Paper Proposal: ‘Fighting the Long Defeat’: Humanity, Nature, and Time 

This aim of this paper is to explore the ways in which J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings reflects common views of nature found in the literature of the Middle Ages, and how these views, though often negative, contain the seeds of a positive and healthier relationship to nature and the environment, seeds which Tolkien himself made flourish. Scholars such as Clark, Wasserman, Martin, and Low have observed tendencies in medieval literature to see nature as hostile to humans, and culture and civilization as small, brief islands of comfort and stability in the midst of change and harsh extremes. This perspective is seen in the Anglo-Saxon elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” as well as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. Similarly, Tolkien depicts societies such as Lothlórien, Gondor, and Rohan as in decline and ultimately helpless before the march of time and change. Even the beauty and greatness that remain of these places in the novel’s present are only shadows of their former glory, and despite victory over Mordor at the end of Rings, there is a lingering sense that, like Camelot or Geatland after Beowulf’s death, these societies cannot and will not last. From this awareness of human impermanence, both medieval poetry and Tolkien depict nature as suffering alongside us, expressing emotion on humans’ behalf through natural descriptions. I will argue that elements of medieval literature that are nascent in these views have, in Tolkien’s writing, developed into hope, awe, growth, catharsis, and consolation in the face of nature’s inherent entropy. And finally, relying heavily on scholars like Niiler and Brawley, this paper will address the dualistic view inherent in medieval thought between nature and humanity, and explore how Tolkien, principally through Galadriel’s gift to Samwise of soil from Lothlórien, tacitly breaks down this dualism itself, suggesting that human culture and human attempts to reshape the world we live in — if done with respect, care, and admiration for nature — are no less a part of nature than the dams of beavers, the hives of bees, or the warrens of rabbits.

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