Talking Tolkien and plants

Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium by Walter S. Judd and Graham A. Judd, 2017. OUP

It’s hard to know what to make of Walter and Graham Judd’s Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium [hereafter referred to as Tolkien Plants]. Or, rather, it’s difficult to assess because it’s hard to know what category of book it actually belongs to. Should it be viewed as a factual flora, such as one might see for a modern-day country or geographical area? Or should it be considered a work of fiction because it builds upon a work(s) of fiction?

As is implied by the book’s full title, Tolkien Plants deals with the plants found in Middle-earth. Middle-earth is the location for many of Oxford University Professor of Anglo-Saxon John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973)’s now-iconic works of fiction such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So, Tolkien Plants deals with an imagined land in works of fiction? Having just read Sue Burke’s Semiosis, a book which deals with an imaginary flora of an extra-terrestrial world, and recently seen Avatar – a film that also has its own fantastical vegetation on a planet that isn’t Earth, I have some appreciation of ‘other worldy’ plants in a science fiction/science fantasy sense. But, the world in Tolkien’s books is not one that I understand as ‘science’ fiction; it’s supposedly Earth, although in days long gone by.

Can Middle-earth be considered a land of ‘fantasy’ then? Maybe, but, is it really fiction, either in part or entirely? Whilst it’s certainly imaginative, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not ‘real’, but consulting the books themselves doesn’t resolve the issue. And one could go round and round for hours without resolution. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to; the Judds have conveniently solved any mystery for us: Middle-earth is our own world*. The events portrayed in the books – which may be imaginary! – take place in a period of the actual Old World of Earth, and the plant communities of Middle-earth bear a striking resemblance to those of Europe, especially England.

The flora of Tolkien’s world should therefore be familiar to us nowadays, even if the names used in the books are in languages we no longer speak or understand. What we have in Tolkien Plants therefore is a scholarly book about the very real vegetation that provides the landscape for, and is intimately involved in the story-telling in, Tolkien’s books about Middle-earth. And the Judds are careful to point out that Tolkien was a most botanically knowledgeable individual who loved plants – especially trees, and for whom the vegetation was at least as important to the stories as the other lifeforms such as elves, hobbits, and humans.

What Walter and Graham Judd have achieved with Tolkien Plants is to provide a comprehensive account of the plants contained in Tolkien’s publications that deal with Middle-earth. But, this wasn’t just a straightforward trawl through the books, effortlessly extracting the plant information. Because Tolkien didn’t use scientific names, the Judds had to undertake quite a bit of detective work to provide those botanical binomials. In many cases they’ve be able to work from the common names used by Tolkien. In other instances, they’ve had to make ‘educated guesses‘**. And, for some plants, they had to admit defeat because there was insufficient information even to guess their botanical name. But what they’ve achieved isn’t simply a check-list of scientific names, it’s a most impressive encyclopaedia of the plants – and their place – in the Middle-earth stories. And, because the great majority of those plants are familiar to us today, they’ve also been able to add information such as the derivation of the plant’s common name (the English name rather than the Elvish name or name in one of the several languages of Middle-earth…), its distribution and ecology (which has also been used to provide an impressive series of plant community maps of Middle-earth in the Third Age), a description of the plant, and information about its – present day – economic uses.

But, what does Tolkien Plants actually achieve? Doesn’t this scientific dimension somehow debunk and demystify the world of Tolkien – a world in which many readers were happy just to wallow in the mythology and mysticism of the Middle-earth tales – to such a degree that it actually diminishes that enjoyment? For me, the answer to that question is similar to that given by Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize-winning American physicist) when asked if knowing the science behind a flower detracted from its beauty. Knowing that Tolkien’s world is drawn from the world around us – as the Judds so comprehensively show in respect of the plants – only increases one’s appreciation of the amazing work that Tolkien has produced and of the ‘world’ that he has created. However, whether one can also believe in the reality of elves, dwarves, hobbits, or orcs is quite another matter…

 

Final comments

Tolkien Plants is written with deep respect both for Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the plants that surround us. Judd and Judd’s Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium is clearly a labour of love, scholarship and erudition that is likely to have broad appeal, not only amongst Tolkien enthusiasts, but also for those who simple appreciate plant-and-people interactions – whether real or imaginary (or somewhere in between). Tolkien Plants is a most precious thing…

 

* For a summary of the scientific rationale of the book, try the freely-available article by Judd and Judd in the Journal of Geek Studies. And for a free-to-read excerpt from the book on barley and beer, visit.

 

** And which are still open to re-interpretation, e.g. compare the Judds’ identification of ‘hemlock’ as Conium maculatum (pp. 184-185) with that of Michael Flowers at the Tolkien Society website, who opts for Anthriscus sylvestris