A Hemlock by any other name…
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
[The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Knife in the Dark’, p. 191]
It is the 9th of June 2014, and we have recently passed the 97th anniversary of the moment when the invalided soldier J.R.R. Tolkien was mesmerised by his young wife, Edith, dancing for him near Roos in East Yorkshire. He later acknowledged to his son, Christopher, in a letter dated 11th July 1972 that this event inspired the romantic fictional encounter between the immortal Elven Princess, Lúthien Tinúviel with the mortal hero Beren. In his correspondence to his youngest son Tolkien mentioned the location, but also that the event took place in “a small woodland glade filled with ‘hemlocks’ (or other white umbellifers).”(1)
The personal importance of this event to Tolkien can be illustrated by the number of times he reworked this meeting in both poetry and prose between 1917 and 1954. He wrote at least four different versions of the encounter, and at least two summaries in which the ‘hemlocks’ aren’t mentioned. There are doubtless other versions which have not so far been published. In addition to the letter informing Christopher, he related the same genesis of the story to his American publishers in 1955 (2), and in a letter to Christopher Bretherton in 1965 (3). The symbolic importance to Tolkien of the woodland dance is also emphasised by that fact his own gravestone is inscribed with the name of ‘Lúthien’ under the name of Edith, and the fictional ‘Beren’ under his own name. Although the inspiration took place during World War One, it was of sufficient importance for Tolkien, more than half a century later, to insist that this event be memorialised by the addition of ‘Lúthien’ to his wife’s tombstone.
So, why was this West Midlander J.R.R. Tolkien in a remote peaceful woodland glade in East Yorkshire, while the First World War was still raging several hundred miles to the south? Tolkien enlisted in the war as soon as he had sat his University finals, and in June 1916 he was sent to France to join the rest of the Lancashire fusiliers. After involvement in the Battle of the Somme in July he contracted Trench Fever, and he returned to England in November to convalesce. Initially, Tolkien worked on his emerging mythology at Great Heywood in the Midlands, but in the spring of 1917 he was posted to the Humber Garrison in East Yorkshire. One result of Trench Fever were recurrent bouts of high temperatures and debility, and it was during these that Tolkien spent some time recuperating at Brooklands’ Officer’s Hospital in Hull through 1917 and 1918. This period of recuperation saw “Tolkien’s Mythology for England” really begin to take shape, and he first wrote about two characters, which he would later state was the most central story of his mythology. His readers first became aware of Beren and Lúthien as background figures when they were captivated by The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), but their true significance was only really appreciated when The Silmarillion was published posthumously in 1977.
Determining which particular species Tolkien was referring to when he used the word ‘hemlocks’ may help to both visualise the setting and approximately date the event, as different umbellifers flower at specific times of the year. In the official biography, which was published in the same year as The Silmarillion, Humphrey Carpenter dated these events to spring 1918, but the diligent research of John Garth has shown that spring 1917 is the correct year. According to Richard Fitter “many other umbellifers are loosely referred to as hemlock”(4), and Tolkien’s letter quoted above indicates this was precisely the case with him. Rather surprisingly the linguistically precise Tolkien was vague about this particular subject. So, was the species he saw actually Hemlock (Conium maculatum)? “Tall” is one of the most constant adjectives ascribed to hemlocks in the many versions of the fictional encounter Tolkien wrote, including the extract from the poem quoted at the head of this article. There is no doubt that Hemlock, which can exceed seven-feet in height amply fulfils that criterion. However, there are legitimate reasons for believing that the poisonous plant Hemlock is not the species, which surrounded the dancing Edith. Hemlock gives off a really unpleasant scent even before it comes into flower, sometimes likened to an infestation of mice. When Hemlock begins to flower the smell is even more intense and pungent, and there can hardly be a less romantic aroma to accompany a real-life, or fictional love story. Also, Tolkien explicitly states that the actual dance took place in a woodland glade, and this is not really the suitable habitat for a large growth of Hemlock. They are much more likely to be found in open areas not shaded by trees, such as waste ground or by roads and stream-banks.
Another possible contender for the species which Tolkien saw could be Cow Parsnip, also commonly known as Hogweed (Heracleum sphonydylium). In some respects this seems more likely than Hemlock, as it does not have an unpleasant smell, and it commonly grows in woodland. Flora Britannica notes that in June “areas of rough grassland full of the large white flower discs can seem almost luminous under the full moon.”(5) On the negative side it does not grow as tall as Hemlock, or some other umbellifers, and its larger, flatter flower discs do not cluster in such a way that fits Tolkien’s description of the flowers as like a “cloud” (6) or a “mist” (7). Phil Mathison discovered during research for his book Tolkien in East Yorkshire, that the spring of 1917 in East Yorkshire was “of an exceptional nature, brilliantly fine and warm.”(8). The spring of 2014 was similarly advanced, so it may be possible to approximately date Edith’s dance by comparing the flowering period of the relevant umbellifer species. In 2014 both Hemlock and Hogweed began to flower in the Roos area on almost exactly the 1st of June, and both should continue to flower for at least two months, and longer in the case of the Hogweed. Superficially this agrees with the earliest surviving version of the story, which states that “on a time of June they were playing there, and the white umbels of the hemlocks were like a cloud about the boles of the trees.” (6).
Despite the explicit use of June in the first version, Tolkien complicated the spring time-frame by including additional botanical details in later versions. In The Lay of Leithian the meeting of the lovers takes place after the chestnuts had recently shed their flowering candles (9). In 2014 at the latitude of Roos the Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) started to flower before the end of April, and the flowers had all been dropped by around the third week in May. This version would seem to be set earlier than June, as by then the chestnut flowers would have turned brown, and started to rot away.
A third species of umbellifer, Cow Parsley (Anthricus sylvestris) also known as Queen Anne’s Lace flowers at the correct time. According to Flora Britannica: “Cow Parsley is arguably the most important spring landscape flower in Britain. For nearly all of May, almost every country road is edged with its froth of white blooms.”(10). The froth of white blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace is the most accurate fit with Tolkien’s description of the hemlocks as being “like a cloud” or “like a mist,” and, as many of the flowers exceed six feet in height, the epithet “tall” is also fitting. John Garth’s researches in East Yorkshire led him to identify Tolkien’s ‘hemlocks’ as Queen Anne’s Lace or Cow Parsley (11), and Dinah Hazell in the Plants of Middle-earth concurs (12).
It may be possible to roughly estimate the date of Edith’s dance by comparing the flowering period of Queen Anne’s Lace at Roos in the spring of 2014 and extrapolating that back to 1917. This year the white umbels began to open in sheltered spots around the 1st of May, and by 10th of May it was a fine spectacle – it remained in this condition for most of the rest of the month. However, in Dents Garth, the supposed site of Edith’s dance in Roos, the flowering was definitely beginning to look tired and faded in most places of the woodland by 27th of May. Heavy rain both on and subsequent to that date ensured it did not survive into June. It is unlikely that Tolkien would have commented favourably on the beauty of the whiteness of the ‘hemlocks’ if it had already begun to fade, so a date in June seems rather unlikely. This would suggest that Edith Tolkien’s dance occurred during the month of May 1917, with some time after the tenth of the month being the most likely.
When Aragorn quotes the lines of verse about Beren and Lúthien given at the top of this page, it would not have been appropriate for him to have called the flower Queen Anne’s Lace. The name of a seventeenth-century English monarch would not have fitted easily either into the scansion of the poem or a narrative set in a remote past! It would have been an equally unsuitable name for events from the First Age of Middle-earth, which is placed in an even more remote millennia. The alternative name of Cow Parsley may not have been aesthetically pleasing to Tolkien for different reasons, but there are many other localised names he could have used. In various parts of the United Kingdom Cow Parsley is known as Mother Die, Step-mother, Grandpa’s Pepper, Hedge Parsley, Badman’s Oatmeal and even Rabbit Meat! Of these only Hedge Parsley seems acceptable as a possible alternative for the hemlock, which was the one he utilised. Tolkien may have been unaware when he wrote The Book of Lost Tales with its diminutive protagonists that another vernacular name for Cow Parsley is the highly appropriate Fairy Lace! Of course Tolkien may simply not have been interested in knowing the precise name used by botanists or local rural folk. He called all similar umbellifers ‘hemlocks’, and what was good enough for him was also good enough for his story of tragic lovers.
Anyone with a vaguely classical education in the late-nineteenth century would have been aware that Socrates was sentenced to death, and was poisoned by a fatal drink of hemlock. Socrates, despite the urging of his friends accepted the courts’ decision and nobly drank the fatal dose whilst still discoursing to his disciples. Hemlock is therefore associated from ancient times with a story of noble self-sacrifice, and it seems highly appropriate that Tolkien utilised the name hemlock at the very commencement of his great story of love and self-sacrifice. It seems Tolkien selected the name ‘hemlock’, either from a lack of precise botanical knowledge of the exact species he saw, or because he felt that that word fitted best within his story.
I have shown beyond reasonable doubt that Cow Parsley is the species Tolkien intended as the “great misty growth” of “white umbels…like a cloud about the boles of the trees”(6). This identification and the examination of the flowering period of the plant at Roos this spring confirms that Edith’s dance almost certainly occurred after 10th of May and before the 31st of May 1917.
You can also view this blog post on my blog. All photographs, unless stated otherwise, are copyright Michael Flowers 2014.
Postscript: 11-06-2014: I travelled approximately 30 miles north of Roos today to Wharram Percy (near Wetwang) on the Yorkshire Wolds, and was surprised to see Cow Parsley still in flower. In fact it was in better condition than those blooms in Roos on 27th May. Roos is more or less at sea level, but Wharram Percy is approx 550 feet above sea level. It’s amazing the difference 30 miles north & a much higher location, which faces north can have on flowering times.
- Letters, No. 340, p. 420.
- Ibid., No. 165, p. 221.
- Ibid., No. 257, p. 345.
- Wild Flowers, p. 180.
- Flora Britannica, p. 294.
- Book of Lost Tales II, p. 10.
- Lays of Beleriand, p. 174.
- Tolkien in East Yorkshire, p. 45.
- Lays of Beleriand, p. 174.
- Flora Britannica, p. 283.
- Tolkien and the Great War, p. 238.
- The Plants of Middle-earth, p. 54.
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: a Life, London: Allen & Unwin, 1977.
Richard Fitter et al, Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, London: A & C Black, 2003.
John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, London: Harper Collins, 2003.
Dinah Hazell, The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-Creation, Kent: Kent Univ Press, 2006.
Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, London: Chatto & Windus, 1997.
Phil Mathison, Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917-1918: An Illustrated Tour, Newport: Dead Good, 2012.
Tolkien’s Works Consulted
The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, London: Harper Collins, 2004.
The Silmarillion, London: Harper Collins, 1999.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London: Allen & Unwin, 1981.
The Book of Lost Tales Part Two, London: Harper Collins, 2002.
The Lays of Beleriand, London: Harper Collins, 2002.
The Shaping of Middle-Earth, London: Harper Collins, 2002.
The Lost Road, London: Harper Collins, 2002.
Morgoth’s Ring, London: Harper Collins, 2002.
The War of the Jewels, London: Harper Collins, 2002.