Summer2016: In Search of Tom Bombadil's Beans

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Udwin
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Summer2016: In Search of Tom Bombadil's Beans

Post by Udwin »

There are few things that can better help to connect us with an unfamiliar time period, setting, or culture than FOOD – after all, everybody needs it, and therefore everybody has some interest in it! Among the various references throughout Tolkien’s writings, I find the food encountered in the house of Tom Bombadil to be particularly interesting. Perhaps the one I have found most intriguing is that which Frodo sees out Tom’s eastern window: “Frodo…found himself looking into a kitchen-garden grey with dew…his view was screened by a tall line of beans on poles…and the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.”
While it may be entirely possible that Tolkien penned the above line without a specific plant in mind, I thought it might be a fun exercise to try and find out if any known beans match up with his description, and if so, how they might have found their way into old Bombadil’s
garden.

To start, let’s summarize what we know about Tom’s crop:
1) they are stated to be beans;
2) they have red flowers;
3) they grow on poles;
4) they are growing at approximately 51° N latitude.
4a) At this latitude, considering the time period in question (~4000 BCE)—or during the Atlantic period of the Holocene, much before the cooling of Europe at the end of the Bronze Age—I think we might imagine the climate of the Shire was much warmer and sunnier than it is at present.
Based on the above conditions, I don't think there are any perfect period solutions, and that two or three out of four might be the best we could hope for. But with a little research and some creative thinking, I may have found a good fit for Tom’s beans. While I usually think of beans as a strictly New World plant, a quick bit of research reminded me of Old World types like broad or fava beans, peas, and chickpeas, as well as related vetches.

Broad beans (Vicia faba) are suitably ancient (known in the eastern Mediterranean by 6000 BCE and Europe by 2000 BCE) and hardy (perfect for today’s cooler climate at Shire latitudes). I even found two varieties with red flowers: a ‘Crimson-flowered’ heirloom cultivar, and one named 'Red Epicure'. While they may be supported or staked to upright poles, broad beans are not vining 'pole' beans, and their maximum height is only about three feet—which would probably not be considered “tall” to a hobbit of about three-and-a-half-feet. Additionally, broad beans are traditionally a cold-weather crop, although some may be able to harvest through August, and Bombadil's were only still in flower on 27 Halimath (approximately September 17th).

Peas (Pisum sativum) were also known in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and are definitely vine-friendly; however, they are also a cold-weather crop, and I have yet to find a true pea with even reddish flowers.
Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) are similarly quite ancient (known in southern Europe by the late Neolithic and Bronze Age), but they, like broad beans, are also short, non-vining plants, and my search to uncover any redflowered varieties has been unsuccessful.

Since none of the Old World options seem to be a good fit, I turned my attention to the genus Phaseolus, which originate in the Americas. The best candidate seems to be, coincidentally, the very bean which I grow as part of my native ‘Three Sisters’ garden!

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) originate in Pre-Columbian Central America, and are vigorously vining plants. They are tolerant of heat, drought, and cool nights, which make them ideal for growing in many climates. Many varieties—including the original heirloom ‘Scarlet runner’ cultivar, but also more recent breeds like Firestorm, Polestar, and Red Rum—are known for their red flowers. Even more encouraging, I understand that they are the most popular green bean grown in England!—and as such may have been familiar to Tolkien, though how this could be confirmed I do not know, as—to my knowledge—he never wrote of a fondness for eating Runner beans.

These beans fulfill all four of our earlier requirements, with the one obvious hitch that they would be anachronistic in an ancient Northern European setting. Because ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans are otherwise such a good candidate for those grown by Tom Bombadil, I would like to try and determine how New World beans such as these could be explained in a late Third Age setting. (It would be simple to just shrug and dismiss the issue, but believability and justification are what authentic Middle-earth interpretation, to which we here aspire, is
all about).
It is important to remember that Middle-earth is also home to other ‘anachronistic’ flora that we normally associate with the Pre-Columbian New World, such as tobacco and potatoes. (Tolkien’s occasional use of ‘corn’, however, does not refer to the all-American Zea mays, but is the traditional Old English word for a cereal grain).

The lands that would correlate to the Americas in Tolkien’s published ‘Flat World’ cosmography would be among the “new lands” created following the Downfall of Númenor near the end of the Second Age (Tolkien’s later—though unrevised—‘Round World’ concept would possibly allow for these lands to have existed prior to the Downfall) and the only ‘world power’ known for its exploring and seafaring prowess was that of the Númenoreans. These “great mariners”, who “sailed furthest” and “set…a girdle about the Earth” would be ideal candidates to visit the new lands and bring back examples of its unique flora.
What, then, is the connection between Númenor and Bombadil? The key, I think, is Bombail’s close proximity to the village of Bree, located at the crossroads of the Great East Road and the old North Road that once connected the Númenorean kingdoms in exile (Gondor and Arnor): a location ideal for a trading hub in Eriador.
Once in newly-founded Gondor, the plants or seeds from overseas could have been spread north to Arnor via the North-South Road while the two kingdoms were still in communication (until perhaps the Great Plague of 1636 TA).
There seems to be a precedent for this, as evidenced by Meriadoc Brandybuck’s Herb-lore of the Shire, which suggests that that pipe-weed reached Eriador (and Bree specifically) from Gondor via the Greenway. As Tolkien himself wrote, “Hobbits are represented as using tobacco, and this is made more or less credible by the suggestion that the plant was brought over the Sea by the Men of Westernesse…” (emphasis mine)
Therefore, it is my conclusion that Scarlet Runner beans, if we believe that they could be found in Middle-earth, likely reached Bree, and eventually Bombadil, by following the same vector.

References:
Bombadil’s garden: LR: Book I The Ring Sets Out, Chapter 7 In the House of Tom Bombadil
Equation of Oxford and the Shire’s latitudes: Letters, No. 294
Date of the Third Age: Letters, No. 211
Runner beans: http://www.southernexposure.com/scarlet ... p-759.html
‘New lands’: The Silmarillion: Akallabeth
“Round World’: History of Middle-earth Vol 10 Morgoth’s Ring: Part Five.
Numenorean exploration: The Silmarillion: Akallabeth.
Pipe-weed: LR Prologue, 2: Concerning Pipe-weed
Tobacco: quoted in Hammond and Scull: Reader’s Companion, p. 612
Personae: Aistan son of Ansteig, common Beorning of Wilderland; Tungo Boffin, Eastfarthing Bounder, 3018 TA
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Re: Summer2016: In Search of Tom Bombadil's Beans

Post by Udwin »

For what it's worth, today equates to Shire-reckoning 27th Halimath - the day our four hobbits spend at Bombadil's - and my Scarlet Runner beans are still flowering, putting out pods, and otherwise going strong. Looks like I can count on a decent amount of green beans over the next few weeks.
Personae: Aistan son of Ansteig, common Beorning of Wilderland; Tungo Boffin, Eastfarthing Bounder, 3018 TA
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Re: Summer2016: In Search of Tom Bombadil's Beans

Post by Greg »

Stoked. When do you expect full maturation?
Now the sword shall come from under the cloak.
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Re: Summer2016: In Search of Tom Bombadil's Beans

Post by Udwin »

I have a few pods that I could eat tomorrow, while most are still 1" or so, probably will be big enough by the end of the week. It's kind of a waste to wait for them to dry and use as dry beans, so I'm eating them as green beans this year.
I'd have more but this push is from vines that *didn't* get shaded out when my gourds and luffa vines finally took off about halfway through the summer. Before then, the Runners had looked poised to take over.
Personae: Aistan son of Ansteig, common Beorning of Wilderland; Tungo Boffin, Eastfarthing Bounder, 3018 TA
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