Talks on Tolkien: Tom Shippey & the love of trees

Tolkien in the Botanic Garden, Oxford
Tolkien in the Botanic Garden, Oxford

Was Tolkien a “tree-hugger”? That’s a loaded term, but Tolkien readers know that he was concerned about our natural environment and that, yes, he loved trees. The above picture shows Tolkien in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in 1973 with one of his favorite trees, a black pine (Pinus nigra). Sadly, that tree suffered damage last summer and had to be cut down a few months ago for safety reasons. You can watch a video by Jill Walker, “Tolkien’s Tree,” to see how spectacular the tree was at its best and how it was taken down. Plans are being made to commemorate the tree and its significance for Tolkien and for the many visitors who came to see it; you can follow the Tolkien Society for updates on this matter.

In this week’s “Talk on Tolkien,” I’ve turned to Tom Shippey, who offers some thoughts on Tolkien’s views of this “tree-tangled Middle-earth.” This video records Shippey’s presentation, “Trees, Chainsaws, and the Visions of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien,” at Arizona State University in 2002. Shippey starts off with some reflections on Tolkien as a “tree-hugger,” and then goes on to show us some ambiguities in that love of trees and to suggest its mythic significance.

Shippey is well known as a Tolkien scholar and medievalist through his many publications, particularly The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. As usual, his talk is lively, opinionated, informed, and interesting. As with last week’s talk by Verlyn Flieger, Shippey offers an approach to thinking about Tolkien’s fiction in general.

“Trees, Chainsaws, and the Visions of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien” by Tom Shippey from ASU English on Vimeo. 11/2/2002

In this talk, Shippey refers to two Middle English texts. Tolkien’s translation of the poem Pearl is included in the posthumous publication Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. If you’re interested in the Middle English text of the poem, you can read an edition of Pearl by Sarah Stanbury on the TEAMS: Middle English Texts Series website. You can also find out more about The Book of John Mandeville and read the Middle English text on that site in an edition by Tamara Kohanski and C. David Benson.

Shippey also talks about various poems in The Lord of the Rings, including the Elves’ hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel. As mentioned in the video, Tolkien translated most of this poem for Donald Swann, who set some of Tolkien’s poems to music in The Road Goes Ever On (you can still buy the book and CD). One of my favourite musical versions of the hymn to Elbereth is by the Tolkien Ensemble. You can listen to one of their renditions of the Elven Hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel. (And if you like it, buy their CDs!). I especially love the Tolkien Ensemble’s version of Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar — in my view, the perfect evocation of not only the love of this “tree-tangled Middle-earth” but also, as Tom Shippey points out, the longing for an earthly paradise.

As always, comments are welcome.

On a trip to Oxford Botanic Garden
On a visit to Oxford, around 10 years ago

3 responses to “Talks on Tolkien: Tom Shippey & the love of trees”

  1. I know it has nothing to do with the theme itself (I cannot now think of anything intelligent to add to that), but I have been struck by the differences in presentation styles that is evident from the two videos you have shared so far.

    Both Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey are excellent at establishing a good connection with their audience, but the way they do this is very different. I noticed this also in Loughborough, and one (rather simplistic, I’m afraid) way of describing it is to say that when Shippey talks, it feels as though he reaches out to everyone, while when Flieger speaks, it feels as though she draws everyone in close.

    In both cases, the end-effect is the same – you connect, you pay attention and you learn. Thank you for sharing these videos.


    • I am so glad that you’ve pointed out the differences — and so beautifully! — between the two speakers. Part of my secret agenda was to place Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey side-by-side to showcase not only our two pre-eminent Tolkien scholars but also their different ways of speaking about Tolkien. Although I’m not exactly comparing two similar types of presentations — one is a short TedX talk, usually aimed at a general audience, and the other is a 50-minute paper given in an academic setting, but even so you can get a good sense of the special style of each person. Both of them are great role models for people who have to think about giving presentations.


      • Yes. I did also notice the same difference in their two keynote speeches in Loughborough in ’12, but the different settings for these two videos make it very obvious 🙂

        And a good point about the role models – particularly because they are different, so if you feel that one style would make you feel insincere, the other might make you feel more ‘this is me’.


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