A few months ago, I went to the botanical garden down the road from my home in Montréal, expecting to spend a nice afternoon walking among fields and exotic trees. Instead, it began to pour rain, and I took shelter in the tea house in the middle of the Japanese garden, watching the rain play on bamboo. During a break from the onslaught, I took a walk around the bonsai trees, and identified one of my favorite species, gingkos. I pointed them out to my girlfriend, proud of being able to identify them. A couple of hours later, walking down my street, she pointed to a tree. “Isn’t that a gingko?” It was. I was dumfounded—there was a mature tree on my doorstep that I had never noticed, but which I had walked by hundreds of times.
Trees are funny that way. The New York Times has written a few articles recently, branding our inability to notice and identify trees “tree blindness“. For most people, a tree is a tree is a tree. Unfortunately, this is also true of science fiction and fantasy authors. For every Tolkien out there describing Ents using dozens of different types of trees, there’s another with your standard collection of primary school garden varieties. A good rule for judging the realism of a fantasy author would be to judge the number of tree species, or the ratio of species to bioregions.
This rule works surprisingly well. Robert Jordan, for instance—except for some rare exceptions, he sticks to a dozen or so trees that his characters know well, and loses the labels for any other species. He thinks of a new herb or root every time Nynaeve needs to play Sherlock Holmes regarding the cause of someone’s malady, but over and over again we have knots of adventurers threading through sourgum and leatherleaf thickets. Most other trees are described as “trees that Rand didn’t even know the name for.” But the trees that the Two Rivers folk are familiar with are almost all from Appalachia, as you would expect for Jordan (write what you know—or in his case, write where you know, in North Carolina).
There’s not direct overlap—all of the Altaran trees in the Damonas Mountains are new to Rand, although Egwene recognized magnolias as far away as Kinslayer’s Dagger. And olive trees (Mediterranean) extend from Ebou Dar to Tear, while mangroves (decidedly not Mediterranean) are also on at least the Tairen side that coast. (Let’s forget that Idaho potatoes shouldn’t be on Samwise Gamgee’s grocery list, if he grew up in the equivalent of medieval England.) Interestingly, at one point Jordan names oak in a list of evergreens—something a northerner or British botanist most likely wouldn’t do, but a southerner might, as live oak is evergreen and exists on the coast south of the Mason-Dixon line. So, Jordan uses his backyard for inspiration, and then makes up the rest as he goes—the Great Trees, for instance, would need a much higher rainfall to be able to grow well, unless Ogier singing really just is that bloody good.
With cases like these—what are the Great Trees? Redwoods?—it is the name which becomes as interesting as the tree itself. Rename a plant species, and the author can always say “that’s just how it in this world. Really, their birch is our spruce.” Brandon Sanderson has a standard reply when people ask him how to pronounce his characters names—he doesn’t know, he didn’t live in their worlds and doesn’t speak with their accents.
A similar justification is made by Gene Wolfe, who often uses the literary technique of pretending he isn’t an author at all, but a translator of a pre-existing text. For instance, in the Book of the New Sun, Severian at one point duels with nenuphars. The nenuphars he duels with aren’t water lilies—you can’t kill someone in an instant by touching them with a lotus flower, at least in this world. (Completely parenthetically, I used to play a game with friends where we would tie the leaves together by the long stem and pelt each other with the little “leaf bombs” at camp, but I don’t think this is what Wolfe meant). The nenuphars aren’t meant to be nenuphars at all—they’re called that because the white, unearthly flowers most resemble a water lily in our world. Of course, you have to reread Wolfe, and look up variants of names, especially in the Sun books. Ultan the librarian mentions a garden, where “there are trees—sycamores and oaks, rock maples and duck-foot trees said to be the oldest on Urth.” I love this, because duck-foot is another name for—you probably guessed it—gingko. My favorite tree is everywhere, even in the future.
Perhaps the rule could be amended—instead of focusing on just the number of tree species, we could consider how the author approaches the naming of their botany. No one bats an eye at mallorn trees. They’re beautiful, Elves live in them, and most readers would probably prefer to to live in a flet, not a flat, too. Simbelmynë and elanor are beautiful names on their own (even if the latter reminds us of the girl who sat next to us in homeroom). But these names are very Tolkienesque. Wolfe doesn’t invent new names for his flowers—he describes them, or he uses names for flowers that might be similar. For instance, in The Knight, Able describes a flower almost as well as naturalist Alexander von Humboldt or astronaut Mark Watney would: “It had blue and purple flowers, and the long feelers or whatever you call them inside the flowers were bright red. I have never seen another one like it, and I have remembered it all this time.” While Jordan, on the other hand, uses names that make the flowers seem almost banal—sheepstongue, sunburst, foxtail, forkroot. Sometimes he goes out of his way to have fun: Elaida grows blue roses in her study, “the rarest of roses,” which don’t occur naturally on earth.
But the point is to make the reader see the flower, to feel it. Simbelmynë’s beautiful name helps me to see the flowers in my mind as more intricate, and delicate, and poignant. Every time I think of them, or whenever I see small, white flowers, I remember Theoden in the movie thumbing the leaves with his hands, gently. And sometimes, when I look at the stars, I think about starry asters and about flowers in a field in Skai. Able says “you do not know what stars are, or how beautiful they can be.” And even with Elaida’s blue roses, I don’t wonder how she managed that cultivar… I wonder how they smelled.
Richard Littauer is a fantasy author, poet, linguist, and noun phrase. He tweets, reviews books, cooks over philosophy, and runs Word Hoard Press for original work in dead languages, among other things.