Deep in Tolkien’s darkest woods

Peter Hegarty

Trees and forests are the leitmotivs in a collection of elegant, informed essays each of which explores JRR Tolkien’s extensive imaginarium from a different perspective.  As Tolkie, whose work was permeated by the culture of early medieval England, was perhaps the mostly widely read Catholic author of recent times this book, though academic in its approach, will be of the greatest interest to a very wide audience. 

The various writers identify the wide range of influences on Tolkien’s work. Some passages in The Lord of the Rings owe much to the Divine Comedy for instance, while the Oedipus myth shaped others. When he described the party-tree in Bilbo Baggins’ Shire Tolkien may have been thinking of the great oak in the Basque town of Guernica.

That Tolkien’s work continues to attract close critical and scholarly attention reflects the scale of his achievement: he not only created a world but also gave it a history, a topography, languages; he populated Middle Earth with fearsome and fantastic creatures. But this greatest achievement was to give his fictional world verisimilitude. He did so by taking everyday things, such as trees, and endowing them with new abilities.

In Middle Earth trees provide food and shelter but they can also feel, move and conspire. Forests are places of refinement, elevated conversation, and transformation. Cities, on the other hand – this may reflect Tolkien’s distrust of modernity and technology – are often brooding, backward, and threatening.

Middle-Earth is diverse in its landscapes, peoples and landscapes. This heterogeneous world reflects the depth of its creator’s erudition and imagination but possibly also his political views: Tolkien detested all empires, and imperial projects, believing that they imposed uniformity upon diversity.

As several essays remind us, Tolkien’s work is essentially elegiac. Even the great woods are but survivors of vast long-forgotten forests.  The ruins that abound in Middle Earth are reminders of distant greatness, of heroes and their deeds.


The notion of civilizations in decay recurs throughout Tolkien’s work, and may derive from his fascination with the Goths – he was given to declaiming the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic – a once vigorous race which disappeared from history in the early middle ages.

In his description of the Shire, Tolkien harks back to the rural Warwickshire of his childhood. The design of the buildings in the Shire, and the materials employed in them, draw on the philosophy of the proto-environmentalist Arts and Crafts movement, which thrived in the brutally industrialised England of the late 19th Century.

Middle Earth is a lament for an idealised, pre-industrial England. It was the creation of a man at odds with the 20th Century, a writer who sought respite from what sociologist Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment’ of the modern world.

But in his final years Tolkien also seems to have become disenchanted with his created world. In his last writings he strove to provide a rational explanation for his lifelong love of imaginative writing.  As one author notes, “the mystical strain in his nature had faded”.