How Tolkien’s Work Evokes the Tragedy of Environmental Refugees


Environmental exile is a major phenomenon of our time which, at the time of presenting the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, remains outside the scope of this one.

To understand this hot topic, take a step back and wear The distant gaze that fiction allows with the work of JRR Tolkien. “Fiction” may not be the appropriate term because following the author of the
Hobbit and
Lord of the Rings, we would live in the extension of the world of which he described the first three ages. We would then be tempted to look for lessons there, except to consider, with Paul Valéry, that
history does not teach rigorously nothing because it gives examples of everything.

Omnipresent exoduses and diasporas

Born in the Orange Free State, left as a child, an orphan early, a soldier in the Great War from which he emerged as a herald of the fraternity, professor of medieval literature at Oxford, the Briton was a humanist writer and a great lover trees, an ecological conscience
in the vein of William Morris.

VIDEO : Ten unusual facts about JRR Tolkien (France TV Arts, 2019)

He built a pararecit of the world (Eä), a “historicizing” cosmogony inspired by Greek and Nordic mythologies as well as from the Bible, in the “Laurasian” scheme
underlined by the philologist EJ Michael Witzel, from the creation of the world by a higher being (Eru “the One” or Ilúvatar “Father of all”) to its end for a humanity doomed to decline.

Exodus and diasporas you are omnipresent.

Beyond a biographical explanation, it should be noted that Tolkien also took an academic interest in this theme through The old English exodus, commented translation of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, medieval variation of the mosaic story.

Both the divine spirits and the peoples of the Earth

For Tolkien, migrations concern both the divine spirits (Ainur become Valar) and the peoples of the Earth (Arda) and result from various causes – including environmental ones – following events narrated in The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth which, according to our subject, can be repeated in a succession of catastrophes:

  • the departure of the Valar for the immortal land of Aman after the destruction by the most gifted of them, Melkor the Dark enemy of the world, of the two lamps which lit Middle-earth, causing the disappearance of their island of Almaren;
  • the cursed exodus of an elven tribe of Aman in Middle-earth led by Fëanor, corrupted by Melkor after the death, due to the latter, of the trees of light from which Fëanor drew the Silmarils, precious stones containing the fate of Arda;
  • a series of clashes between the Elves, the Dwarves and the Humans against the camp of Evil led by Morgoth (Melkor), until the intervention of the Valar during the Great Battle which wounded Arda so much that it changed its face ;
  • the tale of the fall of the island kingdom of Númenor, lost by the pride of its last king led by Sauron, the right-hand man of Morgoth, to attack the Valar for immortality, resulting in the submersion of the island by Ilúvatar which changed also the shape of the world become round, putting out of reach the immortal lands still accessible to the Elves by the “straight way”;
  • the foundation, by the survivors of the engulfment – known as “the Exiles” – of human kingdoms (including Gondor) in Middle-earth, where Sauron will be struck down before returning to the Third Age, that of the Dwarves driven out of their mountain by the dragon Smaug (another environmental scourge) and the War of the Ring preceding “historical times”.

Facing disasters

In Tolkien’s eschatological perspective, Elves and Humans (on) live “from one catastrophe to the next” in The time of the end where the absence of a future has already started, and even After the end of the world, deprived of essential order to link them.

The response to acosmism may be withdrawal from the world, for the Elves navigating the “Straight Path”, or staying in Middle-earth, adopting a stoic type wisdom which orders them to adapt their life, their ways of thinking and even their feelings to an outcome whose beginnings are already evident. Humans, with rare exceptions (Aragorn raised among the Elves), do not comply with a similarly adjusted ethics.

Viggo Mortensen plays the character of Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings © New Line Cinema / Wingnut Films / Metropolitan Filmexport

The work syncretic of the Catholic Tolkien explains these environmental catastrophes and their effects by Evil, understood as the choice of another path (and voice for Creation by the music of the Ainur) than that of the Father of All, in
Ipride to replace it.

Evil is embodied by Melkor, a fallen angel, a devil in the etymological sense of “separator”, who hijacks, divides and destroys what he cannot create. He will not be driven out of the world after the Great Battle without having sown in the hearts of the Elves and Humans an ineradicable darkness. He is assisted by Sauron, a perverted Maiar (second-rank Valar), great corruptor, in particular the mage Saruman who will transform his tree-lined domain of Isengard into a “factory” of Evil.

If the responsibility of the exiles remains questionable, their guilt is not pronounced (by an intention to kill the trees or to bless Arda for example), nevertheless the hearts blackened, like the industry in the anthropocene, appears as a cause of the upheaval of the world while being only a short time in its accelerating history.

Likewise, their efforts to emancipate themselves from powers, like us from nature, ironically end withCollapse, a return to the supremacy of these (or of Gaïa to resume the
concept by Bruno Latour), the main actors in the history of Eä when the peoples of the Earth are reduced to a second negative role.

VIDEO : Gandalf saving the men of Gondor, in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (Pure Cine / Youtube, 2019)

The pangs of nostalgia

The fate of Tolkien’s exiles is to suffer from nostalgia, a topos that he works after other demiurges, from Homer and Virgil to Proust and Zweig.

It is a return to the origins, a desired return to the balance of the early days for the children of Il̼vatar (Humans and Elves), even a quest for an unknown country (Aman for men), and becomes a collective unconscious Рlet us quote for example the association made by Faramir, the Steward of Gondor during the War of the Ring, of a mountain of darkness erected like a wave to the submersion of N̼menor occurred in the preceding age, of which he confides that he dreams often.

At the origin of place, nostalgia extended to designate regret for time, its effect acting where we have known the joys of existence. as evoked by Kant about the Swiss taken homesick, from which they healed by the disappointment of returning, not being able to find their youth there. Or,
according to Jankélévitchas time goes on, we cannot bridge the gap between what can no longer have been and the unsatisfactory present.

For the environmental exiles, “there is no way back”, as Tolkien writes for the Elves in search of Lake Cuiviénen, the place that disappeared from their awakening. Their nostalgia is incurable, reinforced by what remains, an echo like water falling on the rocks where this lake once stood.

However, she adds to regret “an ornate and languid suffering, which envelops itself in aesthetics and carries it”, as Patrick Dandrey explains ; This is evidenced by the architecture of the Elvish cities facing Aman or copying the capital of a long time ago and the presence in those, human, of a white tree that returns, from age to age, to the splendor of those of the earliest times. Even the Valar see in their home in Valinor the memory of Almaren.

More broadly, nostalgia is the cement of identities and the salt of Tolkian cultures, leading to respect for religious nature. Thus, before having their meal, the men of Gondor observe a moment of silence while turning towards the west, in direction of what was Númenor and which will always be the Country of the Elves. And Faramir to ask the Hobbits if they don’t have a similar custom. “No”, answers Frodo, feeling strangely boorish… And us with him?

This analysis was written by Jérôme Medelli, State administrator at the Ministry of Ecology, professor at Sciences Po and at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.
The original article was published on the website of
The conversation.


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