Tolkien and The Machine

Due to the new series that started on Amazon Prime recently, I had cause to look back at my relationship with the writing of JRR Tolkien, which my son inherited to some degree, although his knowledge of the Tolkien world surpasses mine considerably. Connected with this has been the increase of the use of “the machine” as a metaphor for the unstoppable force of commercial power, the oligarchies of the world, and numerous studies in a diverse range of disciplines that show us that industrialisation on a global scale has had a devastating effect on our environment.

I found a touching example of a memory, revealing the attitude of people around the time of Tolkien, written in this piece by Richard Gunderman:

“My grandfather was a carpenter, and I don’t think he ever developed much of a sense of trust in machines. I remember him laboring away at our home one summer, transforming our screened-in porch into a dining room. He could drive a nail through a 2×4 with a single blow, a skill I still haven’t mastered. He simply loved making things, and he was good at it. But he referred to the family car simply as “the machine,” and he regarded what lay under its hood with suspicion. He believed that such machines enabled us to travel too far too fast, preventing us from getting to know our own backyards. He feared that the machine age was depriving us of the joy of craftsmanship […]

To Tolkien, the machine is something far more menacing than a mere mechanical device. Fundamentally, it represents the lust for power – in particular, for power over others. The evil lord Sauron wants the one ring more than anything and is willing to stop at nothing to get it precisely because it will enable him to exert absolute control. The ring is machine par excellence, the device that will enable its possessor to establish absolute tyranny over every other living creature. It is not a means of liberation but a tool of coercion, domination, and enslavement. As the British historian Lord Acton would have warned, the power of the ring not only corrupts but corrupts absolutely.”[i]

I was born in 1955, around the time Tolkien was correcting the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. He found the proofreading process too tedious and felt that it greatly increased the likelihood of errors and discrepancies, which was typical of his relationship with the machine. He wrote his manuscripts in a very legible handwriting, with some words so beautifully written that they seemed to come from an artist. We can hear here an echo of Gunderman’s recollection of his grandfather, who feared that the machine age would rob us of the joy of craftsmanship.

But the big takeaway from Tolkien was that for him, the machine represents a means to attain power over others. He wrote of the machine in a letter to Milton Waldman:

By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised … The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.[ii][iii]

Normally we understand the machine as a means of performing tasks that are very monotonous and predictable, where workers become very distant from their work and somewhat robotic in their behaviour. It is a state that people very often fall into, and it can be said that in such cases they switch to automatic. Of course, we all work in automatic mode in much of what we do, mainly because in our busy and often hectic environment a lot is demanded of us, and we often lose touch with what is going on around us, being narrowly focused on a single task. As I have said before, I get the feeling that mobile telephones with the vast number of functions they are now equipped with only emphasise this and underlines the alienation from nature.

The metaphor of the machine, and in particular the metaphor of the clock, was used in the 17th century to interpret both the nature and the hierarchical features of the body politic. But “A rudimentary growth machine was invented roughly 5,000 years ago with the emergence of state societies with money, writing, and slavery. A supercharged capitalist version has gotten going at least twice in history: in China in the eleventh century (though it was quickly halted by traditional authorities who saw it as a threat to their power), and in Europe starting in the sixteenth century (where the rising mercantile class eventually triumphed over ecclesiastical and aristocratic opponents).”[iv]

Later, as Marx famously noted in Capital, the purpose of machinery from the capitalist’s point of view is to cheapen the commodities produced, which is possible above all when the cost of the machinery is less than the cost of the workers the machinery is supposed to replace. So, we have other people supporting a view that the machine was threatening, above all for the people who were losing their jobs and livelihood.

As a late agreement with that view, Richard Heinburg noted, the “doomsday machine of global industrial capitalism has been constructed largely at the expense not just of nature’s ability to continue functioning, but also the labor of the poorer segments of humanity, who will also be most immediately impacted by the machine’s destruction. ”i[v]

So, we have a situation in which the machine is not only a threat to nature, but also to the poorer segments of humanity, confirming the scepticism of people like JRR Tolkien, but also Marx, and even Stephen Hawking warned that the human race faces one its most dangerous centuries yet as progress in science and technology becomes an ever-greater threat to our existence. Green activists are also concerned that we have shown a good deal of recklessness in maintaining our position at the top of the food chain, by threatening the biodiversity of the planet, which makes life resilient to changes that occur.[vi]

Our global network has undermined much of this diversity, leaving countries unable to feed themselves when global supply chains are threatened. The war in Ukraine, where much of the world’s wheat is grown, brought this home to us, and immediately there were famines in Africa and elsewhere. Most importantly, rising energy and heating costs have alerted us to the fact that we are dependent on products supplied by the machine, despite the fact that at the same time it threatens the environment we need to survive. Machine ideology tempts us to think of ourselves as biological machines, to react like machines or even to be a part of them, and to see the machine as the life-saving influence in the world as it inexorably advances and takes the ability to survive out of our hands.

Attempts to regain control include taking the path to climate neutrality, which also offers huge opportunities for a better quality of life. Imagining cities with less traffic jams and exhaust fumes, with space to cycle and walk safely, to play and to live isn’t difficult. Imagining villages that are connected to public transport, forests where our children can still discover the beauty of nature, food that is healthy, produced with respect for animal rights and environmental protection should also be no problem – unless you want the machine to dominate our lives. It is when these goals are perceived as threats to one’s goals in life that we discover how much we have become a part of the machine. I am amazed at how fast this has occurred, considering the machine sceptic JRR Tolkien was writing about his scepticism after the first world war, a hundred years ago.

But Tolkien gave us imagination and tried to give us a source from which dreams and visions can grow, stories in which values and principles have a model in the characters he imagined. He described landscapes of beauty and misery, and societies filled with rascality or perversion, interspersed with greed and envy, oppression, and fear. He described harmony with nature and the brutish dominion over the land. He also described devotion and courage in creatures less suited to heroism, and showed us that sometimes, things have to be done, although they are difficult, harmful, or fateful for us, because they preserve the greater good.

At present, we are in a situation in which that greater good is endangered, not from a sorcerer like Sauron, but from a machine that is relentless, as well as the numerous vassals, that are rewarded for their loyalty. It took a lot of time and suffering for the Hobbits to realise that they were in danger, perhaps we will notice earlier, and prevent at least some of the trials that would otherwise come.


[i] Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, IUPUI in https://theconversation.com/tolkien-and-the-machine-35826

[ii] Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, Christopher (2012-12-12T22:58:59.000). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle-Version.

[iii] https://genius.com/J-r-r-tolkien-preface-to-the-silmarillion-a-letter-to-milton-waldman-annotated

[iv] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-02-25/capitalism-the-doomsday-machine-or-how-to-repurpose-growth-capital/ By Richard Heinberg, originally published by Common Dreams

[v] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-02-25/capitalism-the-doomsday-machine-or-how-to-repurpose-growth-capital/ By Richard Heinberg, originally published by Common Dreams

[vi] https://greentumble.com/major-threats-to-biodiversity/

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