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.
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.