[modded up!] Places: Ithilien – the Garden of Gondor

Ithilien, the garden of Gondor


…but all about them lay a tumbled heathland, grown with ling and broom and cornel, and other shrubs that they did not know. Here and there they saw knots of tall pine-trees. The hearts of the hobbits rose again a little in spite of weariness: the air was fresh and fragrant, and it reminded them of the uplands of the Northfarthing far away.


So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams. The night became fine under star and round moon, and it seemed to the hobbits that the fragrance of the air grew as they went forward; and from the blowing and muttering of Gollum it seemed that he noticed it too, and did not relish it. At the first signs of day they halted again.


     All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs… fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.


Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.


A little way back above the lake they found a deep brown bed of last year's fern. Beyond it was a thicket of dark-leaved bay-trees climbing up a steep bank that was crowned with old cedars. Here they decided to rest and pass the day, which already promised to be bright and warm. A good day for strolling on their way along the groves and glades of Ithilien;

squire: Back in February I volunteered to lead the discussion of this chapter just because of these poetic pastoral passages, in some ways my very favorites in all of The Lord of the Rings!

First, let’s settle a few things. I understand some people find this vocabulary strange and difficult. Please visit this helpful site, and put those pesky “just what the heck is tamarisk and pungent terebinth?” questions to bed once and for all.

Feeling better now? Nice readers! squire always helps.

Modtheow: Now I know what a terebinth looks like! That's a fantastic herblore site you've put together, squire!

Finding Frodo: Hey, there I am! Well, there's my footer, anyway.  I love this chapter too, because of the brief reprieve from the horrible barren and disgusting landscape of the lands surrounding Mordor.  It's the deep breath before the plunge into Mordor itself.  Let's all breathe the free air and laugh for hearts ease (another name for pansies -- are there any blooming?)!

Thanks for the wonderful reference page to the vegetation -- I'll admit my eyes glaze over the unfamiliar names, and I've always been too lazy to look them up myself.

[Finding Frodo's footer: ...a fair country, with climbing woods, and swift-falling streams.]

Penthe: In terms of the names of the plants, I've never felt the need to research them, because I have always explicitly trusted the narrator to know what they are. Part of Tolkien's world-building skill - I can believe it without knowing it.

dernwyn: First of all: many thanks for putting together the "herblore" page!  I can never recall names of plants, and this enhances greatly the already-lovely passages.



squire: A. Did you note the medicinal, medieval, biblical, or Mediterranean connection of most of the plants?

Modtheow: No, but I note it now, since I've looked at your herblore page.  (I must remember to stop and smell the asphodel once in a while.)



squire: B. Does this kind of information help locate Ithilien in your mind, especially in relation to the hobbits’ Shire? What is Ithilien, both realistically and symbolically?

Penthe: Ithilien Well, it's just the kind of place you imagine living when you're fed up with the city, isn't it? Even more so than the Shire, because there it is pretty much wild at this stage of its existence.

The earthly reward Faramir receives at the end of all things is perfect. I should imagine life in the city of Minas Tirith would be rather problematic for him, and Ithilien provides a joyful respite. Does Ithilien feel like it is hallowed to anyone else, or just me? Even under the domination of Sauron it does not succumb; Ithilien brings forth life and blessings. Rapture.


squire: A poster on TORn this summer said that a walk in the Rocky Mountains was like a visit to Ithilien. Now that I’ve learned what plants Tolkien was describing, I still respect her love of verdant landscapes, but I strongly disagree that the sub-Alpine aspen woods of Colorado are Ithilien.

C. Is the location of Ithilien very specific to you? Have you ever been to Ithilien?

Aunt Dora Baggins: I have been there. Great questions!  I don't have time to answer all of them, but I did notice the Biblical flavor of the plants.  There's a place in Rocky Mountain National Park that always makes me think of Ithilien.  It's the first mile of the Fern Lake Trail.  It's a rich green place with rugged mountains rising up on one side.  Here's one of my photos (not very good):  Fern Lake Trail and here's one I found by googling:  better photo of Fern Lake Trail

Aunt Dora Baggins: PS I meant to ask you: where was the photo taken that you're using for a footer this week?  It's a gorgeous photo.

squire: It's in Provence. I don't seem to have recorded a more exact location than that.

Funny you should answer this one, Dora -- it was your original Fern Lake Trail post I was referring to. What I wanted to explore was the difference, if any, between being in a place that's "like Ithilien", and being "in Ithilien".

The ecology and botany of Fern Lake is significantly different from Ithilien and the natural landscapes that it is based on. Now of course you felt the similarities: the slopes, the altitude, and most common of all, the very feeling of walking through sunny brushlands.

The emotional power of the writing in this scene transcends the species described, especially if you have no idea what species they are. I should think many people find their own Ithiliens in places like Fern Lake or other somewhat dissimilar landscapes around the world.

I often feel a little Ithilien connection when I walk through coastal scrub to get to a rocky headland on the New England coast--I remember the scents are remarkably strong. No slopes involved!

But, in the cause of seeking out the authentic real McCoy, I for one am now dying to go to a garrigue or maquis landscape of the Southern European highlands, and see and smell those exact plants.

Aunt Dora Baggins: Thanks.  You're right, of course, that they're not the same plants.  I was struck when reading the description of Ithilien how many plants seemed to remind me of the Song of Solomon. 

When I read LotR, I bring my own experience to it.  I traveled in my youth, (including Italy and Corsica) but it's been a long time ago now.  I tend to see the landscapes through the filter of my own favorite landscapes.  I misunderstood your question, but I had fun anyway.  I agree that he must be thinking of the Mediterranean in his description.  I'd like to address some of your other questions, but I need to get at these danged algebra tests.  Maybe I'll have time later.

Kimi: Provence is the place I've been that struck me as most Ithilienesque. Ithilien feels as if it gets more rain than most of Provence, so perhaps a cross between Tuscany, Umbria and Provence would be closest (of the places I've been, that is).

But the reason I pick Provence is the memory of picnicking among the wild herbs. The slopes really are full of wild thymes, sages and marjorams, and the scent is heady. If JRRT visited such a place, I'm not at all surprised that he gives scents such emphasis in his description.

It's a good thing Frodo and Sam had no wine with them, or they might never have left.

linkinparkelf: Yes, most definitely I was thinking fo Provence when I re-read this chapter as well. It really is full of the fragrance of wild herbs; lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, as well as the wonderful scent and taste of olive oil and tapenade. And it's where I had the best rabbit dish I've ever tasted! All the hobbits were missing was a nice cool rose and some crusty bread with olive oil. I wonder if the wine they shared with Faramir was from a local vineyard?

Modtheow: I don't think I've ever really thought much about this passage, but the smells, the sight of those different coloured flowers, maybe even the sounds of those "swift-falling streams" -- this is like an image of an earthly paradise or Garden of Eden -- or at least what remains of one.  Realistically, we're definitely in the south of Europe now.

Arquen: bay

Not far from my house is a popular trail to Millard Falls


For a portion of the trail, you hike through a grove of enormous bay trees.  The ground beneath your feet is an inch-deep carpet of bay-leaves.  The smell of bay comes up as you walk.  It's a wonderful spot.

Owlyross: Henneth Annûn?  

Link:  This is familiar

Arquen: Did JRRT mention mosquitoes?

squire: No fauna please, we're entish.

dernwyn: I have been to different types of "Ithiliens", metaphorically: places that strike one as being especially beautiful in foliage and fragrance. Acadia always comes first to mind; but I have also been on paths on Cape Cod, in Scotland, and in the Rockies that have been inspiring.  But I have yet to travel to an actual area of Ithilien-type herbage.

nefisa3: hmm, was that Colorado poster me?



I do know that i've often said that the foothills of boulder are my own private Ithilien.

however, despite your botanical objections, i still think I'm right.

Because the parts of Colorado I'm talking about are not the Aspen grove areas, which occur higher than in the foothills.

(And everyone knows aspen groves are Lothlorien, anyways)


but the foothill region is very dry and full of sage and herbs and small jumipers mixes with bigger trees.

I've also lived in Italy and the Middle East, both regions that I assoicate with Gondor and thus Ithilien. And the landscape in those areas is quite like the colorado front range foothills.


And most importantly, it smells the same. The air has that same dryness and fragrance in Boulder as in Israel or Italy: or Ithilien.

drogo_drogo: Minas Tirith in Boulder

The Flatirons above Boulder always remind me of Mount Mindolluin/Minas Tirith:




Yes, I can see Gondor in Colorado.

nefisa3: With lots of Rohan plains... just around us...big, empty, lots of grass.

What's amazing is how many places do seem like they could fit the bill to be Middle Earth: New Zealand, colorado, france, the alps.

everywhere in fact, except England. That's the one place that has no sweeping plains or towering mountains.

Which seems very ironic, somehow.


The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart's ease not for jest.


Sam scrambling below the outfall of the lake. smelling and touching the unfamiliar plants and trees,…

squire: D. Why does Tolkien introduce and define Ithilien primarily by its smells?

Modtheow: Sam's heart's ease? I see now it must have been due to aromatherapy!

Kimi: Viola tricolor is also known as Heartsease. I've no idea if Tolkien knew that or not, but it does go with the botanical theme of this chapter :-)

squire: Fabulous! I totally missed that. I'm sure Tolkien knew - it's a bit of an inside joke, or botanical pun. Maybe the sight of a blossoming "Heartsease" pansy was the trigger for Sam's laugh that I've been wondering about!

Spoiler Message:  "I know the idea of this being a conscious pun makes me laugh!"

nefisa3: anyways, the smell is important, because what stands out for me the most about Tolkien's nature writing about Ithilien, as compared to his botanical and geographical musings on other parts of ME, is the emphasis on smell and taste. The air is rich, and they actually find food and eat.

I don't know which came first in Tolkien's mind: the idea of the plants in the place, or the idea of the feast on rabbits and herbs, but they fit together well.


Ithilien, by Ted Nasmith


The Mountains of Shadow


‘Soon get more now,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘Good water runs down in streams to the Great River, nice water in the lands we are going to.’

The streams of Ithilien rise in the Mountains of Shadow. Later Frodo will be warned against drinking from the waters of Morgul Vale.

squire: E. How can the waters of Ephel Dúath be “good”?

dernwyn: The question as to the wholesomeness of the water flowing down from the Ephel Duath: these streams originate on the west side of the range, which has not yet become tainted.  The streams in the Morgul Vale are in the midst of the range, and border a place of evil, and are therefore polluted.


they had turned the dark northern shoulder of the lower mountains and were heading southwards.

     With hearts strangely lightened they now rested again, but not for long.


The growing light revealed to them a land already less barren and ruinous. The mountains still loomed up ominously on their left, but near at hand they could see the southward road, now bearing away from the black roots of the hills and slanting westwards. Beyond it were slopes covered with sombre trees like dark clouds,…It seemed good to be reprieved, to walk in a land that had only been for a few years under the dominion of the Dark Lord and was not yet fallen wholly into decay.


Now they climbed up the westward bank and looked abroad. Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below.


. . . shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow . . .

squire: F. What is the relationship—topographic, meterological, ecological, moral, or spiritual—between the Mountains of Shadow and Ithilien?

            *Crickets of Ithilien*


Montsegur in the Pyrenees


The Pool


     They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it, and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end.

squire: G. Why would an apparent lake be in actuality a stone-edged swimming pool (or fish-pond)? Who built this, and for what? And finally, why is this the only sign of human craft or structure or cultivation (aside from the road itself) that Frodo and Sam see in all of Ithilien?

                *Tumbleweed of Ithilien rolls by*


A Deserted Land


It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used;


Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants;


‘I'll bet there's all sorts of good things running wild in this country.’


‘Elves do not walk in Ithilien in these days.’


‘But there are no travellers in this land’


‘Wise man trusts not to chance-meeting on the road in this land.’


…they were Rangers of Ithilien; for they were descended from folk who lived in Ithilien at one time, before it was overrun.


‘It is close on ten leagues hence to the east-shore of Anduin,’

squire: I. Huh!? When did Elves walk here? For that matter, when did anyone last live in Ithilien? How populated was it at the height of Gondor’s power?

squire: There is an ongoing debate as to whether Mediterranean highland landscapes are unnatural and due to human activity like grazing and farming; or whether they are mature and naturally occur as they are found in today’s world.

J. Do you associate Ithilien’s landscape with human interference? Does Tolkien?

                   *Masterless dog heard barking*


Southern climate


     South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dœath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away.


The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them.

squire: K. Is it really the “shelter” of the storm-ridden Emyn Muil and the dark shadowy Ephel Duath that explains Ithilien’s climate?

                    *Thunder heard dimly in the distance*


squire: L. What is the meaning of the “South” in The Lord of the Rings?

                    *Rustling of encylopedia pages*


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