Smoke (No Mirrors)


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As always, welcome, dear readers.

This posting takes us away from the Shire and back to it, all in a couple of pages, as well as linking itself with a recent one on Sharkey and his attempt at revenge on the Hobbits who have helped in his downfall.

We begin just after Helm’s Deep, at the moment when Gandalf and all of the major characters involved have followed the invasion route back to Isengard, only to find it in ruins and:

“And now they turned their eyes towards the archway and the ruined gates. There they saw close beside them a great rubble-heap; and suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease…One seemed asleep; the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long whisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.” The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”


For Gimli, himself a smoker, that latter sight is not a surprising. For Theoden, however, not only are the Hobbits a surprise, but: “I had not heard that they spouted smoke from their mouths.”

Merry’s reply then leads us into today’s posting.

“That is not surprising…for it is an art which we have not practised for more than a few generations. It was Tobold Hornblower, of Longbottom in the Southfarthing, who first grew the true pipe-weed in his gardens, about the year 1070 according to our reckoning. How old Toby came by the plant…”

Gandalf interrupts Merry here, concluding with “Some other time would be more fitting for the history of smoking.”

But not for us.

For us, smoking, in the The Lord of the Rings, as in The Hobbit, belongs to a whole category of what we call the “domestication of the heroic”, a distinctive and important feature of JRRT’s narrative style. Earlier epics, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, certainly have their moments where combat and travel and dealing with monsters and enchantresses are not the only features of the stories. People sometimes pause to eat and drink and even sleep. JRRT goes beyond this, however, to provide what he himself might call the “homely” in his texts. By this term, we mean the ordinary and familiar, including such things as a brief inventory of the contents of Bag End, food more detailed than the “endless meat and sweet dark wine” of Homer–such as the mushrooms and bacon which Farmer Maggot offers–and Bilbo reading his letters and forgetting his pocket handkerchief. Such seemingly-trivial things give the stories—and certain of the characters within them—an extra depth and thus a deeper believability, as well as anchoring the story in something more ordinary than kings and wizards.

In fact, the center of this domestication are the Hobbits: think of Sam wanting a bit of rope or explaining taters to Gollum or that heart-breaking moment when Sam discards his pots and pans and “The clatter of his precious pans as they fell down into the dark was like a death-knell to his heart.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”) And, along with things like rope and conies, there is what once was called “the pleasures of the pipe”.

We live in a different world from JRRT. When he took up the pipe, in the early 20th century, no one knew the dangers of smoking.


It was simply something men, in particular, did. After all, there was Sherlock Holmes, with his famous “three-pipe problem” (“The Red-Headed League”, The Strand Magazine, August, 1891) as a perfect model.


Thus, smoking was acceptable and, potentially, domestic: after all, although the ancient comic book and cartoon character, Popeye the Sailor (1929-1957), may hold a pipe in his mouth while battling,


it is generally something done in quiet and contemplation. Perhaps, then, for the times in which JRRT was writing, a perfect symbol of the domestic. (Hence the old expression for household comfort that someone—typically his wife–brings the owner “his pipe and slippers” when he comes home from work?)

And it appears very early in our experience of Hobbits. After all, the first time we see Bilbo, he is “standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes”. (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)


In time, we’ll see Gandalf smoking


and Strider/Aragorn, too.


In fact, we wonder if it isn’t a kind of unconscious sign that someone is a positive character—after all, as we said, Gimli smokes, too.


There is one exception, of course—and we’ll come back to that!

It should be no surprise, then, that one more positive character, Merry, is a smoker. Knowing, from the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, that he is also the author of Herblore of the Shire, among other works, it is also not surprising that he appears to be the main authority on “pipe-weed”, claiming that the Hobbits were the inventors of its consumption:   “Hobbits first put it into pipes. Not even the Wizards first thought of that before we did.”

This, of course, made us think about who invented tobacco-smoking in our world—or, at least, in the English-speaking Western Hemisphere. (Although we are glad to point out that, as early as 1559, Philip II of Spain ordered Hernandez de Boncalo to bring back tobacco seeds from the New World to plant in Spain.)

Merry says of the plant (which he correctly identifies with our genus Nicotiana):

“…observations that I have made on my own many journeys south have convinced me that the weed itself is not native to our parts of the world, but came northward from the lower Anduin, whither it was, I suspect, originally brought over Sea by the Men of Westernesse. It grows abundantly in Gondor, and there is richer and larger than in the North, where it is never found wild, and flourishes only in warm sheltered places like Longbottom.”

In our world—that is, in the Americas– Native Americans first cultivated tobacco—as can be seen in this engraved version of John White’s 1580s drawing of the Algonquian village of Secoton by Theodor de Bry for the 1590 second edition of Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.


At the top, center, is a tobacco field, with stylized plants, which, up close, might look like this:


Native Americans appear to have used tobacco—and its smoke—primarily for religious and political ceremonies, rather than for recreation.


This soon changed, however, when a member of the newly-established (1607) colony of Jamestown, John Rolfe, in what would become the US state of Virginia,


saw the commercial possibilities and began to cultivate tobacco for export.


Although John Rolfe is known to those interested in early English colonization, his wife is much more famous. She was Matoaka, called Pocahontas as a nickname (it means something like “playful/lively”), the 400th anniversary of whose funeral is the day of this writing, 21 March (although it will be posted tomorrow, the 22nd).


Tobacco was already known in England,


had become a sort of craze,


and even inspired at least one pop song, Tobias Hume’s “Tobacco”, from his The First Part of Ayres of the Musicall Humours (1605). Hume was a big fan of the lyra viol (a member of the string bass family).


(We include here a link so that you can hear the song sung and accompanied by his favorite instrument.  Oh—and it’s sung in the pronunciation of the early 17th century, so be prepared for some differences in sound.)

Thus, Rolfe’s exploitation was a good business investment, even though tobacco quickly ran afoul of the British government, in the form of the new king, James I,


who had already published an attack on smoking in 1604.


James I had opinions on numerous subjects, including witches, about whom he had published a book, Daemonologie, in 1597.

M0014280 James I: Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue. Title page.

His attack on tobacco—although more sensible than believing in witches—didn’t stop it from becoming the major Virginia crop, however—as this roadside sign points out.


Virginia farmers planted huge fields of tobacco,


cultivated it (a major use of slave labor, like the sugar plantations of the Caribbean),


cut and dried it,


packed it into huge barrels, called hogsheads,


dragged those hogsheads to a port,


and shipped those hogsheads to England


where smokers enjoyed it.


We don’t know the methods used in the Southfarthing, but, looking at tobacco around the world in our world, the main difference seems to be in the curing (drying) technique used. We can imagine, then, that, when Merry talks about “pipe-weed” and its cultivation, if we visited the southern part of the Shire, we would see familiar sights—except, perhaps, for those hogheads. The stuff which Merry is smoking came from “two small barrels, washed up out of some cellar or store-house…When we opened them, we found they were filled with this: as fine a pipe-weed as you could wish for, and quite unspoilt.” (The Two Towers, Chapter Nine, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

Gimli admires the quality and Merry says, “My dear Gimli, it is Longbottom Leaf! There were the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels, as plain as plain. How it came here, I can’t imagine. For Saruman’s private use, I fancy.”

This brings us back to the final smoker and one exception to our fanciful rule that, in Tolkien, if you smoke, you’re a positive character: Saruman.


It’s hard to think of Saruman as indulging in the domestic. As Treebeard says of him: “He has a mind of metal and wheels” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”). And yet, although he has lost his position as head of the White Council, and has lost Isengard, as well, as Gandalf says of him, “I fancy he could do some mischief still in a small mean way.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”). Thus, what better small, mean way than to attack that very domesticity which is embodied in the Hobbits and their Shire? As Sharkey, he does so, destroying the Shire by cutting down trees, knocking or burning down houses, replacing water mills with steam, and turning a nearly a-political place into a little fascist state. And, perhaps, as a last straw, he attacks one last small comfort, saying to Merry, as he keeps his tobacco pouch:

“Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”)

If so, perhaps there is a certain horrible irony, then, that, when Saruman is murdered, he is last seen as “a grey mist…rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire”. (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Shire Portrait (5b): Hostile Takeover


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Welcome, dear readers, to the second part of our last (for the moment?) posting on the Shire. This is actually a two-part posting and is devoted to the takeover of the Shire by “Sharkey” and his followers and how it might have happened, based upon evidence from the texts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

We decided upon a two-part posting because we saw the takeover as a two-step process. Initially, we believe that Saruman looked for someone within the Shire to act as his agent there and, as a local agent, both to foment the kind of discontent which would provoke a demand for change, and to act as the leader of that change.

Because the Shire had so little government and most problems were dealt with within families, we wondered if that discontent wouldn’t begin as something Shire-wide, but be found within one or more families, instead.

With this in mind, we immediately thought of the Sackville-Bagginses. From the final chapter of The Hobbit, it was clear that the S-Bs (as they’re called) had grievances against their cousins, the Bagginses, mostly because they wanted Bag End and its contents.

How this led to leaguing with Saruman is not explained, but merely suggested, by Pippin, who says, of reported disturbance in the Southfarthing:

“ ‘Whatever it is…Lotho will be at the bottom of it:   you can be sure of that.” The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 7, “Homeward Bound”

This is then confirmed when the hobbits reach the bridge over the Brandywine and one of the hobbit guards (Hob Hayward), mentions “the Chief…up at Bag End.”

Frodo, who has sold his house at Bag End (see The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 3, “Three is Company”) to the S-Bs, immediately asks Hob, “ ‘Chief? Chief? Do you mean Mr. Lotho?’ said Frodo.” The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”

Otho and Lobelia had been Bilbo’s enemies long ago, but, whereas Lobelia is still alive, Otho is long dead and Lotho (and yes, the word “loathe” must lie just below the surface here, though this is probably not his name in the Common Tongue, just as Pippin’s name isn’t Pippin), his son, has somehow become not the Mayor of the Shire (who is actually Will Whitfoot), but the much vaguer (and more menacing) “the Chief”. (We also note that “Mr. Lotho” is a courtesy title and one for established land-owners, really, and not for Lotho.)

The family theme is underlined when Hob replies that “we have to say ‘the Chief’ nowadays” and Frodo says, in turn:

“ ‘Do you indeed!’ said Frodo. ‘Well, I am glad he has dropped the Baggins at any rate. But it is evidently high time that the family dealt with him and put him in his place.’ ”

If Frodo’s remark suggests the familial aspect of justice in the Shire, the reply of an anonymous hobbit to it suggests the second or external step of the takeover:

“A hush fell on the hobbits beyond the gate. ‘It won’t do no good talking that way,’ said one. ‘He’ll get to hear of it. And if you make so much noise, you’ll wake the Chief’s Big Man.’ ”

As JRRT began The Lord of the Rings in 1937, just four years after the Nazis took control of Germany, “The Chief” surely has echoes of “Der Fuehrer”, which simply means “The Leader”.


In which case, should we associate the threat of “the Chief’s Big Man” with everything from the SA


to the Gestapo?


Merry, at least, certainly makes a connection with something which Butterbur had said earlier:

“It all comes of those newcomers and gangrels that began coming up the Greenway last year, as you may remember; but more came later. Some were just poor bodies running away from trouble; but most were bad men, full o’ thievery and mischief.” The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 7, “Homeward Bound”

Answering the anonymous voice, Merry says:

“If you mean that your precious Chief has been hiring ruffians out of the wild, then we’ve not come back too soon!”

When the Big Man appears, Merry’s conclusion is confirmed: it’s Bill Ferny, who, Butterbur believes, who had been involved in a minor battle in Bree, in which five hobbits had been killed:

“ ‘And Harry Goatleaf that used to be on the West-gate, and that Bill Ferny, they came in on the strangers’ side, and they’ve gone off with them; and it’s my belief they let them in. On the night of the fight I mean.’ “

If some of these “Big Men” were criminal drifters from the east, almost randomly recruited, there were others who were sent.

“ ‘It all began with Pimple, as we call him,’ said Farmer Cotton; ‘and it began as soon as you’d gone off, Mr. Frodo.   He’d funny ideas, had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about. It soon came out that he already did own a sight more than was good for him; and he was always grabbing more, though where he got the money was a mystery: mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations. He’d already bought Sandyman’s mill before he came to Bag End, seemingly.

Of course he started with a lot of property in the Southfarthing which he had from his dad; and it seems he’d been selling a lot o’ the best leaf, and sending it away quietly for a year or two. But at the end o’ last year he began sending away loads of stuff, not only leaf. Things began to get short, and winter coming on, too.   Folk got angry, but he had an answer. A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great wagons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came. And before we knew where we were they were planted here and there all over the Shire, and were felling trees and digging and building themselves sheds and houses just as they liked…”

There is a bit more to add to this. The “Big Men” were not alone. As in our own historical world of Nazi occupiers, there were those willing to collaborate, as Robin Smallburrow tells Sam:

“There’s hundreds of Shirriffs all told, and they want more, with all these new rules. Most of them are in it against their will, but not all. Even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s business and talking big. And there’s worse than that: there’s a few as do spy-work for the Chief and his Men.”

With Farmer Cotton’s narrative, however, the two steps come together: the local was, indeed, as Pippin has suspected, Lotho. The external was a combination of opportunists, like Bill Ferny, and agents dispatched from an unnamed southern source, but we know that it was “Sharkey” who sent them, just as we know that “Sharkey” was Saruman, who was still capable of mischief—but not “in a small mean way”.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Shire Portrait (5a): Hostile Takeover


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As always, dear readers, welcome!

This is, we think, the last in our Shire Portrait series (although a 2-parter)—at least for the moment. In it, we intend to consider just how the Shire fell into the hands of “Sharkey” and his “boys”.

The Ring destroyed and the King returned, Gandalf, the Hobbits, and a party of Elves are traveling back toward Rivendell and beyond when they come upon Saruman and Grima, now no more than Saruman’s slave.


It is not a happy meeting, as can be imagined. When offered help, Saruman replies:

“All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any…You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.” The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”

In such a mood, it can be imagined how he treats the Hobbits—even when Merry offers him pipe-weed, which he does while commenting, less than tactfully, on its origin:

“ ‘You are welcome to it; it came from the flotsam of Isengard.’

‘Mine, mine, yes and dearly bought!’ cried Saruman, clutching at the pouch. ‘This is only a repayment in token; for you took more, I’ll be bound. Still, a beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns him even a morsel of his own. Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!’”

Saruman’s remark—a curse, really—resonates especially with Sam.

“’Ah!’ said Sam. ‘And bought he said. How, I wonder? And I didn’t like the sound of what he said about the Southfarthing. It’s time we got back.’” The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”

This is a natural reaction on Sam’s part because of what he had seen in Galadriel’s mirror, we presume.


“’Hi!’ cried Sam in an outraged voice. ‘There’s that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn’t. They didn’t ought to be felled: it’s that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater…

But now Sam noticed that the Old Mill had vanished, and a large red-brick building was being put up where it stood. Lots of folk were busily at work. There was a tall red chimney nearby. Black smoke seemed to cloud the surface of the Mirror…

‘I can’t stay here,’ he said wildly. ‘I must go home. They’ve dug up Bagshot Row, and there’s the poor old Gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow…” The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter VII, “The Mirror of Galadriel”

At the time, Galadriel had told him

“’You cannot go home alone,’ said the Lady. ‘You did not wish to go home without your master before you looked in the Mirror, and yet you knew that evil things might well be happening in the Shire. Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them. The Mirror is dangerous as a guide to deeds.” The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter VII, “The Mirror of Galadriel”

[A footnote: suddenly, we are reminded of that scene on Dagobah in Star Wars V, when Luke has had a vision and immediately wants to rush off to Bespin.


“Luke: I saw—I saw a city in the clouds.

Yoda: [nods] Friends you have there.

Luke: They were in pain…

Yoda: It is the future you see.

Luke: The future?


Luke: Will they die?

Yoda: [closes his eyes for a moment] Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

Luke: I’ve got to go to them.

Yoda: Decide you must, how to serve them best. If you leave now, help them you could; but you would destroy all for which they have fought, and suffered.” The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

As—using various websites—we provide links here—we can see that an imitation of the opening of the Hobbit—Bilbo and Gandalf meeting—appears in an early script of Star Wars IV, I think that the scene at Galadriel’s Mirror was somewhere back in G. Lucas’ wonderfully fertile brain—and, yes, we are big fans.]

“Secrets of the ‘Star Wars’ Drafts”

Was George Lucas Inspired by Tolkien?

Star Wars Origins: The Lord of the Rings

At this point, we know from two sources that Saruman has had commercial dealings with the Southfarthing.

First, of course, we’ve just seen it confirmed by Saruman’s response to Merry. Second is that scene at Isengard, where Gandalf, Theoden, Eomer, and Aragorn, travel with an escort and find there Merry and Pippin, who tell them of their discovery of two small casks:

“ ‘My dear Gimli, it is Longbottom Leaf! There were the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels, as plain as plain. How it came here, I can’t imagine.” The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”


Knowing, however, of Saruman’s increasing interest in the Shire, we can imagine that one of his agents, active in the Southfarthing, had acquired it for him. As the Appendix B, “The Tale of Years” tells us, under TA2953:

[Saruman] notes his [Gandalf’s] interest in the Shire. He soon begins to keep agents in Bree and the Southfarthing.” (page 1089 in Appendix B)

Spying was clearly only the beginning for Saruman, however. The actual evidence for his eventual take-over is scattered throughout The Lord of the Rings, but we believe that it can be pieced together to provide a picture of how it must have been done. It was a two-step process.

First, he appears to have gained knowledge of internal dissatisfaction within the Shire. Because there is really nothing political in the Shire–as readers will know from the first posting in this series, there is virtually no government—this unrest was domestic—as is said in the Prologue, “Families for the most part managed their own affairs.”

In the case of Bilbo and Frodo, the dissatisfied were the Sackville-Bagginses. We first met them in the last chapter of The Hobbit, where they were described as “Bilbo’s cousins” and were shown as being actively involved in the auction of the “effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire”—as well as in the disappearance of some merchandise not auctioned off:

“Many of his silver spoons mysteriously disappeared and were never accounted for. Personally he suspected the Sackville-Bagginses. On their side they never admitted that the returned Baggins was genuine and they were not on friendly terms with Bilbo ever after.” The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”

It was one more blow to the Sackville-Bagginses when Bilbo rescued the now-orphaned Frodo from “those queer Bucklanders” and brought him to live at Bag End, as Gaffer Gamgee related in The Ivy Bush:

“ ‘But I reckon it was a nasty knock for those Sackville-Bagginses. They thought they were going to get Bag End, that time he went off and was thought to be dead. And then he comes back and orders them off; and he goes on living and living, and never looking a day older, bless him! And suddenly he produces an heir, and has all the papers made out proper. The Sackville-Bagginses won’t never see the inside of Bag End now, or it is to be hoped not.’ “ The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”

Bad blood, then, on several counts—and, for Saruman, looking for a way in, a great opportunity.

Bilbo might have suspected them of spoon-pilfering, but his was a more generous nature, however, and he even invited them to his and Frodo’s joint birthday party.

“The Sackville-Bagginses were not forgotten. Otho and his wife Lobelia were present. They disliked Bilbo and detested Frodo, but so magnificent was the invitation card, written in golden ink, that they had felt it impossible to refuse…” The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”

On the other hand, Bilbo does not please them when he announces that Frodo is coming into “his inheritance”—

“The Sackville-Bagginses scowled, and wondered what was meant by ‘coming into his inheritance’ “ and, when Bilbo makes his startling disappearance, they “departed in wrath”. (quotations from Chapter One).

And yet they didn’t quite depart. It seems they have only stepped away from the party, only to return to cause trouble, demanding to see Bilbo’s will.

“Otho would have been Bilbo’s heir, but for the adoption of Frodo. He read the will carefully and snorted. It was, unfortunately, very clear and correct…” The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”

Otho “snapped his fingers under Frodo’s nose and stumped off”, but Lobelia, his wife, remained, and Frodo later found her “still about the place, investigating nooks and corners, and tapping the floors. He escorted her firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” And she leaves with a kind of threat and what she believes is an insult:

“ ‘You’ll live to regret it, young fellow! Why didn’t you go too? You don’t belong here; you’re no Baggins—you—you’re a Brandybuck!’ ”

It’s never said why there is such an animus held by the Sackville-Bagginses against the Bagginses, but there is clearly something wrong with the S-Bs, from their covetousness to Lobelia’s open theft, and whatever is wrong is just what Saruman will find and exploit. Our next mention of them is oblique and it has to do with that pipe-weed. Merry and Pippin have been explaining how they had come to discover it at Isengard and all seems clear—

“ ‘All except one thing,’ said Aragorn: ‘leaf from the Southfarthing in Isengard. The more I consider it, the more curious I find it. I have never been in Isengard, but I have journeyed in this land, and I know well the empty countries that lie between Rohan and the Shire. Neither goods nor folk have passed that way for many a long year, not openly. Saruman had secret dealings with someone in the Shire, I guess. Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Theoden’s…” The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam

With that faint foreboding, we hear no more until Gandalf and the Hobbits are once more leaving Bree and Butterbur says, almost in passing:

“ ‘I should have warned you before that all’s not well in the Shire neither, if what we hear is true. Funny goings on, they say.’ “ The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 7, “Homeward Bound”

With Butterbur’s words in their ears, the Hobbits ride out and conversation begins:

“ ‘I wonder what old Barliman was hinting at,’ said Frodo.

‘I can guess some of it,’ said Sam gloomily. ‘What I saw in the Mirror: trees cut down and all, and my old gaffer turned out of the Row. I ought to have hurried back quicker.’

‘And something’s wrong with the Southfarthing evidently,’ said Merry. ‘There’s a general shortage of pipe-weed.’

‘Whatever it is,’ said Pippin, ‘Lotho will be at the bottom of it: you can be sure of that.’”

Here again, after Aragorn’s remark long before, we see that pipe-weed turn up—and associated somehow with a Sackville-Baggins. Butterbur has already replied to Gandalf’s request for it that “That’s the one thing that we’re short of, seeing how we’ve only got what we grow ourselves, and that’s not enough. There’s none to be had from the Shire these days.”

It’s never explained why Pippin makes the connection with Lotho at this point—was the bad blood between the Bagginses and the Sackville-Bagginses part of a darker picture of the S-Bs? This seems more than possible when Gandalf adds to Pippin’s remark:

“ ‘Deep in, but not at the bottom,’ said Gandalf. ‘You have forgotten Saruman. He began to take an interest in the Shire before Mordor did.’”

And now we begin to see a potential bigger pattern: Saruman-an S-B-Shire and, with it, the second step in the take-over of the Shire, that from outside. But that’s for Shire Portrait 5b: “Hostile Take-Over.2”, next time.

Until then, thanks, as ever, for reading!



Shire Portrait (4): On the March


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Welcome once more, dear readers.

Today’s posting continues our writing on the Shire, being the last in the geographic series, as we might call it, of which the earlier are:

Shire Portrait (I)

Shire Portrait (2)

Shire Portrait (3a)

Shire Portrait (3b)

In this posting, we want to look at the East March and the West March of the Shire.


JRRT doesn’t give us much to go on, there being only a single reference in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings to these:

“Outside the Farthings were the East and West Marches: the Buckland…and the Westmarch added to the Shire in S.R. 1452.”

“March” or “mark”, is related, in English, to margin, “the edge of something” and means a borderland. A border can be a natural feature, like the Pyrenees which (now) separate France and Spain.


Or a river, such as the Rio Grande, between much of the US and Mexico.


It can be simply a concept, such as much of the border between the US and Canada.


The ancient Chinese marked the border between their world and that of the pastoral nomads to the north


with the Great Wall.


The Romans set up two walls in Britain, both (in part?—there’s always scholarly argument over such things) to block the northern tribes of Picts from central and southern Britain.


And this was only part of a much bigger defensive system: the Romans also had an extensive network of ditches, walls, watch towers, and forts from the mouth of the Rhine southeast across western Germany and beyond to keep out the Germanic tribes who lived, often, just beyond.


In the centuries after the decay of Roman control, the locals in Britain built several ditch and wall barriers, most notably at Offa’s Dyke, which seems to mark a section of the border between England and Wales.


In the case of Tolkien’s marches, however, there are neither walls nor works, except, we suppose, if we include the High Hay, a dense hedge which separates the Old Forest from Buckland:

“Their land was originally unprotected from the East; but on that side they had built a hedge: the High Hay. It had been planted many generations ago, and was now thick and tall, for it was constantly tended. It ran all the way from Brandywine Bridge, in a big loop curving away from the river, to Haysend…well over twenty miles from end to end.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 5, “A Conspiracy Unmasked”)

So far, we have been unable to discover an illustration of this, but we guess that the Hay may have been a hawthorn hedge, as:

  1. hawthorns—as you might guess—have thorns and can be trained to grow densely
  2. they can grow up to about 50 feet (15 metres) tall


As the old word “hay” means a hedge– as does the “haw” in hawthorn–we offer this to our readers as a possibility.

A hawthorn hedge might keep out marauding beasts, but it’s hardly the equivalent of Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall, and the West March doesn’t appear to have any fortification at all, underscoring the nearly-complete defenselessness of the Shire, as well as the generally-peaceable nature of the Hobbits. As JRRT writes in the prologue:

“At no time had Hobbits of any kind been warlike, and they had never fought among themselves…So, though there was some store of weapons in the Shire, these were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls, or gathered into the museum at Michel Delving.”

As a consequence:

“…they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk.”

We shall see in our next posting what happens when some of those “dark things” move—into the Shire.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Shire Portrait (3b)


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In this post, we’re continuing our series on the Shire. So far, we’ve looked at its government and organization (1), its economy (2), and its geography (3a). Now we want to look at Shire architecture.

Our initial inspiration for this was from a line in a letter from JRRT to Allen & Unwin, 12/12/55. Speaking of the Shire, he says: “It is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village about the period of the Diamond Jubilee… (Letters, 230)

The “Diamond Jubilee” was the 60th anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria (she came to the throne in 1837–Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee just five years ago).


The Jubilee was a huge celebration, bringing in people from all over Britain’s empire, who converged on London in the summer of 1897.


JRRT was born in 1892 and had been brought to England in 1895, for a visit which became permanent when his father died back in South Africa. He and his brother


lived with their mother for a time in the village of Sarehole, just south of the huge industrial city of Birmingham. Sarehole’s mill


still stands. It has been said that this mill is the model for the one by The Water in The Hobbit, as drawn by JRRT.


Thus, when we think about Shire architecture, we can have a double picture:

  1. bits of description in JRRT’s works
  2. actual late Victorian rural villages of the sort in which Tolkien spent part of his childhood

If we begin with historical villages, there isn’t anything to see in the actual Sarehole, except for the mill, which, though built upon the site of a mill which can be dated to 1542, is a building from 1771, just before the industrial revolution, an event with which Tolkien certainly had problems. If we look at other such villages, however, we can get a general picture. Basing our image upon a schematic medieval village plan, we find a double line of houses strung out along a single road.


Spreading back from the houses are the fields, as villages in this world were self-sustaining. You can see these in JRRT’s illustration of the mill and the Hill. You’ll notice that these are in strips. In the feudal world, they illustrated both the use of crop rotation (different plants in different fields, with some fields allowed to rest), plus fields of the lord of the manor, which the tenants were obliged to tend. In Tolkien’s Shire, as there is no feudal system, we presume the stripping is for rotation.


Missing, however, from Hobbiton, would be two features you can see in the medieval illustration: a manor house and a church.

In the feudalism mentioned above, this ideal village is part of the social/governmental system in which it is attached to the smallest unit of that system, the manor.


As the chart explains, in the early medieval world, land was power and kings used their claim to control their lands (supposedly given to them by God) as a way to control the state in general.   They deeded certain sections of land to their nobles, in return for taxes and military service. Those nobles, in turn, deeded out land to lesser nobles, all the way down to individual knights, who might hold no more than one parcel, or manor, with its house, church, and village of freemen (literally, free men, who could own land but paid taxes to the lord for it), peasants (who were also free, but held no land), and serfs (who were landless as well as being the property of the local lord).

Although Tolkien once described the Shire as “granted as a fief” (Letters, 158) and “half republic half aristocracy” (Letters, 241), it is not a feudal property and therefore lacks those marks of that system, those manor houses.

As well, it is also missing churches, or, for that matter, any form of religious shrine. A real English medieval village, depending on its size and wealth, could have had a very modest building, such as this at Hornblotton, in Somerset.


Or, if your village had become a prosperous town, like Lavenham, in Suffolk, you could even have a mini-cathedral. (Lavenham’s money had come from the international trade in woolen cloth.)


Although Tolkien insisted that there was a monotheistic underlay to Middle-earth in the Third Age, he also says of the folk of the Shire: “I do not think Hobbits practiced any form of worship or prayer (unless through exceptional contact with Elves).” (Letters, 193)

Without manors and churches, the Shire consists of private dwellings and inns. Inns seem to be like their parallels in our medieval world.


And, of course, there are the inns of the Shire and the Prancing Pony in Bree.


Private houses, including farms, however, fall into two categories: traditional hobbit (that is, built into hillsides) and what we might call outside-influence houses. As Tolkien says in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings:

“All Hobbits had originally lived in holes in the ground, or so they believed…Actually in the Shire of Bilbo’s days it was, as a rule, only the richest and the poorest Hobbits that maintained the old custom. The poorest went on living in burrows of the most primitive kind…while the well-to-do still constructed more luxurious versions of the simple diggings of old…in the hilly regions and the older villages, such as Hobbiton and Tuckborough, or in the chief township of the Shire, Michel Delving on the White Downs, there were now many houses of wood, brick, or stone…Hobbits had long accustomed to build sheds and workshops…

The habit of building farmhouses and barns was said to have begun among the inhabitants of the Marish down by the Brandywine.

It is probable that the craft of building, as many other crafts beside, was derived from the Dunedain. But the Hobbits may have learned it direct from the Elves… “

Our Tolkien illustration of The Hill


shows us both styles. In the background, burrows; in the foreground, outside-influence houses. The traditional style reminds us of something from US western history: the use of “dugouts” as (at least temporary) dwellings as settlers moved west across the plains.


As fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books will remember, her family lived in one of these along the banks of Plum Creek in the 1870s.



On a more sinister note, we’ve always wondered whether JRRT’s inspiration for hobbit holes may have come from his time on the Western Front, where, from late 1914, soldiers had burrowed into the earth to protect themselves from enemy attack and from the increasingly inclement weather. The shelters could be simply cutouts in the earth


or very elaborate cottages. The Germans were especially admired for their creativity in building the more elaborate ones.


We can’t mention the Great War and trenches without also mentioning the brilliant Andrew Robertshaw, the English military historian, who actually reconstructed sixty feet of a trench line in his backyard.


He shares his experience in doing this in his book, 24Hr Trench.


Continuing our medieval parallel, we imagine the outside-influence houses to look something like these:



And, for outbuildings, there are a few surviving medieval barns, like this one:


whose roofs are often held up by the most beautiful woodwork, always reminding us of cathedrals, on the one hand, and sailing ships on the other.


Imagine that this is what Farmer Cotton’s farm might have looked like.

And, with this image, we conclude this posting. In our next, we’re going to move to the edge of the Shire, to discuss marches—geographical ones, that is.

Thanks, as ever, for reading!



Shire Portrait (3a)


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Welcome, dear readers, to the third installment of our rough portrait of the Shire. We call it a “rough portrait” because, so far, we’ve relied upon only three sources: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. We’ll continue to do so in this installment, but we will add two works of geography, K. W. Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-earth and Barbara Strachey’s Journeys of Frodo (although we may take a hint of two from other works).

So far, we’ve discussed the government of the Shire (Shire Portrait 1) and the economy (Shire Portrait 2). In this, we want to move on to the geography of the Shire. We begin with Fonstad’s map.


Except for Buckland, all of the Shire lies west of the River Baranduin (the “Brandywine”). This river can be broad enough to require a cable ferry


and it is navigable, at least by small boats—after all, it was in such a boat that Frodo’s parents were drowned.

As well, there is the Bridge of Stonebows on the Great East Road. Since it’s wide enough for gates and is reported to have had houses on the far side of it, we might imagine it to look like the Old Dee Bridge, at Chester, in England.


This bridge dates from Norman times (although there was a bridge there from the days of the Roman occupation—“Chester”, after all, is only a corruption of castra, Latin for “military camp”—founded as Deva Victrix in 79AD), with the present version being more-or-less 14th-century. In the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, the Bridge of Stonebows is said to have been “built in the days of the power of the North Kingdom”, making us wonder whether the Dwarves, who had cut the Great East Road long before, had only had a ford at that place.

To the west of the river stretches the Shire, most of it to the north and south of the Great East Road, which acts as a kind of spine, there being subsidiary roads leading off it towards the various villages. Originally built by the Dwarves in the First Age, it led from Doriath in Beleriand eastward beyond the Baraduin towards the Misty Mountains. After the destruction of Beleriand, the remaining section ran only from the Grey Havens eastward. When Marcho and Blanco, the Fallowhide brothers, gained permission to colonize the area in TA1601 from Argeleb II, the only payment required was “that they should keep the Great Bridge in repair, and all other bridges and roads, speed the king’s messengers, and acknowledge his lordship”, which would have included the Great East Road.

In a previous posting, we talked about the North-South Road (later, the “Greenway”, which once ran from Fornost Erain, in the north, to Minas Tirith, in the south. Because of its ancient importance and places like the causeway and bridge at Tharbad, we imagined it to be like a Roman road—carefully laid out by engineers and paved but, no longer maintained, gone to seed.




Because of its great age and one-time importance, we’ve always pictured the Great East Road to be similar, especially when it is clear that the kings of Arnor considered its maintenance to be the equivalent of tribute or taxes from the new Shire. Subsidiary roads which split off from the East Road, however, we might see as the usual rutted country roads.


The Shire, besides being bisected by the Great East Road, is also divided into four parts—hence the name “Farthings”—like the pre-decimal English coin, which was a fourth part of a penny (when a penny obviously was worth a lot more!).


We wonder what these divisions were intended to be used for—perhaps for the election of the Mayor? In our previous posting on the government of the Shire, we quoted JRRT as saying in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’”, so, for the moment, that’s our best guess.

(We should note here the “Three Farthing Stone”, which marks more or less where the North, East, and South Farthings meet. It has been suggested that it has been based upon the actual English “Four Shires Stone”—


which sits at the place where, pre-1931, four shires—Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, and Gloucestershire — touched. Not only is there a similarity in the names and what the stone may function as, but the Three Farthing Stone is just to the west of Frogmorton, whereas the Four Shire Stone is just east of Moreton-in-Marsh. And is JRRT having a quiet joke in that, after a boundary adjustment in 1931, the Four Shire Stone should really be called the Three Shire Stone?)

Just south of the Great East Road is the Green Hill Country, which appears to be heavily forested.


This is mirrored by a smaller wood north of the road, Bindbole.

Other than these (and, of course, the Old Forest in Buckland), the land seems to be open. To the north are the North Moors. These are windy uplands, mostly grass, with little in the way of trees.


Dartmoor (which is the image above), in southwest England, seems so bare (although it has the fallen remains of earlier cultures on it), that it can seem a little spooky—the perfect setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (first published in book form in 1902).


(We love the original Sidney Paget illustrations in The Strand Magazine, but our favorite film version is the one starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. For pure fun, by the way, we recommend Steven Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes—not for the purist, we hasten to add.)





To the west are two lines of downs, the White and the Far (or Fox) Downs. When we think of downs, we think of the chalky rolling hills southeast of the Thames in England. Here’s what the English South Downs look like


and it’s easy to imagine that the Shire version would look very similar and the chalk would easily be cut into to make Michel Delving (“Big Dig”) and Little Delving (“Little Dig”). The chalk just below the surface is exposed on the south English coast


making that name “the White Downs” clear. And we can’t resist adding another chalk artifact. In Oxfordshire (but once Berkshire), on the edge of the Berkshire Downs, is a Late Bronze Age horse, cut into the chalk. We wonder why there isn’t one in Rohan…


Last of all, there’s the South Farthing, stretching south of The Green Hill Country. As it is a tobacco-growing area, but in a temperate climate (at least, we understand that the Shire is in a temperate zone—they appear to have—or to have had—snowy winters), we visualize it as looking like the Connecticut Valley, which runs south down from Vermont, through western Massachusetts and through central Connecticut, in the US.


In the central part of the valley are tobacco plantations.


These always include drying barns for the tobacco—which would become the Longbottom Leaf Merry and Pippin discover two casks of in Saruman’s pantry.


The one farthing we haven’t studied directly is the East Farthing, but, as it contains a continuation of the Green Hill Country, abuts the Brandywine, and has the already-mentioned bridge of Stone Bows, and thus has no main features we haven’t mentioned, we’ll conclude here for the moment. In our next, we want to examine Shire architecture, from hobbit holes to mills.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Shire Portrait (2)


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In our last post, we began a series responding to the question:   what makes the Shire the Shire?


We began with the government, which turned out to be very rudimentary: a Thain (hereditary), a Mayor (elected), a postal service (not known how chosen), Shirriffs (a kind of border patrol—volunteer). Since the Thain and Mayor were principally honorary positions, there was perhaps no salary attached. As for the postal service (called “Messengers”) and the Shirriffs, we presume that there must have been some sort of payment, although we are not told so. Since, in our world, we pay for the police and the post office through taxes, we wondered how the same services in the Shire were paid. This led us to the question of the Shire economy in general.

In a letter of 25 September, 1954, JRRT wrote to Naomi Mitchison:

“I am more conscious of my sketchiness in the archaeology and realien [“physical facts/things of real life”] than in the economics: clothes, agricultural implements, metal-working, pottery, architecture and the like…I am not incapable of or unaware of economic thought; and I think as far as the ‘mortals’ go, Men, Hobbits, and Dwarfs, that the situations are so devised that economic likelihood is there and could be worked out…” (Letters, 196)

The Shire would appear to be an agriculturally-based economy:

“The Shire is placed in a water and mountain situation and a distance from the sea and a latitude that would give it a natural fertility, quite apart from the stated fact that it was a well-tended region when they [hobbits] took it over.” (Letters, 196)

He adds to this that, when the hobbits took control of the Shire, that included “a good deal of older arts and crafts”, suggesting that the solution to the problem of the production of “clothes, agricultural implements, metal-working, pottery”—all the Realien, as he calls them, is assumed. How and from whom such things were taken over is not explained and such production, in any community, is not a small matter: “things of real life” are many and complicated.

Consider, for example, just one moment at Bag End. The Baggins appear to have been well-to-do, even without the treasure Bilbo brought back from his trip. His house is extremely well-furnished and the Baggins certainly don’t want for provisions, as we know from descriptions both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as Realien, as the Dwarves’ clean-up song reminds us:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!

Blunt the knives and bend the forks!

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates—

Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

(The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)


If we take this line by line, we come up with the following: glasses, plates, knives, forks, bottles, corks.

Glasses and bottles (as well as the window panes at Bag End) require a glassblower and perhaps a glazier.


Plates require a potter.


Knives and forks were once made by cutlers (and forks are very advanced for a Middle-earth which is mostly medieval—although classical people used them in food preparation, it was only during the Renaissance that they began to appear as an eating utensil—western Medieval people ate with knives, spoons, and fingers).



(And next is a Renaissance fork, found in the foundations of the Rose Theatre)

Corks come from vintners and brewers (in our world, vintners only began using cork as a sealant in the 17th century, we have read).


Take those objects a step farther back and you find:

  1. glasswear, bottles, and window panes require silica and something to make it more stable, like lime (from limestone) or lead, which leads us to the question of where the ingredients come from. Silica is sand and can be found in many places—perhaps it might come from the west coast of Middle-earth? If all of the Shire is like the White Downs, where Michel Delving is located, it may be situated upon a vast deposit of chalk (more about Shire geography in our next posting). Lime would then have to be imported. As we have no record of mines in the Shire, the same would be true for lead.






  1. ceramics, like plates, are made of clay and all sorts of clay are used to make pottery, but all need to be dug out, usually from beds found near streams, rivers, or places like canyons or ravines. The Shire seems fairly well-watered, so we presume that the clay used to make Bilbo’s dishes was local.


  1. knives and forks would be made of iron, early steel, or silver (with silver, plus an alloy to make them stronger)—here, again, we would need mines, for the iron ore and silver


  1. cork in our world is actually tree bark from the cork trees which grow in hot, dry southwest Europe (Spain/Portugal) and northwest Africa


1, 2, 4 (and possibly 3) require raw materials of which no mention is made in the Shire and 1, 2, and 3 all need especially hot fires to make them, possibly using charcoal (made locally?) or coal (again, no mines discussed). And this is just, basically, four items.


So many import possibilities: what about export? We have solid evidence for one, which Merry and Pippin have discovered at Isengard:

“My dear Gimli, it is Longbottom Leaf! There were the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels, as plain as plain. How it came here, I can’t imagine. For Saruman’s private use, I fancy. I never knew that it went so far abroad.” (The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

It should always be remembered that these are works of fantasy, of course, and, unless there is some novelistic purpose which employs a potter as a character (in Taran Wanderer,15taranwanderer.JPG

by Lloyd Alexander, book 4 of The Chronicles of Prydain, for example, the hero, Taran, spends a little time as an apprentice potter, among other trades) or the making of silverware (something one might read about in Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain,16johnnytremain.jpg

where Johnny is an apprentice to a silversmith), it would seem completely unnecessary to spend narrative time discussing raw materials, imports, exports, or the manufacture of day-to-day items. We have taken the time, however, because, where, sometimes, we write about the parallels between Middle-earth and something here in our world, here the complexity of ordinary things in our world is completely forgotten in Middle-earth, or simply taken for granted, as JRRT implies in the letter cited above. If we are to examine Shire economics, however, we must, at least, consider them. As well, although we may keep saying, “No evidence for”, we think that, even if there is no potter or tin mine in the text, prompting readers to remember that, in the real world, there would have been one is a useful exercise and, for us, at least, makes the story that much more real.

But now we come to the subject of paying for Realien, or for anything else in the Shire, be it for the Shirriffs or for a pint at The Green Dragon.

In a totally rural economy many things might be obtained through barter: in return, for payment, please take 10 chickens, or a sack of grain. (And perhaps we see something like this in “The Scouring of the Shire”, when Hob Hayward tells Merry that, “We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these ‘gatherers’ and ‘sharers’, I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage.”—this looks like taxes, “paid in kind”).  Such might work for, say, trading a hen for a bowl, but would certainly not do for that pint—or for the bill at The Prancing Pony. Coins and their values are not mentioned in Tolkien, but their effect is felt, all the same: when Frodo buys a house in Crickhollow, we doubt he does it with cows!


(We discussed Middle-earth money in an earlier posting and it seems to us that it would be fun to create, say, Gondorian money—here’s one possibility


It’s actually a coin of Robert II of Scotland—1316-1390—but, changing the crown, could you imagine this as something issued earlier in the Third Age, say?)

This has been perhaps a rather long-winded and prosy posting (perhaps not for nothing did Thomas Carlyle, in 1849, call economics “the dismal science”?), for which we ask our readers’ pardon, but, if it helps to flesh out our portrait of the Shire, it was worth it, we feel. Our next, we hope will be a bit lighter, being on the physical “look” of the Shire, from its geography to its geology to its architecture.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Shire Portrait (I)


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In our last post (well, next-to-last–the last was on circuses), we talked about museums and Mathom-houses and, thinking that the Shire had a museum, made us wonder about what we might call “Shire culture” in general. What is it which makes the Shire the Shire?


To go about answering that, we tried to think of a model. Could we imagine ourselves doing a tourist brochure? A wiki article? And where would we begin?

Suppose, we thought, we begin with the outermost shell, rather as in our world: the government.

The first ten pages of the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings contain a good deal of information about hobbits and their homeland, with many other details to be gleaned from the main body of the text and the appendices and some from The Hobbit. There is undoubtedly more yet to be found in several of the subsidiary volumes, but we decided that, to make this a series of readable posts and not a small encyclopedia, we would stick to the two main works.

With all of that material to help us, all we needed was an entry point—and, almost immediately, we decided that we could begin where we left off, with that very museum, which originally attracted us because it stood out as something one would expect from a much more organized state, rather than from what, on the whole, appears to be such a rural and decentralized place.

After all, museums, as we have discussed, are a relatively recent invention in the west and public museums are even newer (the first state-sponsored museum in Britain, for example, only dates from the 1750s). Since our last posting, we’ve done a bit more research and, with one or two possible exceptions, it seems that public museums only begin to appear at all from the second half of the 17th century. (A quick and useful reference may be found at: Even so, such places have a good deal to say about a culture:

  1. that it values elements of its past, both historical and artistic, enough that it is willing to collect and preserve them
  2. that it believes that such elements should then be put upon public display (the why of that might include: to use for educational purposes—which assumes that the past has things to teach the present; to provide aesthetic pleasure; even to show the wealth and power of a state which has such a history and such artists)
  3. that it is willing to provide space, at the public expense, to house and display such things

The Mathom-house is hardly, from JRRT’s description, the equivalent of the British Museum


or the Louvre


or the Vatican


or any of the other thousand wonderful museums around the world, big or small. And yet it is there and in the closest thing to a capital which the Shire has to offer, Michel Delving. It is only the closest thing because the Shire has almost no formal governing structure.

As the Prologue says:

“The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs…”

Originally, as the Prologue tells us, the Hobbits had moved into the land which would become the Shire with the permission of the high king of the North Kingdom, at Fornost. When the last king and his kingdom had fallen to the Witch King of Angmar, the Hobbits replaced him with a “Thain” (actually an Old English word for, among other things, a “vassal”—that is, one who acts as a subordinate—in a feudal system, this might imply that the person has received land from someone higher on the social scale in return for taxes and/or military service).  Here’s a thegn (Old English spelling) as a warrior.


By the time of The Hobbit, this office had dwindled, but not quite disappeared:

“The Thain was the master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms, but as muster and moot were only held in times of emergency, which no longer occurred, the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity.”

In fact,

“The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years at the Free Fair on the White Downs at the Lithe, that is at Mid-summer. As mayor almost his only duty was to preside at banquets, given on the Shire-holidays, which occurred at frequent intervals. But the offices of Postmaster and First Shirriff were attached to the mayoralty, so that he managed both the Messenger Service and the Watch. These were the only Shire-services, and the Messengers were the most numerous, and much the busier of the two. By no means all Hobbits were lettered, but those who were wrote constantly to all their friends (and a selection of their relations) who lived further off than an afternoon’s walk.

The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed…they were in practice rather haywards than policemen, more concerned with the strayings of beasts than of people. There were in all the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work. A rather large body, varying at need, was employed to ‘beat the bounds’, and to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.”

This gives us the whole of the top level of Shire culture, the public face: a vestigial Thain (representative of the long-gone King), a figurehead Mayor, a postal service, and a tiny police force/border guard.

And how does any of these hold office?

The Thain, as we know, is hereditary.

The Mayor is, as quoted above, elected—although we have no idea of the process. Does one vote by town? By Farthing? Or is there simply a kind of country-wide method? We also have no idea of suffrage: who has the vote in the Shire? Is it general (England had general suffrage by the time JRRT was writing The Hobbit, all men over 21 by 1918, some women—householders over the age of 30—having been included in elections in 1918, women in general over 21 in 1928)? Or is it the older “only property-holders” method? Or are there “hereditary electors” who do the choosing? (As CD have just gone through an election here in the US, all of these questions, as you can imagine, are fresh in our minds!)

The “postmen” (our word) are, so far as we can tell, a mystery, both as to who they are or how they gain their employment.

Shirriffs appear to be volunteers, as we learn in “The Scouring of the Shire”, when Sam talks to Robin Smallburrow, who says “You know how I went for a Shirriff seven years ago, before any of this began.”

There being so little in the way of government, are there any public buildings except for the Mathom-house? If there are, we have yet to locate them. It’s striking that, when “Sharkey” takes over the Shire, he sets up a number of such places, but neither government buildings nor museums, instead, they are tokens of a police state: barracks and watch houses, dens reminding us of something which JRRT would have seen all too much of in newspapers and magazines, as well as newsreels as he worked on the early stages of The Lord of Rings:



(More on Sharkey and the takeover in a future posting!)

Considering that there is a small policing force, as well as a kind of postal institution, we looked for another government department: the Internal Revenue Service. After all, we pay for our police and used to pay for postage stamps, back in pre-internet days, and we pay for public museums, too: how does it work in the Shire? The simple answer is, we don’t know. In fact, we don’t really know much about how the economy works in general. And that will be the subject of our next posting.

Thanks, as always, for reading!



Circuses (But No Bread)


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever, to our latest posting.

We’re taking a slight detour from our usual work on adventure and fantasy because we’ve just read something on the BBC website. It was announced there (as on other news websites) that the famous Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus will close for good in May of this year.


If you are clownophobic (and it seems that many people are), this may be a relief to you.


If you love elephants (we do), you may be glad to see them freed from their slavery to humans (here—but not yet so in the rest of the world, perhaps).


If you, like us, love popular entertainments and their traditions, you may feel more ambivalent—or even ambivalent about feeling ambivalent—as we do.

After all, the word “circus” brings back a very ancient past—Rome and the Circus Maximus: the center for the Roman passion for chariot racing.

Imperial Rome: Circus Maximus (pen & ink and pencil on paper)


If you know the 1959 movie Ben Hur, you’ll know the amazing chariot race scene (set in Antioch, rather than Rome), which gives you an idea why this was the favorite Roman competitive spectator sport.


It’s also the basis of the remark by the Roman satirist, Juvenal (c.100AD), that the formerly independent people of Rome had gradually given up their rights and now anxiously awaited only two things: panem et circenses, “bread and circuses”, meaning a free grain dole and free public entertainment.

It’s a bit of climb from there to modern circuses, of course. There were animal shows in Roman arenas (places used for blood-sport spectacles, mostly), like the Colosseum in Rome.



(You’ll notice, by the way that we’ll show gladiators, but not beast-fights.)

But, afterwards, with the exception of private menageries kept by monarchs and nobles over the centuries, there was nothing like the modern circus until 1768, in London, where an ex-cavalry sergeant, named Philip Astley,


gave a demonstration of equestrian skill which soon brought him both fame and fortune. A competitor came up with the name “circus”, but it was Astley and his “Amphitheatre” who started it off.


And also inspired Charles Dickens (1812-1870)


to portray a comic (and not so comic) traveling version in his 1854 novel, Hard Times.


The first American circus, founded by the English equestrian, John Bill Ricketts, appeared in 1792, in Philadelphia.



By the early 19th century, these had become traveling tent shows, which brought a little something exotic to rural communities in the US before the Civil War.


But then enter P.T. Barnum (1810-1891).


(He’s the taller one on the left.)

Beginning in the 1830s, Barnum had a very long career in show business, including all sorts of hoaxes, a number of them displayed at his famous New York City museum—


After two disastrous fires, Barnum moved on, in 1870 founding his own circus, with a typically bombastic name: “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”.


Never one to stand still, Bailey was an early user of the railways to move his circus.


In a world made up almost entirely of dirt roads for wheeled traffic, this was a very good idea. The most advanced roads were “macadamized”—meaning that they had layers of crushed stone, like the Valley Pike in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.


Otherwise, travel on anything other than a dry day could look like this—


In 1881, Barnum took on a partner, A.J. Bailey—


and, in 1882, he bought, from the London Zoo, an elephant, Jumbo.


From Jumbo, we get “jumbo-sized” and, of course, Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918),


“Jimbo’s Lullabye”, from his “Children’s Corner Suite”.


Meanwhile, the Ringling Brothers, of Baraboo, Wisconsin (now home of an impressive circus museum), put their own show on the road.


Early in the 20th century, the Ringlings bought Barnum and Bailey and, after a short time running two separate circuses, they joined them to become Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, which is now about to fold its tents forever.


We have never been big circus-goers, but one of our grandmothers used to tell the most haunting story. When she was a little girl, she sat on the front porch of her house and watched the circus—probably in fact Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey—all its wagons pulled entirely by horses—parade down her street and, when she told the story, she returned to that porch and took us with her. So, as a small tribute to an old tradition, we close with a few images of those circus parades of the now far past.





Thanks, as always, for reading.



Mathoms and Fathoms


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

A year or two ago, we were visiting the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, a wonderful place, filled with memorabilia of childhood, as well as up-to-date exhibits and generally just fun things to see and do. (Strong Museum website)


Museums, as public display areas, are rather recent in western history.

The name tells us that it was to be a place devoted to the inspirers of the arts, the ancient Greek Muses.


(This is not ancient, but a 19th-century imitation by Bertil Thorvaldsen, 1770-1844, one of the early Romantic period’s most famous sculptors.)


Greeks—later ones (in the period called “Hellenistic”)—and the Romans collected artistic things, but they were private collections—although Cicero


in his orations attacking the corrupt ex-governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, mentions that a predecessor had nobly allowed his art to be loaned out to decorate the public streets on festive occasions. (It is a horrible irony that Verres, who had fled Rome when it was clear that Cicero had demolished him and his reputation in his first speech, was eventually murdered in Massilia—present-day Marseilles–over a piece of sculpture.)

The first actual “museums” in modern times were Renaissance collections—often hodgepodge assemblies called things like “cabinet of curiosities”, but in England, by the 17th century, John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662)


had built upon his father’s collection, which was held in the family house south of the Thames (called “The Ark”).


At his death, that collection passed to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692)


—and there’s a really strange story about how this happened and the consequences, including the very suspicious death of Tradescant’s second wife, Hester.


Ashmole bequeathed it to his alma mater, Oxford, on the condition that an appropriate building be constructed for it. That structure was built, in 1678-83, and may have been the first public museum in western Europe.


There is, in fact, a museum in the Shire. In the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, we are told of Bilbo that:

“…his coat of marvellous mail, the gift of the Dwarves from the Dragon-hoard, he lent to a museum, to the Michel Delving Mathom-house, in fact.”

(where Gandalf supposes it is “still gathering dust”—The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”).   Its name and function are described in the Prologue:

“The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.

Such a description suggests something more like an old-fashioned Victorian museum,


or even a “cabinet of curiosities” like Ole Worm’s 17th-century one.


We suspect that the Mathom-house is JRRT’s quiet joke on such older museums, which, even in his day, could be filled with dusty glass cases in which were a wide variety of objects, from fossils to rusty weapons found in the fields, all described on yellowing, hand-labeled cards. In the Hammond and Scull Companion, they suggest that the joke is even more complex, first quoting Tolkien “mathom is meant to recall ancient English mathm”, to which they add:

“Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898) notes mathum ‘a precious or valuable thing (often refers to gifts)’. Thus Tolkien uses mathom ironically for things which are not treasured, only for where there was ‘no immediate use’ or which the Hobbits ‘were unwilling to throw away’.”

The Strong Museum, in contrast, is bright-colored and inviting, and, in a section dedicated to children’s authors, there is an entire display case devoted to JRRT, which included this. It’s a beautiful replica from the Marquette University Tolkien archive of a menu (the label gives the date “1937-1955”) on which JRRT has carefully written out the hobbit linear measurement system.


You can see that, unlike the rather abstract mechanism of the metric system, with its linear basis being a segment of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, Tolkien has used the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where the “foot” was actually originally based upon body parts, being divided into 4 palms or 12 thumbs (although there is another system based upon barley corns).


And, just to confirm this, to the right of his bold numbers, there are fainter numbers which indicate the English equivalents.

This system, as ingenious and carefully-worked out as it is, is never used, either in The Hobbit or in The Lord of the Rings. The measurements we can remember—this was done off the top of our heads—any reader who would like to supply more, please feel free!– actually being used are:

  1. leagues (about 3 miles per league is pretty standard = 4.8km)
  2. ells—30 make the coil of elven rope Sam takes from the boat in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien” (one ell = about 45 inches = 114 cm; 30 ells = about 112 feet = about 34 metres)
  3. inches–Sam, in The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”, comments that Merry and Pippin are “three inches taller than you ought to be” (3 inches = 7.6cm)

Why spend so much time and effort on something which never went anywhere farther than a menu card in an archive, then?

It’s possible, of course, that this was written in a moment of boredom: although we don’t actually know the occasion, we can imagine that the menu was for a formal dinner to which JRRT had been obliged to go and he improved upon a dull moment with a little Middle-earth fun. Then again, the dating of the card, “1937-1955” places it between the publication of The Hobbit and that of The Lord of the Rings: was this something worked up to be employed in the latter, but simply never needed—or was it, once produced, abandoned as too obscure and hence the use of the (potentially) more familiar leagues, ells, and inches? Or, again, was this simply a product of the almost-obsessive side of JRRT, where so much was so painstakingly created in fine detail? Here is another item from the Strong Museum which displays that side. It is a working-out of the phases of the moon for The Lord of the Rings (sorry it’s a little blurry—this was taken through plexiglass with an i-phone).


In an early posting, we once wrote about achieving authenticity in a fantasy novel. Our first, Across the Doubtful Sea, which was set in an alternate 18th century, in France, in London, in South America, and in the South Pacific, required a great deal of research.


To prepare for it, we spent some time reading books on everything from 18th-century navies to South Pacific exploration (and even posted a partial bibliography).   Much of our research went into the finished book, but much never did. What we hoped, however, was that, by having so much background in our heads, that background would be reflected in our text. That meant, even if it were an alternate 18th-century, there wouldn’t be glaring anachronisms, on the one hand, but, on the other, that we would give our work a “feel” for the period which would be convincing to our readers and so increase both their engagement and their enjoyment. We would like to think that JRRT, when scribbling hobbit measures on a menu card, had had the same goals.

Thanks, as always, for reading.




We’ve had the crazy idea to build our own imaginary Mathom-house for the works of JRRT and we’re having fun thinking what visitors would see hung from the walls or lying in the cases. Readers: what would you like to see on display?