Beren and Lúthien and the hemlock glade
Of the many tales told by J. R. R. Tolkien – fantasy writer, and former OED lexicographer- about his created world of Middle-earth, one of the most moving is the tale of Beren and Lúthien: the mortal man who fell in love with an immortal elvish princess, their heroic deeds, and how ultimately Lúthien chose to give up her immortality in order to follow her beloved Beren beyond the confines of the world. It’s also one of the earliest tales that Tolkien wrote and one which he rewrote most often – a new edition of the various versions of the tale has just been published this week.
And an important part of the inspiration for the tale was an extraordinary true-life experience: in 1917, in a woodland glade in Yorkshire, Tolkien – recently returned to England from the horrors of the Somme – watched his new wife, Edith, dancing in the sunlight. This entrancing sight – which he bestowed on Beren, who fell in love with Lúthien in just such a setting – took place, according to Tolkien, in ‘a small woodland glade filled with “hemlocks”’. The quotation marks are significant. The particular plant which is most commonly referred to as a hemlock – the one from which the Greeks extracted a poison administered to condemned prisoners, and famously drunk by Socrates – is a feathery-leafed plant growing to a height of five to eight feet, with the Latin name Conium maculatum. But Tolkien was aware that botanists were often in the habit of taking a traditional plant-name with quite a wide range of application and giving it to a very specific plant… and he didn’t sympathize with this practice. By placing inverted commas around hemlock it seems likely that he was using the word in the broader, traditional sense, given as sense 1b of the entry in the OED: ‘Also in rural use applied to the large Umbelliferæ generally’. In other words, to the wide variety of plants which bear their flowers in branched umbrella-like clusters or ‘umbels’. Such plants are to be found growing in many an English woodland glade (to about the same height as the poisonous variety, or perhaps a little less); and it was among just such plants that Edith Tolkien danced in 1917. And in Tolkien’s later fictionalized retellings of the encounter, Lúthien, too, would be portrayed as dancing among ‘a mist of hemlocks’ – evidently in the more general sense.
However, the OED also records another use of the word hemlock, which may have confused some American readers of the story. In North America hemlock has also been used to refer to a large evergreen tree, also called a hemlock spruce. These can grow to a height of 100 feet or more – so that a description of Lúthien dancing ‘among the hemlocks’ could be taken as meaning that she was dwarfed by huge conifers, rather than capering amid the lacy foliage of the forest floor.