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.
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.