Tolkien and Technology

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was a British writer and university professor known primarily for his work “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien is considered one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. His literary work created an imaginary and elaborate world with its own languages, cultures, and stories. In addition to his literary career, Tolkien was a dedicated scholar specializing in Anglo-Saxon vocabularies and literature, teaching at the University of Oxford for over thirty years. He translated into English the epic poem “Beowulf,” which tells the story of a Nordic hero who faces monsters and dragons to protect his people, and also the book of Jonah for the English edition of the “Jerusalem Bible.” Having experienced an environment of significant technological changes, such as the emergence of the automobile, the plane, and the atomic bomb, Tolkien, formed by a traditional and Christian worldview, had a complex view of technological advancement and how new tools should participate in particular human life and society.

Tolkien viewed with a certain skepticism the civilizational improvement that technological advancement promised. He believed new technologies were potential distortions of traditional ways of life and could affect human values and virtues closely linked to the old ways of relating in society. Industrialization and technological progress also represented him as a threat to the connection with the natural world and consequent loss of imaginative and contemplative capacity because he saw nature as a source of beauty and inspiration to man.

In his work “The Lord of the Rings,” he often related technology as a tool of evil forces. Saruman, the powerful wizard and member of the White Council, who worked to fight evil, was seduced by the power of the Ring and the possibility of controlling technology and industry for his own interests. He used his magical powers to create an army of Uruk-hai, hybrid beings that combine the strength of orcs with the skill of men. Saruman is the portrait of the lord of industry, associated with corruption and destruction, using knowledge and science for evil purposes. In addition to representing the vision of nature as mainly a resource to be used, without the contemplative and natural dimension where man develops and is inspired – as Tolstoy said: “There are those who walk through a forest and only see firewood for his bonfire” – that is, without the view that nature is a divine discourse that can be read by participation and deep interaction.

In contrast, the Hobbits are simple people who live off the land and do not rely much on technology; they use only simple tools and rely on their livelihood. The communitarian way of life of the Hobbits is consonant with a profound message uttered by Gandalf: “Dangerous to all of us are the instruments of an art deeper than that possessed by ourselves.” Gandalf shows that there are forces in the world that are beyond our understanding and control and that we must be cautious in dealing with them. This view relates the impact of modern technology on our way of being and understanding the world, arguing that modern technology is not only a means to an end but has become a:

“A totalizing force that shapes our understanding of reality and our place in the world” (1. Carpenter, this is Humphrey. Op. Cit. P. 79). Like the Ring, some technologies have the potential to become forces that are beyond our control and that can bring destruction and chaos.

Tolkien’s fictional stories contain intentional symbolism and serve as a source for understanding Tolkien’s vision of the most diverse subjects. And it is not only in his fictional tales that his aversion to technology is observed; among his fans runs the anecdote that once, Tolkien, while walking in Oxford with his colleague and friend C.S Lewis, exclaimed: “Oh no, an Orc!” for a noisy motorcycle approaching. Whether the story is true or not, Tolkien’s concern and aversion to the impacts of technology on the natural world and the values and virtues of men is evident. In another episode, in a letter to his son Christopher in April 1944, he said¹:

We’re going into full May through the trees and grass. But the heavens are full of noise and turmoil. Now, it’s impossible to hold a screaming conversation in the garden, except around 1 am and 7 pm – unless the day is too ugly to go out. How I wish the “infernal combustion” machine had never been invented!

The machine in question was the car.

Long is the discussion about the relationship between Tolkien and industrial and technological progress; in this text, I was content just to expose some stories and introductory passages of the life and work of this author, which make evident a complex vision and deep intuitions about the role of technology in human ambiance, can be a means of growth in virtues, or representing great danger in atrophy skills and human virtues no longer required daily. Finally, for Tolkien, technological innovations can lead to destruction and oppression rather than improving people’s lives if used without wisdom and without a noble purpose.

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