Calling Names

Robert Macfarlane’s essay on nature and children, naming and literature, got me thinking about the first big book I read myself. It was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, of course, three books. I was ten-ish, a late bloomer. As it happens, a new book called Flora of Middle Earth also delves into the name theme.

Since Middle-Earth is supposed to be an prehistorical version of the northwestern corner of Eurasia, the plants in this book are not unfamiliar, although evolution is evidently not a factor, and plate tectonics the dark work of Morgoth…. Actually, this is, of course, a flora of Britain. Just add some New World tobacco (pipeweed, that famous Longbottom leaf that doesn’t cause cancer or emphysema) and some mythological trees. Otherwise the oaks, rowans, alders, willows, daisies, roses etc., are all old friends, or their cousins across the sea. “References to heather [or ling or ljung (Swedish) or lyng (Old Norse)] are frequent” in Tolkien.

We learn here, too, that JRRT changed “tomatoes” to “pickles” in a later edition of The Hobbit. New World goodies just didn’t make sense, but he kept the lone reference to “coffee” in that book as well, since that came from the other direction.

One of the best things about this Flora are the etymological notes. Tolkien was a language maven; his fiction was cosplay to dress up his invented languages. Here’s an instance: the name of the fruit of the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), the sloe, is from the Old English slah, plural slan. (Slan is the Swedish today.) This comes from the Proto Indo-European *sleie, meaning “blue, bluish, blue-black.” (The * before PIE words indicate that they are historical reconstructions by linguists.)

Havtorn in Danish and Swedish. Seathorn, Seaberry, Sea Buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides. Not a plant of Middle-Earth, evidently, which I find hard to believe. These berries are edible and have a complex, appealing tartness, just thing for Hobbits, who are, as you know, tougher than they look.

1 Response to “Calling Names”


  1. 1 peopleplaceswords October 1, 2017 at 10:53 am

    lovely images and prose glorifying middle earth


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