Book review – Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium

For all my reading of scientific books, I have a little secret (though judging by the number of books, it is actually not all that little): I am a huge fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and of books exploring his world in further detail. Despite Tolkien’s world being fictional, he populated it mostly with real plants. Retired plant systematist Walter Judd, also a huge fan, took it upon himself to write a flora with detailed species accounts of all the plants Tolkien mentions, with artist Graham Judd providing illustrations. The resulting Flora of Middle-Earth is a tastefully illustrated and botanically sound book, but who on (Middle) Earth will read this?

Flora of Middle-Earth

Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium“, written by Walter S. Judd and illustrated by Graham A. Judd, published by Oxford University Press in October 2017 (hardback, 406 pages)

Flora of Middle-Earth internal 1I assume that most readers can skip this paragraph, but in the unlikely case you need an introduction, read on… The English writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) wrote a number of classic high-fantasy books with The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), creating an incredibly rich world with its own geography, creatures, and languages. He influenced a generation of writers, leading to a renewed interest in the fantasy genre, with later books, movies, and role-playing games all taking cues from his work. Even after publishing these books, Tolkien spent most of his life refining and expanding his universe, writing further background material, legends, and myths. After his death, his son Christopher Tolkien finished writing The Silmarillion (1977) and published the monstrously large 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth (1983-1996) that analysed earlier versions and drafts of these three books, plus other unpublished material. Since then there has been an encyclopedia (The Complete Guide to Middle-earth), The Atlas of Middle-earth, The Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, A Tolkien Bestiary, and even the rather whimsical The Science of Middle Earth. And though there has been a book on plants (The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-Creation), there has not yet been a flora.

Flora of Middle-Earth internal 2Tolkien loved plants, especially trees. He created many things, but, as he clarified in correspondence, “imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet”, and so Middle-earth is populated with familiar plants. Judd has really gone to town, mining the complete above-mentioned body of Tolkien’s work for references to its flora, for a total of 141 plants. About 100 of these are given full descriptions, with a short section at the end giving brief descriptions of plants mentioned in passing, either because they occur in the plant-rich region of Ithilien, are food plants, or make an appearance as Hobbit names (they have a predisposition to name daughters after flowers). Tolkien fans will be pleased to see the inclusion of fictional plants such as the two ur-trees Telperion and Laurelin; the flowering plants Elanor, Evermind or simbelmynë, and Niphredil; the healing herb Kingsfoil or athelias; the Mallorn trees; the sickly white flowers of the Morgul Vale; and the White Tree of Gondor.

“Tolkien […] created many things, but […] Middle-earth is populated with familiar plants. “

Flora of Middle-Earth internal 3The Flora of Middle-Earth has all the trappings of a serious botanical flora. Introductory sections describe the different plant communities of Middle-earth, clarify morphological terminology, and give two dichotomous identification keys. The bulk of the book consists of short descriptions for each plant, mentioning common and scientific names and taxonomical affiliation, a quote from one of Tolkien’s works, a discussion of the plant’s significance in the books, etymology, distribution and ecology, economic importance, and a formal botanical description. This information is mostly applicable to our world, but where available, details relevant to Tolkien’s world are also included. For most plants a stylised botanical illustration is added, on which more below.

Now, a book like this obviously raises the question: who is the intended audience? Although most plants occur in our world and Tolkien included all but two of the tree species occurring in England, as a botanical flora its real-world use is limited. Judd opens the book remarking how most people suffer from plant blindness, vegetation just being an amorphous green backdrop. But there is a certain irony in that statement. Tolkien loved plants, for sure, but he was no botanist. Some interesting quotes actually suggest a Flora of Middle-Earth internal 5slight disdain towards them – Tolkien considered technical restrictions on the flexible use of common names for groups of similar species the “pedantry of popularizing botanists”. Showy plant groups such as trees and flowering plants are well-represented here, but more inconspicuous groups get only a few (grasses) or single entries (e.g. ferns, mosses, mushrooms, sedges, and seaweeds). In my opinion, this suggests that they were just as much an amorphous green backdrop to Tolkien. To Tolkien’s credit though, Judd remarks repeatedly how appropriately he has situated plants in their environment or associated them with certain characters.

I would argue that this book is squarely aimed at the serious Tolkien fan, if only because Judd frequently refers the reader to drawings of plants in the illustrated editions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Húrin, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator – not the kinds of books I would expect on the shelves of casual fantasy readers. For the hardcore fan though, this book contains a wealth of information. Why did Tolkien, rather anachronistically, include coffee and potatoes as food plants? How grounded in reality are his fictional plants? Above all, it shows just how much Tolkien used flora to create atmosphere and bring his world to life.

“The illustrations deserve special mention […] The focus […] is always on the plants with characters skillfully woven into the image, sometimes only revealing themselves at a second glance.”

Flora of Middle-Earth internal 6The illustrations deserve special mention, as Walter Judd has created some 160 beautiful, stylised, black-and-white, woodcut-like illustrations (which were created digitally, as he explains). Though accurate and showing some details of flowers and leaves, I wonder whether their style might get in the way of field identification, though I guess that was never the primary aim. The real highlight is that almost all of them incorporate a vignette portraying a scene from the books where these plants are mentioned. The focus in these vignettes is always on the plants, with characters skillfully woven into the image, sometimes only revealing themselves at a second glance.

The Flora of Middle-Earth adds another layer to the existing body of serious scholarship on Tolkien’s work. Beautifully presented, this should strongly appeal to the serious Tolkien fan. They might even learn something about botany but will certainly come away with a greater appreciation of the importance of plants in both Tolkien’s world and ours.

“[…] how, then, did rainforests come to symbolise pristine wilderness? In short, because history is written by the winners.”

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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