The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

“A Mind of Metal and Wheels”: Technology, Instrumental Reason, and Industrialization in The Lord of the Rings

Doron Darnov

In this paper, I consider The Lord of the Rings in terms of an environmental text in order to understand how Tolkien’s legendarium gives rise to a critique of modernity’s fascination with industrial progress that necessarily threatens nature. More specifically, I focus on how Tolkien presents the concept of evil in terms of an instrumental approach towards ecology that seeks to instrumentalize the environment by appropriating it towards the establishment of a military-industrial complex. Thus, I also analyze Tolkien’s works in relation to the historical development of a critique of “instrumental reason” in which objects (in this case, primarily the environment) are viewed as valuable not because they are intrinsically worthwhile but because they can be controlled, manipulated, and set towards the domination of other objects and even people (by being used as a source of military power). It is this question of instrumentalization and how it relates to the environment which forms the bulk of my analysis; first, I consider how Tolkien’s character of Saruman illustrates a cycle of instrumentalization and appropriation in which an instrumental approach to science begets an instrumental domination of the environment which finally enables the violent domination of human beings. Second, I turn towards the character of Sauron in order to see how the application of instrumental power over the environment also calls for an even more direct application of instrumental power over humans, which materializes through the institution of slavery and forced labor. Third, I leave the domain of the The Lord of the Rings itself in order to examine how The Silmarillion forms a final challenge to how we think about the distinction between instrumental and artistic value as the character Melkor breeds his army of orcs through the biogenetic manipulation of elves. Lastly, I conclude that if there is any remaining hope for countering the kind of instrumental mentality which makes our society resemble Tolkien’s villains, then our best chance of accessing it may be to think about the kinds of environmental messages which Tolkien and others present through art and literature and how this message can “re-enchant” the world we live in.

I. Introduction

After beginning The Lord of the Rings, one of the very first things we learn about hobbits is that “they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools” (Tolkien 1). For the hobbits of the Shire—along with many other races and characters that dwell in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth—natural ecology is imbued with an inherent sense of pastoral and environmental value. In their rejection of complex machines and preference towards simple tools to cultivate the earth and sustain their agrarian lifestyle, hobbits reflect a willingness to respect this natural quality by not abusing or over-exhausting their environment. This respect is largely derived from the fact that hobbits do not equate the value of nature with its utility; for them, well treated land does not just represent their livelihood and way of life, it is also “their favorite haunt”—the land itself carries an aesthetic and sentimental quality. As far as hobbits are concerned, the value of nature is not derived through commodification but through a sense of nostalgic agrarianism and environmentalism that comes with living harmoniously alongside and within nature.

Yet, not all creatures in Middle-Earth share this sense of environmental respect. For example, Saruman and Sauron, Tolkien’s primary antagonists, view the natural world as an object, which can be used to fuel the flame of military industry. To these characters, nature is only valuable insofar as it can be used and exploited in their quest for power and domination. Additionally, at the heart of this conflict between nature and industrialization lies the concept and physical reality of technological progress and instrumental reason. As Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans write, “Tolkien clearly associates Saruman with great harm to the environment and, more specifically, with technological progress that comes at the expense of life, nature, and the earth” (200). Though specifically directed at Saruman, this idea is also equally applicable to Sauron. Technology does not only equip us with the proper machinery to harvest the earth at new and increasingly unprecedented rates, but also provides the theoretical justification that if we refrain from doing so, we are squandering an opportunity to seize and better our future. Accordingly, technology provides the theoretical as well as literal machinery that enables us to view nature as an instrumental means rather than an independent end in itself; the industrial process allows us to replace an aesthetic or nostalgic appreciation of nature with a utilitarian vision of what the exploitation of nature makes us capable of.

Thus, in Tolkien’s work, two distinct ways of viewing and understanding the earth emerge: like hobbits, there are those who respect it for its intrinsic value, and, like Saruman and Sauron, there are those who view it as industrial fuel. In this way, Tolkien begins to align the industrial consumption of nature with a sense of evil, not only because the characters who do so are evil themselves but also because the destruction of nature is used for explicitly evil purposes, namely, to convert the wholesome and inherit goodness which Tolkien attaches to natural ecology into the oppression and domination of other beings and even the earth itself. It is this relationship between good, evil, and nature that I will continue to explore and analyze throughout this paper in order to understand how and why Tolkien uses the industrial and anti-environmental gaze of Saruman and Sauron to foster a connection between evil and instrumental reason in which the former is made manifest through the latter. To this effect, I will begin by turning to Saruman and his domain of Isengard in order to see how Tolkien represents the drive towards over-industrialization in terms of an instrumental and oppressive approach towards nature, and I will also consider how this approach anticipates an extension towards the domination of human beings. Next, I will turn my attention to Sauron’s Mordor and Tolkien’s mythological character of Melkor in order to see, first of all, how this mentality reaches its culmination in the form of total ecocide, and second of all, what happens when the ideology of instrumental reason is not restricted to the natural world, but is also applied to sentient living creatures. In doing so, I hope to illustrate just one facet of the critical significance of Tolkien’s work in a way that demonstrates why Tolkien’s message is perhaps even more important and prescient today than it was even in his own time.

Saruman and Isengard: Power over Nature

Because much of what we learn about Saruman is told to us through the ent Treebeard, it is worth spending some time examining exactly what ents are and what their place is in Middle-Earth. As Gandalf explains to King Theoden, ents are “the shepherds of the trees” (Lord 549). Ents exist to protect all growing things in Middle-Earth that cannot defend themselves.[i] Appropriately, though not quite trees themselves, the physical appearance and constitution of Ents reflects their relationship to the natural world. When Merry and Pippin first enter Fangorn Forest and meet Treebeard, who seems to be fairly physically representative of his race, Tolkien writes that

They found that they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. (Lord 463)

Among the adjectives Tolkien uses, “fourteen foot high,” “sturdy,” “green and grey bark,” “bushy,” “twiggy,” and “mossy,” stand out and cultivate a sense of ecological materiality that highlights the connection between ents and nature. Even more explicitly, instead of referring to Treebeard’s “body,” Tolkien uses the word “trunk” and therefore solidifies the idea that ents are more akin to trees than to men, or for that matter, any of the other anthropomorphic races in Middle-Earth.[ii] The depiction of Treebeard as a figure with “a tall head, and hardly any neck” also creates a sense of anatomical similarity between ents and trees, both of which lack very much external differentiation between the lower and upper “trunk.” Furthermore, Treebeard’s “large feet” with “seven toes each” suggest a symbolic resemblance to the roots of a tree, which fuses and fastens its foundation to the earth itself. It appears that ents are just as much a part of the natural ecology of Middle-Earth as the trees they are designed to protect.

There are two more ways in which Tolkien specifically aligns Treebeard (as opposed to Treebeard as a representative for all ents) to natural ecology: his age and his name. Gandalf explains to Legolas that Treebeard is “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth” (Lord 499).[iii] Treebeard is not just connected to the earth through his physical structure and appearance, but also through his age; he is almost as old as Middle-Earth itself. For this reason, the way the natural world is treated is of particular significance to Treebeard above all others, because he alone is capable of seeing how the landscape of Middle-Earth can be shaped by the aggregate impact of generations, centuries, and even millenniums of external use. Moreover, though, there is a sense in which Treebeard does not merely observe the land, but in fact is fundamentally part of the land. After Merry and Pippin ask for Treebeard’s name, he responds by telling them “Fangorn is my name according to some, Treebeard others make it. Treebeard will do” (Lord 464). Gandalf later confirms this in the aforementioned conversation with Legolas in which he states that “Treebeard is Fangorn, the guardian of the forest” (Lord 499). Treebeard is not just a part or resident of Fangorn Forest, he is Fangorn Forest, in name, essence, and purpose.

Yet, there are of course two key differences between Ents and trees: while trees are locked to the ground and lack any means of external communication—except, of course, to ents, as Treebeard further intertwines the two by briefly mentioning that ents and trees can in fact speak to each other—ents can not only move about freely, but can also voice their thoughts and opinions through speech. In this way, ents are able to use their physical mobility to defend trees, but perhaps even more importantly, as creatures that are also a part of the ecology they oversee, ents give a voice to nature. The discursive and critical significance of this voice is clearly not lost on Tolkien or his Ents; it is with good reason that we learn about Saruman’s industrialism through Treebeard: as Fangorn, Treebeard represents what our own forests and ecological victims would likely be telling us if they could speak for themselves.

As such, much of Treebeard’s message to Merry and Pippin concerns the way in which Saruman’s industrialism manifests a technological and instrumental domination of the earth. Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin that “[Saruman] is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment” (Lord 473). Here, we see an immediate relationship between “Power” and machine technology in which “growing things” are appropriated to “serve” Saruman. This relationship also expresses why Tolkien sees technological industrialization as its own kind of domination. For Saruman, as for enlightenment thinkers like Francis Bacon who first gave rise to the perception of nature as an object that can be instrumentalized, “Nature is perceived as neutral, disenchanted. Matter has no intrinsic significance. It is, therefore, open to manipulation and alteration” (Held 152). In contradistinction to Tolkien’s hobbits, nature does not hold any internal and unassailable value to Saruman’s technological “mind of metal and wheels.” Therefore, placed into this “disenchanted” state, the “manipulation and alteration” of nature comes to fruition through the instrumental reduction of nature into mere industrial fuel.

Before considering Tolkien’s work any further, I will first briefly turn to this notion of “instrumental reason,”—a term I have alluded to but not quite elucidated to this point—in order to provide a better theoretical understanding of how this concept manifests in the world of Middle-Earth. The idea of instrumental reason, though most closely associated with German Institute for Social Research, has historical roots predating the Institute itself. It was Hegel who first began to tie these roots together in his critique of enlightenment science. As David Held explains

For Hegel, the Enlightenment is marked by the dominance in the intellectual world of universal scientific consciousness. The concept of science Hegel had in mind was Francis Bacon’s, for whom scientific knowledge is potential power—the instrument or tool which can be used to master nature. Science is the key to the control of nature and (as Bacon well recognized) of human beings. (151)

The concept of instrumentalization signifies the culmination of a process in which an apprehended object (in this case, enlightenment science) is utilized as an “instrument or tool” which is pointed towards the domination of a secondary target (nature, ecology, and eventually human beings). In this way, the instrumental process operates precisely by ignoring the inherent goodness of both the medium, which is set towards domination, as well as the object, which is targeted for domination. What Hegel discerned in Bacon’s approach to science was the latter’s disregard for the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge and the potential good that can spring from it—instead, Bacon valued science because he believed it could be used to “master nature” and perhaps even human beings. Likewise, this implies that nature and human beings also lack any intrinsic value for themselves; or, at the very least, they lack enough internal value for Bacon to be concerned about the act of subjugating them. At the same time, this process of instrumental domination is particularly striking because of the way in which the instrumental value of the weapon is subsequently absorbed into its victim. In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse writes that “The science of nature…projects nature as potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organization” (153). Just as science is perceived as an instrumental object that can be used to “control nature,” nature is then viewed as “potential instrumentality” and is likewise seen as an object awaiting our “control and organization.” In the same exact way that scientific knowledge loses its intrinsic value once it is set towards external domination, so too does nature lose its intrinsic value once it is dominated by the external world. Yet, as we will see, the problem does not solely reside in the fact that science is seen as an instrument which can dominate nature—though even taken independently, this should be a compelling argument against an instrumental approach to science. It also exists in the fact that this secondary act of domination—the instrumental control of nature—leads towards a third and even more hostile act: the violent domination of human beings.

In the above paragraph, for example, Saruman’s “mind of metal and wheels” illustrates how science and the machine technology which it produces form a first instance of instrumentalization in which the value of scientific knowledge is arrived at through its ability to dominate others. In the very act of industrial deforestation—the drive to “make growing things…serve him”—the power potential of Saruman’s industrial technology reaches a point of actualization as it is exercised over the ecology of Fangorn Forest. Yet, this is not the end of the cycle. Upon receiving this violent manifestation of the power held by instrumental science, Fangorn is not simply a recipient of instrumental power, but, at the same time, an act of transposition takes place in which Fangorn itself begins to resemble the potential for yet another act of instrumentalization, precisely because the harvesting and burning of wood allows Saruman to fashion Isengard as his own military-industrial complex. In the same way that science is viewed as an “instrument or tool which can be used to master nature,” nature itself is then viewed as an “instrument or tool” which can be used to master human beings, because it provides a source of energy capable of heating furnaces to the point where weapons, armor, and other military necessities can be manufactured on an industrial scale. Even at the Council of Elrond, which takes place well before Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, Gandalf explains that while he was briefly held as Saruman’s prisoner, he “saw that, whereas it had once been green and fair, [Isengard] was now filled with pits and forges” (Lord 260). The transformation of “green and fair” into “pits and forges” represents a paradigmatic shift in which the value of nature does not stem from any inalienable property, but rather from the ability to convert nature into industrial energy.[iv] Finally, this converted energy, which is itself extracted through a process of chopping, reaping, and burning—or, in short, of domination—solidifies itself in the form of cooling iron which will later be used to wage war. Thus, as Horkheimer and Adorno write, “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it dominate wholly both it and human beings” (2). For Saruman, an instrumental perspective of knowledge that seeks to dominate nature through technological industrialization turns into an instrumental perspective of nature that seeks to dominate humanity through war and violence.

In his conversation with Merry and Pippin, Treebeard illustrates how this paradigm shift takes place by describing how Saruman attempts to learn about nature precisely because he desires to subjugate and exploit it. In Middle-Earth’s distant past, before the events of The Lord of the Rings take place, there was a time when Saruman would enter Fangorn to speak with Treebeard. Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin that “He was polite in those days, always asking my leave (at least when he met me); and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told me anything” (Lord 473). Between Saruman and Treebeard, there is an unequal exchange of knowledge that begins to suggest something unsavory about Saruman’s intentions. If Saruman believes that knowledge is valuable simply because wisdom is an intrinsically good virtue, then he should have no reservations about sharing information and thoughts with Treebeard. The fact that he refrains from doing so implies that for Saruman, knowledge is valuable insofar as it can be used to achieve some external end or purpose, and if Treebeard is to discern what this purpose is, then it will prevent Saruman from accomplishing it. Saruman wants to learn about the forest, but his unwillingness to reciprocate the favor indicates an instrumental view of knowledge in which, because knowledge is power, an uneven exchange represents a victory.

It is only after Saruman unleashes his orcs into the forest that Treebeard realizes Saruman’s true intentions. Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin that

Some time ago I began to wonder how Orcs dared to pass through my woods so freely…Only lately did I guess that Saruman was to blame, and that long ago he had been spying out all the ways, and discovering my secrets. He and his foul folk are making havoc now. Down on the borders they are felling trees – good trees. 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. There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days. (Lord 473),

Saruman was “eager to listen” to Treebeard because learning “things that he would never have found out by himself” about Fangorn allows Saruman to send his orcs through the forest unimpeded. In his desire to search out Treebeard’s “secrets” so that he can later use them for his own benefit, Saruman parallels the exact same kind of logic and ideology championed by enlightenment thinkers like Bacon, who, as we have seen, only expressed a desire to understand nature so that they would then be able to command it themselves.[v] In this way, Saruman’s instrumentalization of knowledge passes into the instrumentalization of nature; having learned everything he can from Treebeard, Saruman channels this knowledge towards bolstering his capacity to industrialize Fangorn Forest. Moreover, as we previously discussed, Saruman’s orcs “make havoc” by “felling trees” so they can bring back wood to “feed the fires of Orthanc.” This second act of instrumentalization points towards a third: the instrumental domination of nature portends a violent domination of human beings. The constant smoke of Isengard presents a continuous reminder that the bloodstained weapons of Saruman’s armies can only exist in the first place because the trees of Fangorn—“good trees,” as Treebeard says—are sent to Isengard to keep its furnaces burning. Furthermore, when Treebeard mentions that there are some trees that the orcs “just cut down and leave to rot,” he illustrates the fact that an instrumental and industrial view of nature is intrinsically oppressive precisely because it justifies unchecked, thoughtless, and violent abuse. Thus, Tolkien demonstrates how Saruman’s military-industrial process rests on a foundation of instrumental reason that not only consists of dominating nature, but also suggests how subjugation of the environment points towards the subjugation of human populations.

As an extension and protector of the natural environment that Saruman threatens, Treebeard becomes somewhat of a miner’s canary as he warns Merry and Pippin about the instrumental process which Saruman exercises and what this process foreshadows for the rest of Middle Earth. As Fangorn is itself instrumentalized, Treebeard recognizes that the apprehended and objectified victim of instrumental power is never seen as an end in itself, but is always re-appropriated and directed towards the instrumental apprehension of yet another subject. Therefore, the sense of domination and oppression which we previously ascribed to the instrumental process is twofold: there is an initial act of domination which occurs when Saruman begins deforesting and destroying the forest, and this then leads to a second instance in which the resources Saruman acquires from the forest are redirected towards manufacturing military weapons and armor that will soon be used to kill others. Saruman’s instrumental approach to nature risks far more than Fangorn Forest—though of course, this would still be a weighty loss in and of itself.

At the same time, there is still another evil power in Middle-Earth, which not only far surpasses Saruman but also affirms the importance of considering Treebeard’s message and substantiates the idea that the instrumental domination of nature is deeply connected to the instrumental domination of human beings. It is to this power that I will now turn my attention.

III. Sauron, Mordor, and Melkor: Power over the Self

In all of Tolkien’s legendarium, Sauron emerges not only as Middle-Earth’s most formidable and enduring villain, but also as Tolkien’s greatest symbolic manifestation of the very concept of evil itself. In a letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien himself describes Sauron as “a reincarnation of evil, and a thing lusting for Complete Power” (Silmarillion xvii). This emblematic relationship between Sauron and evil is also heightened by Sauron’s lack of physical form. As Dickerson and Evans write, “Sauron’s voice is never heard directly in The Lord of the Rings—nor do we see his face—which do doubt contributes to the potency of the abstract quality of evil he represents” (198). Sauron’s incorporeal existence is what makes his character as symbolically impactful as it is. However, it is precisely because Sauron is himself formless that the quality of evil he represents must be channeled through a physical and instrumental object: this of course being the ring itself. Therefore, just as Sauron represents evil in the “abstract,” so too does his ring represent the idea of instrumentalization in the abstract; what the ring expresses, above all else, is Sauron’s desire to instrumentalize evil by crafting it into its own tangible physical form. Moreover, it is important to note that Sauron’s purpose in creating the ring is also rooted in an explicit desire to control others. Before his own ring, Sauron first aids the elves in the creation of three powerful rings of their own, but these rings are only meant as bait; Sauron secretly crafts his own master ring “that contained the powers of all the others, and controlled them, so that its wearer could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them” (Silmarillion xix). Not only is the ring a literal instrument of evil, but it is also an object that exists with the inherent purpose of controlling others and making them serve its owner in the same exact instrumental fashion with which Saruman attempts to industrialize Fangorn so that it too can be bent towards his own purposes. Through the ring, Tolkien again suggests a profound connection between instrumentalization and the drive to dominate and “enslave.” However, this desire is not solely restricted to the ring itself, but is also exercised through other channels, including the same kind of environmental destruction carried out by Saruman—albeit it to an exponentially intensified extent.

Indeed, when Sam, Frodo, and Gollum arrive at the Black Gate, Tolkien’s description of Mordor—this being the first direct physical description he gives in the entire work—sustains and elevates this relationship between instrumentalized evil and ecological ruin. He writes that

…here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing—unless the Great Seas should enter in and wash it with oblivion. “I feel sick,” said Sam. Frodo did not speak (Lord 631-632).

In “defiling” the land to the point that it is “diseased beyond all healing” and so that “nothing lived, not even the rotten growths that feed on rottenness,” Sauron accomplishes what we can only describe, as Patrick Curry notes, in terms of a complete “ecocide” (66). But even worse than this, the land is not merely dead, it is “choked with ash,” covered in the “vomited…entrails” of mountains,” “fire-blasted and poison-stained,” it is an environment so deleterious as to make Sam sick and render Frodo incapable of any speech whatsoever. Additionally, as a “lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void,” the very environment of Mordor takes on a property of evil and aggression. Mordor is not just lifeless: it is also overtly hostile.

Yet, this description of Mordor also seems to pose somewhat of a riddle. In contrast to Saruman’s case, Tolkien gives few explicit details on the matter of exactly what causes this degradation; we see no pits or furnaces of the like favored by Saruman, nor any other signs of industry at all, for that matter. Although there is at least one major volcano in Mordor—Mount Doom being the hobbit’s destination—that is perhaps responsible for the ash and “fire-blasted” rock, it does not appear that this alone would be enough to account for the sense of apparent evil and malice that permeates Tolkien’s description. If it is true, as I have so far maintained, that one of Tolkien’s goals in writing The Lord of the Rings was to illustrate a relationship between industrialism and the concept of instrumental domination, then how do we see this relationship materialize in his description of Mordor when there is no evidence of actual industrial activity?

Later, after Sam and Frodo enter Mordor with the hope of finishing their quest, Tolkien provides a clue to this riddle, which suggests that Mordor is in fact a product of the same industrial mentality as Saruman’s Isengard. After the two wonder how Sauron is able to feed and sustain his armies from such a “dead…burned and choked land,” Tolkien answers through his narrator, writing that “Neither [Sam] nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain…Here in the northward regions were the mines and forges, and the musterings of long-planned war” (Lord 923). This passage tells us that if we don’t see any “mines and forges” in Mordor, this is likely because the land has been barren for so long that the maintenance of such agro-industrial infrastructure would be pointless, precisely because there is nothing left to industrialize. Consequently, we can confirm the notion that it is because Sauron and his servants have instrumentalized, mistreated, and abused the land that it has fallen to its current state “beyond all healing.” Mordor is the final stage towards which Saruman’s Isengard—and, by extension, Fangorn Forest—is gradually progressing. This passage also reaffirms the previously discussed relationship between industrial instrumentalization and military subjugation, as Sauron’s “slave-worked fields” are the location for his “musterings of long-planned war.”

Additionally, this passage as well as the one before it, which both allude to Sauron’s use of slaves, demonstrate that there is more than one type of instrumental power at work in Mordor. The concept of slavery is of central importance; earlier, I discussed how an instrumental approach to nature not only threatens large-scale military violence against humans but also portends the instrumentalization of humans: it is through slavery that this notion comes to fruition (even if, as the case may be, it is likely orcs rather than humans that are being enslaved—though Tolkien never specifies this). The rise of commercial and industrial agriculture—which is only possible through an instrumental approach to nature—produces a need to instrumentalize human beings insofar as human labor is needed to extract and exploit nature’s resources. It is because Tolkien took note of this relationship between slavery and industrial agriculture that Sauron’s institutionalization of the latter, as Dickerson and Evans write, “resembles mechanized, large-scale factory farming of the kind that has become prevalent in the modern world of agribusiness or the agricultural collectives of totalitarian regimes. It is agriculture of the most oppressive kind: that of slave labor” (191). This “mechanized” industrial process represents the historical culmination of Bacon’s instrumental vision—it is the very pinnacle of our human capacity to view the environment as a scientific object, and, in so doing, “master nature.” However, the fulfillment of this vision also relies on oppression and slavery; thus, we witness a final movement in which the instrumentalization of the scientific process, having already passed into and victimized the environment, is now firmly returned to human subjects as they are enslaved and just as ruthlessly subjugated as the land they are forced to cultivate. Just as Sauron’s ring is born out of a desire to “enslave,” this same instrumental desire is reflected in the historically tangible reality of agriculturally driven slavery. Further, this shift from nature to human carries a sense of inescapable repetition as the agrarian labour of the slave points to a systematic process in which the instrumental power which is passed from soil to slave is immediately re-sewn back into the land they are forced to work. It is no coincidence that those who dominate the land of Middle-Earth also seek the domination of all other sentient beings—both of these actions stem from one and the same mentality: the ability to see people and things as objects that lack intrinsic virtue and therefore can be instrumentalized and appropriated. Thus, through the practice of slavery, we not only see how instrumentalization, once applied to the environment, can then shift to autonomous beings, but also that Mordor’s barren and toxic state is the product of two separate modes of instrumental power which are both applied to the same subject: the natural world.

Although not directly related to Sauron himself, Tolkien’s legendarium contains an additional and even more explicit example of how scientific power can be exercised over autonomous beings in a way that instrumentally converts and disparages them. In The Silmarillion, we briefly learn about how orcs come to exist in Middle-Earth. According to the text, the elves believe that Melkor, Tolkien’s villainous mythological antecedent to Sauron, would imprison captured elves at his stronghold of Utomno, where “by slow arts of cruelty [they] were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes” (50). Founded through a quasi-scientific process of bioengineering, Tolkien’s orcs are not just products of instrumental power; they also demonstrate how this power functions through an ability to apprehend, deconstruct, and altogether redesign a subject by reducing it to a degraded “mockery” of what it once was. This is precisely what we see in Saruman’s attempt to industrialize and deforest Fangorn, in Sauron’s utter destruction of the land that is to become Mordor, and in his enforced practice of slavery itself. In all of these cases, including the example of Melkor, what we are seeing is the way in which instrumental power, above all else, is a power that seeks to convert what is naturally good into a “corrupted and enslaved” version of its former self. Thus, after beginning with a positive vision towards the ideal of scientific knowledge, environmental beauty, and an intrinsic sense of human inviolability, we finish with the appropriation of science as a tool that oversees industrial wastelands and oppressed slaves. Elves and orcs form the “bitterest foes” for the same reason that Treebeard despises Saruman. In both cases, the former of each pair is resisting its own instrumental conversion, the pressing reality of which is forced upon them in the form of the latter.

This contrast between “natural” elves and their instrumentalized orc counterparts and the significance to this distinction becomes even more explicit when we consider what elves represented to Tolkien himself. In a letter, Tolkien writes that “The elves represent…the artistic, aesthetic and purely scientific aspects of the humane nature raised to a higher level then is actually seen in men. That is: they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and…not as a material for use or as a power-platform” (Letters 236). Tolkien’s elves represent the “artistic” “and “aesthetic” beauty behind a “purely scientific” and decidedly non-instrumental approach to knowledge. Guided by this perspective, elves care for and seek to understand nature “for its own sake” and not because it can be converted towards other goals. It is precisely because elves form such an immaculate depiction of the scientific ideal that it is so noteworthy that their “bitterest foes” are a product of Melkor’s bioengineering—this very mode of creation represents the instrumental corruption of the “artistic, aesthetic and purely scientific aspects of the humane nature” which elves embody. In this way, we gain an altogether deeper and more profound understanding of what Tolkien means when he writes that Melkor creates his orcs “in mockery of the elves”—this is true not just because Melkor fashions orcs through the biological manipulation of elves, but, even more importantly, because he creates orcs by instrumentally perverting the very standards of scientific virtue that Tolkien’s elves are meant to symbolically absorb and illustrate. At the same time, while elves value scientific learning for its own sake, orcs value it because they see how it can be used to violently subjugate others. While describing orcs in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s narrator tells us, “It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them” (Hobbit 62). Just as Melkor corrupts elves by instrumentally transforming them into orcs, these very same orcs then reflect their origins by corrupting the elves’ “artistic” and “aesthetic” approach to knowledge by instrumentally applying this knowledge towards bolstering their ability to “[kill] large amounts of people at once.” In this way, orcs are not just a “mockery” of elves insofar as their very creation marks an instrumental perversion of the very values the elves symbolically represent, but also because through their actions, orcs use these values to wreak death and destruction.

Conclusion — Magic, Enchantment, and “The Real World”

Perhaps everything we have said thus far can be best summarized by Tolkien himself in his philological essay, “On Fairy-Stories.” Here, Tolkien creates a centrally significant distinction between what he refers to as “magic” and “enchantment.” He writes that

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal…it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills. (73)

For Tolkien, any object or product of expressive creation can only reach the status of “enchantment” if it is produced with the intention of artistic “purity.” In other words, “enchantment” as Tolkien understands it is what stems from our willingness to create things simply because the act of creating a “Secondary World” is valuable in itself. “Magic,” contrastingly, “is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.” Clearly, what we are seeing here is the same exact distinction that exists between artistic and instrumental value. Both “magic” and instrumental reason view the world through an inverted lens which is constantly oriented towards the outside and the future rather than the inside and the present; according to this appraisal, nature is not valuable because it is something we can enjoy for itself, but because it represents the potential for industrial power and growth. But as Tolkien understands and constantly illustrates, even internal value can be distorted and poisoned, as he notes in one of his letters, “magic” also manifests in “the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating.” Likewise, as we have already seen, instrumental reason is a power that operates through its ability to corrupt and dominate what is intrinsically good. Thus, Saruman believes in the power of knowledge, but only because he can use it to learn Treebeard’s “secrets” and, in a similar vein, Tolkien’s elves represent the potential beauty behind scientific discovery, but Melkor fashions this potential beauty into a “mockery” by bioengineering his orcs. Thus, because the subjugating and corrupting impulse that Tolkien identifies as “magic” is so closely related to the idea of instrumental power, Tolkien’s critique of the former naturally extends as a critique of the latter as well.

However, the “technique” of “magic”—or, for that matter, instrumentalization—is not solely confined to the pages of fantasy novels; it also manifests in our very own real world whenever we, like Saruman, Sauron, and Melkor, view objects and people in terms of their external power potential rather than their internal value. Our own rate of ecological consumption would no doubt put even Tolkien’s Mordor to shame; according to a 2012 report compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in the ten years leading up to the study, the earth suffered an average annual net loss of approximately 5.2 million hectares (slightly more than 20,000 square miles) of rainforest each year—scaled down, this rate is equivalent to the destruction of roughly 2.3 square miles of rainforest every hour of every day (State 9). Such figures would only be accessible to Saruman and Sauron in their most blissful dreams, and not to mention to Treebeard in his worst nightmares. If our world lacks a sense of “enchantment”—as it evidently does, or such figures would not be accessible at all whatsoever—then this is because we too, like Saruman and Sauron, have sacrificed it to the “magic” of industrial technology. But if there is any hope at all for a desperately needed re-enchantment, perhaps it lies, for more reasons than one, in a return to Tolkien’s vision of the simple, pastoral, and nostalgic (as opposed to industrial and instrumental) appreciation of “good tilled earth.” As Dickerson and Evans note,

Before any reforms can be initiated and implemented, the imagination of our culture must be reached, and this is best done through art and literature—especially through myth. In his legendarium…Tolkien provides just the sort of highly engaging work of imagination required, one that may play an important role in the transformation of contemporary culture.

If we are to re-enchant the world, then perhaps art and literature represent our best means of doing so; after all, what better road could we hope to take to the human imagination than brushstrokes on canvas or the pages of a book? As such, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stands as a supreme example of an artistic and enchanting view of the natural world—as well as a pressing reminder of what this world looks like when we forget to value it.


(i) In Tolkien’s legendarium, Ents are created by Eru—“The One”—by the request of the goddess-like character Yavanna, who is the “Giver of Fruits” and “lover of all things that grow in the earth” (Silmarillion). Yavanna is, in many ways, Tolkien’s personification of the mythological notion of “mother Earth.” She gives life to the world in the form of ecology. Yet, after recognizing the vulnerability of her creations, Yavanna petitions Eru to help protect them, and he answers this petition in the form of the Ents.

(ii) Readers familiar with Peter Jackson’s film adaptation will also recognize the physical proximity between ents and actual trees; in the second film, Merry and Pippin even initially mistake Treebeard as a tree that they attempt to climb in order to escape a pursuing orc, only to realize they are mistaken after Treebeard opens his eyes and breaks the camouflaging illusion of his “bark.” Although it appears Tolkien’s Ents are not quite as mistakably tree-like as Jackson’s, Tolkien’s representation is still just as effective.

(iii) There is some debate surrounding this question of Treebeard as the “the oldest living thing” in Middle-Earth because Tom Bombadil, a character I will discuss later, also declares himself to be the oldest. Various critics of Tolkien have noticed this contradiction, but it is ultimately unknown if Treebeard is older than Bombadil or vice versa, or if Tolkien was even aware of this contradiction himself. Regardless, as we will see, the point can be equally applied to Bombadil or Treebeard; wether consciously or unconsciously on Tolkien’s part, it is no coincidence that the two characters who vie for the position of “the oldest living thing in Middle-Earth” both have a symbolic connection to nature.

(iv) As Dickerson and Evans note, Jackson’s film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring also portrays this shift away from nature and towards industrial power. They write that “One of the most compelling images in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring is of Saruman’s transformation of Isengard from an ancient, positive symbol of the powerful and wise Númenóreans in a beautiful woodland bordering the forests of Fangorn into a seat of military power: part strip mine, part clear-cut, part factory, part military base” (194). Thus, even in the film, we still see how instrumental power is itself capable of instrumentalizing its victims.

(v) There is also yet another way in which Tolkien’s language begins to align Saruman with the specific historical figure of Francis Bacon. Though the phrase can not be located in any of Bacon’s existing works, he is often attributed as the author of the statement that nature must be “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.” Here, we see that Treebeard’s use of the word “secrets” may amount to more than simple phraseology. It may be possible for one to argue that Tolkien’s word choice carries specific intent of invoking Francis Bacon, particularly when we consider the contextual similarity within which the word is placed; Saruman, like Bacon, is also attempting to discover nature’s “secrets,” and applies this knowledge to a process of violent industrialism which Treebeard would undoubtedly identify as torture.

Works Cited

Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.

Dickerson, Matthew T., and Jonathan D. Evans. Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2006. Print.

Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: U of California, 1980. Print.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. Print.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. Del Rey Books. 1966

—-.The Hobbit. New York: Random House Group, 1982. Print.

—-. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print

—-. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.

State of the World’s Forests, 2012. By Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome: n.p., 2012. Print.

2 thoughts on ““A Mind of Metal and Wheels”: Technology, Instrumental Reason, and Industrialization in The Lord of the Rings

Comments are closed.