Bree, Cross-Roads, Gandalf, Gimli, Great East Road, Greenway, Isengard, Laketown, Legolas, Marxist Critics, Merry and Pippin, Middle-earth, Mirkwood, North-South Road, Peter Jackson, Pipeweed, Roads, Roman Roads, Rome, Saruman, Sauron, South Farthing, Swanfleet, The Lord of the Rings, The Shire, Theoden, Tolkien, Trade, Transport
In a recent posting, we opened with the image of Merry and Pippin happily feasting among the ruins of Isengard as Gandalf, Theoden, and company ride up to meet them.
“…suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying…at their ease…there were bottles and bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had just eaten well, and now rested from their labour. One seemed asleep; the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, and little rings of thin blue smoke.” L543
We, as the readers, may be just as taken aback as the company; we’re joining the Hobbits again for the first time since Isengard’s demise, and it’s natural to ask: where, in the midst of all of this ruin, did they find this stuff? Gimli doesn’t hesitate to ask for us.
“’Where did you come by the weed, you villains?’” L544
Of course, he’s talking about pipeweed, something common, yet treasured, in the Shire. It is not native to a place like Isengard, so far south, but here we have the Hobbits smoking it and even enjoying a surplus. Legolas is just as impressed,
“’You speak for me, Gimli,’ laughed Legolas, ‘though I would sooner learn how they came by the wine.’” L544
Pippin only teases, answering that
“’Here you find us sitting on a field of victory…and you wonder how we came by a few well earned comforts.” L544
And so we’re left with this mystery of supplies, but we can be sure that, in Tolkien’s mind, there was an answer. He was, after all, diligent about even minute details concerning Middle-earth, and was also the same man who once said that
“I am not incapable 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 can be worked out…” LT, L.154 P.196.
In this quotation, Tolkien can almost be echoing, in an ironic way, the argument of Marxist critics that economic systems, even those appearing in literature, hide their true nature. Tolkien seems to be telling us that he was well aware of trade systems, and, we would suggest, this would include a basic foundation: transport. And, using what we are given in the texts, we can see that there were two main methods. One is by water–as in the flourishing wine trade between Mirkwood and Laketown.
This pair of places is naturally connected by river and lake. Such is not the case with the South Farthing and Isengard, of course. Instead, water bodies like the Swanfleet lie between them. And yet there is that pipeweed. The Hobbits are smoking it and, in the extended edition of the film version, Peter Jackson even shows us two large barrels of pipeweed labeled “South Farthing”.
This brings us to our second method of transport, by road.
Like all educated men of his time, Tolkien had been raised on the world of the Greeks and Romans and, among the longest-lasting monuments of the Roman world was the extensive system of roads, some of which are still in existence in our own time and are even (asphalted over) the basis of certain modern English roads. In Middle-earth, there appear to be a number of such ancient roads, such as the Cross-Roads:
The Great East road:
The North-South road:
Other possibilities would include once-active, but now abandoned routes, like the Greenway, running north from Bree and the Stone Road which the Woodwoses know and point out to Theoden.
As you can see, we can easily imagine Tolkien thinking out the economics of Middle Earth through a road network similar to that of the Roman Empire, with its own intricate road systems
Along these roads came much of Rome’s wealth and the case would have been the same for Middle-earth, so here’s a clue to Saruman’s pipeweed trade with the Shire. Looking at a map, we see that The Great East Road, which, traveling east from the Shire, would lead to Bree, and to the Cross-Roads, reaching The North-South Road.
Such trade would seem natural, not only to the Romans, but to us. In the wreckage of Isengard, however, for all that Merry and Pippin are so casual about it, there is another implication: Saruman, who wants to be another Sauron, must know much more about the Shire than anyone, even Gandalf has understood, and, thinking of the “Scouring of the Shire”, that could easily bode ill for the future of that place which the Hobbits think so safe and removed…
Thanks, as ever, for reading.