Saturday, 16 September 2017

Tree, leaf, and a few niggles

Walter S. Judd & Graham A. Judd Flora of Middle-earth Oxford University Press 2017
ISBN 9780190276317

This book is a labour of love. The authors evidently love both plants and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, which is a great recommendation. Tolkien, of course, loved plants and knew a great deal about them, whereas most of us readers of his works do not, and thereby miss an important part of the richness of his narratives. Hence this book.

There are books that dig into the mythical or linguistic depths of Tolkien, and have the effect of sending you forth from him to discover subjects which, but for him, you would otherwise not know. This is such a book, but in the realm of plants. It should enable anyone whose interest in plants is sparked by their reading of Tolkien to immerse themselves deeply—as deeply as they wish—in the details of plant families, morphology, ecology, or human uses of plants.

Some aspects of the book are slightly eccentric. There are several tangential or incidental items included, such as barley, which happens to be mentioned in the context of beer, but doesn’t really feature in the stories, unlike, say larches. Or apples, which we all know well, and earn a place because Sam happens to chew one. There are numerous speculative articles about plants which aren’t clearly identified (the ones on roots and unnamed hollylike tree are interesting) and those which we know are inventions, such as mallorn, niphredil, seregon, and even the White Tree of Gondor (does this strictly belong to a species?). It’s quite fun that their possible affiliation is speculated on, but perhaps it would have been a good idea to group them into a separate section. There is generally a rather odd grouping of the subjects. No distinction is made between terms actually used by Tolkien, such as linden or nasturtian, and terms inferred from the narrative, such as Cyanobacteria, blue-green bacteria (for the ‘scum’ on the Dead Marshes). Then there are ragbag sections ‘Food plants of Middle-earth’, ‘Hobbit names’ (which are only personal names based on plants), etc. At times one feels that the barrel is being scraped. It might have been better to split the book into word studies covering items actually featuring in the text and an essay, or several essays, dealing with these more amorphous topics.

There is huge botanical erudition in this book. There’s a wealth of artwork, in a style that will appeal to some more than others: not all the scenes depicted correspond accurately to the narratives they pertain to. And there are several maps that I find iffy.

The Tolkien knowledge is all that one would expect from attentive, devoted students of his works. But I’d say that there are gaps in the authors’ acquaintance with Tolkien scholarship, which shows up to their disadvantage. To declare a personal interest in this regard: there are no references to Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner, The Ring of Words, which is not listed in the book’s bibliography, even though we are fellow OUP authors, and we discuss such plant names as Quickbeam.

I was delighted to find etymologies for all the terms: though of course an etymology of an item inferred from the narrative, like Cyanobacteria, is not really contributing to our understanding of Tolkien in the way that that of Quickbeam does. The etymologies are all derived from sources easily accessible on the web and don’t, on the whole, contribute anything new.

There are more than a respectable book’s fair share of typos, over which I will draw a veil; perhaps they will be corrected in a reprint. My feeling is that this is perhaps not a first-rank work of Tolkien scholarship, but it is an absorbing, informative, and useful handbook.