I need to bring something up before continuing on with another question. This is Giving Tolkien Architecture a Reality Check, which means whether or not the architecture that Tolkien described and WETA interpreted can be put to feasible use in the real world. Any canonical mention of elves and dwarves just cheats the point.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, past Moria is the sacred forest of Lothlorien. What makes this one stand out in comparison to Rivendell is that the city is built high up in the trees. The movies give the city an art nouveau look, which, as it turns out, really is practical, so that's no problem there. The real problem is that it is a city built in the canopy of a forest, and that provides the listed problems:

  1. Building structures strong enough to hold but light enough to not make the trees top-heavy.
  2. Constructing bridges from hundreds of feet off the ground. (Vines I will not allow because they might work for carrying Ewoks from tree to tree, but not heavy goods.)
  3. Most importantly, protection from lightning. Trees, by their nature, are tall organisms and the taller an object is, the more attractive it is to a bolt of lightning.

If an arboreal city on the scale of Lothlorien is possible to use in real life, how would the three issues listed above be addressed?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I should imagine that Galadriel's Ring of power, Nenya, whose powers included protection, would have been sufficient to ward off lightning strikes. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Dec 18, 2017 at 15:30
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Elves don't use heavy goods, also vines are good enough, living vine bridges are very common across the world. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Dec 18, 2017 at 15:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Elves are patient with, and considerate of, nature. The trees are their friends and they encourage them to grow in a way that suits their homes, if the tree doesn't grow them a new den, then they don't have a new den, and they get on with it. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2017 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ How is lightning a problem? Don's we have trees approaching 100m here on Earth that live for centuries? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 18, 2017 at 20:24
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @johnWDailey. You need to rethink your opening paragraph architecture that Tolkien described and WETA interpreted are two very different things. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2017 at 8:03

4 Answers 4


I am going to answer them in reverse order just because #3 is easiest to address and #2 is not so bad either.

Most importantly, protection from lightning. Trees, by their nature, are tall organisms and the taller an object is, the more attractive it is to a bolt of lightning.

The lightning is going to strike regardless of whether the village is there. I do not recall any of the structures providing any lightning rods above the treetops, and I just Googled some images to confirm. The village should not make lightning strikes worse.

If you just mean "The lightning that would already have struck is now closer to you." then yes, perhaps that could be an issue. That would be similar to all tree-houses that humans actually have built; I know of nobody who has had a problem with their tree houses being too close to lightning. Of course, they probably are not in use during a lightning storm, but then, maybe the residents of Lothlorien generally avoid the upper levels when lightning is striking close.

For a parallel, look to modern humans who live in dangerous areas. After hurricane Katrina, lots of people said New Orleans should be abandoned. Instead, people moved back in and rebuilt even though that was, in my opinion, worse than what close lightning strikes would do to a treetop village. So even if this were a problem, it can be set aside by persistent, stubborn peoples.

Constructing bridges from hundreds of feet off the ground. (Vines I will not allow because they might work for carrying Ewoks from tree to tree, but not heavy goods.)

To get the bridges there, they can do it the same way people used to make bridges across chasms. If it is close enough, throw your rope. If it is too far, you need to tie off at one end with a rope long enough to go down, across, and back up, then pull it up.

As far as the material of the bridge itself, I challenge the assumption that vines would be insufficient. One or two vines, maybe, but building a bridge made up of many vines would work, though I still would not go that route.

Instead, there are plenty of other materials that can be used, and have been used in reality. Just think of the famous bridges that people used to make out of grass which have inspired the look of many bridges on the big screen.

Making ropes is something that has been done for thousands of years, including ropes which can hold hundreds or thousands of pounds. In fact, I have practiced rope-making with natural resources, so I can tell you that I can go outside and make a rope out of grass that can hold my weight, and I have done so. I have never tried to make very strong ones, but all that requires is weaving more strands in to make a bigger rope, and the strength goes up exponentially with the diameter, so I have no doubt that I could go outside my house and, using what I find lying around naturally, make a rope that could carry me and heavy goods. The techniques required are simpler than they sound, but it does require a lot of time and patience.

Once you have enough rope made, you can connect parallel ropes either with more ropes, or you can lay wood across them.

Building structures strong enough to hold but light enough to not make the trees top-heavy.

I think this is the hardest one to answer definitively and might require an engineer in that field to be certain. I answer it with comparisons instead of numbers.

I will point out that, if you use large trees - imagine the redwood and sequoias that this type of village would probably be made on in reality - the weight of the village would probably be a fraction of the weight of the tree trunk it is attached to. Especially if you are careful in your construction; you can use relatively thin and lightweight wood. So it is doubtful that it would tip over.

If your top-heavy concern is for the weight to crush the bottom of the tree, I would like to remind you that some large trees have very large holes cut completely through them, including the famous sequoia tree that you can literally drive through (Google images: "tree with road through it"). In this case, if the severely weakened trunk can support the immeasurably massive weight of the tree above it, then I doubt the added weight of a village would crush a tree that does not have such a huge hole through its bottom.

To reinforce this point, think about wood building supports. A 2x6 can hold a lot of weight even when it is horizontal, even if you do not support it in the middle. Multiple of them holding up a floor are going to support practically whatever you want. Some types of wood are very strong. If a thin length of wood run horizontally can hold so much, an entire vertical tree is going to support a lot, lot more.

You can look up wood weight-load data that will tell you how to figure out how much weight a given type and thickness of wood in a certain orientation will support. It does have its limits, but if lumber can support entire large buildings, and you generally don't even consider anything beyond 6 or 8 inches thickness in wood for private housing (and that's for the load-bearing parts that support everything else), then surely a tree which is that many feet across will support a mind-bogglingly lot of weight.

If you are concerned about the top-heaviness in the wind (ie: blowing over), I will point out that trees already have a lot of surface area in their leaves that catches a lot of wind. In fact, if you stay inside a dense forest during a windy time you will notice that the wind is reduced inside the forest, though I do not recommend this since trees already fall down in high winds even without buildings in them.

If you are worried about wind, to reduce the amount of wind caught by the tree structures, I would suggest that a lot of it be as open as you are willing to make it. Reduce the amount of walls and roofs. A lot of it can be just floor to walk around on, and since floors are horizontal they will catch less wind, though still enough to get torn off if you don't build them well. Use flat or very shallowly sloped roofs in areas with no walls. Try to make your fully-enclosed (wall & roof) areas be small and hug closer to the tree trunk - that is, a small circle centered around the tree trunk with a diameter just enough for cramped sleeping and a few other minor activities.

If you have a large storage area, make it large vertically instead of horizontally and have it encircle the tree and use a spiral staircase around it, all this preferably lower down on the tree, in fact, all your biggest structures should be lower on the tree, and smaller ones should be higher up. This might not even be necessary; your people could do some tests by trying to build the worst, most top-heavy, wind-catching buildings high up in trees (these are tests; they won't be lived in) and see how they react to time and storms, then use that as building guidelines.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd think he'd be worried about swaying around in the wind; might have to treat the homes as boats with everything tucked away where it can't roll about. You're right about wood's strength. The concrete and steel lobby got the better part of a century ban on wood buildings over 4 stories and usually over 2 inspectors required steel support. Then someone looked at a tall tree and asked how the heck that was standing up without steel & concrete? Recently they are constructing 17 story wood buildings out west. Europe is even more enthusiastic with laminates and massive engineered arches. $\endgroup$
    – Hebekiah
    Dec 20, 2017 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ After living on Oregon coast it's not holding things up that's critical, it's holding things down in the wind. I've seen not only roofs go flying but entire homes that weren't strongly secured to a substantial footing. Another example of wood's strength and durability was after 2008 when we thought we'd employ people by working on infrastructure (nice dream) and surveys of bridges and earthworks were done across the country; turned out wooden ones have survived much better over the long run than steel & concrete brethren. Flexibility, surviving cold/hot, lower maintenance are in its favor $\endgroup$
    – Hebekiah
    Dec 20, 2017 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Hebekiah I had thought I included a bit about wind; I had it in mind while writing the answer. Anyway, I just added a few paragraphs in response to your comment. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Dec 20, 2017 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ The "lightning strike" answer is missing the point. Trees struck by lightning can be badly damaged or even explode; anything sitting in them at the time may receive a severe electric shock. This is not a good outcome if you live in a treehouse. The solution is to install a lightning rod; or as a partial substitute, avoid building in the very tallest trees, so that they act as natural lightning rods. $\endgroup$ Dec 20, 2017 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ @RoyalCanadianBandit It is not "missing the point." Not addressing it as fully as you desire, perhaps. I did suggest that tree buildings in locations more susceptible to lightning strike could be avoided during lightning storms and also I raised the possibility of them acting like the hurricane Katrina survivors: "Yeah all our homes and businesses were ruined and people died. Now we're going to just go back in and rebuild it." The lightning rod could help those who are aware of how lightning works, yes, but I assume the people are not advanced enough for that - but they could be in your story. $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Dec 20, 2017 at 17:10

You might be interested in this

Not only is a tree-dwelling community practical, it is a reality here on earth.

The example I gave above is only one of many.

The real limitation that tree canopy living presents is not one on your list.

It is the limitation on energy sources to power a society at any level above subsistence hunter-gatherers. I can't envision, say, a blacksmith operating in the trees.

And I don't particularly relish the thoughts of a herd of cows in a tree farm, either.

But if we are talking in terms of simple living, then there is no impediment.

However, attention would have to be made towards the climate. Laos is practical for such a city, as it is temperate, and the trees grow very tall and strong. The forest is dense and fertile. There is little danger of forest fire, as the vegetation never dries out.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points. Concerning the herd of cows, I bet the elves of Lothlorien would just let them graze on the ground below in that situation. That is, assuming they had actual cows; if they raised cattle I bet Tolkien would have made some tree-dwelling monkey-like cow for them or perhaps they would have an aviary of "farm-birds." $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely a hardwood forest for fire safety (good point Justin). The Pacific NW is no place for a tree city or much of the Western US with fir and pine that are like fireworks compared to a Vermont maple woods. Even redwoods aren't great for your use in that mature trees survive fire well but flames will lick up the entire length (height) of the trees and burn the tops a bit. $\endgroup$
    – Hebekiah
    Dec 20, 2017 at 12:00

Actually, as the city is described in the book, it is not fully arboreal. If you read the beginning of the chapter 7, book 2 in the LOTR, it describes quite clearly that a lot of traffic goes by the ground - there's a white stone road, a stone wall and a gate in it. Then there are pathways and stairs, and only then the characters come to the glade, where there's one of the biggest trees with a palace upon it. So, it was clearly possible to walk around the town by ground, not necessarily swinging through the trees on the vines.

We are actually never told that all and any structures in Lothlorien are on the raised platforms. Maybe only sleeping quarters are in the treehouses, while kitchens and smithies and everything else to do with fire is on the ground.

Now, I can definitely say that there are smithies and kitchens in Lorien. As well as farms of some sort. In the letter 210 Tolkien describes what lembas is made of - and it is produced from a special strain of wheat that Galadriel brought from Aman. It is therefore 'magical' in a way, but it is a usual Tolkien's brand of 'slightly better then ordinary' magic. So, if we treat it as super-nutriciuos metabolism-modifying wheat strain, it still needs open areas to grow, millstones to turn it into flour and fire to cook it. Therefore fields and kitchens/ovens.

As for the smithies - Lorien seems to produce it's own weapons and armor. And since steel and iron are the metals of choice in Middle Earth, until told otherwise, seems that there should be smithies to craft them. Even if most of the armaments were bought in bulk from dwarves long ago (seemed to work for Tingol in the First Age), and elven population is pretty stable, so the size of the 'army' doesn't grow, they still would need smithies to maintain and repair weapons and make new arrowheads.

To develop on the iron and steel idea - it seems there is no special elven forest magic to create weapons from living trees. Sindar in the first age seemed to have no weapons to speak of until they started buying iron weapons from the dwarves.

So, to summarize it, a significant portion of Lothlorien is situated on the ground one way or another. They have white stone to construct roads and walls from. Most likely they can use this stone to construct bread ovens, smithies and forges too. The forest is huge, about 50x30 miles. So if the elves do not have any heavy-duty industry, harvesting dead wood may be enough for their needs. Elves hunt and eat meat, so that is not a problem, and they mantain wheat fields of their special magical wheat. Even if they have sleeping quarters and some of the social spaces on the tree platforms, they may spend significant amount of time on the ground. They have good thin light rope for rope bridges, but any heavy traffic can go by the paved roads instead.

The only question I have no answer to is the lightning threat. If Galadriel's weather control magic doesn't cut it, they may have some sorts of lightning rods, maybe primarily decorative at first - tall metal spikes, weathervanes on rooftops, but grounded, something of that sort.


There's also something like it in Costa Rica, about a dozen homes in trees. Not very high up but some important lessons.
People quickly wanted their modern perks of indoor plumbing, TV and internet. Even though they'd chosen to live "off the grid" their homes were otherwise so cozy, clean, fancy, and well made that they really ended up treating them like their old homes in cities and having similar expectations.

 Even better than the walking bridges were swinging platforms for moving stuff about. Crude but effective elevators were similarly fashioned and counterbalanced with large water canisters.
 Plumbing is tough without modern materials and plenty of water. Sealed tubes to limit the stink is important and a toilet like modern ones that keep a seal of water above the pipe. For water there are lots of videos on these ram jack pump things that'll take it only a couple of stories if you have enough flow, are near a running stream. Otherwise would have to canal it a good distance assuming that you have enough elevation change (don't want your tree town on top of a hill). Windmills and rain catches would be useful but sounds like you want a fairly high community so geography will matter. I'm thinking the lower part of a valley.

 And if you are using all your wind turbines to pump water, power for electronics is a problem. Say solar panels, too. Starting to get awfully busy up there and the canopy will be littered with the stuff. Perhaps, like the water, shipping it in will be desirable, especially for a city.

  As far as being top heavy or waving around in the breeze, tying the trees together with diagonal struts would help in part; fashioning connecting structures like geodesic domes have. Look, too, at the super-mega-high towers being built today, they have counterbalancing weights, their own inertial dampeners. Mounting your heavier buildings on shock absorber/lever system. There are other clues in the engineering of those buildings that are likely to aid you and lots of youtube videos on them.

  Further thoughts are crafting solar panels in natural shapes; using the movement of the trees for power generation like wave generators do; learning to tap the trees to supply water as pumping water is what trees spend a lot of time doing already, come up with a way to stimulate that activity.
 Oh, do we still have to talk about lightning? Conductive cables to ground is the only way. Perhaps y'all will get clever and tap some power into huge capacitors but only worth the added effort if you have regular lightning.

  • $\begingroup$ That's too modern an answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2017 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ OP says "in real life" and " real world " all bold and all. It's 2017 in real life. Indeed, nearly 2018 in the real world . No other timeline was given. $\endgroup$
    – Hebekiah
    Dec 19, 2017 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey To support Hebekiah's comment, the question not only says "real life" "real world," etc., but also specifically says to avoid the fantasy elements like elves and magic. The answer seems completely valid given the parameters. If you don't want the modern niceties and want more old-fashioned, that only makes it easier: just skip what Hebekiah says about vertical plumbing and about electricity. Plumbing in general and the counterweight-elevators are still viable even for old-fashioned though. $\endgroup$
    – Loduwijk
    Dec 19, 2017 at 19:51

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