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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Six: Treebeard's Lament

Comments for Teachers

Tolkien's admiration for traditional literature extended to the wild and wooded places in which those epics and sagas unfolded. Growing up on the outskirts of Birmingham, he watched in horror as furnaces and factories blighted the local landscape. Although the author resisted autobiographical interpretations of his fiction, few readers would dispute that Middle-earth evokes the green, preindustrial Europe where Beowulf, Lemminkäinen, and Tolkien’s other beloved heroes once roamed.

In Book Three of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's sadness over the destruction of nature suffuses nearly every scene. Saruman emerges in these pages not only as a warmongering deceiver but as an environmental despoiler. "There is ever a fume above that valley in these days," reports Éomer, speaking of Isengard (page 539). As Théoden approaches Saruman's domain, we learn that "iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapor steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green" (page 541).

By the end of Book Three, Saruman seems more technophile than wizard. Rather prophetically, Tolkien has him dabbling in genetic engineering, fashioning an improved breed of orc that can function in broad daylight. These Uruk-hai breach the walls of Helm's Deep with a kind of gunpowder — "a blasting fire," Aragorn calls it (page 526) — evidently concocted at Isengard. When the Ents march against Saruman, he responds with a kind of flame-thrower: "One of them . . . a very tall handsome Ent, got caught in a spray of some liquid fire and burned like a torch: a horrible sight" (page 554).

Meanwhile, through the wonderful and enigmatic character of Treebeard, Tolkien communicates his reverence for the natural world. "I am not altogether on anybody's side," says the shepherd of the forest, "because nobody is altogether on my side . . . nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays" (page 461). Treebeard's assessment of Saruman could hardly be more negative. "He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things" (page 462). The source of Treebeard's antipathy is simple: Saruman and his "foul folk" are destroying the forest. "Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot — orc-mischief that: but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc" (page 462).

Tolkien was not a primitivist, a Luddite, or an opponent of science. Indeed, in his correspondence he once described the elves as representing "the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Human Nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men" (Letter No. 181). But Tolkien did believe that progress came at a price, and he doubted that modernism could satisfy the deeper yearnings of the human heart.

While studying Unit Six in class, students should be reading Book Four of The Lord of the Rings at home.

Unit Six Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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