Professor Tolkien was a great lover of nature: he was keenly aware of the flora around him, loved trees profoundly and respected them. Thus, trees and various plants appear in his books extensively, and are far from being in the background of events.

Willows are among the trees natural to Middle-earth and grow in several of its regions. Some of these lands are quite special, though. With willows being the dominant plant of these places, they are quiet spots that enchant travellers with sleepiness or a certain degree of forgetfulness of the world around. The inspiration for such an atmosphere may have come from Oxford, where Tolkien spent a great deal of his life as a student and later — a professor at the University of Oxford. Full of willows, Oxford gave Tolkien what he called “sleepies” which only the military training seemed to cure. Willows feature noticeably in one of his earliest poems dedicated to Oxford:

From the many-willow’d margin of the immemorial Thames, 

Standing in a vale outcarven in a world-forgotten day, 

There is dimly seen uprising through the greenly veilèd stems, 

Many-mansion’d, tower-crownèd in its dreamy robe of grey, 

All the city by the fording: agèd in the lives of men,

Proudly wrapt in mystic mem’ry overpassing human ken.

(Tolkien and the Great War, pp. 34-35)

This poem was published in The Stapeldon Magazine in December 1913. As John Garth points out in Tolkien and the Great War, these lines show “an early glimpse of the spirit of place that pervades much of Tolkien’s work” (p. 35) and how people can be partly shaped by geography. Tolkien’s talent to create the atmosphere of a certain place was great indeed. Willows were an important part that contributed to the spirit of Oxford, and they are the trees that shape the spirit of some of the key willow lands of Middle-earth and beyond. I will start looking at these spots from beyond.

River Cherwell

Lórien in Valinor was an incredibly beautiful place — the abode of the Vala Irmo and his spouse Estë — famous for its silver willows among other vegetation. The gardens of Lórien were the place where repose and refreshment could be readily found and where many came for some peace and quiet. It was under the silver willows of Lórien that Míriel’s body lay and Finwë sat for a long time waiting for his wife to awaken.

Another region famous for its willows did not play a major part in the events of Middle-earth, but was quite noticeable anyway. In the First Age there was the land of Nan-tathren (meaning “The Land of Willows” in Sindarin) to the south of Beleriand. It was free from any warfare of the age, though after Nirnaeth Arnoediad Orcs did begin to wander as far as this peaceful land. In the published Silmarillion Tuor lead the exiles of the ruined Gondolin through the Land of Willows. It was there that they held a feast to remember and honour the fallen in the sack of the city, and there they were healed from their grief. In some earlier and transitional works the region is still connected with roads to or from Gondolin, but in a different way.

In the earliest version of The Fall of Gondolin (1916-1917) published in The Book of Lost Tales II Tuor tarried in Nan-tathren on his way to Gondolin. He arrived there in spring, heard the song of birds and became enchanted with the region:

Here the river wound in wide curves with low banks through a great plain of the sweetest grass and very long and green; willows of untold age were about its borders, and its wide bosom was strewn with waterlily leaves, whose flowers were not yet in the earliness of the year, but beneath the willows the green swords of the flaglilies were drawn, and sedges stood, and reeds in embattled array. 

(Book of Lost Tales II, p. 153-154) 

Tuor became so enchanted by the beauty of the willow-land that he nearly forgot his mission to seek out Turgon and Gondolin. It was only Ulmo’s appearance and urging that reminded the Man of his vital errand.

The last Gondolin-related tale Of Tuor and and his Coming to Gondolin (probably written in 1951) was published in The Unfinished Tales. In that version it was not Tuor, but Voronwë who tarried in Nan-tathren on his journey from Gondolin to Círdan on an errand from Turgon. It was with great enthusiasm and love that Voronwë described the Land of Willows to Tuor: so enchanted was he with it:

In that land Narog joins Sirion, and they haste no more, but flow broad and quiet through living meads; and all about the shining river are flaglilies like a blossoming forest, and the grass is filled with flowers, like gems, like bells, like flames of red and gold, like a waste of many-coloured stars in a firmament of green. Yet fairest of all are the willows of Nantathren, pale green, or silver in the wind, and the rustle of their innumerable leaves is a spell of music: day and night would flicker by uncounted, while still I stood knee-deep in grass and listened.

(Unfinished Tales, p. 46)

Voronwë forgot his sea-longing and stayed in Nan-tathren naming flowers and savouring the place. However, fate drove him from it back on his errand when the Elf decided to make a raft of willow-trees and sail on it along the river. Thus he was carried to the Sea and back to his original mission.

While the time of composition, the characters and their circumstances differ, the descriptions of the place are alike. Nan-tathren is a special place that makes travellers forget everything else, even the sea-longing that runs deep and strong in Elves and chosen mortals, but enchants them with the beauty, tranquility and the serenity of the place. It is for a large part due to the willows growing there that the region has its mesmerising atmosphere.

Nan-tathren features in The Lord of the Rings in Treebeard’s song. There he called the land by its Quenya name Tasarinan or Nan-tasarion and remembered with warmth how he would roam there in spring in the First Age.

While Nan-tathren with its willows is a beauty to behold, the willows appearing in The Lord of the Rings are not so friendly and enchanting. They grew in the valley along the Withywindle river in the strangest place of the Old Forest. It was a real kingdom of willows to the extent that is almost unsettling and creepy:

A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 152)

It was there that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin fell under the sleepy enchantment of the sinister and malicious Old Man Willow, with Frodo falling asleep and tumbling into the water and Merry and Pippin becoming trapped in the cracks of the tree. This enchantment could be beaten off only by the song of Tom Bombadil.

The Trees And The Axe, From Aesops by Arthur Rackham

Interestingly, Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil are old friends in Tolkien’s creative world. The malicious Willow made an earlier pre-Lord-of-the-Rings appearance in the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil published in 1934 in the Oxford Magazine. There he is referred to as Willow-man and is an evil character who tried to trap Tom, but did not succeed. According to one version Old Man Willow was inspired by the pictures of Arthur Rackham where he depicted gnarled trees, while Tolkien’s son John thought that it was prompted by a tree growing on the bank of the River Cherwell [7]. Tom Shippey, in fact, identifies the Cherwell with the Withywindle, both in the structure of the name and appearance, reflected in the names.

Here is how Professor Shippey explains Cherwell and Tolkien’s interpretation of the name different from that of the Oxford Dictionary: “I think he [Tolkien] derived the name from Old English *cier-welle, the first element coming from cierran, ‘to turn’: so, ‘the turning stream, the winding stream’, which is what the Cherwell is” (Author of the Century). The Withywindle follows a similar combination. Withy means willow and windle comes from to wind — move in twisting curves. The name describes perfectly well what the river looks like and how its course runs.

Willows feature in some places of Middle-earth and create a certain atmosphere of these spots. The atmosphere varies from sinister to enchanting and from refreshing to oppressing,  but it shows how much willows are capable of setting the tone of a particular location.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Book of Lost Tales. Part II; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  5. T. A. Shippey – J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century; Houghton Mifflin Company;  New York; 2000.
  6. J. Garth – Tolkien and the Great War. The Threshold of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London, 2003.
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. Scull, W. G. Hammond – The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien;Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

10 thoughts on “Willow wonder.

  1. I’m very fascinated with Tolkien’s fascination with willows. I didn’t know that he was particularly fond of Oxford’s willows. Still, don’t you think that there should be something more? I mean, the sleepiness (and consequent dreaminess) of any place where willows live is quite clear. Maybe there’s some symbolism or other Tolkien was arcing back to.
    But I’m just speculating. I don’t know.

    1. There might be something connected with sleepiness indeed. I connected Tolkien’s attributing sleepiness to willow lands with his experience of Oxford, its willows and the fact that he felt sleepy there. But there might as well be more which I’m not aware of at present.
      What do you think?

      1. Well, when I reread The Old Forest last month, I noticed so many symbolisms for sleep/dream/visions/death. You know, the river (symbol of life), the water (symbol of death and of passage), the many dreams that look like visions. Sleep likened to death in a chapter that is clearly of passage.
        The willow features predominantly in that chapter, so I thought it might have a similar symbolism. I mean, it may be connected to death/rebirth. But I’m just speculating. I don’t really know about the symbol of the willow.

      2. That sounds legit. It does fit in well with what Tolkien wrote.
        I think the symbolism aspect is a tricky one. Different symbols, like willows or other trees, may have different interpretations across cultures, so it’s hard to guess which one is right and which one is wrong in this context. But that is an interesting topic in itself.

  2. Firstly, I want to say that I agree with Tom when he says that you are getting better and better!
    I found myself wondering, as I read this beautiful piece, about where in these latter years of the history of Middle-earth in which we live, that we could find Nan-tatathren? Close to my home in the Shire there is a stream that eventually flows into the River Severn and the willows grow abundantly about it, but within a few hundred metres of place that I picture in my mind’s eye is a major highway that never fails silent day or night. Just the kind of destruction that the spiritual descendants of Saruman glory in, but how can I condemn them when I use the same highway if I want to travel to another part of the country.
    Sometimes when I walk down to this last surviving patch of Nan-tatathren I imagine it, not just as a survivor of the depradation of the world around it in my own neighbourhood but as if it is the only place in the entire world where willows still grow. I can understand why Old Man Willow became angry, why his anger turned to bitterness, and yet Tom Bombadil stands, not with but against his bitterness, and so rescues the unwary hobbits from his grasp.

    1. Stephen, thank you so much!
      Ah, the land of willows, a beautiful, serene place! I’d love to know where to look for it, too. Small clusters of these trees can be found anywhere, but the whole land would be a true wonder.
      Recently I’ve been re-reading The Fall of Gondolin, and it features the early version of Tuor’s arrival to that fair city. Tolkien’s description of the Land of Willows there is very detailed and evocative — a real pleasure to read.

      1. It just struck me that there is no mention of willows in the woods of Ithilien. That is the only time that Tolkien makes an explicit reference to the classical Mediterranean world with his “dryad loveliness”. And there his description of the fauna of Ithilien is very different from the northern lands of Middle-earth.

      2. That’s a wonderful insight, Stephen! The significance of this fact hasn’t occurred to me. Isn’t it great how such implications can help us understand a certain place better!

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