Oftentimes, when we think of allegory associated with Lord of the Rings, we give it a biblical interpretation. Gandalf is Jesus, dying for his followers, and then resurrecting as a much more powerful force, in order to complete his task. He descends, like Jesus, down to the fiery depths of Khazad-Dum, and slays the great demonic force, aka the Balrog.
While this interpretation holds well, there is another, more prevailing view that holds true throughout the story: the fall of the old world. In Middle-earth everything is in decay. And a new force is rising: the force of darkness. It becomes apparent, not only through orcs and Uruks, but through a will to supplant the old world. The method: modernization.
In both the movies and books we see Isengard, the home of Saruman the White, go from forest to factory. Why: to build an army for the dark lord Sauron, who is coming to claim the world. Where trees once rested, swords and armor are being forged deep in the earth. And in the midst of this is the enemy. Their tool of destruction is steel. And flames.
And the forest pays the price. Numerous trees are cut down and burned. Tolkien is showing that in order for this new, mechanical world to prosper, it must abolish the old one completely. Contrast this with the Elves, graceful creatures who live in the wood and are now forsaking it. Their age is now over, as the new world emerges. They can no longer shepherd the earth, as they have done in ages past: they must forsake it.
The Elves are depicted as pure and immortal. And they are most associated with the forces of nature. By contrast, the villains of the story (Saruman and co., Sauron) are associated with machines. Technology exists for the sole purpose of aiding in the destruction of Middle Earth.
Tolkien’s views reflect a hard look at modern society. England’s Industrial Revolution, the culprit, had lasted from 1760 to about 1870, creating a brand new system of labor, trade, and transportation. Rural life was fast declining in the wake of urban cities and factories. With the Industrial Revolution came a new wave of hazards as well: pollutants, sewage problems, sanitation, workplace injuries, and a plethora of various diseases.
Tolkien himself was never alive for the Industrial Revolution, but he did live in time to witness its effects. He maintained a close relationship with the countryside, where he grew up. He even said that the Shire was inspired by his old home in Sarehole, Birmingham.
We can certain see Tolkien’s love of nature in the books. At times he goes into epic description of the trees, the hills, the roads, and river. In fact, there are times when the descriptions seem to go on and on forever. Obviously he is very enamored by nature, having spent so much of his life in it. In Lord of the Rings, that fondness tends to manifest in his contrast between the forces of good and forces of evil.
The Shire is a place of kindred folk, happy and spirited. But most importantly it is separated from the rest of the world. It represents the idyllic, pastoral landscape that Tolkien always envisioned, unhindered by the forces of modern man. But it doesn’t stay safe forever; modern man encroaches. At the end of Return of the King (book) we are not treated to a warm kindly greeting when the Hobbits come home, but rather a home ravaged by industry. Saruman, in retaliation for the attack on Isengard, has come to the Shire and used his remaining army to enslave the hobbits there, turning their land into a factory ground. He desolates the Shire, both with fire and steel. If you haven’t read it, just think about the vision Frodo saw in the well at Lothlorien in Fellowship. In the book that vision actually comes true.
Saruman has taken Isengard and brought it home for the Hobbits. What was once green is now gone: supplanted by smoke and steel. As a result the Hobbits must band together to fight for their ravaged land. They mount a defense, and are later successful in repelling Isengard, along with its master Saruman. He is murdered, right in Frodo’s (once Bilbo’s) burrow by his servant, Grima Wormtongue. And all is saved.
When we see nature in Tolkien’s work it is usually characterized by a sense of beauty and tranquility. The mood is one of joy: friends frolic and sing; hobbits dance in the meadows. And even the trees turn out to be living. When Merry and Pippin meet the Ents, they are taken and cared for. Nature is a place of refuge. In Rivendell Frodo repairs from his injury (not completely); in Lothlorien the fellowship is sheltered from orcs. Nature is a sanctuary.
But it is also an angry sanctuary: one that protects itself. No part of the books more clearly illustrates this than the Ents’ march on
Washington Isengard. Here Tolkien goes from an avid lover to a militant environmentalist, so to speak. The trees fight back after having their woods burned down by Saruman’s armies. They destroy Isengard by breaching the dam, letting nature take its course. The river floods into every orc hole, washing away their machines. And the forest triumphs.
Tolkien was opposed to modernization. He liked things simple, the way they are. Rather than driving, he preferred bikes. Rather than English masses, he preferred good ol’ traditional Latin (and even vocalized his dissent, during one service). To him the world of the country was a much more beautiful, fascinating place than the world of the city. It was a place, like the elf-wood, that flourished with memory. It was ageless, as old as the world itself. And by listening, you could learn more from it.
But nature, to Tolkien, was also a force under siege. It had to sustain itself against changing times and practices. Isengard represented those changing times. It was the wheel, the furnace: new, elaborate forces driving against the old. It was Sauron’s villainy returned to life.