Clare Moore explores the important role of disabled characters in the ecological restoration of Middle-earth in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as presented at the Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Neurodiversity and Disability Online Symposium.
Fantasy literature has a long history of using ecological health as a representation of a kingdom or country’s social, political, or even moral health. Narnia’s winter-without-Christmas immediately comes to mind. But fantastic ecologies can also be mirrors to our own real-world landscapes – commentaries on the environmental crises that have happened, are happening, and will happen around the world. In her 2021 essay ‘Age of Disability: On living well with impaired landscapes’ for Orion magazine, Sunaura Taylor reminds us that our own ecosystems will not only trend towards death or health in the coming decades, but sometimes toward impairment or disability (16).
Taylor defines ecological disablement as “the profound alterations to the capacities and functioning of an entity or system, which limits its ability to sustain itself and others as it previously had, and which alters its productive capacities” (20). She provides a real-world example – the damage the Raytheon company caused in Tucson, Arizona, beginning in 1951 – but disabled landscapes are also common in fantastic literature, especially in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien is well-noted for his ecological themes and his anti-industrial opinions, but Taylor’s concept of disabled landscapes allows us a new interpretation for the ecological vision in Tolkien’s work, highlighting both the anti-capitalist nature of Middle-earth’s landscapes and the essential need for the involvement of disabled individuals in the healing and management of disabled lands.
Taylor uses the term ‘capitalist’ to specify the perspective that the value of something is determined by its ability to labor and produce capital (21). Tolkien’s landscapes are anti-capitalist because the perspective he expresses in Middle-earth is that the value of the natural world is found in its existence – its beauty, mystery, or even reflection of divinity – and not in its ability to produce capital. On the contrary, the manipulation of landscapes in Middle-earth to produce capital is often what impairs the land in the first place.
This kind of land abuse is most obvious in Middle-earth through Saruman’s treatment of the landscape around Isengard and later his treatment of the Shire, as he alters these landscapes to produce more and more capital. Saruman’s view of a land’s production-based purpose is not only capitalist but ableist. He values land only when he can turn it to full or even excess production. Treebeard notes this when he tells Merry and Pippin, “[Saruman] does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment” (LotR 462). He cuts down trees, dams rivers, and litters both Isen and the Shire with machines and waste in order to increase production: to build armies, fuel fires, and distribute pipe weed internationally. To Saruman, land has no value unless it can provide profit for his own personal gain.
This stands in sharp contrast to Treebeard’s view of nature, and the hobbits’ view of their own home. Treebeard’s perspective is perhaps best demonstrated through his songs: “I’ll linger here, and will not come, because my land is fair,” “I’ll linger here beneath the Sun, because my land is best,” “In the willow-meads of Tasarinan I walked in the Spring. / Ah! the sight and the smell of the Spring in Nan-tasarion! / And I said that was good” (LotR 458). He loves the natural world because it is beautiful and pleasant to him, and he places absolutely zero value on production of any kind.
The hobbits represent a different approach to nature than the Ents: they need houses to live in and mills to produce flour, but their relationship with the land thrives on moderated subsistence and not on capital gain. It is Saruman who destroys the existing mill and builds a larger one, one that pollutes the river and air and destroys much needed farmland (LotR 981). He takes more than he needs in order to increase production beyond subsistence to a profit, and this damages the land while the habitation of the hobbits had not.
The difference between the hobbits’ relationship with the land and the Ents’ perspective demonstrates that Tolkien’s work contains multiple ecological visions – ranging from John Muir’s conception of wilderness to Aldo Leopold and Wendell Barry’s ideas of restorative and responsible agriculture. Even within Entish culture, a singular vision of wild nature belongs purely to the male Ents. The Ent-wives’ ecological vision is so different that the divide causes a sundering between the Ents and Ent-wives that is never resolved. These different perspectives can seem like competing ideologies, but what Tolkien truly does in Middle-earth is make room for multiple ecological visions to exist at the same time, each a valid and necessary perspective for maintaining a right relationship with nature.
As Taylor notes, when landscapes become disabled, the perspectives of disabled individuals are critical to understanding and interacting with these landscapes (21). Frodo, who is both psychologically and physically impaired, is essential to the healing of the Shire after Saruman’s influence over the landscape. It is Frodo who first remembers Galadriel’s gift to Sam – “I wondered when you would think of it” – and encourages Sam to “use the gift to help your work and better it. And use it sparingly. There is not much here, and I expect every grain has a value’” (LotR 999). In her 2018 essay ‘Tolkien’s Gimpy Heroes,’ Victoria Wodzak notes that Tolkien’s disabled characters are often displaced by able-bodied ones as leaders (such as Merry, Pippin, and Sam’s roles in the battle for the Shire compared to Frodo’s), but Tolkien makes it clear that the perspectives of the disabled are essential and to disregard them risks dangerous consequences (115). The hobbits must fight to vanquish Saruman from the Shire, but Frodo’s perspective is crucial to the restoration that follows the battle.
At Isen, it is the Ents, disabled in a unique way as their spirits give way to tree-ish-ness, who come to the defense of the land. Gandalf, Théoden, and the others arrive later, while the Huorns turn their attention to the orcs at Helms Deep. The Ents, however, understand that the fight against Saruman not only requires an attack against a wizard and his orc army, but it also includes the restoration of an altered landscape. One of the most important actions Treebeard takes is to restore the Isen river, sending it “back into its old course” so that it can “run clean again” (LotR 557). Later, when the remaining company journeys north and homeward, they find the Isen landscape much changed. It is a garden with orchards, a stream, and a lake (LotR 956).
The participation of disabled individuals in efforts to heal the landscape is most noticeably absent at the end of the First Age when the able-bodied Valar wage war against the disabled Melkor, and the land of Beleriand is not restored but lost beneath the sea (Silmarillion 252). At the end of The Return of the King, though, Galadriel hints at the restoration of Beleriand to Treebeard when she tells him they will not meet again in Middle-earth, “nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again” (LotR 959). This refers to Tolkien’s incomplete eschatology for Arda given in the Second Prophecy of Mandos, which hinges around the participation of Túrin Turambar (Shaping of Middle-earth 197-198). Túrin’s story is unique in The Silmarillion for several reasons, one being that it contains the most concentrated representation of disability in any of Tolkien’s narratives (see Wodzak). Túrin himself is not physically disabled, but he lives through an acute social experience of disability throughout his entire life. Túrin’s fate, whether inevitable or of his own making, affects his interactions with each society he inhabits in a way that embodies the social experience of disability and stigma. This experience, primarily negative and which ends in tragedy, is what makes Túrin so essential to the Second Prophecy of Mandos and the ultimate restoration of Arda. It is only with his perspective and participation as a disabled figure that the Valar will succeed in restoring the lands of Beleriand. (For further exploration of Túrin’s disabled experience, see my article on the Journal of Tolkien Research.)
The healing and restoration of lands is a major theme in Tolkien’s work, and in fantastic literature in general, but it is easy to think about restoration in an ableist way that necessitates a need or goal to return to previous production capacities or even previous states of beauty or function. Isen and the Shire are restored from industrialized lands to places of nature, but neither goes back to the way they were before they were impaired. In some ways, they remain impaired. Ecological disablement means that landscapes are altered, oftentimes permanently, but it also means that we do not abandon lands after they are changed, or that their value is diminished in our eyes. The Ents reclaim Isen. The hobbits remain in the Shire. Both lands are still valued by the beings who inhabit them and both maintain their different ecological visions – wild nature vs. gentle agriculture. Through accommodation and care, both landscapes move forward, and only with the understanding, creativity, and adaptive thinking of disabled individuals. Some hurts can be healed. Others cannot. But in viewing these altered landscapes as disabled, we do not despair at the damage. We see a way forward in the midst of ecological crises both in fiction and in our own world.
About the Author
Clare Moore is an independent scholar in the Washington D.C. area. Her interests in Tolkien focus primarily on disability and gender, and her work has appeared in the Journal of Tolkien Research and Mallorn. She presented a paper on pain and disability in Middle-earth at the 2021 Tolkien Society Conference ‘Tolkien and Diversity’.
Taylor, Sunaura. “Age of Disability: On living well with impaired landscapes,” Orion, 40, no. 4 (2021): 14-23.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
—. The Silmarillion. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
—. The Shaping of Middle-earth. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York: Ballantine Books,1986.
Wodzak, Victoria Holtz. “Tolkien’s Gimpy Heroes,” Mythlore, 37, no. 1 (2018): 103-118.