It is now possible to find a wonderful audio clip of J. R. R. Tolkien speaking in Rotterdam on a March evening, 1958, when he uttered these oft-quoted words: “I looked East and West, I looked North and South and I do not see a Sauron, but I see many descendants of Saruman!” The meaning of the phrase is more easily felt than stated for anyone who has read the Lord of the Rings books. One interpretation goes something like this: Sauron is the evil of enchantment and Saruman is the evil of disenchantment. The former is the ancient and incomprehensible magic, bending nature to its ends, whereas Saruman is less magician than industrialist, interested in cutting a road straight through nature. Peter Jackson in his film adaptations portrayed Saruman as fascist and factory boss, and this certainly captures a lot of what Tolkien is doing, even if it is done in Jackson’s typical, somewhat stultifying fashion.
But I think the distinction is best understood through a common motif in Tolkien’s works: trees. It is easy to sentimentalize Tolkien’s trees. And small wonder: trees feature heavily in his books and the man was well-known to have a fondness for him. As Tolkien scholar Stuart Lee says, “Tolkien hated the wanton destruction of trees for no reason.” So far, so good.
But there is another side to the story. Sauron is the evil of the trees to whatever degree Saruman is the evil that cuts down the trees. Saruman may use the forests of Fangorn to fuel his machines, but for much longer than that Sauron used Mirkwood to gather his strength. On the whole, there are four forests in the Lord of the Rings books and only one is unambiguously good.
This is, in passing, one of the ways in which Tolkien’s work, similar as it is to Wagner’s Ring, is much better. Wagner’s fall from grace and his villainy is quite simplistic: it is a rape of nature, it is the purity of the undomesticated wild, defiled by Alberich’s capitalism and Wotan’s complicity. The story is quite straight-forward: nature has been wronged, Siegfried and Brünhilde restore its aboriginal purity, and the story concludes. The fact that Tolkien’s greatest villain is Sauron complicates and undermines Wagner’s idealization of nature. Nature is capable of a malice and an evil on par with the dangers of industrialization. This is one of the subtle triumphs of Tolkien’s story-telling: it resists a sentimentalizing of nature which is constitutive of certain earlier flavors of romanticism.
To sentimentalize the forest must be a modern, or at least a cosmopolitan, error, where the wolves and the witches that haunt the woods in older stories can be safely forgotten alongside childhood fairy tales. But such sentimentality is not likely to be the mistake of any good student of the old forest like Tolkien. Another such student is Giambattista Vico, who makes a fascinating statement about the forest and the origin of cities which helps to clarify Tolkien’s ambivalence:
…[C]ities were called arae, altars, throughout the ancient world of the gentiles. For they must have been the first altars of the gentile nations, and the first fire lighted on them was that which served to clear the forests of trees and bring them under cultivation, and the first water was that of the perennial springs, which were necessary in order that those destined to found humanity should no longer wander in bestial vagrancy in search of water, but settle for a long time in one place and give up vagabondage.The New Science, Vico, tr. Bergin and Fisch, par. 16
To cut down and burn away the forest is the beginnings of civilization. Without a clearing, human society is not possible. It is not a coincidence that Ex. 34:13 and Deuteronomy 7:5 make it a priority that the Israelites cut down the sacred groves at the same time as they tear down the graven images. The trees have an ancient sway which tempts men to idolatry and to communion with evil. Part of subduing the earth, it would seem, is to bring a human order to, to make a garden out of, the forest. Of course I am not suggesting that all wilderness be domesticated as a part of human civilization, but rather that civilization marks its borders, and thus creates itself, by domesticating the wild.
Tolkien’s friend, the author of That Hideous Strength, may have made a slight intervention in Tolkien’s narrative: the N.I.C.E no doubt begins as a descendant of Saruman, but malgré lui it ends decidedly Sauronic. No doubt, in Tolkien’s telling, Saruman gets less and less magical, less and less demonic, as the story goes along, until he is at the end nothing but a miserly and provincial industrialist. That is one possible ending to such evil. But there is another: in cutting down all the trees and scrubbing away all the dirt of nature, we are, in essence, sweeping the house clean for seven more demons. Though this kind of modernity domesticates nature to the point of eradicating it, it does not rid itself of the supernature beneath but in fact gives it a different foothold.
John Ahern is a PhD candidate at Princeton University studying the history of Medieval music. His writings have appeared in Eidolon, First Things, and the Theopolis Institute.