Protecting the Environment: exalted forest people, talking trees, and the conflict with civilisation
Today, I want to speak to you about the protection of the environment, an age-old topic of literature. Don’t believe me? Let me go into detail. In Germany, we read a book called “Homo Faber” in school. This book written by the famous Max Frisch tells the story of a very technology-focused, stressed businessman that turns away from civilisation and towards nature. The return to nature or the reconquering of the world through nature is one of literature’s and film’s (think Avatar) themes. But how about the fantasy genre?
Nature always wins
Contrary to the very technical world of steampunk, fantasy is a fierce advocate for the environment. Just look at the high amount of people and species living in balance with nature, such as elves, fairies or shamans. Who doesn’t know the classical wood elf with his bow and arrow? The long-living people are quite usually the ones very in tune with nature and, thus, their world. The humans living far away from nature are usually short-lived, quarrelsome and in many areas short-sighted. Also, dwarves are often critically viewed in regards to their mining ventures. They dug too deep….
The one novelist bringing this environmentalist characterisation to the extreme is Tolkien. His elves are certainly on the good side, even if they wrinkle their noses about all the other creatures, vandalising their world. Thus, they have retreated to the beautiful forests, ensuring their thriving. On the opposite side, you have the orcs, evil and brutal. They not only kill everything they come across. They also burn and cut down the woods.
Wait, where do we have deforestation? Oh right, our rainforests.
Obviously, Tolkien had a thing for nature (even if not on purpose). When the orcs start to deforest Fangorn for the industrialisation of Isengard, the Ents, talking trees, rise up and end their puny attempt. The fires are quelled and Isengard is drowned. Nature wins back its territory, literally rising up against orc-kind.
Nature vs civilisation
Now, there aren’t that many humans in reality or fantasy that live in balance with nature. Civilisation is our boon (even if it is our vice as well). We cannot survive the way we are without it. But civilisation will always be in conflict with nature. Environment protection is important, but we can’t protect it 100% without taking away our livelihood. That may work for a single person or community but not for the 7 billion people on our planet.
Robin Hobb: Soldier Boy Trilogy
Fantasy literature loves to take on that conflict and get you thinking. A beautiful example is Robin Hobb’s Soldier Boy Trilogy where this conflict becomes the background theme. The story starts in the civilisation end of its world. The realm is expanding quickly and what do you need for expansion? Infrastructure. So, one big plot point is the building of a road through the unconquered woods. It’s a tough task and one that is made even harder by the people living in the woods.
Contrary to the very technical, logical people, especially the namesake soldiers, the wood people have magic. The magic is a bit out there with its need for overindulgence in nutritious food, but it is used to protect nature. The soldier boy is at the centre of this conflict. His whole life he has dreamt of being a good, successful soldier, capable of logic and engineering. But then he gets infected by magic and fights for his place in an increasingly confusing world. Nature is messy and so is magic. It revolts the soldier boy, but then he begins to question his society and thus, civilisation. Finally, he comes to terms with his role of protecting the environment.
N.K. Jemisin: The Fifth Season
Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin takes the conflict between civilisation and the environment to a higher level. Though it’s not about forests but rocks, its nature nonetheless. Her story’s world is frequently subjected to catastrophic natural events. The fifth season is the one, when a supervolcano eruption has brought on a nuclear winter or when a mega-earthquake has flattened any structure.
Natural hazards in Jemisin’s world are much more frequent and much stronger than in our world, meaning several civilisations have already bitten the dust. The great Sanze civilisation is only great because it survived five seasons. Now, her main characters are the so-called orogenes who are children of Father Earth and can prevent (or cause) earthquakes and the like. The very conflict between these dangerous, but sympathetic people and the educated, civilised, but nasty people is just another mirror of nature against civilisation.
In the end, nature always wins.
Janna Ruth: Tanz der Feuerblüten
Yep, that’s me. I also wrote about the conflict between nature and civilisation, trying for a more objective take. The civilisation in my world is not bad, just as it isn’t bad in our world. It’s just not in balance with the environment which is represented by demons and other mythical creatures. Instead, the civilisation is based on the artistry of humankind and artificial beauty. Magic, by the way, is here part of the civilisation. When the demons and monsters rise up against my civilisation though, humankind doesn’t have much left to defend itself. But whether nature wins in the end, you’ll have to read for yourself.
Tanz der Feuerblüten will be published on the 6th of March 2017 within the uebersinnlich series, by Ueberreuter Verlag (Link).
Whether it’s beneficial to humans or not, fantasy literature often acts as an advocate for the environment. Thus, two hypotheses can be drawn from almost every fantasy book focusing on this topic.
- The environment is something good, that needs to be protected and …
- The force of nature will overwhelm us in the end.
Because no matter how much we destroy the environment, in the end, we will only succeed to make the world unliveable to us. The environment will recover eventually and evolution will bring up new life-forms. The world has been through several stages of higher temperature for example, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend living through any of them.
The protection of the environment is so important not just for nature’s sake, but for our sake.
Interessantes Thema, ich muss zugeben, damit hab ich mich bisher noch gar nicht eingehender befasst. Das liegt vor allem daran, dass meine Völker meistens technisch noch nicht so fortgeschritten sind, als dass sie eine tatsächliche Bedrohung für die Umwelt darstellen würden. 😉
Ich habe zudem das Gefühl, dass auch die umgekehrte Thematik, d.h. “die Natur holt sich die Zivilisation zurück” gerade in SciFi und Dystopien zunehmend an Bedeutung gewinnt. War das “I am Legend” – ich glaube schon – wo der Protagonist plötzlich mitten in den Ruinen der Zivilisation einer Raubkatze begegnet. Oder beim Videospiel “The last of us” gibt es auch wunderschöne Bilder von der Großstadt, die unter mächtigen Baumwurzeln und Pflanzen versinkt. Letztlich ist es also doch wieder ein Kreislauf. 😉
Ja genau, das hatte ich ja auch erwähnt, dass dieser Sieg der Natur über die Zivilisation ein beliebtes Thema ist. Danke für die weiteren Beispiele. Man muss übrigens gar nicht so technisch fortgeschritten sein. Bei Robin Hobb zum Beispiel ist es auch sehr Fantasylastig und der große Frevel ist das Abholzen der Bäume für Straßen und Siedlungen. Das wurde ja schon seit Urzeiten gemacht. 🙂