Tolkien’s Trees

Michiel van Hout

“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size).

I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands.”

J.R.R. Tolkien


If you are a Tolkien fan, there is a good chance that you share his interest in nature. Tolkien was a lover of trees. Just like Elven queen Galadriel called the gardener hobbit Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings a lover of trees. The young Tolkien learned his enthusiasm for botany at the knee of his mother, whom he always held in the highest regard. In a letter to the Houghton Mifflin Co. from 1955, Tolkien wrote: “I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.” No wonder that Orcs and the villainous wizard Saruman, who destroyed Fangorn Forest for the benefit of his war industry, do not care about the wellbeing of trees at all.

Tolkien’s oeuvre mentions and describes many different plants. Some of Tolkien’s trees do not exist outside of Middle Earth, like the mallorn tree that only grows in the forest of Lothlórien. However, many of them are quite common, also in and around Oxford, like the oak, the willow, the beech, and the birch. In the street where I live in North Oxford, a giant birch is watching the area. It has a silver bark like the beautiful stems in the forest of Brethil, and it reminds me of the famous white tree of Minas Tirith, which King Aragorn chose to carry in his banner.

Image of MoriaImage of Treebeard

In Oxford, you can still see the same trees that Tolkien passed by. For example in the Fellow’s Garden of his Alma Mater, Exeter College, and on Addison’s Walk in Magdalen College, where he strolled in deep conversations with his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis. Yet, Oxford does not have the monopoly on trees that inspired Tolkien’s writing. Though he did not like traveling – just like a hobbit – he also met trees in places outside of Oxfordshire, from the trees at Sarehole in Warwickshire, where he played as a young boy, to the hemlock glade at Roos in East Yorkshire, where his Muse and later wife Edith danced for him. From the half a millennium old sessile oaks of Brocton Coppice in Staffordshire, where Tolkien was stationed during the Great War, to the trees in the gate of St

Edward’s Church in Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, which may have inspired the gates that protect the Mines of Moria.

Most famous of Tolkien’s trees are the Ents, which technically are not trees, as they can talk and walk. They also inspired C.S. Lewis to include similar sentient trees in The Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien got the idea for these shepherds of the trees while he was sitting under his favourite friend in the Botanical Gardens of Oxford, the oldest botanical gardens in the world, founded in 1621 under king Charles II. Tolkien named his friend, a large black pine from the 1830s, Laocoon, after the priest who prophesied in vain that the big wooden Trojan horse would mean the end of Troy. While Tolkien was sitting under his favourite black pine, he was considering his disappointment with Shakespeare’s walking forest, as portrayed in Macbeth. The Scottish nobleman understood from the prophecy of the three witches that he would be king and would only be defeated upon seeing a walking forest. Eventually, this walking forest turned out to be merely an army of camouflaged soldiers. Tolkien imagined the more satisfying alternative of a truly walking forest of Ents, when they finally decided to join the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Tolkien’s attachment to the black pine is so famous that in 2023, sixty years after his death, the Oxford distillery honoured this anniversary with the exclusive Black Pine whiskey. Unfortunately, Laocoon himself had previously died in 2014 and had to be cut down. Yet, his siblings are still standing strong, and you can admire them in the Botanic Gardens, visible from High Street on the side of Rose Lane. Seven years after Laocoon’s death, the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, planted a tree in the Literary Garden, grown from Laocoon’s seed. Those who decide to visit the Botanic Gardens can look for this developing lad. One day, it may be as impressive for future generations as his father used to be for Tolkien. For tree lovers who are willing to travel a bit further, a visit to the Hartcourt Arboretum, south of Oxford, may be a satisfying experience as well, with over 130 acres of the world’s rare and endangered trees.

In 1992, a hundred years after Tolkien’s birth in Bloemfontein in South-Africa, the Tolkien Society along with the Mythopoeic Society, organised the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference at Keble College. You can enter University Park, which also holds a beautiful collection of trees that Tolkien was fond of, on Parks Road at the side of the Chapel of Keble College. From there it is a ten minute straightforward walk over the path that leads along the University of Oxford Cricket Club to the high bridge over the Cherwell river. From there, the third bench on the right was installed and dedicated to Tolkien’s memory, donated by the conference that held a collection for the purpose. Also, two nearby trees were planted, named Telperion and Laurelin, to represent their eponymous examples from The Silmarillion. Lauralin, a false acacia, was later damaged by a lawn mower, which makes it a lot smaller than Telperion, a silver maple. A new Laurelin was planted but it got ill and died, and has since been removed. The bench (see photo) was renovated in 2015 and once again it clearly shows the dedication to the Father of Fantasy.

Another tree that Tolkien passed frequently is the characteristic horse chestnut in Lamb & Flag Passage. It leads to the Lamb and Flag pub, one of the places where the Inklings liked to come together. Above the door of the recently renovated pub, you can read in Elvish the password that confused Gandalf in his attempts to gain access to the aforementioned gates of the hell of Moria: speak friend and enter. Still, for Tolkien trees had a much more profound meaning than a friend or access to another realm. For the devoutly Catholic Tolkien trees had a deep meaning, comparable to the tree that Niggle was painting in the symbolic story Leaf of Niggle. Eventually, this tree becomes Niggle’s access to a state of paradise. Christians believe this transition to be the destination for all of mankind, as the fall of man came from eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In its turn, the other tree in the garden of Eden, the tree of life, provided the seed that eventually gave mankind the tree of Calvary, the cross where the Redeemer died and opened the gates to hell and paradise.

Michiel van Hout


► Moria’s gate in St Edward’s Church, Stow-on-The-Wold (Wikipedia)

► Treebeard the Ent from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation (Wikipedia)

► Tolkien under his favourite black pine Laocoon (Wikipedia)

► Michiel on the Tolkien Memorial Bench in University Park (Aemilia van Hout)

Share the Post:

Related Posts

We use cookies to give you the best possible service. By continuing, you agree to the use of cookies. Privacy policy