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?

9 thoughts on “A Dishevelled Dryad Loveliness

  1. Stephen, once more I love your words here… And I always enjoy your descriptions of walking around your home!

    I may be a little tangential here, sorry, but your post spoke to me of our power of seeing… and openness… and balance, and of the almost indestructability of life and hope and joy.

    You said
    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”

    To me it is in the league of the laughter of which you wrote last week.. That unsquashable capacity for Joy… That Frodo and Sam, although disheartened by the obvious signs of the work of Sauron against all that is beautiful, are not overwhelmed by it. They do not become closed to the signs of hope and love and beauty that still exist. They still have the ability to look.. And to see… And to be touched by these. It’s all too easy to only see darkness at times.

    There is a timeless quality to dryads… From a classical land, as you say, and bearing resonance to me of all the timeless endurance and Knowledge of the Ents, alongside the hint of their fragility… Their desolation speaks to me of an aching loneliness of beauty in the destruction of the land. But that the beauty has endured, be it in small ways, bears such hope. This, after the wastelands before the Gates of Mordor, must have been a healing balm to the journeyers.

    But it would all have passed them by if they had not been open to seeing… People often travel with so much of the cares and pressures of the world upon their shoulders that the Swan on her nest, or the heron, or perhaps the tiny green mosses in a city wall.. or the beauty of the ever persistent one o’clock, may pass them by.

    In fact, writing this reminds me of your post some months ago about Legolas and Gimli and their power of seeing and connecting with the land.

    As for the tension that you refer to with your reference to broadband and nature.. You encapsulate that and have written on this issue before… about the positive side of both, and all that modern changes have brought to our lives for the good, as well as their negative impacts. And I love that honesty. I wonder if the first step toward reconciliation is to be open to see the positive potential of all things, and to acknowledge the difficulty of reconciliation, as you have … To be honest… And to hope that this honesty of seeing will engender prayer and striving toward a personal and wider political effort to bring these different sides of our need into more of a mutually supportive balance..? These are the words of the land of wishes perhaps and not of reality as it is experienced in today’s world.. but… there’s always hope…

    People like Robert McFarlane
    do wonderful work in raising these issues, and the surge of support against the appallingly sad news of the “lost words” on Twitter was astonishing… There’s always hope…

  2. Thank you so much for taking time to write these wonderful thoughts and for taking time to engage with my wrestlings. My fundamental question is “What is an authentic life that honours the tension that I feel but is not just hypocrisy or weak compromise?” Sometimes I ask myself whether I should have lived the life of a hermit in the woods but I know the reasons why I made all the choices that I did make. I chose to be a parish priest and then an officer for an Anglican diocese. I chose to marry and then to have children with all that that entails. Of course, even as I write these things, I know that they were chosen for me too. I know that all of these were the fruit of my own desire but I tried to make each one with as much honesty as I could, with the “Reverence, Responsibility and… Serious Thought” that the Preface to the Marriage Service speaks of. If that is so then anything that approaches to authenticity must be true to those choices and the promises connected to them (The Ordination Vows, The Marriage Vows and the Baptism Promises).

  3. You know, I think I was in high school when I realized how disconnected most of my peers, and a lot of adults, were to Nature. It isn’t that they are not in it. It is more that they don’t pay attention to it very much. They are occupied with other things, and the natural world might as well be invisible, unless the weather happens to be inconvenient or unusually pleasant.

    I hope that changes. I do what I can in terms of pointing things out. As a result, people seem to think me some sort of expert, when in reality, I’m just curious.

  4. I think what you say is so true about so many in the western world. When I was a young minister in the heart of the city of Birmingham, England I took a group of young people camping out in the country. They found farm animals, like cattle, genuinely frightening as well as the dark at night. I wonder how they feel twenty five years later?

  5. This post resonated. I didn’t know that about the Junior Oxford Dictionary, how sad – both their decision to cull the words, and what it reflects of modern life. Passing through Ithilien was such a relief in the story – the names Tolkien chose for the plants and herbs in that land are indeed very poetic and peaceful.

    • It’s wonderful just how beautiful the names of plants are. How they have a poetry of their own. I think most of the plants are in our world too. I agree with you about the relief in the story. Tolkien was good at creating such spaces. And we need them in our lives as well.

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