Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Comparison Between Tolkien and Donaldson on the Significance of Nature

In this post I will be comparing the authors Stephen Donaldson and J.R.R. Tolkien on the significance of nature which is reflected in each of their works.

One may actually consider the significance of the natural world which Donaldson illustrates as a redeeming quality compared to the other not-so-favorable aspects of the Thomas Covenant series. This significance is not necessarily as a result from the depth and development of his world-building (since in my opinion the world-building was not that great), but rather from the role which nature does play in the lives of the different races from the Land. For example, the people of Mithil Stonedown symbolize a close bond between people and the earth, they also show appreciation and respect in recognition of its gifts and their dependence on it. The first book of the trilogy introduces substances such as hurtloam, a mud produced by the earth which is a powerful healer. As Lena explains in her first meeting with Covenant, “[t]here is power in the earth – power and life,” and also that like “hurtloam, such powers and mysteries, are in all the earth –but we are blind to them because we do not share enough, with the Land and with each other” (55). This passage shows that there is considerably more power in the earth than people are aware of, but that we are not receptive or are not knowledgeable of it. Further examples of the powers of the earth can be found in aliantha a “treasure-berry” which grows nearly everywhere and which has nutrients that can provide as a staple food to sustain life. Lena explains that many human beings in the Land depend on this essential fruit to remain in abundance. Another example supporting the significance of nature is that the lives of the people of the Mithil Stonedown depend on the strength of their relationship with rocks, the “lore of stone” or rhadhamearl as it is referred to. Their knowledge of rocks gives them the ability of many different uses, so they are dependent upon maintaining that knowledge to support their lives. To further show the significance of nature in their lives, Trell explains that “[i]t is the custom of [their] people to stand before eating, as a sign of our respect for the earth, from which life and food and power come” (74). For the people of Mithil Stonedown, “there is power…in trees and rivers and soil and stone” (75). Like the lore of the stone, Trell also explains that there is lore of the wood, or lillianrill, but that the knowledge became lost to them.

Tolkien uses nature in a different way in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien depicts the significance of nature through the role of the Ents in the story, having a voice and a reaction against forces causing harm. For example, after Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin his distaste for the orcs and Saruman because they are destroying trees, he decides to join Merry and Pippin to Isengard since they share the same enemy. Treebeard explains that “[Saruman] and his foul folk are making havoc now. Down on the borders they are felling trees – good trees” that are “hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc” (76). He recognizes that Saruman is advancing his own plot at the expense of the trees which he supposedly held some sort of alliance with, and so decides to join Pippin in Merry in their journey to stop Isengard. This chapter depicts the significance of nature in the way that Pippin and Merry. For Treebeard, “[m]any of those trees were [his] friends, creatures [he] had known since nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now…It must stop!’” (76). This could be viewed as a response from the natural world to destroy. Tolkien is portraying the Ents as the significant voice for nature, recognizing the goodness in Merry and Pippin and joining an effort to resist a common evil.

A way in which both of the works can be viewed as similar is through the detail used to illustrate the world. Tolkien’s close attention to the setting of Middle-Earth is characterized by long details of many types of scenery. What some readers may consider unnecessary or dull reading may be interpreted as an expression of Tolkien’s own appreciation of the natural world and his efforts to bring to life his vast conception of Middle-Earth. If we understand The Lord of the Rings as a story being told, then the seemingly extra details of the natural world can be understood as ways to enhance the story-telling. Although I am unfamiliar as to what his true intention is with this heavy detail, so I can only speculate at this point. In comparison, it is true that Donaldson does show the significance of nature through attention to detail at certain parts, but in contrast to Tolkien his writing seems less passionate, using more mechanical descriptions with English degree words inserted here and there. I do give credit to Donaldson for making the effort towards showing the significance of nature, but I do not think it reflects best through his detailing and description of the natural world. As mentioned in the previous section, Donaldson depicts the significance of nature more effectively through the man/nature relationship which is illustrated throughout the series.

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