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Topiary and Nasturians: The Two Sides of Bilbo Baggins

Painting of Bilbo and Gandalf at Bag End in the beginning of The Hobbit
"Not the Wandering Wizard" - Miriam Ellis

Can a hobbit garden contain secrets about its gardener? In a recent article, we looked at how a youth spent in "queer" Buckland might have shaped the astonishing courage of both Frodo and Merry, but today, we will visit the dooryard of the original hobbit - Bilbo Baggins - and looks for clues to his character growing on the grounds of Bag End.

One well-known fact about J.R.R. Tolkien is that he understood more about languages than almost any other author in the history of England. Less explored is the interesting point that he inherited a world in which nearly every flower and plant was invested with a hidden meaning by the Victorian "language of flowers". Early botanical folk-names such as tooth-wort, self-heal, boneset and eyebright hint at the habits and qualities of different plants, but the Victorians took this wordplay to a whole different level, sending one another bouquets that had to be decoded by those in-the-know.

If you received a posy of pansies, you were in someone's thoughts, while oxeye daisies exhorted you to be patient. Rhododendrons signaled danger, while ragged robins jested with wit. White roses were a pronouncement of the giver's worthiness, and red ones, a declaration of love. Just as Tolkien's elves exulted in giving names to every new plant they encountered after their awakening, Tolkien's parents and grandparents could take special notice of flora by inventing a language of meanings for the the things they grew in their gardens or encountered in the wild. And while I don't believe the Victorian flower language is in any way present in Third Age Middle-earth, I'd like to explore whether Tolkien may have told us a great deal about Bilbo via two botanical messages.

Bilbo's topiary specimens

Tolkien sketched and painted the front entrance to Bag-End repeatedly in preparing his wonderful illustrations for The Hobbit. Those who enjoy accuracy will see how I have worked faithfully from these images in my own "Not the Wandering Wizard", with the front door being placed at the entrance to a tunnel rather than flat against the front of The Hill as in the Jackson films, and with the earth of The Hill cut away to form a little dooryard for Bilbo's garden bench. Amongst Tolkien's own original depictions, there are some differences of scale and detail as he worked diligently to codify the exact appearance of this smial, but a feature he repeatedly includes is the pair of evergreen topiary, whether they are inside the tunneled entryway or just outside of it. They are an ever-fixed mark of Bag-End and were clearly important to the Professor.

This set of severely-clipped show plants takes us back beyond the Victorian era, to the 17th century birth of the landscaping style we have come to recognize as the formal English garden. In Monty Don's excellent television series, The Secret History of the British Garden, we see how these early gardens were created as symbols of man's "triumph" over nature. Far from being a place for people to reconnect with the green world, they were meant to keep the wild wood out, the livestock away, and the plants under the tight control of human hands. To this day, famous English gardens continue to feature boxwood, yew, and other evergreens pruned into living hedges and fantastical shapes.

What I see in looking at Bilbo's topiary is a set of hints about his life and his character. He is wealthy enough to have the leisure time it takes to trim plants into these unnatural forms, or to pay the Gaffer and his progeny to do so. If they are yew or cypress, they would take a great deal of pruning to be kept at hobbit size. Perhaps they are rosemary, which might have been brought from Númenor by the Dúnedain long ago, like pipe-weed, and would be easier to keep small. We hear of many herbs growing in Ithilien.

I see in these potted plants our hobbit's Baggins side. The side we see when he speaks formally, bows appropriately, owns silver cutlery and can sometimes be "on his dignity" with uninvited guests. I see the gentle-hobbit who has whole wardrobes full of clothes and wears bright velvet breeches like a Regency Beau Brummell. I see the respectable hobbit, who eschews all adventures as being "nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things" that make one late for dinner. Bilbo is quite charming as a rich, comfortable hobbit, smoking his long pipe on his own doorstep, but if this were his only side, we'd be missing the rest of the story.

Bilbo's Nasturians

As with the repeated drawing of the topiary, Tolkien was very exacting about the plants he calls "nasturians". In The Lord of the Rings, we see them "trailing all over the turf walls and peeping in at the round windows" and in letter 148, he makes it clear that the spelling is not a typo. To Tolkien, "nasturiums" were watercress, but "nasturians" were the tropaeolum we we see a very young Sam Gamgee watering in the above painting of Number 3 Bagshot Row, just down the hill from Bag-End.

Whatever their name in the Shire, the main thing to notice about this plant is that the vining variety rambles and wanders all over. Thus, we might think of them as the Tookish side of Bilbo that longs to go trailing away from The Hill, despite his Baggins' respectability. The Brandybucks take "fits" that lead them into the Old Forest, and the Tooks have been known to have adventures, like Isengar who went to sea. It would seem that in certain hobbit families, there are tendencies to stop clipping the hedges and to go off in quest of wildness, and I see in the wayward tendencies of tropaeolum a large hint at this tale-worthy trait.

It's a theme I've explored elsewhere in my work, such as in "A nice little second breakfast" in which the big teapot at Bilbo's left elbow symbolizes his comfortable, generous, hospitable Baggins side, but the large mustard pot at his right hints at this spicy Tookish qualities.

This is all, of course, only conjecture on my part, for the sake of reading and viewing enjoyment and enrichment, and if you don't feel that Tolkien was using a flowery language to tell us about his hobbit who was "very fond of flowers", I can certainly accept that! On the other hand, I would like to draw your attention to one of the other flowers which the author specifically names in "A Long-Expected Party". Bilbo, now long home from the quest of Erebor, has something red and gold glowing in his garden. It isn't Smaug, thank goodness...but it is snap-dragons. Gandalf will celebrate the little hobbit's daring with the great worm in a birthday firework, and I used snap-dragons as a foreshadowing of his ensuing adventure when he is setting out with Thorin & Co. from The Green Dragon inn.

In Tolkien, even the smallest details matter

J.R.R. Tolkien was a self-professed "niggler". He worked at every leaf of his great tree of story. This is why I believe his readers should get into the enjoyable habit of noticing the tiny fine points in the Professor's works, because he never used words or ideas thoughtlessly. It is Professor Tom Shippey who has helped me most to enjoy the hilarious subtext going on about a hobbit named Baggins who lives in a Bag-End and whose varying degrees of saying "good morning" bring out-loud laughter when you read them with English wit (please do read Shippey's J.R.R Tolkien: Author of the Century!) There is so much you miss if you aren't looking.

Like Tolkien's character Niggle, I also get to focus all my thought on the details when I am painting. I got to "plant" Bilbo's garden with spring flowers like cowslips, oxlips, corn poppies, wild daffodils, grape hyacinth, primrose, dandelion, daisies, cow parsley and bugloss. I have an early form of the dog rose just beginning to flower around his door, but in his handsome front planter, where his respectable Baggins topiary stands as a symbol of formal welcome even to unexpected guests, you will see the first green sprigs of nasturians sprouting, ready to ramble and trail, up and over his door and, perhaps, down the road.



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