Fire and Shire

It is a strange old time that we are living through, with much of the world in a pandemic lockdown. In times of stress I have a safe space that I return to that has worked throughout my life. A trip to Middle-Earth is a great comfort to me. I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and immerced myself in the Shire and the doings of Hobbits.

I have read The Lord of the Rings numerous times since my uncle gave me his battered Unwin copy when I was 11. Each time has been memorable. I notice different details with every re-read, like that Farmer Maggot’s farm has the rather unHobbit name of Bamfurlong (why? Tolkien was so particular with his choice of words that there must have been some story behind this). I also identify with different caracters as I age. When young, it was Merry and Pippin (off on an adventure), then Aragorn (the reluctant hero). Their side of the story whizzed by whereas Frodo and Sam in Ithilien and Mordor dragged a little. As I had children of my own, it become Frodo and his struggles and this part of the story now carried the complexity and weight needed to support the whole. As my children got to high school, it was Sam that suddenly seemed to be the lynch pin of the whole trilogy. Without this humble fellow playing his part the whole quest would have fallen over many times. Now the my children have left home I find myself drawn more to Gandalf and his mentoring, sacrifice and sheer bloody-mindedness.

My trusty old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Image from Adrian Paterson.

Knowing the story so well allows my concentration to move towards the choice of words and small details in Tolkien’s world. It is a rich world, although not necessarily a happy world. There have been thousands of years of decline from when the gods walked the world. The evil of Morgoth and Sauron is once again on the rise and spreading around Middle-Earth, much like a certain pandemic.

The Shire is one of the only places to remain relatively free of the darkness (through strict border control and the good fortune of being small, relatively unimportant and geographically distant from the sources of the darkness). This sounds familiar to those of us in New Zealand!

The timeless appeal of The Lord of the Rings is that it is basically a story about normal folk dealing with calamitous events. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So life in our world goes on, just in different patterns to normal. In the academic world, all of our teaching has gone online and we have scrambled to figure out how to deliver learning that is of value. While most hands-on science is on hold, we have been able to analyse and write. Science papers continue to come out (they are mostly online publications these days anyway).

A cosy fire…. A detail from ‘A conspiracy unmasked’ by Carol Emery Phenix.

Fire is a primordial force in the world of Tolkien. Fire shows happiness and normality: “Next morning after a late breakfast, the wizard was sitting with Frodo by the open window of the study. A bright fire was on the hearth, but the sun was warm, and the wind was in the South” and “Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir-tree and they sat round it for a while”. The absence of fire indicates misery: “By nightfall they were all soaked, and their camp was cheerless, for they could not get any fire to burn”. And also fear “I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling. He thought he was misunderstood and ill-used.

Fire reveals the identity of the ring: “To Frodo’s astonishment and distress the wizard threw it suddenly into the middle of a glowing corner of the fire. Frodo gave a cry and groped for the tongs; but Gandalf held him back.” Fire provides the only means to destroy the ring: “find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there, if you really wish to destroy it”. Fire is safety; “Towards it they now hurried desiring only to find a fire, and a door between them and the night“.

Fire is evil: “Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.’Ai! ai! ‘ wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog is come! ” And fire is good, as we see when Gandalf reveals himself and his power: “`You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. `I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass.”

Fire versus fire. A detail from Gandalf and the balrog by John Howe.

Fire in orcish is ghash (“they seemed to be talking in their own hideous language. All I caught was ghâsh; that is “fire”. Then something came into the chamber”). In elvish it is naur, nar, or uru (“He did not know it, but he was looking at Sauron’s Road from Barad-dûr to the Sammath Naur, the Chambers of Fire.”). Overall, the word ‘fire’ is mentioned 405 times throughout the Lord of the Rings (and that is not counting words like ‘flame’, ‘burning’ and so on). Fire is fundamental to Tolkien’s view of Middle-Earth.

Fire is a primeval force that has been with us for over 400 million years (since there has been something to burn). Fire has brought destruction, opportunity and necessary access to nutrients to ecosystems throughout that vast gulf of time. It’s a fundamental process that needs to be dealt with in the history of life.

Easiness of starting a fire is a key trait measured in flammability. Image from Adrian Paterson.

Xinglei Cui has published a paper in Nature Plants, with supervisors Tim Curran and Adrian Paterson (and a host of others). Xinglei recently completed a PhD at Lincoln University that looked at whether traits have evolved in organisms to deal with fire over a long period of time.

Xinglei collected flammability data from 194 species where there had been tests done on ignitability, sustainability of burning, maximum temperature while burning, and consumability or proportion of biomass burnt. Much of this data was collected on the Lincoln University ‘plant barbecue’. The species represented all of the major plant groups and were from all over the world.

The fundamental question asked was whether flammability traits are inherited from ancestors that adapted to living with fire or whether fire traits arise as a side-effect of living in a fire-prone environment? Xinglei constructed an evolutionary tree for all of these plant species and used this to see whether plant flammability traits are passed on from generation to generation down lineages.

There was a strong phylogenetic signal for flammability traits. Closely related species tend to share similar flammability traits. This even applied to lots of New Zealand endemic species, a part of the world where fire has not been a common part of the ecosystem. New Zealand plant species still possess many of the flammability traits that they have inherited and retained from their ancestors, who once lived in more fire-prone environments.

Fire in its destructive mode. A detail from The siege of Gondor by Stephen Hickman.

In general, Xinglei also found that species in fire-prone habitats tended to be more flammable than less fire-prone areas. Certain growth forms, like grasses, were also more flammable than others, like forbes. This element of predictability may be useful in managing ecosystems as we move into dryer and warmer climates with increased fire risk.

Tolkien was ahead of us, as usual. He knew that plants were affected by fire and that these effects would last over long periods of time. “In fact long ago they attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it. But the hobbits came and cut down hundreds of trees, and made a great bonfire in the Forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge. After that the trees gave up the attack, but they became very unfriendly. There is still a wide bare space not far inside where the bonfire was made.”

I will return to my comforting read through of The Lord of the Rings, curled up by a nice cosy fire, and let J.R.R. Tolkien help me through the lockdown and pandemic.

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