A Dishevelled Dryad Loveliness

Frodo and Sam have journeyed through many landscapes since they left Bag End together stepping out onto the Road that Bilbo once sang about, that “Goes ever on and on”. From the gentle woodlands and fields of the Shire to the tangling branches of the Old Forest to the wilds of Eriador; from the magical lands of Rivendell and Lothlorien to the dreadful desolation before the Gate of Mordor, they have seen so much that will change them for ever.

Now they have arrived in the land of Ithilien, once the garden of Gondor upon its northern borders but now fallen into the hands of the Enemy who has already begun his work of destruction. But the foul work of his servants has only recently begun and although Frodo and Sam see many signs of that work they still see for the first time upon their journey Spring “busy about them” with small flowers “opening in the turf” and birds singing. And Tolkien tells us that “Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a desolate dryad loveliness”.

I cannot think of another occasion in The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien strays from his own mythology, so carefully formed, to bring in an image from another. Perhaps it was a mistake. But it is a phrase of such beauty that maybe we can imagine that if on re-reading his work Tolkien noticed it there, a stray from a classical land, he allowed it to remain and to work its own particular magic upon the land that he described by means of it.

For Ithilien is a land that for centuries has been tended by men and women. It bears testimony to the possibility that human beings of the highest civilisation are capable of living in such harmony with nature they can make a garden that can yet give space to wildness. After many pages of dreariness Tolkien gives space himself to rich language as he writes of the many things that still grow there, of groves and thickets “of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay…and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam”. Simply to write the names of the plants that grow in this land is to write a poetry that delights the senses as well as mind and spirit.

In his recently published book, Landmarks, that wonderful writer about wildness, Robert Macfarlane notes that a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled many words related to nature from its pages so that “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron…” had all been removed to be replaced for the first time with “attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail”.

The cull did not go unnoticed and when the head of children’s dictionaries at the OUP was asked about them she replied that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance,” she said; “that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Nowadays the environment has changed and if we are to accept what she says, children no longer see the seasons. It is hard not to think that if Frodo and Sam were to find themselves in our own world they might think that the servants of the Enemy had been at work among us and that the diminishment of our language was a part of that work even as they saw “wounds made by the Orcs and other foul servants of the Dark Lord” all of whom were just trying to make a living.

I passed by proud swans this morning watching carefully over their newly born brood of five cygnets and a heron rising ponderously from the ground a little further on and rejoiced in them. I have hopes that one day I will see otters near by as others have seen them in the past year. And I write these words in a blog, using a broadband connection and complain when the connection lets me down as it sometimes does in my semi-rural home and I am grateful to them for what they enable me to do.

How do I live this tension well?