modern literature to step into this gap and consider Tolkien’s work in the context of the twentieth century.
In Arda Inhabited, Susan Jeffers endeavors to do just this. She seeks to “interrogate the connection between people and place” (15) in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. More broadly, however, she aspires to introduce Tolkien studies into the field of ecocriticism in order to discover “how Tolkien offers a corrective to some of the faults of ecocriticism, and how ecocriticism in turn allows Tolkien scholars to see elements they might otherwise overlook” (119). This mutually generative ambition suggests the kind of potential available through the reconsideration of authors like Tolkien who have rarely been examined through such critical lenses. By so explicitly bringing ecocritical theory to bear on The Lord of the Rings, Jeffers calls attention to potential blind spots in previous considerations of both. Moreover, she forces us to ask why such a study has not been undertaken before.
Arda Inhabited is divided into a brief introduction and four chapters, the first three of which are structured in accordance with the analytical schema that Jeffers develops throughout the book. She identifies three modes of relationship to nature in The Lord of the Rings—“power with,” “power from,” and “power over” (16–17). Jeffers associates each of these types with a relative positioning of self and other, aligning each with a position on what we might call Tolkien’s moral hierarchy. One chapter apiece is devoted to the analysis of each underlying position and an examination of various groups that she reads as enacting that particular relationship. “Power with” suggests a communal relationship between a people and their environment. Jeffers draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s model of the rhizome to describe a relationship with nature that “focuses uniquely on alliance, an alliance of equals, even, which depend upon and provide sustenance to each other” (20). It implies recognition of nature as an other, independent from oneself, whole in its own being. This model corresponds roughly to Tolkien’s so-called good groups—the elves, the ents, and (sometimes) the hobbits.
“Power from” suggests a dialectical relationship with nature wherein it is defined primarily through its relationship to the self. Nature is valued but understood primarily as a set of implications for its inhabitants. “Power from” practitioners include dwarves, as well as Gondorians and the Rohirrim—the two primary human cultures in The Lord of the Rings. “Power over” relationships are defined by the devaluation, exploitation, and implicit destruction of nature. In this model, nature becomes merely a subservient element of the Self: [End Page 548] “context is transformed into an extension of the Self and its desires” (76). Unsurprisingly, the representatives of this relationship are drawn chiefly from Tolkien’s villains—the orcs, Sauron, and Saruman.
The final chapter, “Dis-, Re-, Un-empowered,” explores the various wanderers of The Lord of the Rings—those characters who have become somehow untethered from place and therefore do not fit into Jeffers...