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The Curious Case of Cerin Amroth

I have always been fascinated with Cerin Amroth, the tree-capped hill in Lothlorien where Haldir removed the blind-folds from the Fellowship.  He led Frodo up to the high flet that (presumably) marked where Amroth had once lived.  Tolkien’s description of the hill, topped with two circles of trees, always struck me as being modeled on a real place but I have never come across any attempts to identify such a place.

Maybe it is because there are (or were) several likely places in England that could have served as models for Cerin Amroth.  Just spending a little bit of time searching the Web for circles of trees in England I found several references, of which Chanctonbury Ring near Worthing and Brighton seems to me very similar to Cerin Amroth.

In 1760 a young Charles Goring planted (or ordered his servants to plant) a circle of beech trees atop an ancient hill which had once been home to bronze and iron age forts and a Roman temple.  The trees grew tall and strong for 200 years until a 1987 storm (“the Great Storm”) damaged the grove.

But there are other equally (un)likely inspirations for the great golden groves of Lothlorien.  Many people have noted the similarity between beech and mallorn trees.  I don’t think Tolkien himself ever explained what source he used for the mallorn but most people seem comfortable comparing it to the beech.

There was, up until sometime in the 20th century, a great beech tree known as The Queen Beech at Ashridge Park (part of Ashridge Estate).  The Queen Beech was confirmed in 1903 to be the tallest beech tree in England.  There had also been a King Beech but it blew down in 1891 and was cut up for wood.

According to The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland by Henry John Elwes and Augusitine Henry (Edinburgh, 1906) the estate also had a grove of very tall beech trees that grew in two concentric circles, 11 in the inner circle and 15 in the exterior circle.

There is also an immense circle of trees in Green Park in London, near Hyde Park.  All I was able to learn about those trees is that they were planted sometime in the 1800s.  There are a few pictures of them on the Internet where people seem like very tiny creatures standing next to them.

I don’t think J.R.R. Tolkien lacked for inspiration for the golden mellyrn of Lothlorien, Cerin Amroth, and the great circular tree city of Caras Galadhon, but we will probably never know what the precise inspiration(s) may have been (unless Christopher Tolkien says something).  There are very few references to beech trees in The Lord of the Rings and most of these concern the Ents.  But one non-Ent reference is the description of Pippin’s brooch, “like the new-opened leaf of a beech-tree”.  Either the leaf of the mallorn resembled the leaf of the beech or there were beech trees in Lothlorien.

You can judge for yourself whether the mallorn leaf resembles a European beech leaf.

Amroth’s hill (mound) reminds me a bit of the Third Earl Brownlow’s seat beneath the Queen Beech.  He was the last of his line and his earldom ended with his death in 1921, much like Amroth’s kingdom ended when he left Lothlorien (or when he died).  That is not to say that I think Tolkien styled Amroth’s tale on the Earl’s life.  But maybe this passage from The Silmarillion reminds you of the Earl:

…Not far from the gates of Menegroth stood the greatest of all the trees in the Forest of Neldoreth; and that was a beech-forest and the northern half of the kingdom. This mighty beech was named Hírilorn, and it had three trunks, equal in girth, smooth in rind, and exceeding tall; no branches grew from them for a great height above the ground. Far aloft between the shafts of Hírilorn a wooden house was built, and there Lúthien was made to dwell; and ladders were taken away and guarded, save only when the servants of Thingol wrought her such things as she needed.

When Turin grew old enough to fight for Doriath he spoke with Thingol and Melian as they sat beneath the great beech tree.  It was also under the Hírilorn that Lúthien met the dying Beren when the Elves brought him back from the hunting of Carcharoth, and there she bade him wait for her across the Sea.  Like the Earl’s beloved Queen Beech (mightiest of the beech trees in England), the Hírilorn was the mightiest of the beeches of Neldoreth, and a place loved by the rulers of the land.

The beech tree bears a modern English name that is thought to descend from ancient *bhagos, but the scientific name is based on Latin fagus, which may also have been the name of a Celtic deity.  One must be careful when studying the word fagus for it appears to have been attached to one or more faux Druidic proverbs in the 19th century.  I am sure it seemed convenient at the time.

The beech bark was at one time fed to ancient livestock and some sources say that beech trees were used for medicinal purposes.  I cannot vouch for these uses, nor for the many Websites that speak of them, but what I shall say is that the beech tree has accumulated a wealth of interesting anecdotes.  The English word book is said to be derived from the Proto-Germanic word *bokiz, “beech”.  The ancients may have carved runes into beech wood, or maybe they used it to bind books.

Cerin Amroth, like the storied beech tree of England, accumulated its own small list of traditions.  It was the place where Amroth lived and perhaps Nimrodel reluctantly visited him there.  Cerin Amroth was also the place where Aragorn and Arwen pledged their love to each other, and later Frodo looked out upon the two fortresses (Caras Galadhon and Dol Guldur) facing each other across the Anduin.  And finally Arwen laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth.

Arwen’s final moments are sad and bittersweet, but I think Tolkien must have imagined someone finding her grave.  How else could its location have been mentioned in the Red Book of Westmarch?  Is that presuming too much?  Need we argue over the details of how such obscure details found their ways into the final tale?

The story of Cerin Amroth, however brief it is, is as complete as the circle of trees that stood atop it.  That is, we know all that is necessary to know but remain fascinated by the undeclared details.  Tolkien never named the species of tree forming the outer circle on Cerin Amroth but I think they were beech trees.  We don’t have to know for sure what they were; we only have to know that the venerable beech tree was assigned a place of honor in both Tolkien’s fiction and his inspiration.

In that way, perhaps, he has left a little bit of Elvish Middle-earth with us and we can, if we wish, stand upon Cerin Amroth and feel the power of the ancient tales even if we cannot truly walk in them.

About the Author: Michael Martinez