The Gaia Hypothesis provides helpful context when trying to fully understand and appreciate Tolkien’s themes of environmentalism and stewardship in his writings. Coined by a British scientist named James Lovelock in 1968, this theory is founded on the notion that the planet Earth is an ecosystem united by living and nonliving components alike. For this interconnected, international ecosystem to thrive, all aspects of the environment must be working together at all times. Just as living organisms require the resources of their natural surroundings to survive, the physical environment must simultaneously be protected by the living beings that reside there. While Tolkien never referenced this scientific theory specifically, the Gaia Hypothesis is exemplified in Tolkien’s writings. In a 1955 letter to one of his publishers, Tolkien stated, ‘There are of course certain things and themes that move me specifically… I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been, and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find human ill-treatment of animals.’ In saying this, Tolkien expressed the essence of the Gaia Hypothesis in his own way by suggesting that humans must always be considerate of the physical environment that sustains them. Knowing that Tolkien held the environment in such high regard is an important foundation to his published works, as his stories often suggest an underlying message of environmentalism.
Beginning with one of Tolkien’s most well-known short stories, ‘Leaf by Niggle’ showcases environmental thinking through the artistic considerations of the main character. In the story, Niggle dedicated as much of his time and attention as he possibly could to painting a magnificent tree one intricate leaf at a time. Niggle saw this project as his life’s greatest accomplishment, as the Tree was his own creation. Though Niggle desperately wanted to finish his painting, it seemed as though he could not escape the world’s interruptions and setbacks. Just as humans often make decisions that are bad for the environment because of convenience or their daily routines, Niggle was constantly placed in a compromising tension between fulfilling his everyday responsibilities and making decisions that would be beneficial to the progress of the Tree. While he was forced to choose duties such as helping his neighbor from time to time, it is clear that Niggle was still very dedicated to the Tree, as he always considered the Tree before making his decisions. In reference to Niggle’s dedication to the Tree, Tolkien wrote, ‘Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.’ This sentiment exemplifies environmental thinking in suggesting that we must advocate for nature’s survival when making everyday lifestyle choices.
Niggle’s dedication to completing the Tree is only the beginning of Tolkien’s appreciation for nature made apparent in ‘Leaf by Niggle.’ Due to a series of unfortunate events beyond his control, Niggle was unable to finish his painting before it came time for his elusive journey. However, when Niggle reached the final destination of his journey, he found his project complete, as the Tree he had worked so hard to finish had even come to life. ‘The conclusion of the story shows how simultaneously important and insignificant is Niggle’s own contribution to the Great Tree…’ Niggle’s life-long dedication and tireless, wholehearted efforts to his artistic vision are significant, for the Tree could not have been completed without Niggle’s hard work. In this, Tolkien encouraged readers in their individual lives to care for the environment with the same persistence and commitment as Niggle showed the Tree. In a different light, however, Niggle’s dedication alone was not enough to complete the Tree, conveying the message that it takes more than just a single individual for the environment to thrive. Just as suggested in the Gaia Hypothesis, Tolkien showcased the interconnectedness of the environment with the notion that it takes many different parts of the ecosystem working together for the natural world to thrive.
While ‘Leaf by Niggle’ more directly addresses issues relating to the environment, many of Tolkien’s other works take a more subtle approach to environmentalism. Tolkien’s environmental considerations extend far beyond his short stories to some of his most well-known novels, including Hobbit. The story of The Hobbit begins in the peaceful bliss of the Shire that fills the opening pages of the novel with the hobbits’ warm, pastoral environment. The hobbits who lived in the Shire were not concerned with adventures, material wealth, or riches. Rather, Bilbo Baggins and the other hobbits led simplistic lifestyles sustained by the environment. By showcasing Bilbo’s simple and eco-friendly lifestyle, Tolkien highlighted a stark contrast between the peaceful lands of the Shire and the rest of Middle Earth. While hobbits like Bilbo tended to lean more towards valuing safety for themselves, their community, and their environment, the overwhelming majority of the characters Bilbo encountered throughout the story outside of the Shire were consumed with their hunger for wealth and power.
While Tolkien’s themes of greed and materialism manifest in many ways throughout the novel, one of the earliest and most significant examples of this phenomenon appears in a character named Gollum. When Bilbo encountered Gollum, Gollum’s sole purpose in life was to protect the powerful ring he possessed. While Gollum’s life had been overtaken with an obsession with his precious ring by the time he is introduced in The Hobbit, his life had not always been this way. Before discovering the ring, Gollum was a hobbit who lived a peaceful life sustained by the environment. However, after a taste of power from the ring, the hobbit could never again be content with a simple, environmental lifestyle. After leaving the other hobbits and his peaceful home, Gollum then isolated himself forever in the vast darkness of a cave with only his precious ring. Many scholars suggest that Tolkien used this stark contrast in Gollum’s environment and character development to take a powerful stance on the destructive nature of industrialization, which in this case shines through the power of the ring. ‘When looking at the character of Gollum as a hobbit corrupted and deteriorated, we see the effects of industrialization on a being who had a deep, meaningful connection to the natural world.’ After becoming obsessed with the ring, Gollum did not have the capacity to care for himself, let alone the environment. His actions were driven solely by his selfish desires for material wealth, and this immense greed ultimately led to Gollum’s destruction. The Gaia Hypothesis suggests that each part of the environment can only thrive through healthy relationships between the living and nonliving elements of the ecosystem. Supported by this hypothesis, Tolkien presented the idea that Gollum’s extreme greed destroyed his relationships with everyone and everything around him, including the environment, his hobbit community, and ultimately himself.
While Gollum’s greed is an indirect example of the negative effects of materialism on the environment, Tolkien provided a more vivid example later in the story through the dragon Smaug. When Bilbo, Thorin, and the dwarves finally arrived at the Misty Mountain, Bilbo was tasked with entering Smaug’s cave full of gold and riches. Bilbo only stole a golden cup from the cave, but even this one measly cup missing from the mountaintop was enough to send Smaug into an extreme rage that led to the destruction of an entire ecosystem. Infuriated and seeking revenge, Smaug destroyed the entire city of Lake-town without a single regard to the environment or the people who live there. Due to an overwhelming sense of materialism across the board, this extreme destruction is followed by the violence and wrath of the Battle of the Five Armies, which is fought over Smaug’s remaining wealth. Tolkien uses this theme of destruction to show how materialism and greed can easily bring out the worst in people, driving them to evil, unthinkable acts of violence and wrath that destroy their relationships with themselves, those around them, and the environment.