Friday, September 26, 2014

A Little More about Purple Emperors

So, in my mini-essay in MR. BAGGINS on the butterflies of Mirkwood, I noted that Tolkien does not just mention generic butterflies (as he does with Medwed's bees) but identifies the specific type of butterfly Bilbo sees above the oak-canopy of the forest: the Purple Emperor -- a large, beautiful butterfly that was once widespread in southern and central England but is now all but extinct there.

Unexpectedly, while recently reading Goulson's A STING IN THE TALE: MY ADVENTURES WITH BUMBLEBEES [2013], I came across some slightly sinister associations with their habits.
Here's the passage, coming in a footnote at the bottom of page 203 of Goulson's book:

"These spectacular insects normally hang around the tops
 of oak trees, and so are seldom seen. One old-fashioned 
technique that was used by butterfly collectors was to place
 a well-rotted dead rat on a wood-land ride. Beautiful though
 the butterflies are, they have a macabre taste for the juices that 
leak from such a corpse and are often lured down."

I admit to being curious as to whether Tolkien, a keen observer of nature, was aware of the purple emperor's taste for corpse-juices, and if so whether this contributed to his decision to include them into his description of Mirkwood. I assume not, since the scene of Bilbo and the butterflies has no overt sinister overtones in the book, but the ghoulish habits of their real-world counterparts is interesting, to say the least.

--John R.
current reading: THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Le Guin [1971]
currently watcing : THE LATHE OF HEAVEN [1980]

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