Tolkien's Landscapes 1: 'The Tree of Amalion' ~ pictures by Tolkien, poem by jan-u-wine.
~ Detail from 'The Tree of Amalion', August 1928, by J. R. R. Tolkien
A year and a half ago I conceived of doing a series of postings of paintings and drawings, mostly from J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (Hammond and Scull), concentrating on his love of trees, hoping that jan-u-wine might write pieces prompted by them. Happily, she wrote several, but I never got around to writing the posts to present them.
Originally the series was to be called "Tolkien's Trees", but, in the meantime, the Tolkien Society designated its theme for this year's Reading Day as "Tolkien's Landscapes". That's better still, since the paintings chosen depict more than trees. But to start, we shall look at the Tree of trees. Tolkien's drawing "The Tree of Amalion" is recognizable as a tree, but more an expression of human imagination than realistic rendering. Looking closely one can see that its fruit and flowers are different to each other, impossible in nature, yet it looks like a living tree. Tolkien often doodled trees, imaginative, lush and various, with curling leaves and branches, "more suitable," he said, "for embroidery than printing".
Some scholars let "The Tree of Amalion" go uninterpreted because Tolkien never said anything specific to it in his writings. But it is easy for me to see in this picture Tolkien's notion of the Tree of Tales, mentioned in his essay On Fairy-Stories. There is one great tree of human imagining, its roots in the far past, and our legends, myths and stories are the branches and leaves and fruit, ever growing. Tolkien applied it to his own writing, comparing his work to the Tree (writing to his publisher Unwin), bearing various shapes of leaves and many flowers, small and large, which signified the poems and legends in his overall ongoing creation.
John R. Holmes wrote about The Tree of Amalion in his entry on Tolkien's art and illustrations for J.R.R.Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. His final paragraph sums up well for me:
The Tree of Amalion does, in Morris's language, point to something beyond itself, but not in the natural world. Perhaps the image abided with Tolkien so tenaciously because, like Niggle's tree in his short story, it expressed his entire artistic life. As in "Leaf by Niggle," Tolkien the notorious allegorophobe had no qualms about attributing large allegories to The Tree of Amalion. The tree as a whole is an expression of an abstraction, the very idea of variety. Tolkien's readers have had no difficulty associating Niggle's tree with Tolkien's entire literary output; the variety in the blossoms on The Tree of Amalion similarly points to the literary works of Middle-earth. "The tree," Tolkien told Unwin, "bears besides various shapes of leaves and many flowers small and large signifying poems and major legends." Amalion, then, might be a fit emblem for all of Tolkien's work, literary and visual, and of the interrelation between the two.
Jan-u-wine's poem for the picture picks up the notion of the Tree of Tales and twines it deftly with the related notion of the Great Tale, the greater, overarching and ongoing story of which our own stories, and the stories of Tolkien's characters, are merely part.
The Tree of Amalion
In the garden of the World it was sown,
in the Other-When, in the
All that is, all that
all that magically
grows here, upon its slender frame,
a storied proof and promise of love.
And how the years go by, the Ages
swifting, the pages turning,
the players, great and small,
entering and exiting
the Grand Stage.
Yet not a leaf falls from the Tree,
not for a rest'd moment
does the music of it halt,
but blossoms, rather,
with the singular songs of those whose lives it has entwined,
those whose hearts have ever dwelt
within the tender cradle
of its joyous arms.
~ Another 'Tree of Amalion' picture, undated, from Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien.
~ "Upon the Tol" by jan-u-wine with art by Tolkien, for March 25.