As ever, welcome, dear readers.
In my last, I said that I was always interested in the sources of inspiration for the almost 400 essays posted so far on this site. In the case of this posting, it’s easy to trace: it’s this image, sent to me a few weeks ago by my dear friend, Erik, and it got me to thinking…
(A wonderful painting by Matthew Stewart. Here’s his website so that you can see more: https://www.matthew-stewart.com/ )
We know that Tolkien was a life-long pipe smoker—
and so it would be natural that at least some of his characters might have a similar habit. After all, the first time we see Bilbo—and Gandalf—Bilbo
“…was standing in his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes…” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)
Such a long pipe—well, not that long—is probably what is called in our era of Middle-earth a “churchwarden”. This has a very long stem which, smokers say, helps to cool the smoke.
We’re not told what Bilbo is smoking, but, from the section of the Prologue of The Lord of the Rings entitled “Concerning Pipe-weed”, we can suppose that:
1. it’s a member of the tobacco family (Nicotiana)
2. it comes from the Longbottom area of the Shire
(That’s in the lower right hand area, in a curve of the Brandywine, just below the Old Forest)
3. it may be one of the “best home-grown…varieties now known as Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, and Southern Star”
4. the custom of smoking it is, in hobbit terms, extremely old and a hobbit-invention
(See The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 2, Concerning Pipe-weed for more details.)
Tobold Hornblower, who was believed to have introduced the plant to the Shire, never betrayed its origins, but, in our era of Middle-earth, tobacco was a New World plant
long employed there by various Native Americans for religious, ceremonial, medicinal, and leisure occasions. It was introduced to Europe in the early 16th century and was available in Tolkien’s England by the 1570s. Seemingly the first image of an Englishman with pipe in hand is this, from Anthony Chute’s 1595 Tabaco.
This is a pamphlet in praise of smoking and it was something taken up enthusiastically in England by the late 16th century—but condemned by King James I himself in 1604 with A Counterblaste to Tobacco.
(You can read Chute’s defense here: https://ia800203.us.archive.org/7/items/tabacco00chutgoog/tabacco00chutgoog.pdf And James’ attack here: https://ia800201.us.archive.org/14/items/acounterblastet00englgoog/acounterblastet00englgoog.pdf )
Tobacco smoking—or “drinking”, which was a term used at first–
was, initially, an expensive hobby, so that pipes like Bilbo’s would have been unlikely. Instead, they would have been much more moderate in size, like this one,
of which this is a useful scale reproduction.
Tobacco was so popular that it soon became both a big business in the New World
and much cheaper abroad, so that all classes but the lowest could indulge and smoking became simply a common pastime—or something more, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, who used it to stimulate his thinking.
Here we see the incomparable Jeremy Brett, smoking a churchwarden, perhaps in The Red-Headed League, in which he refers to the case as a “three pipe problem”. (And, if you don’t know the story, here it is as it first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Strand_Magazine/Volume_2/The_Red-Headed_League )
I suspect that this may be a source for Gandalf’s use of it, in fact, and I was reminded of that possibility by Erik, who included this quotation with the image:
“Actually Gandalf was awake, though lying still and silent. He was deep in thought, trying to recall every memory of his former journey in the Mines…’I know what is the matter with me,’ he muttered, as he sat down by the door. ‘I need smoke! I have not tasted it since the meeting before the snowstorm.’
The last thing that Pippin saw, as sleep took him, was a dark glimpse of the old wizard huddled on the floor, shielding a glowing chip in his gnarled hands between his knees. The flicker for a moment showed his sharp nose, and the puff of smoke.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)
Merry Brandybuck, who is quoted in”Concerning Pipe-weed”, suggested that it was the hobbits of Bree who actually invented the habit and:
“…certainly it was from Bree that the art of smoking the genuine weed spread in recent centuries among Dwarves and such other folk, Rangers, Wizards, or wanderers…”
And one of those wizards, besides Gandalf, who enjoys “the genuine weed” lives far to the south, along the ancient Greenway,
as we learn from two other smokers,
contentedly enjoying a shipment which must have stood in one of his storerooms before the original owner made the mistake of annoying the Ents.
(a favorite Ted Nasmith)
As Merry tells it:
“It was Pippin who found two small barrels, washed up out of some cellar or store-house, I suppose. When we opened them, we found they were filled with this: as fine a pipe-weed as you could wish for, and quite upspoilt…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 Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)
We know, from things which Saruman lets drop when he is attempting to persuade Gandalf to join him, that he has more dealings with the Shire than might, at least at first, be expected, so it may not be surprising that, among those dealings, there is the acquisition of what Merry calls “this dainty”. I only wonder, if it helps Gandalf to think, what does it do for Saruman?
Thanks, as always for reading.
Keep your matches in a dry place,
And know that, as ever, there’s