And The World Will Fall:
Lord of the Rings as an Environmental Tragedy
"The young captain of Gondor has but to extend his hand, take the Ring for his
own and the world will fall. It is close now, so close to achieving its goal. For
Sauron will have dominion over all life on this Earth, even unto the ending of the
With the approach of the movie version of The Hobbit it is time once again
to revisit Middle-earth as the prequel to Lord of the Rings prepares to descend
into cinemas and picture houses all over the world. The movie trailer for the film
has now been released, to the enthusiastic delight of many who await the movie with
eager anticipation. It will answer the questions of many, particularly those who haven't
actually read any of the books, regarding how the ring came into the world in the
first place, as well as dealing with the Battle of Five Armies and the entry into
Written primarily as a children's book, The Hobbit explains how the One Ring
worked its way back into the world, through having been picked up by the adventurous
Bilbo Baggins. There is no real sense of the darkness and gloom to come since The
Hobbit primarily concerns itself with the personal growth of Bilbo Baggins as
he descends into the underworld of Moria and matures from a somewhat foolish and naive
inhabitant of the shire into a much more confident and courageous character. In short, The
Hobbit is a rendition of classical myth concerning the descent of the hero into
the 'underworld' and his transformation as a result. Because the movie version will
however concern itself mainly with the finding of the ring as an explanation of how
the dark power arises in middle-earth, it is perhaps quite fitting to assess the whole
saga rather in terms of a tragedy, and more specifically as an environmental tragedy
It has often been said that John Ronald Ruel Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings as
an allegory of his experiences in the trenches of the First World War and the creeping
doom of Hitler's Third Reich, however Tolkien himself denied such an interpretation.
It is far more accurate to see in the book numerous traces of Tolkien's concern for
the environment, particularly the effect of industrialisation which he witnessed as
a child in Birmingham and subsequently around Oxford. From the cosy and rustic world
of the Shire to the tearing down of Fangorn Forest and then on to the dust and darkness
of Mordor, there are numerous symbolic comparisons within the work to the process
of environmental destruction that has continued almost unabated since Tolkien first
started to write the book. Despite the criticism (by James O'Ehley and others) to
the effect that this environmental theme does not survive into the movies, I actually
believe it does. Not perhaps overwhelmingly through visual images, with the exception
perhaps of the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring and Fangorn in The Two
Towers, but instead through the overwhelming feeling, perhaps read as 'sentimentality'
by some, delivered by a creeping sense of tragedy and gloom both in the script and
in the accompanying music. This is particularly true in the second movie, The Two
Towers, and so it can be said that in some ways Lord of the Rings can be
understood to some degree as a lament, for the world that we have lost and the world
that we are still in the process of losing with seemingly hastening rapidity.
Consider the mourning of Theoden for
his son at his graveside for example, accompanied by Gandalf:
"Simbelmynë, ever has it grown on the tombs of my forebears. Now it shall cover the
grave of my son. Alas that these evil days should be mine, the young perish and the
old linger, and I should live to see the last days of my house. No parent should have
to bury their child
This scene marks the beginning of a fairly long phase within The Two Towers characterised
by themes of loss and lament which arises again just before the battle of Helms Deep,
again in the form of a speech by Theoden:
"Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed
like rain on the mountains, like wind in the meadow. The days have come down in the
west, behind the hills into shadow.... How did it come to this?"
For a while it seems that even as the enemy approaches there is still hope, represented
particularly in the form of one of the movie's central characters, the king-to-be,
Aragorn. But then he falls over a cliff dragged to the depths below by a rampaging
warg and the lament for the world is joined temporarily by a lament for Aragorn, perhaps
even for hope itself. Meanwhile, in Rivendell, the same feeling of hopelessness and
lament is shared by Elrond and his daughter as he tries to convince her that the world
is lost and that she should join the Elves flight to the Grey Havens in the west.
He tries to persuade her that even if Aragorn survives and the war is won, she will
still have to watch as Aragorn passes away leaving her utterly alone. The scene is
accompanied by the song Evenstar which really works to convey the atmosphere
of loss and lament:
"Whether by the sword or the slow decay of time, Aragorn will die. And there will
be no comfort for you. No comfort to ease the pain of his passing.
He will come to death, an image of the splendour of the kings of men in glory,
undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger
on in darkness and in doubt. As night falling winter has come without a star. Here
you will dwell, bound to your grief, under the fading trees, until all the world has
changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent....."
Even in The Return of the King the final outcome, the destruction of the ring
and the defeat of Sauron, is not immediately apparent, although of course we all know
now how it's going to turn out in the end. It is in this context that perhaps one
of the most poignant songs in the Lord of The Rings trilogy is set, although
its ending lyric perhaps hints at final victory and the sweeping away of the shadow.
The song I'm referring to is Arwen's Song which in my view is one of the best
pieces of music in the entire movie series:
"With a sigh you turn away
With a deepening heart
No more words to say
You will find that the world
Has changed forever
And the trees are now turning
From green to gold
And the sun is now fading
I wish I could hold you closer
Time and tide will sweep all away"
This song conveys an impression of autumn, of leaves falling and the death of the
old year. It speaks of memory and the passing away of fond memories and valued traditions,
and thus a hint that everything has indeed changed forever without any hope of return.
There is much of this in the book itself, particularly in the form of mournful poetry,
such as that concerning Tinuviel and the Elven hero Gil-Galad. Here is the verse spoken
by Sam remembering Gilgalad for instance:
Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.
His sword was long, his lance was keen,
his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.
But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are.
"The days have come down in the west" says Theoden as he prepares for the siege
of Helms Deep. The sense of Lord of the Rings is very much as an environmental
tragedy, but while perhaps the books themselves are not readily accessible to a mass
audience because of their length and complexity, the themes within them are in my
opinion, superbly presented through the medium of film. The movies, through music
and sheer emotion, immerse the audience in an almost spiritual exploration of arguably
very painful and heart-rending themes, while simultaneously exploring opportunities
for hope and redemption. In our physical everyday world, as we see ever greater numbers
of species passing into extinction, as we see climate change creep ever nearer, as
we see politicians increasingly reluctant to instigate the changes that must come
to pass if we are to prevent our world passing into an era of calamity, as we see
the world that our parents and grandparents loved pass irretrievably into memory,
I would argue that the days have come down not just in the west, but over the
The shadow draws closer, but this interpretation of Lord of the Rings suggests
that in order to move into the light, we have to lay our greedy desires aside and
begin to learn to feel again as human beings. We must learn to value nature and beauty
and to live our lives in a spirit of compassion for all creation, and learn to accept
our place within it instead of constantly trying to conquer nature and the world for
Nothing else will solve our environmental problems and move us forward so that we
can indeed promise a real future for our children and for future generations. This
is the message than an environmental interpretation of the movies delivers.
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