Talkin’ Bout Tolkien – A Secret Vice and The Plants of Middle-Earth

The Plants of Middle-Earth

The Plants of Middle-Earth: Botany and Sub-Creation by Dina Hazell

★★★★ | GoodReads | IndieBound | Wordery

I purchased this book expecting a field guide of sorts to the plants found in Middle-earth*. The Plants of Middle-earth instead uses said greenery as a point from which to explore various themes and concepts in Tolkien’s work. Hazell argues that Tolkien’s careful selection and naming of plants both real and fantastic reflects the implications of the grander tale.

The Lord of the Rings is far too complex to be reduced to a simple tale of good versus evil, but one of the questions that must be asked is whether it is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic. Tolkien explores the issue in many places, not least in his botany, where he directs our gaze toward the ephemeral beauty of a single bloom and the enduring strength of nature. (43)

I particularly liked the chapter “Forest and Trees”, which discusses significance of trees (beyond the role of Ents) via a tour of the forests of Middle-Earth. I also came to appreciate a brief aside on modernization and Sarehole Mill, which I initially thought was somewhat removed from the topic (84 to 87).

Of course, The Lord of the Rings cannot become commonplace, regardless of how often we read it. But hopefully awareness of its plant life will offer a new perspective for future visits to Middle-earth. (95)

The Plants of Middle-earth is a pretty little book, an example of why one might prefer physical over digital. The deep green binding is soft to touch and the pages have a bit of weight to them. The lovely illustrations are one of this book’s feature attractions. However, the illustrations were not captioned. I could usually figure out which plant featured in the illustrations, but some pages described multiple plants and I wasn’t quite sure what was being depicted. For those wondering about the artists, that information is tucked in the back of the book (117).

I recommend this book for a fresh take on the world of Middle-earth, through the lens of its plentiful plant life.

*For anyone interested in such a field guide, a forthcoming release from Oxford UP (Flora of Middle-Earth) might be the book we’re looking for.

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins

★★★★ | GoodReads | Chapters | Wordery

The title A Secret Vice refers to a talk that J.R.R. Tolkien originally gave in 1931. He discussed the joys of inventing language and the significant role language has to play in mythology creation.

I had previously read parts of Tolkien’s essay back 2013, when I fulfilled a years long dream of writing about Tolkien for my undergrad degree. The paper I wrote was titled “Retaining Meaning: Translating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth”, and it dealt very much with Tolkien’s passion for language creation. I was pleased to learn A Secret Vice” was being released in similar to fashion to “On Fairy-Stories”, which was released in an independent volume titled Tolkien On Fairy Stories. This book would have been handy to have around during my undergrad!

The talk itself spans 31 pages. A brief “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism” is also included in the book. (The editors theorize that Tolkien may have written the essay to expand on ideas not integral to “A Secret Vice” [63].) A 54 page introduction serves well in providing context for the actual essay. Not just padding, the introduction explores the social and cultural context in which Tolkien was writing as well characteristics of his invented languages. A 15 page coda after the essay and manuscripts titled “The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien’s Invented Languages” continues the style of the introduction in exploring Tolkien’s impact. Finally, manuscripts are also included. Sometimes these can reveal a lot about a writer’s development of thought, but I skipped them in this volume.

Originally a talk given to a literary society (xxxi), “A Secret Vice” has a relatively casual and at times self-deprecating tone. Having read so much of Tolkien’s fiction, I find it something of a novelty to read in his own ‘voice’. Fans of Tolkien or those interested in constructed languages will appreciate the sentiments expressed and ideas explored in A Secret Vice.

Do either of these books interest you? Is there a fantasy world for which you would like to read a plants field guide?
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