Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WOTD: Hortus conclusus

This is a Latin term meaning “enclosed garden” — surprisingly useful in theology and literary criticism. The source of the trope is the Song of Solomon 4:12, which reads in the Vulgate: hortus conclusus soror mea sponsa hortus conclusus fons signatus; usually rendered in the language of King James, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” Have a meander over to Wikipedia for some interesting background I will not repeat here, including the idea of the hortus conclusus as the Virgin Mary, as well as the literal enclosed garden that became a commonplace of the Middle Ages.

Moving from theological to literary usage, the hortus conclusus could describe the Garden of Eden; then later, literary reflections of that Garden (e.g., in Milton’s Paradise Lost). Still later, gardens at further metaphorical remove. To situate the term in Inklings studies, think of the garden C.S. Lewis in the extreme west of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Salwa Khoddam, of Oklahoma City University, has an excellent article on the subject, here.

In the world of Tolkien, think of the “enclosed garden” of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings; or the antecedent gardens in Valinor, where the Vala Irmo held court; or even the hortus conclusus in/of “Leaf By Niggle”. It’s a rich image, with a long history and a nimbus of wonderful connotations and associations. I am reminded, too, of Tolkien’s etymological riddle from The Hobbit:

An eye in a blue face
Saw an eye in a green face.
“That eye is like to this eye”
Said the first eye,
“But in low place,
Not in high place.”

Gollum’s answer — “Sun on the daisies it means, it does” — recalls the hortus conclusus in which Gollum, with his grandmother, was nurtured in his youth. And a daisy, of course, is just the day’s eye. The “enclosed garden” of Gollum’s childhood was situated in the neighborhood of the Gladden Fields, along the Anduin River, which Tolkien tells us in his “Nomenclature” refer to the fields of irises (Old English glædene).


  1. And Galadriel herself is also associated with the Virgin Mary...

  2. Quite so, thank you!

    Indeed, I could have said much more. For example, one thinks of Samwise, the Gardner. And the horti conclusi of Fangorn and the Old Forest.

    There’s more in Lewis as well. I mentioned the Garden in the west of Narnia, but there is also Aslan’s country, particularly the flowery description in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And there is a fictive reflection of the Garden of Eden in the Space Trilogy too.

  3. Gary Schmidt3/31/2009 8:35 PM

    Interesting -- I'd never heard the term hortus conclusus. But your description reminds me very much of the etymology of "paradise," described here by Bartleby:

    The history of paradise is an extreme example of amelioration, the process by which a word comes to refer to something better than what it used to refer to. The old Iranian language Avestan had a noun pairidaza-, “a wall enclosing a garden or orchard,” which is composed of pairi–, “around,” and daza– “wall.” The adverb and preposition pairi is related to the equivalent Greek form peri, as in perimeter. Daza– comes from the Indo-European root *dheigh–, “to mold, form, shape.” Zoroastrian religion encouraged maintaining arbors, orchards, and gardens, and even the kings of austere Sparta were edified by seeing the Great King of Persia planting and maintaining his own trees in his own garden. Xenophon, a Greek mercenary soldier who spent some time in the Persian army and later wrote histories, recorded the pairidaza- surrounding the orchard as paradeisos, using it not to refer to the wall itself but to the huge parks that Persian nobles loved to build and hunt in. This Greek word was used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis to refer to the Garden of Eden, whence Old English eventually borrowed it around 1200.

  4. Hey, Gary, there’s an etymology I had never looked into and did not know! Fascinating, and of course, a perfect fit with my WOTD. Thanks for contributing that.

    Considering that the Greek word was used in the LXX, I was immediately curious to learn why Jerome used hortus conclusus and not paradisus, borrowed directly from the Greek, in Song of Solomon 4:12. I looked into it, and — quelle surprise! — Jerome does use paradisus twice in the Vulgate. In Ecclesiastes chapter 40, and then — right there in the Song of Solomon, in the very next verse following hortus conclusus! Having found what I wanted yesterday, I had read no further, but there it was! The verse reads: Emissiones tuae paradisus malorum punicorum cum pomorum fructibus cypri cum nardo — “Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard, cypress with spikenard.”

    So the next question was, what does the LXX have in Song of Solomon 4:12–3? In 4:12, it’s literally an enclosed garden: κήπος κεκλεισμένος. In 4:13, though usually translated simply as “garden” or “orchard”, LXX has indeed παράδεισος. So Jerome was following the LXX very closely, which must mean that the Hebrew (which I haven’t yet looked into) must have much the same words, since the whole purpose of Jerome’s new translation was to return to the Masoretic text.

    Interesting ...

  5. The Hebrew for the Masoretic text in verse 12 is gan nâ‘ûl (I don't know how to make italics work :( gan meaning “garden,” and nâ‘ûl being the qal stem passive participle for the verb “lock, bolt, bar.” So the meaning “bolted garden” seems to follow both the earlier translation of the LXX.

    Interestingly enough, in verse 13, the word is paredês, which is the loan-word construction you guys are talking about.

    Now I have never heard that Galadriel is associated with the Virgin. What is the basic idea behind that, and where has it been pointed out? That would be a conversation I would like to look at.

  6. Hi, Alex. Thanks for the information on the Hebrew text. It confirms everything else. This would be the earlier reading to which Jerome returned (rather than base his Latin translation on the LXX).

    The Marian view of Galadriel goes way back, actually. Some of the basic points of comparison include her Grace and her gift of lembas, seen as a kind of Eucharist. Father Robert Murray, the grandson of Sir James Murray (of the OED), read parts of The Lord of the Rings shortly before publication and wrote to Tolkien in 1953 comparing Galadriel to the Virgin Mary. Tolkien replied (#142 in Letters), to which letter I would refer you. This is the letter where Tolkien (now famously) declared that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” See also the fragment printed as #320, in which Tolkien commented again on the (imperfect) resemblance.

    Since then, scholars have touched on this many times. A sampling includes Clyde Kilby, Ralph Wood, Stratford Caldecott, and Bradley Birzer. Also, take a look at p. 317 of Hammond and Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. And okay, I may as well put in a plug for myself: see the entry “Galadriel” in The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (pp. 227–8)— which I wrote. :)

  7. Harm J. Schelhaas4/01/2009 6:04 PM

    On another Inklings related vein, I was reminded of the use Dorothy L. Sayers made in Gaudy Night of Horti conclusi, fontes signati.

  8. Yes, a direct reference to Song of Solomon 4:12, only rendered into the plural. Though not an Inkling herself, Sayers was among Lewis’s circle of friends. Nice observation, Harm.

  9. Nice posting!

    The four consonants of the Hebrew word pardes in verse 13 also designate four methods of Biblical exegesis (the "Paradise" of divine knowledge), ranging from the simple to the mystical.

  10. Thanks, Idher — for the kind words and for the comment. I knew nothing about the exegetical acronym, PRDS, but it’s really interesting, isn’t it? Here’s another explanation I found, with an example verse examined through each of the four approaches. I am going to have to look into this further!

  11. Yes it's quite tantalizing. Certain Kabbalistic writings also connects this unusual four-letter acrostic (?) with the four rivers of Eden.

    Concerning the etymology I will also like to mention the Sanskrit word Paradesha ("supreme/elevated country"), from which the Chaldean Pardes probably can been traced.