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Art Versus the Machine: What Tolkien Might Say to Extinction Rebellion

By Mark Clavier

There aren’t too many times in my life that I can point to and say, “There was a before and after” — moments that changed my life completely. I’ve written often of one such life-changing moment: a long walk in the Blue Ridge Mountains that awoke in me a deep delight that led me eventually to Britain, a doctorate, and my love for the outdoors. But there was another moment much earlier in my life that’s the foundation for much that I am today.

I can still picture the occasion well. My father and I were sitting together on a two-seat sofa in our formal living room in Florida. He opened a battered paperback copy of a book I’d never heard of and began to read the first chapter, “A Long-Expected Party.” It was, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. You’d have to hear my father read stories to really appreciate this scene. He can spellbind people with his reading like few others I’ve heard. He’d have done better financially in life as an audio book reader than as a bishop.

Between Tolkien’s wonderful writing and my father’s evocative reading, I was absolutely captivated as I met Bilbo, Frodo, Sam (who remains my foremost literary hero), Gandalf, and the wonderful Hobbits of the Shire. They at once became my dearest friends and Middle Earth a world in which I longed to live and explore. It was so utterly unlike the suburban Florida where we then lived.

But when my father finished reading the chapter, he closed the book and said, “If you want to find out how it ends, you’ll have to read it yourself.”

I was about ten at the time: an age when enough residual magic from our earlier lives remains to play with the first awakenings of our understanding of our world. The Lord of the Rings stirred in me something inexplicable, a yearning for another world at once older and more wonderful than our own. At long last, my overactive imagination had found something that satisfied it deeply. I was never the same again.

Afterwards, I read everything I could by Tolkien, hoping to find again that old companionship I’d enjoyed among the fellowship of the Ring. It was this that took me later in life to The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter. There, I came across Letter 131, which was an unsuccessful book proposal his new book about Hobbits that Tolkien penned in 1951. It made a deep and lasting impression on me.

It’s a sprawling and elaborate proposal full of insights for anyone interested in the arcana of Middle Earth. The section that struck me comes in the middle of the letter when Tolkien describes his theory of “sub-creation”, which was his description for our capacity to be creative within God’s creation but more specifically to fashion our own new worlds through myths and fantasy. He believed this urge to sub-create to be one of the ways we bear the image of our Creator. But, Tolkien explains in the letter, it’s subject to corruption:

This desire [to sub-create] is at once wedded to a passionate love for the real primary world, and hence is filled with the sense of mortality, and yet is unsatisfied with it. It has various opportunities of “Fall”. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as “its own”, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his own private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator — especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective — and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

Any reader of The Lord of the Rings will think at once of Saruman the White, the grand but deeply twisted wizard, who’s corrupted by power and corrupts the world around him with machines. He tears down the trees of Fangorn Forest to feed the fires for engineering his army. He uses diabolical means to create his own species of inhuman creatures, the fighting Uruk-hai, and he longs to bend the power of the ring to his own devices. Even after he’s defeated and humiliated, he pops up again in the Shire, transforming its idealized English scenery into the dark, satanic mills that Tolkien knew from his own day. The Machine is, in short, the human will bent against the Creator and his creation. And its end is the destruction both of the natural world (unless it rises up in protest like the Ents) and of the self. The Machine, corruption, and ugliness are inextricably intertwined.

Tolkien goes on to discuss another form of sub-creation epitomised by the Elves. He writes:

The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The “Elves” are “immortal”, at least as far as the world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always “naturally” concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others – speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans – is a recurrent motive.

In The Lord of the Rings, Art is portrayed by the realms of Rivendell and Lothlòrien, where music, artistry, craftsmanship abound. They’re beautiful beyond words and are marked by a lightness that the grumpy Dwarves either dismiss as frivolity or else fear. Tolkien is teaching our imaginations to perceive what sub-creation freed from fear and death looks like: a nuptial openness to the natural world that fosters and sustains life even in the face of evil. Art and beauty are inextricably intertwined. So, too, I would add, are wisdom and lore. The Art of the Elves is akin to the woodlands in which they live: growing out of, yet ever remaining part of, the ancient landscapes that sustain it.

Tolkien famously despised allegory (he says as much earlier in the letter). Yet, fundamentally The Lord of the Rings is an allegorical portrayal — I’m tempted to say a parable — of the world as Tolkien understood it, standing as he did amidst the destruction of modern industry and after the wreckage of warfare. Tolkien keenly felt that our world is caught in the grip of Saruman or, perhaps better, is a world set on mass-producing Sarumans. Like Saruman’s world, our world’s thirst for power quickly exhausts creation, reducing its beauty to ugliness. Tolkien so deeply yearned, as it were,for the Elves to return from the West, for us to abandon Saruman and  relearn from the Elves the Art of sub-creation: a way of living creatively and fruitfully alongside and within creation.

Tolkien’s attitude towards his contemporary world was expressed even more forcefully in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” delivered at St. Andrews in 1939 at the threshold of World War 2:

Not long ago — incredible though it may seem — I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he “welcomed” the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into “contact with real life.” He may have meant that the way men were living and working in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not.

Tolkien had watched the Machine begin to conquer even his beloved Oxford as its dreamy spires became crowded and soot-stained alongside the factories run by robots in Cowley and the automobiles that roared down Oxford’s ancient streets. Again, we see that this will to power set against nature results in ugliness and corruption. Tolkien later contends:

“The rawness and ugliness of modern European life” — that real life whose contact we should welcome — “is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment.” The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real.

For Tolkien, man-made ugliness is a kind of debased sacrament: an outward and visible sign that our sub-creating has soured and that mortality and fear have poisoned what should be good and beautiful.

Like his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien loathed industry, modernism, and what he believed was a thoroughly debased relationship between society and nature. His environmentalism sprang from his Catholic faith, was fertilized by his imaginative and scholarly engagement with Germanic and Celtic folklore, and confirmed by his experience of the early to mid-20th century. The lessons he offers for our own debates about the climate and pollution are clear and worth considering.

But I think Tolkien also offers vital lessons for those who participate in or are sympathetic towards the civil disobedience and environmental activism of the Extinction Rebellion movement. I think these lessons can be best expressed as a warning and encouragement.

The warning is that the protesters shouldn’t give way to fear and a concern about mortality. As he wrote in his letter, the Machine, or the desire for domination, can grow from good roots: “to benefit the world and others.” Modernity itself is arguably a prime example of this—many of the most destructive forces today arose from a desire to provide for the burgeoning populations of 19th-century Europe. As counter-intuitive as it may seem given the consequences of inaction, our movements to oppose and even dismantle the Machine mustn’t yield to fear or even a concern for our mortality. That will only corrupt our aims and eventually seduce us into resisting our so-called enemies as Saruman sought to resist Sauron: through a contest of corrupting wills. Even environmentalism in its anger can become the Machine and yield to a fallen desire for domination for the good of others. That way lies only division and violence.

And so, Tolkien’s encouragement: we should collectively embrace Art, a generous and sympathetic way of living within creation. I’m increasingly convinced that this entails, among many other things, re-establishing and strengthening roots with both nature and historical wisdom. This requires a fostering of a sub-creation that seeks to participate in the fecundity of the Creator and his creation. Like a good husbandman, it also seeks to sustain and prosper the roots that connect us—to each other, to the world, to our ancestors, and to God.

Those who care deeply about the fate of the planet would do worse than to take Tolkien’s Elves as their model, building communities marked by artistry, craftsmanship, husbandry, wisdom, and delight. This will involve equal parts remembering, stability, humility, and self-denial. But in so embracing Art, such communities could become beacons of true human flourishing, undiminished by fear and morbidity and capable of defying the Machine as Frodo and Sam did Sauron: through good, honest Hobbit sense.

And what if these communities of Art were also the Church? What a means for proclaiming the gospel we would have then.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales



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