In the Land of Nameless Flowers

Long ago, writing The Hobbit and describing for the first time Bilbo’s visit to the house of Beorn in “Queer Lodgings,” Tolkien wrote “…Bilbo…swung his dangling legs and looked at the flowers in the garden, wondering what their names could be – he had never seen half of them before” (John Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit: Mr. Baggins, 2012: 234).  Bilbo Baggins sat there on the far side of the Misty Mountains and he looked at the flowers before him and he knew he was seeing things that he hadn’t ever seen before.

Fairy Slippers

Fairy Slippers in the Blue Mountains
not far from Grey Havens

In his scholarship as a philologist and mythologist, Tolkien enjoyed making little discoveries and taking little unexpected journeys.  He knew well the pleasure in finding the shapes of some of the strange flowers that have given rise to the flowers we know, and he tried to share that magic experience with us.  One way to do this, he understood, was to insert into his legendarium hidden allusions to obscurities – literary and otherwise.  In recent decades researchers have had much pleasure in finding many pieces of many clever puzzles in Tolkien’s work, a labor that is known in Tolkien studies as “source criticism.”

For the chapter “Queer Lodgings” scholars have made some fascinating connections to various traditions that inspired Tolkien.  Mark Hooker (Tolkien and Welsh, 2012:180-181) has found The Mabinogion and a man who served as the keeper of a forest and its wild animals; John Rateliff (The History of the Hobbit: Mr. Baggins, 2012: 256-261, 266-268) has described finding Bothvar Bjarki and Dr. Dolittle.  These connections are convincing.  Tolkien was nothing if not an incisive scholar of Northern European traditional literature.  Scholars all over the world delight in sifting through this literature for the details that shaped Middle-earth, and when they gather at their conferences their stories aim at putting names on all the strange European flowers that Tolkien hid in Middle-earth.

And then one day I happened to open a book from another world entirely.  It contained the legendarium of my father’s ancestors.  I found there a very interesting story.  I spent the next few days reading the story.  Then I put down the book and I went to Grey Havens and we discussed “Queer Lodgings.”  I told the story of what I had been reading, and it seemed like a strange tale, hearing myself tell it, as if speaking of a flower without a name.

At the end of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins returns to Beorn’s enchanted realm for a long visit.  He is reluctant to leave “for the flowers of the gardens of Beorn were in springtime no less marvellous than in high summer.”  And yes, there are many marvelous flowers hidden in Tolkien’s legendarium.  And surely there are fascinating mysteries to find for those who look.  For this reason, as all the scholars of Tolkien’s sources know, to name the nameless things of Middle-earth is to participate in a quite unexpected journey.

3 thoughts on “In the Land of Nameless Flowers

  1. And so in the Grey Havens meeting of Thursday, January 31, I spoke of a story told long ago among my father’s people. It tells how a boy followed a father grizzly bear to its cave-home in a cedar grove (Tolkien’s first draft: “He lives [in] an oak-wood…”; “I believe he sometimes sleeps in the little cave [at the base of Carrock]”). The boy is given power to become a bear, and when asked to choose a companion, he selected a little black bear (“Bjarki” means “little bear”) that is transformed into a “fine black horse,” and the grizzly also granted him another gray horse (Tolkien: “…he keeps… horses which are nearly as marvelous as him”). Getting into a fight with an evil man, the boy and the man both turn into bears and the magic horse helps the boy to kill the evil man, and people are understandably nervous about the dangerous character of the boy (Tolkien: “…you must be careful not to annoy him…”). The boy is offered a pipe to smoke; accepting it and smoking this tobacco pipe, he becomes their leader (Tolkien: “…and he took out his pipe” – Gandalf smoked a tobacco pipe for the first time in the house of Beorn). Thinking of his horse that is the cub of the father grizzly, the new young leader said to everyone, “Seeing my ponies upon the hill, never touch or scold them” (Tolkien: Beorn loaned the dwarves ponies and shadowed them “Not only to guard you and guide you, but to keep an eye on the ponies” because “he loves his animals as his children”). The young leader had to capture a white bird and he did so using a ball of spider silk given to him by a tarantula (Tolkien: his first outline was a short list that started with Medwed [aka Beorn] and featured an enigmatic “white swan” and a “ball of twine” that later turned out to be the silk of a giant spider). When someone happened to hit the young leader’s horse with a stick, both he and the horse turned into bears and they went berserk and slaughtered many people (Tolkien: “…you had better keep your promises anyway, for he is a bad enemy”). Then the young leader and his horse-bear returned to the home of the father grizzly bear in his cedar grove (Tolkien: “I heard him growl in the tongue of bears: ‘The day will come when they will perish and I shall go back’”). These details in the two tales – as well as other details that seem both relevant and marvelous – seem remarkably coincidental, I would say. But the two stories were born in two different worlds, and even though Tolkien was a quite accomplished mythologist, surely he never read anything other than the tales that we know he read; that is, Tolkien only knew the legendarium of Europe. Right?

  2. Thanks for sharing the story in the comment. It does correlate remarkably well. It lends some credence to the idea of universal stories/archetypes…as well as the Tolkien’s notion of Truth present in all myth.

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