Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Dangers of a Technological Mindset

By Matthew Dickerson

Flourish magazine, Fall 2010

Genetic engineering in the foods you eat. Advanced surgical equipment. Military weaponry. The Internet and social networking. The stove in your kitchen.

Technologies are becoming more powerful and more pervasive in everyday life. What is a healthy attitude toward technology? What is the right use of technology? What technologies can be rightly used? These are perennial questions, but they grow more important all the time. They are also questions that cannot practically be ignored; failure to ask the questions is an answer in itself.

At least one cohesive approach to these questions can be found in the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Wendell Berry. All three authors address, in both their fiction and non-fiction works, not only attitudes toward technology, but also the philosophies behind these attitudes and the actions—and people—they produce.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s technological villains

Tolkien’s attitude toward technology surfaces early on in The Hobbit. Consider how he introduces goblins—which in his later works came to be known as orcs:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.

Some of the adjectives and phrases used to described goblins could, in another context, be accolades. Goblins are clever and skilled. They are inventive and ingenious. They are capable of design. All of this creativity, however, is of a very particular kind. Goblins make machines. They are associated with wheels and engines. They are not interested in beauty, but in efficiency.

Tolkien’s goblins are technological creatures. This characteristic is particularly striking when contrasted with Tolkien’s hobbits, who, we are told in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, “do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.”

And this, perhaps, is the first important observation about Tolkien’s attitude toward technology. While hobbits and the culture of the Shire are by no means perfect, theirs is nonetheless portrayed as a healthy society that is worth great effort to protect. By contrast, Tolkien refers to the goblins in terms that are far from morally neutral. They are “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted.” At least the last two of these are explicit terms of moral evil. Tolkien, then, appears to be associating an attraction to technology with moral evil.

The moral condemnation does not necessarily apply to any use of technology, nor to any creature that uses technology. At least here, the judgment applies to a particular type of technology—or, perhaps more accurately, to a particular use of technology. Tolkien associates the evil of goblin technology with two things: technology as a means of avoiding work, and technology as a means of dominating other wills. The latter is especially important. Goblin technology is used to enslave and to conquer.

But goblins are not the only beings in Middle-earth who fit this description. The wise ent Treebeard notes of the wizard Saruman that he “has a mind of metal and wheels . . . he does not care for growing things except as far as they serve him for the moment.” Saruman seems to have no particular appreciation for living things, but he likes working with inanimate material and, like the goblins, views gaining power over others as the purpose of technology. He cares about others only in so far as “they serve him.” It is clear that he uses this power with wanton disregard for the effects on the natural world around him. He dams rivers, cuts down trees, and breeds orcs and men—a precursor, perhaps, to today’s genetic engineering. He does this all in order to gain power, and Tolkien shows that Saruman’s actions have dire consequences to the natural world.

Saruman defends his position with rhetoric. “A new Power is rising,” he tells the much wiser wizard Gandalf. He goes on to explain:

Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us…and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control [that Power]. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.

What does Saruman want?  First and foremost, he desires power, control (over others and over the world), and rule. Technology—his metal, wheels, engines, and his modern weapons of warfare—is a means to those ends. His words also suggest one additional aspect of a particularly unhealthy attitude toward technology. Saruman views this “new Power” as inevitable and unavoidable. It is progress. It is going to happen no matter what; Gandalf, he argues, must accept it and control it because there isn’t any other choice.

Author T.A.Shippey, in his book J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, explores the likely etymology of the name Saruman and notes:

What does Saruman stand for? One thing, certainly, is a kind of mechanical ingenuity, smithcraft developed into engineering skills… The “applicability” of this is obvious, with Saruman becoming an image of one of the characteristic vices of modernity, though we still have no name for it—a kind of restless ingenuity, skill without purpose, bulldozing for the sake of change…the Sarumans of the real world rule by deluding their followers with images of a technological Paradise in the future, a modernist Utopia; but what one often gets…are the blasted landscapes of Eastern Europe, strip-mined, polluted, and even radioactive. One may disagree with Tolkien’s diagnosis of the situation, and with his nostalgic or pastoral solution to it, but there can be no doubt that he has at least addressed a serious issue, and tried to give it both a historical and a psychological dimension nearly always missing elsewhere.

That hideous technology

C.S. Lewis’s villains have a similar fascination with technology and a willingness to use any technology that will gain them power. This is especially evident in That Hideous Strength, the final book of his Ransom Trilogy. Much could be said about the story’s National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) and its pursuit and use of technological—as well as political and spiritual—power. But perhaps the most telling passages are the speeches of the character Filostrato, a of central figure of the N.I.C.E. Early in the novel he explains to the protagonist Mark:

The forest tree is a weed. But I tell you I have seen the civilised tree in Persia…It was made of metal. A poor, crude thing. But how if it were perfected? Light, made of aluminum. So natural, it would even deceive…Consider the advantages! You get tired of him in one place: two workmen carry him somewhere else; wherever you please. It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no mulch and mess. Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.

Filostrato’s goal of replacing biological trees with metal ones originates in his desire to impose his will on nature. He wants trees that will obey him. He doesn’t want to submit his plans or his purposes to any inherent natural processes, but rather he wants nature to submit to him.

Of course it’s not just nature that he wants to get into submission. As he goes on to say,  “All that talk about the power of Man over Nature—Man in the abstract—is only for the [common people]. You know as well as I do that Man’s power over Nature means the power of some men over other men with Nature as the instrument.”

Ultimately, what Filostrato really wants is to get rid of nature altogether—or, rather, the biological part of nature—and be left only with humans: humans who are not restricted by bodies, but have only unrestricted, immortal minds. “I grant it,” he tells Mark. “In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call this blue mould—all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it.” Those who have read That Hideous Strength may remember that the project of the N.I.C.E really does involve the preservation of a human mind severed from its body with the hope of making an eternal man.

It might be tempting to think that Lewis is exaggerating some straw man here in presenting the ideas of the fictitious Filostrato, who in turn represents the fictitious N.I.C.E. But those very ideas have been advanced by well-known and respected thinkers of this century more than 50 years after Lewis put the ideas in print.

Author Ray Kurzweil, one of the most brilliant inventers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the author of several books, and a self-proclaimed “futurist,” argues in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines:

Actually there won’t be mortality by the end of the twenty-first century. Not in the sense that we have known it. Not if you take advantage of the twenty-first century’s brain-porting technology. Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware. When the hardware crashed, that was it. For many of our forebears, the hardware gradually deteriorated before it disintegrated. …As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file. We will be software, not hardware.

It is as though Kurzweil read That Hideous Strength and adopted Filostrato not as the villain, but as his hero.

Behind the magic

Are we reading too much into the fantasy stories of Lewis and Tolkien? Both authors claimed that their books were written first and foremost as enjoyable works of fiction, and I have no reason to doubt these claims. So why, if these really are important ideas, were they put forth in fantasy literature involving magic, rather than in a more serious work of non-fiction?

Defending the value of fantasy literature is beyond the scope of this essay. But a smaller part of the answer to these questions can be found in three letters written by these two authors. These letters reveal an interesting understanding of the role of magic in fantasy literature—or at least in these authors’ works of fantasy literature—and provide insight into how this literature approaches technology.

In one personal letter Tolkein writes, “By [Magic] I intend all use of external plans and 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 recognized.”

Tolkien explicitly connects literary magic and modern machines, the implements of technology. He describes how both magic and machines are used to exploit the natural world and other human beings, thus affirming the comment made earlier that it is not technology itself that is evil per se, but the use of technology to impose one’s will on others. Finally, he notes that this metaphorical understanding of magic was not accidental, but that he intended it.

He made a similar comment in another personal letter, saying, “The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e. ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance…But also they enhanced the natural powers of a possessor—thus approaching ‘magic,’ a motive easily corruptible into evil, a lust for domination.”

Although this letter does not mention machines, it does connect magic (connected elsewhere with technology) with the goal of dominating other wills, labeling such domination “evil.” This addresses the power of the rings, including the One Ring. Given the centrality of the One Ring to the whole story of The Lord of the Rings, it is not a great stretch to surmise that an exploration of magic, modern technology, and dominating power is central to Tolkien’s most famous works.

Similar ideas are at work in Lewis’s books and in his portrayal of magic and its relationship to technology, especially in That Hideous Strength, with the N.I.C.E. and its simultaneous pursuit of magical power and technological power. These ideas can also be seen in Lewis’s other works and numerous essays and personal letters.

In a personal letter written in 1930 to his close friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes a conversation he once had with Tolkien:

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood—they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardized international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, and Australian wine today) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.

Notice what Lewis is arguing. The mono-crop approach of modern technologically oriented agriculture necessitates that we cannot eat locally. When thousands or tens of thousands of contiguous acres are devoted to the same crop, the produce must be shipped off somewhere. So Lewis first comments about how this modern industrialized agriculture destroys our rootedness and connectedness to the earth, and he goes on to describe the sort of literature that would naturally grow out of a healthier approach to agriculture—what we might today refer to as an agrarian approach. A society that eats locally will see “nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood.” A literature of naiads and dryads is the sort of literature we ought to expect from an agrarian culture. Lewis and Tolkien were discussing this in 1930. What did both authors do in the next three decades? They both wrote that very sort of literature!

Wendell Berry’s agrarianism vs. technology’s agri-business

This brings us a little deeper into one very important aspect of technology: the use and impact of technology in our approach to agriculture. On the one side is what the writer Wendell Berry and others refer to as agrarianism. On the other side is its antithesis: industrialized agriculture, or what Berry refers to as agri-business.

Agrarianism is committed to indefinite sustainability. Food should be eaten, at least in part, by those with a long-term stake in the health of the land on which the food is raised, hence the importance of the locavorism addressed in the previous section. Industrialized agriculture is interested in efficiency—but a particular type of efficiency measured primarily in bushels of produce per person-hour, or bushels per acre, and primarily only in the short term. It is interested in profits.

Tolkein considered the dangers of industrialized agriculture more than 50 years ago, when he associated it both with war and with the evil of Sauron in contrast with the more favorable agrarianism of the Shire. In a personal letter describing the fate of the Entwives, he notes, “Tyrants, even in such tales [as The Lord of the Rings] must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metalworkers…If any [Entwives] survived so [as agricultural slaves of the tyrants], they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult—unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic.”

Lewis also contrasts the industrialization of villains with something like a more local form of agriculture conducted by heroes. Early in That Hideous Strength, the character MacPhee complains, “It may have occurred to you to wonder… how any man in his senses thinks we’re going to defeat a powerful conspiracy by sitting here growing winter vegetables and training performing bears.” Toward the end of the book MacPhee complains again, “I’d be greatly obliged if any one would tell me what we have done—always apart from feeding pigs and raising some decent vegetables.”

Were it not for Lewis’ earlier letter about the importance of eating locally, and other letters, essays, and reflections on nature, we might be tempted to throw away these lines as unimportant, perhaps included only for humor or the development of MacPhee’s character. As it is, a different conclusion is in order: that growing decent vegetables, and more broadly taking good care of the land, really is central to the work of the heroes. It is part of what makes them victorious. Or, perhaps, it is the thing that makes the victory worthwhile. That MacPhee, the only atheist in the community, is the one who complains, only affirms that suggestion—and also connects the eating of local food to something that is explicitly theistic.

Ideas about technology only suggested in the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien are made more explicit in the fiction of Wendell Berry. Perhaps the clearest example can be seen in the contrast between the hero of Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Athey Keith, and the novel’s villain: Troy Chatham. According to the narrator, Athey Keith “was not exactly, or not only, what is called a ‘landowner.’ He was the farm’s farmer, but also its creature and belonging. He lived its life and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter.”

By contrast, Troy Chatham, who eventually inherits and destroy’s Athey’s land, is in love with technology and the sort of progress defined by technology. The narrator tells us that Troy “began to call himself an ‘agribusinessman.’ He would quote a great official of the government who had said, ‘Adapt or die,’ meaning that a farmer should adapt to the breakneck economic program of the corporations, not to his farm. He thought the farm existed to serve and enlarge him.”

How to walk through technological minefields

For Troy Chatham, the natural world in general, and his farm in particular, should conform to his desires. Technology becomes a means to make that happen. And that is what I mean by the phrase in the title of this essay: a technological mindset. The mindset of Troy, who wants his farm to conform to his wishes, is the same as that of Filostrato, who wants artificial trees because they, too, will conform to his desires.

Technology is power that we can control. It serves us. (Though, as both Berry and Lewis point out, more often we end up serving the technology. Filostrato and everybody else at the N.I.C.E. ends up a slave of the institution and its technology and ruling spirits just as Troy himself becomes a servant, not of his farm, but of the “breakneck economic program of the corporations.”)

A beautiful metaphor illustrating this contrast is found in Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill.” Berry writes:

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

Here, in a nutshell, are two opposing worldviews. One worldview acknowledges that there is some other objective reality, some source of absolutes, beyond the individual human. This is the worldview behind a path. A path is born out of familiarity and knowledge—words often associated with love. It acknowledges the realities of the surrounding landscape—the “natural contours”—and submits or conforms to those realities. A path is good. Berry uses the word “perfect”.

A road, by contrast, is based on technology. It is built not by knowledge and familiarity, but through power and brute strength—through the technologies of our world, or the magic of Tolkien’s, both of which (as Tolkien says in his letter) employ bulldozers. Rather than adapting to nature, the power of the road forces nature to adapt to us. It is destructive.

C.S. Lewis, in his short but brilliant and important book The Abolition of Man, draws an almost identical contrast between two worldviews while simultaneously returning to the discussion of magic and looking at all of these conversations through the lens of Christianity:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.

There are, Lewis tells us, two opposing worldviews. The modern worldview—the worldview of both the magician and the technologist, the worldview I call the technological mindsettells us our goal is to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.” We do this through “technique,” a word sharing the same Greek root as the word “technology.” We do this through applied science, Lewis’s term for technology (as opposed to pure science). Lewis makes it clear what he thinks of the actions that flow from such a worldview. They are “disgusting and impious.”

This is the worldview of the road in Berry’s essay. It is the worldview of the “modern man,” of those in That Hideous Strength for whom “Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.” They simply “want to increase their power by tacking on to it the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits.”

The other worldview—the wisdom of earlier ages and the worldview of Berry’s path—acknowledges an ultimate reality. This worldview asks not how we can conquer nature or gain power in order to conform nature to our wishes, but suggests instead that we should learn to conform our souls to reality. This is the worldview behind agrarianism: the worldview that conforms farming practices to the landscape, the soil, the weather, the climate. Lewis associates this wisdom of old with “knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.” Indeed, it is the Christian who acknowledges God as the ultimate reality, and nature as his creation. Thus Lewis, Berry, and Tolkien would go a step further: This is the Christian worldview.

Matthew Dickerson is co-author (with Jonathan Evans) of Ents, Elves, and Eriador: the Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) and (with David O’Hara) of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: the Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).  He has been married to a wonderful woman for over two decades, is raising three sons and a few thousand honeybees, seeks to be the steward of 62 acres of Vermont woodland, and teaches computer science, environmental studies, and some writing courses at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is also the director the New England Young Writers Conference at Breadloaf.
Editor’s Note: Flourish Magazine republished Wendell Berry’s classic essay “The Gift of Good Land” on its 30th anniversary. We also asked a set of Christian leaders to respond to the essay. You can find all Flourish posts that mention Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien with out search feature.



  1. Andy Feith says:

    Ooh. That was a good piece. You make me want to go back and give Tolkein another try.

  2. Andy Feith says:

    I wonder, have you written anything on the Lord of the Rings movies? I’d be interested in your analysis of how they do or don’t reflect Tolkien’s intent.

  3. Excellent article with nice tie-ins from multiple sources. Your contrast of sustainability versus efficiency (from the agrarianism/agribusiness pararagraph) will definitely stick with me.

  4. Excellent!

  5. Good article. I agree with the premise of the article. I also think it is thought-provoking to place this article in the same issue of Flourish as Rusty’s piece on human populations. One consequence of a world with more than six billion people is that it may be inevitable that we cannot feed all of us with any approach other that “agribusiness.” Billions and billions of humans don’t have the option of being locally-fed, it they want to eat at all.

  6. Matthew, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  7. Interesting article and thanks for using my work. Kurt

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