The wisdom of Tolkien in our present age

by Paulette Zimmerman


View Author Profile

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy suggests the World War II era, with references to the Nazgûl — "the Dark Riders" — and to the new Ring of Power now in human hands in the nuclear age. The trilogy ends with the passing of the Third Age of Middle-Earth and the loss of much that is beautiful. Tolkien's wisdom may be applicable to our present reality, a time not so different in kind or in scope.

"My friends, do not lose heart . . . please [do] not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because the fact is that we were made for these times." (Clarissa Pinkola Estés)

What are "these times"? A period in which fear or anger has gripped many in the United States? A time when common values and a big vision, without which "the people shall perish," no longer guide us? In fact, our time is part of a broader reality that extends beyond national boundaries. We are at the closing of a geological and biological age: we are at the end of the Cenozoic Era, the time of the greatest flourishing of life-forms on Earth, and in the time of the sixth mass extinction, of the withering of Earth's ecosystems and species.

It is doubtful that we feel "made for these times." We may well wish that we had been born at another time, one more settled and secure. J.R.R. Tolkien addresses a similar situation in his Lord of the Rings trilogy as one age of Middle-Earth was passing to another and the Shadow was growing out of Mordor, the devastated land of the evil Dark Lord. Like the hobbit Frodo, who wished that this had not happened in his time, we may wish that such challenges were not happening in ours. But as the good wizard Gandalf counsels, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." We may surely feel inadequate and powerless to stop the large forces evident in corporations and government and may question, as Frodo does, why we are chosen. The voice of wisdom embodied in Gandalf speaks to us as well, "You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have."

Although Tolkien could not have foreseen all the ramifications and results of our human choices within the industrial and technological revolution, he rightly identifies an underlying attitude when the wise old Ent, a Tree-person, says of the evil wizard Saruman, "He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment." The documentary "Before the Flood" gives many examples of this attitude of disregard for the community of life on Earth. The narrator Leonardo DiCaprio compares the sight and smell of the Alberta tar sands, with its contaminated water, deforested landscape, and polluted habitat to Mordor. Such rape of the planet is a major contributing cause for the extinction of species and the loss of their wisdom and beauty. The Ent Treebeard laments the ruthless destruction of trees he knew: "Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now."

Of course, such devastation is immense and may seem far removed from our complicity or ability to remedy. Like the hobbits of the Shire, most of us seem just ordinary, well-meaning, middle-class citizens, concerned with home and children, hoping for more and better material goods and experiences. We do so without guile or ill-will but perhaps also with little awareness. It seems unfathomable that we have responsibility for much of our planetary crisis, and yet we buy products containing palm oil from plantations that destroy rainforest habitat for at least hundreds of our plant and animal kin. Air travel has become commonplace even for the middle-class, so commercial aviation, if it were a country, would rank seventh in the world in carbon emissions. Many now have a second home, taking more than our share of habitat from our fellow creatures. Many restaurants still use Styrofoam cups and containers, as well as plastic straws, accounting for 25 billion Styrofoam cups and 175 billion straws thrown away annually. Since there is no such place as "away," at least 20 percent ends up in landfills, waterways, and the ocean, harming and even killing sea turtles and other marine creatures.

So here we are. But again, like the hobbits of the Shire, we are surrounded by myriad groups of our fellow humans who are passionate and persevering in protecting Earth and her life-forms, both human and other-than-human. In Blessed Unrest, as long ago as 2007, Paul Hawken shows that far more than a million organizations are working toward social and environmental justice. In the original "Awakening the Dreamer" symposium, the names of these organizations crawl up the screen in "Star Wars" style. In a voiceover, Hawken says: "To give you a sense of how big this movement is: If I start this tape today at 9 a.m., and we watch this all day and all night, and the day after that, until a week passed, and then for three more weeks, and then a month after that, we still would not have seen the names of all the groups in the world. It's the largest social movement in the history of humankind, by far."

Our present planetary moment beckons us, challenges us, to a paradigm shift in our view of reality and to a new consciousness that calls for a vision of the human as part of the larger Earth community. We are the ones who can give birth to a new age; each of us has a part to play and a contribution to make. Our role is that of Gandalf, who says, "But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task . . . if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come."

Perhaps we are made for these times, and we are "the ones we have been waiting for."

[Paulette Zimmerman is a School Sister of Notre Dame. After 35 years teaching English in formal education, she ministered as a Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation coordinator within the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She presently tutors ELL students in a local elementary school and continues her ecological work in various ways.]