Tolkien’s Sonic Trees and Perfumed Herbs: Plant Intelligence in Middle-earth

John Charles Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Plant life is an integral part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional writings. Percipient trees, exemplified by Old Man Willow, possess the capacity to vocalise and approximate human speech, whereas herbaceous plants tend to be silent and aromatic. While Tolkien attributes qualities of consciousness and memory to sonic trees, he denies similar intelligent qualities to herbs, such as athelas or kingsfoil. This paper will compare the sonic trees and perfumed herbs of Middle-earth through the framework of emerging science in plant bioacoustics and behaviour. A distinction will be made between the extrinsic and intrinsic capacities of plants in the legendarium. Tolkien’s arborescent ethics privileges trees, endowing them with vocalisation, while constructing healing plants in terms of their use value and associating the sense of smell with a non-sentient flora.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-58
Number of pages22
JournalEcozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


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