J.R.R. Tolkien’s View of Progress
Throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium, he displays a strong mistrust of technological advancement and progress. Generally, the forces of evil use technology to inflict pain and suffering on the free peoples of Middle Earth. Instead of responding in kind with their advancements of their own, the free peoples overcome the challenges they face through virtue and valor.
Tolkien provides an example of evil’s belief in advancement with a description of the goblins in The Hobbit, saying, “it is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world.” He continues to explain that goblins have always delighted in “wheels and engines and explosions,” and they preferred to avoid work with their hands whenever possible. Through these machines the goblins seek to dominate and control the world around them.
Tolkien reinforces the connection between evil and technological advancement with the introduction of Saruman and the machines of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. The ents attack Saruman’s stronghold at Isengard after the discovery of the destruction wrought upon the forest of Fangorn by Saruman and his orcs. In this confrontation, the ents have little trouble demolishing the machines Saruman had believed invincible. Following this destruction, Treebeard sets Saruman free with the belief that the fallen wizard had lost all power to affect the world. Saurman, however, takes his view of progress to the Shire, bringing mechanized suffering to the Hobbits. Thus, when the band of Hobbits return, their homes have been rendered unrecognizable by the strange machines that now inhabit Hobbiton. The progress and technologies introduced have served only as a means of power for Saruman. This is not only power over the Hobbits, but also an attempt to control and overwhelm nature itself.
These examples and many others throughout the legendarium illustrate Tolkien’s suspicion of progress. However, Tolkien’s warning against a disordered understanding of time and nature extends beyond a condemnation of extreme faith in progress. He also warns against extreme conservatism. In other words, Tolkien cautions against attempts to freeze time. Tolkien shows that an unnatural attempt to prevent the passage of time and natural decay present in the world is just as harmful as attempts to force progress. He labeled this hubristic resistance to time “embalming,” a sin to which his elves seemed particularly susceptible.
Throughout the legendarium, the attempts of the elves to make the temporal eternal cause great sorrow in their realms. Perhaps the best example of this perversion of the soul can be seen in the Fall of Gondolin. Turgon, the king of Gondolin, is explicitly told by Ulmo, a chief Valar, “Love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West, and cometh from the Sea.” Turgon ignores this warning from one of the protectors of Middle Earth, but instead becomes proud of his creation. He seeks to preserve the city, even though it’s time has come. He trusted in the works of his hand and sought to make them eternal. Turgon failed to realize that created things are temporal and seeking to counter this is a perversion of the natural order. It inevitably leads to the corruption of the person or the very thing they seek to preserve. As a result of Turgon’s pride, great tragedy befalls the city of Gondolin and it is utterly destroyed.
Throughout Tolkein’s Middle Earth legendarium, this “embalming” attitude takes its toll on the elves. At various points in The Lord of the Rings, the reader is introduced to two major eleven realms, Rivendell and Lothlorien. Rivendell is ruled by Elrond and Lothlorien is ruled by Galadriel. Both of these rulers preserve their realms in a state of relative stasis through possession of one of the three elven rings of power. These rings are related to the One Ring and maintain their power as long as the One remains. Although they are not corrupted by the One, their fate is wrapped in the fate of the One Ring, as it holds the doom of all the elven lands; if it is destroyed, the elves will be diminished and unable to maintain their lands. On the other hand, if Sauron regained the Ring, he would possess the power to destroy their realms. As a result of this dilemma, Galadriel expresses much the same desire as Turgon. She says, “Yet I could wish. Were it of any avail, that the One Ring had never been wrought, or had remained for ever lost.” She suggests that in some way they could have maintained their position in Middle-Earth had the One Ring never been forged. It is important to note that in opposition to Turgon, Galadriel realizes the destruction of the One Ring must come to pass and the elves must pass with time. While she is possessed of the same feelings as Turgon, she ultimately overcomes them.
Yet, the regret the elves feel at losing those things which they have built is never quite overcome. After the ring is destroyed and the great companies make for home, Celeborn expresses his sorrow of leaving Middle-earth. As he leaves Aragorn he tells him, “farewell may your doom be other than mine, and your treasure remain with you to the end.” In this statement Celeborn relates the great hardship the elves will face even when they have the will to let their works pass away with time. One grows to love that which they have worked on with their hands, and out of that love grows attachment. Even when it is the right thing, it is not easy to leave behind that which one has grown to love.
The elves represent the opposite approach to the passage of time in the world. They do not seek to accelerate and rush through life with no thought of the present. Rather, they seek to preserve that which they love, even to the detriment of themselves and the very thing they seek to preserve. This desire still leads the elves to seek an unnatural power over nature which they are not meant to possess. In seeking to preserve natural things they attempt to assert the same dominion over nature as those they oppose. Through the elves, Tolkien gives another extreme man can find himself falling into: the desire to preserve and make eternal that which is created and must pass on. Ultimately, Tolkien shows that man must find a balance between progress and conservation.
Both extreme progress and extreme conservation are an attempt by man to control that which is beyond his reach. Each represents a means by which man seeks to move beyond his own story and control the very setting in which he finds himself. Time plays an important role in the life of man and as such the relation of man to time is important. When this becomes disordered other great sorrows soon follow. In such disorder, one will either destroy that which is good in the here and now or seek to preserve that which is no longer best.
About the Author
Samuel Stone is a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.