Non-Fiction Reviews

Flora of Middle-Earth
Plants of J. R. R. Tolkien's Legendarium

( 2017 ) , Oxford University Press, £25 / US$34, pbk, xv + 406pp, ISBN 978-0-190-27631-7


The detailed descriptive style of J. R. R. Tolkien in his fantasy work has left many generations of readers imagining the idyllic wilderness and countryside of Middle-Earth. While there is a clear parallel to a lost English summer-shire, there is also a strangeness that makes this nostalgia a world all of its own.

The Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium by Walter and Graham Judd is a comprehensive description of the plants found in J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. This work lists alphabetically all the plants real and imagined, gives you a description of each plant, its distribution in our world (where applicable) and where, how and why it is used by Tolkien in his Middle Earth books. There are also woodcut style illustrations of the plants. It brings an in-depth knowledge of both botany in the context of the works of Tolkien to readers.

However, this book is maybe a little too in-depth for most readers: you would need to have a very keen interest to want to read this from start to finish; it is very much a thoroughly researched reference book.  Given that it is a reference work of real world botany, but in a fictional context I am not sure in what circumstances you would want or need to refer to it?  The woodcut illustrations are lovely, but might be better if they were in colour. Ideally, the work could be reimagined as a sumptuous coffee table book, but in its current form, the book does not meet that aspiration.  Given that, aside from the writers’ painstaking and noble self-interest, in this form it is difficult to see where the audience lies for such a detailed study.

Conversely, if someone was very keen on both plants and Tolkien, then The Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium is incredibly well researched, giving you: the location in Tolkien's works that references to plants are found; the context in which it is presented in the text as well as the botanical description and the etymology of the name of the plant used.  It also demonstrates the depth of research that Tolkien himself used in the creation of Middle Earth.  No reference to plants in Tolkien's works are accidental: each is carefully thought out.  And so it does, perhaps, raise the bar for any author aspiring to be the next Tolkien as it reveals the minute detail and knowledge in his works in areas of Middle-Earth that do not get as much attention as others by scholars who focus on timelines, poetry, music or reading the work critically and re-interpreting its themes.

The Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's is an inspirational, if dry, read for enthusiasts of botany, Tolkien and fantasy world-building.  If this combination is something that you seek, it might be that you find your answers here.

Karen Fishwick

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