This is the last in a series of literary and theological reflections on the nature of the wilderness in Scripture and everyday experience. The previous installments–an introduction, thoughts on Grimms‘ fairy tales, and a few more on Beowulf–though helpful, are not essential before reading this piece.
Few authors have portrayed both City and Wilderness environments as vividly or expansively as J.R.R. Tolkien does in his legendarium of Middle Earth. A cultivator and culture-maker himself, Tolkien brings us so close to the life and spirit of his environments that one cannot help but love them, lament their fall and decay, and wish fervently for their redemption and renewal. Perhaps, too, in Tolkien more than in the other works examined up till now, the relationship between City and Wilderness matches best the thematic movement and relationships exemplified in the Scriptures.
Now, where to begin? Ah yes, concerning hobbits…or rather, the home of the hobbits. The Shire is a small, green country in the Northwest of Middle Earth. Rather like a network of rural neighborhoods, the Shire is a little too agrarian and too loosely connected to be considered a proper city, but by now that shouldn’t be a problem for us. If we let the familiar concepts of cultivation, dominion, and community direct our thinking, the Shire is a perfect example of what I have been calling “City.” It is a well-cultivated locale where the furry-footed green thumbs exercise a healthy dominion over the earth and manage to coax from it all manner of produce. The Shire is misunderstood by some to be a kind of hippie environmentalist paradise where its residents can live in nature, free from the influences of civilization (and relishing their pipe weed). That kind of reading is simplistic at best, sinister at worst.
The neighborhoods of the Shire, while lacking tall towers, the military fortifications of a fortress-city, and the smoky furnace works of an industrial town, is far from undeveloped or uncultivated. Frankly, the Shire is very much an Edenic environment. The earth does not simply do what it will; the hobbits till the earth and manage the multitude of growing things. Although the tiny Halflings do live underground, they are not living off the land and sleeping under bushes; homes are designed and carved out of the earth like they might be anywhere else. There is also a very clear distinction between where the Shire ends and where the wilder country beyond begins. Frodo and company learn from the Dunedain Rangers that the Shire is only kept safe and isolated from the dangers of The Wild by the ceaseless efforts of unseen guardians. The lands surrounding the Shire are dark and deadly and, in comparison, the Shire is not a wilderness by any stretch of the imagination.
Also bordering the Shire is the Old Forest, an ancient forest as old as Middle Earth itself. Like many of Tolkien’s forests, the Old Forest is a kind of living entity with its own will, temperament, and moral character. This particular forest has grown pretty nasty and antagonistic toward anyone or anything representing civilization. In time forgotten the Hobbits erected a large hedge between the Shire and the forest, only to have the trees press against it and actually begin to tear it down. As the Wilderness personified, the Old Forest has been making war against all Halfling efforts at cultivation and dominion. “You won’t have any luck in the Old Forest,” warns Fatty Bolger when Frodo talks of traveling through it, “No one ever has luck in there. You’ll get lost….I’m more afraid of the Old Forest than anything I know about: the stories about it are a nightmare” (FotR 118). It is a wood of wandering, like Dante’s, but unlike that selva oscura, this one really is actively and maliciously out to get folks. Out of desperation, the Hobbits enter the forest and immediately feel the ill will of the Wilderness bent toward them. Finally they are drawn to the heart of the forest and attacked by Old Man Willow. The Shire is city enough, by all accounts, and a good city too. However, when the Nazgul come for them, the city is no longer safe for Frodo and company, and they must seek their deliverance in the wilderness. Exiles, the Hobbits have been driven into the Wilderness and they are perishing there, but they meet someone they did not expect.
When things look bleakest for the Hobbits, a funny little man in a big hat and yellow boots comes skipping to the rescue. Who and what he is are best communicated in his own words:
Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are the stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
Hop along, my little friends, up the Withywindle!
Tom’s going on ahead candles for to kindle.
Down west sinks the Sun: soon you will be groping.
When the night-shadows fall, then the door will open,
Out of the window-panes light will twinkle yellow.
Fear no alder black! Heed no hoary willow!
Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you.
Hey now! merry dol! We’ll be waiting for you! (FotR 130-132)
With a word, Bombadil rebukes Old Man Willow and subdues him. When Tom is around, the Hobbits need “fear no alder black,” nor “heed no hoary willow.” Frodo and his friends have met an Adam whose dominion over nature is manifest even in the sound of his voice. Tom’s wife, Goldberry, tells them simply, “He is. He is the Master of wood, water, and hill” (FotR 135). His house is at the edge of the Old Forest, standing in stark contrast to it. There are animals, gardens, a beautiful female helper—this miniature Eden, with yellow light twinkling out of the window, is like a bright beacon on a hill to the Hobbits who emerge from the dark wood just before nightfall. Tom’s very existence emphasizes the antithesis between Eden-City and Wilderness. And yet, his rescue from the wild still came to the Hobbits in the wild.
As bad as the Old Forest had become, Tolkien loved trees and would never place the bulk of the blame upon the forest itself. Anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see will hear and see, again and again, Tolkien trying to show his readers that as bad as wilderness is, no forest is created evil. It is implied within The Lord of the Rings that The Old Forest was scarred by ancient wars between Elves and Melkor, Sauron’s predecessor and one of the Satanic figures of Tolkien’s mythology. Mirkwood, home to Legolas and the Green Elves, receives a similar treatment. Originally known as “Greenwood,” Mirkwood took its new name when Sauron took up residence in his fortress there. Before the time of The Hobbit, while he was still disguised as the Necromancer, Sauron came secretly to the Greenwood, and with him came a number of unnatural blights. The water in the forest turned poisonous, an unnatural darkness settled over the canopy of trees, and an infestation of giant spiders developed, to the point that the Green elves who once subdued and lived peacefully within the wood were forced to recede into a corner of the forest small enough for them to control and defend by sheer numbers. When the dark lord Sauron came to the forest and it became the Mirkwood, the elves lost much of their natural influence over it. The presence of evil is what made the Greenwood into a mirk wood; evil creates Wilderness.
Evil does not just make a wilderness of the natural world, either. As we have seen, Garden and City are intimately connected through Eden and Tolkien shows us that evil, given the right opportunity, is just as capable of reducing a thriving city to wilderness. Consider the city of Minas Tirith. Built as a watch-city to keep the forces of Sauron in check, Minas Tirith had a sister city built right on the border of Mordor. For a time the two cities fulfilled their purpose and Sauron’s minions could gain no foothold outside of the Black Lands. Eventually, though, vigilance wavered, men grew complacent, and the active defense of Gondor became a purely passive effort no longer concerned with reclamation of the Wilderness. The enemy seized their opportunity and overthrew the second city, Minas Morgul, turning it into a powerful outpost for evil. Like the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, these two cities, once existing for the same purpose, were now locked in a permanent struggle. The one city, “City’s” only stronghold left to stand against Sauron; the other city, un-citied and reduced to a wilderness made with hands. Both strove for control of Osgiliath—Gondor’s capitol city, situated directly between Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul. And it is important to note that both sides strove actively. Tolkien effectively proves to us that cultivation versus atrophy is a false dichotomy and Wilderness is not simply what you get when you do nothing to the world. While it’s true that the abdication of Adamic culture-makers can play a major role in the spread of Wilderness, it is not because the world functions on a natural gradient sloping downward from buildings to flowers to weeds…to lots and lots of weeds. Rather, it is because evil is manifest in various agents desiring, as their wicked father desired, to make a wasteland out of what could have been a paradise, and could be again.
Had we but world enough and time, I would discuss the Elves and their eschatological significance as culture-makers, or the connections between Gandalf’s transfiguration in Fangorn Forest and Christ’s many works in the Wilderness, or a hundred other relevant elements within Tolkien’s myth, but such discussions must wait for another time. As a last remark on Tolkien’s works, I will say a word about the Dunedain Rangers, though. The Dunedain are a faithful remnant of a once great race that worshipped God and then fell into wickedness and was nearly destroyed in a great deluge. Is any of this ringing a bell? Good. Masters of the Wild, the surviving Dunedain are wanderers, waiting for something, and content to live largely apart. What are they waiting for? They wait for a king to come from their midst who can put things to rights, unite the races of Middle Earth, strike terror into the heart of the enemy, and accomplish what Samwise Gamgee also dreams of: make the wild places safe and turn the whole world into a garden…and a city.
If Scripture and literature have taught us anything concerning the Wilderness, they have taught us that it takes a King to unmake it. From there, we can conclude the ultimate fate of Wilderness. When the King of this world returns in glory, Eden will be restored and perfected; the New Jerusalem will descend as a Garden-City, with the Tree of Life at its center and, like Ezekiel’s vision, streams of water will flow out of it into the corners of the earth, carrying life and culture with them, making a paradise and an Un-Wilderness of the whole earth. As Gandalf tells the Innkeeper at Bree:
There is a King again, Barlimann. He will soon be turning his mind this way. Then the Greenway will be opened again, and his messengers will come north, and there will be comings and goings, and the evil things will be driven out of the waste-lands. Indeed the waste in time will be waste no longer, and there will be people and fields where once there was wilderness. (272)
And as the Lord has said to His people:
The Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the Garden of the Lord; Joy and gladness will be found in it. He will make a covenant of peace with His people and cause wild beasts to cease from the land; and they will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. (Is. 51:3; Ez. 34:25.)