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316A tree : the lebethron

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  • Didier Willis
    Feb 8, 2003
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      Greetings,

      I have long wondered what kind of tree could be the _lebethron_ mentioned
      twice in LotR:

      "but take these staves. ... The men of the White Mountains use them; though
      these have been cut down to your height and newly shod. They are made of the
      fair tree lebethron, beloved of the woodwrights of Gondor"

      "Then forth from the Gate went Faramir with Húrin of the Keys, and no others,
      save that behind them walked four men in the high helms and armour of the
      Citadel, and they bore a great casket of black lebethron bound with silver"

      From that description, the tree is solid and robust, grows in mountainous
      areas, and is probably used both for constructions ('woodwright' is generic
      but often applies to carpenters, etc.) and art (the casket of the kings).
      As for the precious casket, "black lebethron" might imply that the tree has
      a dark bark or wood, though it could also result from the treatment of the
      wood by the ebenist (it would then be a black casket of lebethron, with
      poetic license).

      The name was invented at the time of writing, cf. VIII:176 and VIII:180 note 3:

      "... the tree of which they were made was first name melinon (the two last
      letters are not perfectly clear), then lebendron, and finally lebethras..."

      It was then changed to lebethron on the first fair copy of the manuscript
      (cf. VIII:207).

      Searching on the internet and in past discussions, I failed to find any
      good interpretation of this name, which apparently implies the stem LEPET
      also found in _lefnui_ "5th", _leben_ "five", _lebed_ "finger".

      I first assumed that the name could refer to the appearance of the folliage.
      Tolkien often named trees or plants after their appearance:

      In Gnomish (PE/11),

      mavlantos "sycamore" (PE/11:55)
      mabinos "plane tree" (PE/11:55)
      mabinos fathwed "tasseled plane tree" (cf. PE/11:34)
      mabinos gwilbriniol "plane tree like a butterfly" (cf. PE/11:45)

      These words all derive from _mab_ "hands" and _mavlant_ "palm (of hand)",
      very conceivably referring to the palmed shape of the leaves.

      In the Qenyaqetsa we had, on the same model, various subspecies of the
      _mapalin_ tree. With latin names as provided by David Salo in his
      "Qenya Botany":

      mapalin : plane tree or sycamore (Platanus or Acer pseudoplatanus)
      mapalin fatsevoite = mabinos fathwed
      mapalin wilwarinda = mabinos gwilbriniol
      etc.

      And finally we also have the "chesnut tree", _mavoisi / alda mavoite_
      (Castanea). This one is named differently: of course the leaves are not
      palmed (they are long and thin, with small dents). But they are often
      growing at the end of the branches in group of five, and thus the whole
      branch looks like a hand where each leaf is a finger, cf. picture:
      http://web2.iastate.edu/~bot356/species/aaImages/CastDent.jpeg

      So _mavoite_, which I assume to mean, as in later texts, "having hands",
      is quite a good description (I don't have the QQ to check the contemporary
      etymology unfortunately).

      [QL s.v. MAHA 'grasp' gives _mavoite (-si)_ 'having hands' -- PHW.]

      All the names in QQ and GL prove, if need be, that Tolkien had a good
      knowledge of these trees and devised a lot of precise names for them.

      Back to our Lebethron tree... It could be some kind of Acer, Platanus or
      even some kind of Castanea.

      But if we look closely to the draft versions, _lebendron_ might be... just
      an attempt at a mere compound _leben_ + _doron_, where _doron_, as given
      in the Etymologies (Ety/355), means "oak" (Q. _norno_). So we would have
      here some sort of "fingered oak".

      And there happen to be a good canditate for such a tree, with leaves like
      fingers, forming by group of five the shape of a hand, with a hard wood used
      by carpenters, with a dark-grey bark, nearly black : the "mountain chestnut
      oak" or "chestnut oak", Quercus Prinus a.k.a. Quercus Montana. Cf. picture:
      http://www.mindspring.com/~psisco/www/ChOakLvstemtb.jpg

      The only weak point in this demonstration is that it grows mainly in America,
      and was introduced late in Europe (Great Britain first), around 1688 according
      to resources I found on the internet. The standard oak in England is the Quercus
      Robur or "English oak".

      But then... there is also a Quercus digitata, "Finger oak / Spanish oak",
      in French Chêne de doigt, German Finger-Eiche. This one might even better
      fit the probable etymology of Lebethron, but I wasn't able to find any
      good picture, nor an explanation of its name.

      I just arrived at these conclusions, and I do hope the Lambengolmor on this
      list will provide their lights and interpretations on this difficult world.

      Didier.
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