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  • The Evolution of J.R.R. Tolkien's Portrayal of Nature:Foreshadowing Anti-speciesism
  • Eleanor R. Simpson

Some recent scholarship on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien has focused on his attitudes towards the natural world. The memorable character Treebeard and the peaceful pastoral hobbit culture in the Shire are given much attention in establishing Tolkien as an eco-writer. Scholarly interest in environmental themes within his works is justified by Tolkien's declared intention to "take the part of trees as against all their enemies" (Letters 419). Tolkien's appreciation of trees permeated his writing and his daily life. He lamented the effects of industry, and proudly offered that he was "(obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees" and found "human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals" (Letters 220). Understandably, any published eco-critical readings of Tolkien's works have closely examined his depiction of trees and nature (Curry, Evans and Dickerson, Flieger). I intend to demonstrate that his pioneering connections within the natural world were not limited to vegetation. Examining Tolkien's evolution of thought regarding the natural world, from his writing of The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, will show a general pattern of progressively more complex treatment of animals, trees, and rocks. Tolkien's arrival at a multifaceted depiction of the natural world parallels the ideals of Critical Animal Theory, which seek to represent the natural world as independent and intrinsically valuable.

Critical Animal Theory is a relatively young interdisciplinary critical discourse, deeply connected to the ideals of anti-speciesism, which relies on philosophy, literature, and biology to interrogate the perceived difference between humans and animals. Critical Animal Theory has its roots in feminist theory. Feminist thinkers asserted that the major inequalities between men and women were based on social constructs more than intrinsic differences. Similarly, critical animal theorists challenge the notion of animals as "other," inherently different and less valuable than people. Anti-speciesists find human exploitation of animals to be discrimination that must be opposed and overcome by expanding our understanding of humanity to include animals.

It is important to appreciate that anti-speciesism did not exist as a codified discourse at the time Tolkien was writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. What is more, I do not intend to suggest that indication [End Page 71] of anti-speciesist thought within Tolkien's work is evidence of a political agenda. Tolkien's early engagement with what is now known as Critical Animal Theory makes clear his ability to work within fantasy to uncover political ideas before they had fully emerged.

The term speciesism was coined in 1970 by Richard Ryder, and was subsequently clearly defined in 1975 by Peter Singer as "a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species." Interestingly, Ryder and Singer were Oxford scholars, and the intellectual group called the Oxford Group was deeply involved in philosophical considerations of animal equality from the late 1960s to 1970s.

Critical Animal Theory is increasingly finding application in literary criticism with publications such as Animal & Society. I have relied on a 2005 article titled "Toward a Critical Theory of Animal Issues in Fiction" for my standards for anti-speciesist readings. According to Shapiro and Copeland, anti-speciesist fiction must do three things:

  1. 1. Deconstruct reductive, disrespectful ways of presenting nonhuman animals,

  2. 2. Evaluate the degree to which the author presents the animal "in itself," both as an experiencing individual and as [having] a species-typical way of living in the world, and

  3. 3. include an analysis of human animal relationships … and to place it in the universe of possible relationships - from the animal as forgotten resource for a consumer … to the animal as more or less equal partners in a relationship- the fruit of which is a common project, a shared world (345).

An anti-speciesist work would present non-humanoid beings as distinct and developed interactive partners with people. Thus an anti-speciesist portrayal, under the definition used here, 1) minimizes anthropomorphic characterization, 2) represents non-humanoids as characters rather than...