The Treachery of Images by René Magritte is a painting better known than the name of its painter. It portrays a short-stemmed pipe against a yellow background — Ceci n’est pas une pipe, it reads below. This is not a pipe. It is a pedantic lesson that the painting teaches, more likely to roll eyes than to spur thought. Yet when it comes to fiction, The Treachery of Images makes its most incisive point. With the imaginary, there is no material to handle or examine, there is only the private experience of what has been imagined, and the choice to talk about it afterwards, or not at all.
Magritte’s painting came to mind more than once as I read Flora of Middle-earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium, by Walter S. Judd and Graham A. Judd. Purporting to be a survey of nearly every plant type and botanical species in the legendarium, it reads like a scientific textbook, affording etymological and taxonomical details (including, where available, the Elvish words), geographical distribution, ecology, economic uses, and physical descriptions of everything from the apples and potatoes growing in the Shire to the healing herb kingsfoil, and the towering mallorn-trees of Lórien.
Unlike the previously published Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Subcreation (2015) by Dinah Hazell, Flora of Middle-earth is the work of a professional biologist and his illustrator son, both impressed enough by Tolkien’s attention to botanical detail to undertake such a project. Their methodology is guided by a belief that Tolkien’s writings “in no way encourage an escape from reality but are meant to reconnect us to important elements of our internal and cultural landscape and also to impact how we interact with other individuals and with the world in which we live—including the landscapes of our natural environment.”
As a work of fandom their book is a tribute of love, the kind that Tolkien’s writings continually inspire in readers of all stripes. As the work of professional scientists, however, it subjects its material to scientific analogies without fully considering what that means for Tolkien’s fiction.
The book’s thoroughness and detail is exhilarating. Though most of the information it offers can be found in field guides, encyclopedias, and other reference sources, I did not really appreciate the variety of plants Tolkien portrays in his world until I read it. Sated with Tolkien’s love of trees and his obsession with climatic and ecological details, a reader can easily overlook the diversity and careful placement of Middle-earth’s plant-life. Flowers and shrubs are everywhere, from Bagshot Row to Morgul Vale. The biomes of Tolkien’s world show a profound ecological insight, from the First Age through to the Fourth.
While much of Flora of Middle-earth’s prose is numbingly terminological, and its statements concerning the reality of Middle-earth too self-assured, its appreciation for this variety makes for enriching reading. Furthermore, it is refreshing that the authors recognize the pipeweed of the Shire is a kind of tobacco rather than the cannabis some interpretations—including Peter Jackson’s films—suggest.
The Flora of Middle-earth is a work of scientific analogy. In other words, readers who want to learn more about Middle-earth’s pine trees or holly or fireweed will simply learn more about the kind we find on our own world. Fictional plants such as kingsfoil, the fragrant trees of Eressëa, and the white tree of Gondor are invariably compared with species found on Earth. With proper insight and humility, this approach can be justified. Fiction is, after all, achieved through the rearrangement of nonfictional elements—just try to make something up without referring to something already made.
The authors’ claim that Tolkien’s world is our own, however, is highly contestable. Tolkien privileged freedom and fluidity, dictating no inner meanings, preferring “history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” An enthusiast cannot help having an enthusiastic reaction to what stimulates him. A botanist’s mind will bloom at the mention of plants. Does that privilege him over other readers? The nature of fiction precludes any certainty. With The Lord of the Rings, we are given a secret world, especially remote, some of whose regions are beyond description. Frodo’s reaction to entering Lothlórien, specific as it is, might readily apply to the whole of Tolkien’s works:
“A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear-cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.”
Scientific approaches to fantasy—whether to catalogue or to rationalize—are not new. The ancient Greeks did it; medieval scholars did it. In modern fantasy literature, Peter Dickinson’s Flight of Dragons (1979) made a theme of it, his protagonist using science first to corroborate, and then largely to disprove, the imaginary world he visits.
As for Tolkien, his works provide favourite material for scientific speculation. Henry Gee’s Science of Middle-earth, now in its second edition, offers essays on how dragons breathe fire, how orcs reproduce, and whether balrogs can fly. A 2015 article in The Atlantic looked at the unparalleled appeal of Tolkien’s writings to professional scientists, evidenced not only by the number of new species given Tolkienian scientific names, but also by the sort of speculation published in academic journals. Issues tackled by scientists include the oxygen content of Middle-earth’s atmosphere (allowing for men’s greater physical strength), and Gollum’s particular mental illness.
So immersive has Tolkien’s world proved, that people of all passions have seen their own interests—as well as their own prejudices—reflected in its pools.
Flora of Middle-earth is felicitous homage to Tolkien’s world building, but it is unlikely to attract many botanists or Tolkienists, much less casual readers. A passion project it proceeds, seemingly without care for an audience, shoring its opinions with insouciance and data. Given the abundance of previously published material, its analyses would have benefited from a more sensitive consideration of the literary side of things. Though it dutifully lists the many names of each plant, no attention is given to the fact that Tolkien himself claimed to be working from a translation, putting yet another fence between description and reality.
Just as any dish or cup on our own table is less interesting than one in Bilbo’s cupboards, so will the Flora of Middle-earth prove less interesting than the actual flora of Middle-earth.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com