Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent release of your book, Flora of Middle Earth: Plants of Tolkien's Legendarium, from Oxfard University Press! What inspired this botanical collection?
Walter S. Judd: I’ve always been a fan of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and as a professional botanist, I’ve have appreciated the numerous references to plants in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion. My son, Graham, is an artist (printmaker) and also enjoys Tolkien’s works. This collaborative project would, therefore, seem to be a natural one, but it was actually my wife, Beverly, who suggested that we get together and write/illustrate a book on the plants of Middle-earth. As a plant systematist – I’m naturally drawn to projects that focus on diversity – and I love describing the diverse kinds of plants and looking for evolutionary connections between them.
BD: The natural landscape plays a large role in Tolkien’s novels. How would you describe your research process into the various plants within Middle Earth, and how did this process differ or converge with your research experiences in your capacity as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology, University of Florida?
WJ: The first step was to develop a list of all the plants mentioned in the major writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, then Graham and I used preserved specimens of these plants at two herbaria (i.e., collections of pressed and dried plants) – one in St. Paul, MN, the University of Minnesota Herbarium (of the Bell Museum of Natural History), and the other in Gainesville, FL, the University of Florida Herbarium (of the Florida Museum of Natural History) – to capture the major morphological characteristics of each of the plants that form a part of Tolkien’s legendarium. This information was used by Graham to make his woodcut-style illustrations, which allow readers of our book to easily see the distinctive characteristics of the major genera and/or species of Middle-earth plants (both those occurring in our world, and also those imaginative plants unique to Tolkien’s world). And I used the same information, supplemented by information from the botanical literature, to write the descriptions of these plants. The writing of these plant descriptions was very similar to the process of writing the descriptions of plants for other research projects with which I’m engaged as part of my academic work at the University of Florida. This project differed in that I tried to minimize the use of technical terms in order to make the descriptions more accessible to the general reader (and also included in the book a basic botanical primer). The project also differed in that I included information on the significance of each species to Tolkien’s legendarium – thus pulling together information from imaginative literature, as well as science.
BD: What do you hope that readers will most take away from the book?
WJ: Graham and I hope our book will help to reconnect our readers to the diversity of plants in the world around us. Thus, a major goal of the book is to increase respect for and understanding of the plants that grow in the environments that exist around us. In a small way, we hope that the book will increase the visibility of and love for plants in our modern culture (which is rather plant-blind)! We think that Tolkien would agree. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he said that “Recovery” is one of the goals of fantasy, and by this he meant “a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view” and “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.” Additionally, in a small way we hope that our book assists readers in reconnecting science and artistic imagination. We are trying to follow the lead of Tolkien, who noted that the light of the Two Trees of Valinor “is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically … and imaginatively.”
BD: How would you describe your creative process in working with Graham Judd throughout the project?
WJ: Like any collaborative process, it involved good communication. We talked for hours about events in the history of Middle-earth that involved plants, and in the process selected those events that are shown in the vignettes that accompany each illustrated plant. We tried in this process to keep the entire history of Middle-earth in mind – selecting events from the Silmarillion, Children of Húrin, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings. It was great fun!
BD: Are there any other artistically focused projects on which you are working that you are able to share with readers?
WJ: I am in the planning stages of two other projects – both collaborative – one is a book presenting the diversity of the plant family Ericaceae (the Blueberry or Heath family), which will include numerous illustrations, photos, and maps, along with descriptions for every genus of this large and economically important family, and the second is a cook book focusing on species growing wild in Florida.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Flora of Middle Earth?
WJ: Tolkien was clear about this: Middle-earth is our own world! Somehow, we have forgotten how beautiful and wonderful it really is – so we need to walk out into the fields and forests near our home, and experience the beauty and wonder of the plants around us. Knowing more about the science of plants, actually seeing the characteristics that distinguish one tree from another, surely will increase our wonder – allowing a renewed connection to the living world of plants. Thus, we encourage readers to take our book into the field – and actually look at pines, oaks, beeches, and ashes.