Lord of the Rings is not known for its subtle layers of moral complexity. There is no flicker of doubt regarding Sauron’s evil plans or the innate goodness of hobbits. JRR Tolkien was consistent in his use of clear moral coding both with characters and with world building which is particularly clear in the contrasting forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien. It is a view of nature that is either wholly malevolent or wholly benevolent. There is a power in Tolkien’s forest that moves a reader to either fear or awe and occasionally a bit of fearful awe. The forests of the real world are not accompanied by such clear moral coding but is often able to provoke very similar emotions when one is immersed in them. The nature of the real world is indifferent to people, beautiful without the implication of virtue and dangerous without necessarily being out to get you.
There is never any doubt to what kind of forest the Fellowship is wandering into. Mirkwood is dark, looming and with an overgrown path while Lothlorien is more open, with light streaming in. When good or bad things happen in these forests it is unsurprising because the world building of those forests is clear and decisive. While it may be lacking in nuance the world of Middle Earth is perfect for the story that is being set out within it. Every element of the forests leads the reader back into the good vs evil, all encompassing plot. It isn’t about building realism it is about building the appropriate backdrop for the story. Tolkien’s preference is to give a sense of a deep world through the people that inhabit these places and many of the lasting impressions on a reader from Mirkwood and Lothlorien are of the very different elves that inhabit it. However, the artificiality of Tolkien’s forests is made especially clear when you step into a real-world forest. I just came back from a four-day canoe trip through Temagami provincial park and was struck by how different the forests of the real world are.
There is not immediate sense of context when you get to a put in spot for backcountry camping. But by the time you get through the first portage there is a sense of just how big the world is and how easy it would be to get lost in it. It isn’t that nature is out to hinder (or help) you, it utterly uncaring of whether the trip goes well or not. A successful canoe trip relies on good planning, packing, and execution – relying on luck or some natural helping hand is not going to end well. That isn’t to say that there isn’t signs of conflict, it just doesn’t show up in the easily interpreted was that Middle Earth offers. Instead there are laminated signs on trees reserving sites under the Aboriginal Hunting Rights Act which remind me that I am not camping in some empty, history less wilderness, I am on land that has been long inhabited by First Nations people and since first contact has been kept from them by the settler colonial culture that I am a part of. This is a kind of conflict that isn’t going to be solved by a cut and dry quest but it adds depth to the landscape that you move through.
All of these elements give the nature that I moved through while camping a kind of depth that is absent in the forest that Tolkien presents. Far from being disappointing though I think that the less contrived beauty of the real world is able to give a far more meaningful experience. There is so much history in the land, and a not insignificant possibility of danger, but none of it because there is actually any force in the forest that has a conscious will (or at least not in my belief system there isn’t). I wrote a paper on the Kantian sublime last semester for a class and while the enjoyment of a forest without moral coding is not perfectly explained by that model of the sublime, Burke’s sublime is much more in line with my experience. He posited that the experience of something powerful, dangerous and entirely outside of human control could be an intense but positive experience. This is the understanding of the natural world that was at the heart of the romantic movement of poetry and art but it also the one that I find is easiest to interpret in one’s own life.
The forests of Middle Earth and the peoples that JRR Tolkien filled them with are an icon of the fantasy genre. It is a testament to how good world building can feed into a masterwork plot that leans heavily on a stark good vs evil dichotomy. After a canoe trip through a backcountry forest in Canada however the artificiality of Tolkien’s world is obvious. The shear indifference of natural forests is able to convey danger and power without the kind of blatant moral coding that is at the heart of how Tolkien presented the natural world of Middle Earth. In the case of Canadian forests there is the added depth that is brought by even a superficial understanding of the importance places like Temagami have for First Nations peoples and the ongoing struggle for access to that land. Fantasy books aren’t supposed to be exactly like the real world, but sometimes it is easy to forget that nature can be impressive all on its own.
Curious about the notion of the sublime? Check out my earlier post about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar: