[Sméagol] had a friend called Déagol, of similar sort, sharper-eyed, but not so quick and strong. On a time they took a boat and went down to the Gladden Fields, where there were great beds of iris and flowering reeds.
I was reading this passage the other day, and a question arose in my mind that I had never considered before -- what color were these irises? As I learned after a few minutes of research, there are up to 300 species of iris in a multitude of colors -- hence, according to what I've read, the name 'iris,' which comes from the Greek word for 'rainbow.'
Since Tolkien doesn't explicitly say here what color these irises are, we are of course entirely free to imagine any color we wish. Tolkien, however, was both a very visual writer in general and one with a quite clear and specific love of flowers -- from the individual flowers, elanor and niphredil and symbelmynë, to the long and elaborate description of the herbs and flowers of Ithilien1 -- and so it is difficult to believe that Tolkien had no image of these flowers in his mind when he wrote. After a bit of investigation, I think we can figure out not only the color, but what species he had in mind.
It is reasonable to assume that Tolkien was thinking of an iris he knew. Two species of iris are native to the United Kingdom, iris foetidissima and iris pseudacorus. While the former is more at home in woods and in drier soil, the latter flourishes in wetlands and by water, just like the Gladden Fields. That of course tends to suggest that iris pseudacorus is the one Tolkien meant, but that is not the end of that. For when you look up iris foetidissima, you are told that two common names for it are gladwin iris and also simply gladdon. So we have two pieces or evidence that point in opposite directions.
But this is Tolkien we're talking about here. And what may look confusing to our myopic vision of English comes into focus when seen through eyes of the philologist who gazes undismayed into the deeps of time. If you turn to the OED and look up 'gladdon,' you will read the following, under the very first heading '[a] popular name of the iris (Iris Pseudacorus and Iris foetidissima; the latter is sometimes distinguished as 'stinking gladdon').' So 'gladdon' once applied to both species, and by once I mean, of course, anciently. The OED cites it as a gloss of the Latin herbal name 'scilla' as early as 700, with which it is also paired in a medicinal text from circa 1,000:2
'wið wæter seocnysse ȝenim þas wyrte þe bulbi scilitici oðrum naman glædene nemneð'
'in a case of water sickness take that plant which people call "squill roots" and also, by another name, "gladdon". '
The early 15th century Middle English Romance, The Wars of Alexander (lines 4093-94), is also cited: '... a dryi meere, Was full of gladen & of gale & of grete redis' -- '...a dry lake [which] was full of gladdon and of sweet gale and large reeds.'
So, quite clearly, Tolkien had ancient authority to take 'gladdon' as iris pseudacorus. And if we turn to Unfinished Tales we can see from a note that Tolkien was undoubtedly using 'gladden' to mean 'iris' (441),3 and he translates Loeg Ningloron, the Sindarin name of the Gladden Fields, as 'pools of the golden water flowers' (UT 450). We may then on balance safely conclude that Tolkien has in mind the iris pseudacorus, whose flowers are golden indeed,
and not iris foetidissima, even though in more modern usage it has monopolized the use of 'gladden. It is true that its flowers are sometimes yellowish, but hardly 'golden' by comparison, and almost all the images of foetidissima I have been able to find make it appear that purple is far more common.
As an odd side note here, the pseudacorus blooms in mid to late Summer, which allows us to narrow down Gollum's birthday to that time of year. For, as we all know, it was on Sméagol's birthday that he and the insufficiently generous Déagol went down to the Gladden Fields for the day. Whether you view this as an occasion to celebrate is entirely up to you.
1 An amazing description that zooms in from large to small, from the four points of the compass and the mountain tops down to the trees, the bushes, the rocks the flowers, the grass and the streams. Not a bit of effort is wasted, the last sentence of the previous paragraph serves as introduction (and contains what may be the loveliest phrase in Tolkien -- 'a dishevelled dryad loveliness')
...Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.
South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into unattended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew up in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.
A passage like this makes it nearly impossible to imagine that Tolkien never thought about the irises of the Gladden Fields.
2 I believe my translation is more or less correct, but my Old English is not as strong as I would like it to be. I don't believe in any case that I have committed some crucial error. But if anyone has any suggestions to improve the accuracy of the translation, please do let me know.
3 'Gladden Fields...the great stretches of reed and gladden (iris) where the Gladden River joined the Anduin.' UT 280 n. 13 for a natural history of the Gladden Fields. Granted that the text "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields" later than the publication of The Lord of the Rings, which makes its weight as canon ponderable, to conclude that Tolkien intended the word 'gladden' to mean what he knew it meant is hardly the same thing as reading later versions of Galadriel backwards into The Lord of the Rings. This isn't retcon, but recognition. Citations of Unfinished Tales are to the 1980 American first edition.
And I can't believe I just wrote a post on flowers.