Tolkien's "Most Treasured Volume"


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Here, in several postings, is an article that I wrote some years ago for Beyond Bree. It will appear in J. R. R. Tolkien: Studies in Reception.

Tolkien’s “Most Treasured Volume”:​

C. A. Johns’ Flowers of the Field

by Dale Nelson​

When nearly eighty years old Tolkien was asked to name which book or books were his favorites, or most influenced him, as a teenager. He identified one book as his “most treasured volume”: C. A. Johns’ Flowers of the Field, a book about “the flora of the British Isles.”

The author of the original edition of Flowers of the Field was one of those Victorian clergyman-“amateur” naturalists. Charles Alexander Johns (1811-184) took Anglican priestly orders in 1848, but, to judge by the Dictionary of National Biography, did not serve as a parish pastor, occupying himself, rather, with duties as a school headmaster and then as founder of a private school, and as a “miscellaneous writer.” Most of his books – there were more than twenty -- are works of natural history, although he published some sermons. From the title, I would guess his 1849 book Amnesnon the Forgetful and Eustathes the Constant was a specimen of admonitory allegory.

Flowers of the Field appeared in two volumes in 1853. Tolkien’s edition, published over fifty years later, was a single volume, bound in green cloth with floral designs on spine (foxgloves) and front cover (poppies?). The tone of Johns’ introduction retains a somewhat solemn Victorian gravity:

Though the highest claim of this volume is to introduce the lover of Nature to an acquaintance with the common British plants, the author has given to his first chapter the somewhat presuming title of an “Introduction to British Botany,” lest those into whose hands the work may fall should pass over the earlier part of it as a treatise or summary of contents so little connected with what follows, that the perusal of it may be omitted or deferred with safety. So far is this from being the case, that the reader who is unacquainted with the elements of botany will find the body of the work of little use, unless he carefully peruses the earlier pages, and makes himself thoroughly acquainted with the general plan. …. The reader, then, or, inasmuch as even the elementary knowledge of a science can only be attained by study, the student who wishes to make this volume practically useful in enabling him to find out the names of our common wild flowers, is recommended to read with care and attention the following pages, into which the author has introduced nothing but what is essential to the proper understanding of the body of the work, and so to the attainment of his object.

The introduction continues,

Unmeaning and hard to remember they [the “strange names” about to be explained] must appear to him at first, but this will be only as long as they remain mere sounds. When he has gained a knowledge of the things for which they stand, they will lose their formidable appearance, and, hard as they may still be to pronounce, they will very soon become familiar to the mind, if not to the tongue.
Second posting of article on Flowers of the Field:

This rather formidable preamble is immediately succeeded by explanations of terms such as stipules, bracts, calyx, corolla, stamens, ternate leaf, sessile anther, dicotyledonous plants or exogenes, etc., and the introduction informs the reader that “[t]he most remarkable among the irregular [flower-forms] is the papilionaceous (from papilio, a butterfly),” etc. Only a few of the terms are illustrated.

All this and much more the reader is expected to grasp before his consultation of the main portion of the book, “Natural Arrangement of Plants,” commences. Here the reader is assured that, “[w]ith a little observation the student will quickly come to be able to recognize the essential characteristics of Dicotyledons and Monocotyledons, whose general aspects are really very distinct.” This done, all he need do is determine which plant, of those listed in the 268 pages of the Dicotyledons, or of those listed in the 32 pages of Monocotyledons, is growing before him. Most of the plants listed are not illustrated (in contrast to the field guides familiar today). The first plant described is the Clematis or Traveller’s Joy. Three hundred pages later, the entry for the final plant, Zostera Marina or Grass-Wrack, appears.

One pauses to imagine the would-be wildflower fancier standing in the middle of a river-meadow, huddled over his hefty* new copy of Flowers of the Field, riffling through the pages, desperately hoping to stumble upon an illustration that will enable identification with some degree of certainty, the fine mist that began the day having turned to drizzle and the now-gusting wind bringing the scent of heavy rain that will arrive very soon. At his feet grows, did he but know it, Veronica or Speedwell. “(Veronica is the name of a saint in the Romish Church, but why given to this plant is unknown.)” Splotch! A large raindrop strikes the plate showing the Lobelia, and the fancier hastily wipes it away, leaving, alas, a raised damp spot.

The editor, Clarence Elliott, is somewhat apologetic for the illustrations because “advanced botanists are apt to think lightly” of such aids; but, he says, “the cry of amateurs is always, ‘Give us plates,’ and undoubtedly plates are a great help to the beginner – if they are good.” He is confident that the beginner will appreciate this book, because he has tried to exclude “all those bewildering technical terms which terrify the uninitiated, and to retain that unscientific simplicity which for so long has made ‘Johns’ the book of all others beloved of amateurs.”

Here is an entry, offered as a sample:

T. serpyllum (Wild Thyme).---The only British species. A well known and favourite little plant, with much-branched, almost woody stems, small fringed leaves, and numerous heads of purple flowers. The whole plant diffuses a fragrant, aromatic perfume, which, especially in hot weather, is perceptible at some distance. Dry, heathy places; common. Besides the common type, which has terminal heads of flowers borne on stems ascending from the prostrate ones, a very distinct form is found, known as T. chamædrys, having auxiliary flower heads, and ascending stems springing from the root. ---Fl[ourishes] June to August. Perennial.

A “cut” does accompany this particular entry. In keeping with the object of “unscientific simplicity,” some Latinate terms are replaced by equivalents; thus “bell-shaped” rather than “campanulate,” etc.; but the book retains terms such as “obcordate.”
Third posting:

However forbidding “Johns” appears to a wild flower admirer who is accustomed to the user-friendly photographic format of the Audubon Field Guides and the like, the older book evidently appealed to Tolkien, the young man who would devote so much of his working life to the scientific study of grammar and word-development.

Occasional bits of lore might appeal to, or alarm, the imaginative.

Of Deadly Nightshade: “It is said that rabbits can eat the leaves of this plant with immunity to themselves, though they render their flesh dangerously poisonous for human food by the indulgence.” Of the Hemlock (Conium): “every part of this plant, especially the fresh leaves and green fruit, contain [sic] a volatile, oily alkali, called Conia, which is so poisonous that a few drops soon prove fatal to a small animal.” Ginseng: “the favourite medicine of the Chinese.” Tansy: “The whole plant is bitter and aromatic, and is not only used in medicine, but forms the principal ingredient in the nauseous dish called Tansy pudding.” The roots of Sea Holly “are large, fleshy, and brittle, and extend for a distance of many feet into the sand. When candied they form a well-known sweetmeat, which, however, is less popular than formerly.” Tussilago (Colt’s Foot): the leaves “are rolled into cigars and smoked as a remedy for asthma.” Cornish Heath is profuse “on the Goonhilley Downs.” “In 1809, when the French troops were lying before Madrid, some of the soldiers went out marauding, every one bringing back such provisions as could be found. One soldier formed the unfortunate idea of cutting the branches of the Oleander for spits and skewers for the meat when roasting. … The wood, having been stripped of its bark, and brought in contact with the meat, was productive of most direful consequences; for of twelve soldiers who ate of the roast seven died, and the other five were dangerously ill.” Of Mistletoe: “at Christmastime the plant is gathered and sold in enormous quantities, and is at that season the symbol of a strange spirit of superstitious frivolity too well known to need description.” “The Mandrake (Mandragora officinalis) was anciently thought to possess miraculous properties. It was said to shriek when taken from the ground, and to cause the instant death of any one [sic] who heard its cries. The person who gathered it, therefore, always stopped his ears with cotton, or harnessed a dog to the root, who in his efforts to escape uprooted the plant and instantly fell dead. … Henbane… is a powerful narcotic, and in skilful hands is scarcely less valuable than opium.”

So you see, the book is not quite so dry as it might have appeared at first.
Fourth and final posting:

Tolkien obviously absorbed plant-lore from other sources. George Sayer remembered a rural walk with Tolkien in which the latter noted wood avens growing. Tolkien identified the plant as Herb Bennet, Herba Benedicta. It was, not St. Benedict’s plant, but the “blessed plant”; it was thought that it kept the devil from the house. You will not find that explanation of the old name of Geum urbanum in Johns (and you won’t even find the name Herb Bennet in the recent field guide by Sterry, though you will find a nice photograph of the plant). You will find two paragraphs about Herb Bennet in Grigson’s Flora. He cites the Ortus Sanitatis (Mainz, 1491), for just the point Tolkien made.

*I took my copies of Flowers of the Field and The Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern Region) to the science area on the campus of Mayville State University. The Audubon book weighed in at 592 grams. No one could find a lab scale that would weigh Johns’ book, but one of the professors estimated its weight at about a kilogram. Flowers of the Field is just a little taller, and just a bit less thick, than the one-volume paperback of The Lord of the Rings.


Byrne, Evelyn B., and Otto M. Penzler. Attacks of Taste. New York: Gotham Book Mart, 1971. [Contains Tolkien’s response to the editors’ question about his favorite book, or the most influential book, in his teens. About 70 responses are included, including contributions from W. H. Auden, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Richard Nixon, Mary Renault, John Updike, and Thornton Wilder. The small book includes an index in which all authors whose books are mentioned are listed, followed by the names of the contributors who mentioned them. For example, Charlotte Brontë was cited by Taylor Caldwell, Agatha Christie, and Daphne du Maurier; G. K. Chesterton was cited by J. B. Priestley; Rider Haggard was cited by Henry Miller and Alan Paton; Andrew Lang was cited by Marianne Moore and Allen Tate; Edith Nesbit was cited by Alan Paton and Gore Vidal, etc. The only author mentioned by Tolkien is C. A. Johns.]

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. London: Dent, 1987. Reprint of 1955 edition. [“This book is a mythology, a folk-lore, and a repository of magical ideas; it lists the superstitions and the folk-knowledge of the countryside; it provides most of what is to be found in the old herbals and a good deal more; it touches upon the literary and artistic symbolism of plant life; and it provides the reader with a comprehensive list of regional and vernacular plant names.” -- from the dust jacket]

Johns, The Rev. C. A. Flowers of the Field. Second Impression. Revised Throughout and Edited by Clarence Elliott. With 92 Coloured Illustrations by E. N. Gwatkin and 245 Cuts [i.e. black and white illustrations] in the Text. London: Routledge, 1908. [This is the specific edition Tolkien described in a list of books in his library made during the 1930s for insurance purposes. Christopher Tolkien identified the edition in a 2009 letter to the editor of Beyond Bree. I’m indebted to him and to Nancy Martsch.]

Sayer, George. “Recollections of J. R. R. Tolkien.” In Tolkien: A Celebration, ed. by Joseph Pearce. London: Harper Collins, 1999. Pages 1-16.

Sterry, Paul. Complete British Wild Flowers. London: Collins, 2006. [A user-friendly photographic field guide; a great armchair reference.]
will and flowers.JPG

There's Will with Johns' book. As best I can tell, that's the exact edition that Tolkien had. There seem to have been others with the same title but got up differently. The photo makes Will look bigger in relation to the book, or the book smaller in relation to Will, than wiould be the case with a different picture.