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Concerning Pipe Weed: Simply tobacco, or something more?

Pipe-weed: It is grown and smoked by the hobbits of the Shire and enjoyed by men and wizards alike. It is something that the Shire itself is most famous for, and perhaps, in recent years, is infamous for, as this innocent halfling’s leaf has sparked a great deal of debate.

Both marijuana and The Lord of the Rings became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 70s. Even then there were parallels drawn between the recreational drug and Gandalf’s recreational smoking. Increasingly however, after the portrayal of the smoking of pipe-weed in Peter Jackson’s 2001 Lord of the Rings film trilogy, more and more people have raised the question “No. Really. What exactly is that stuff? Is it tobacco? Or perhaps something more?”

So, grab your pipe, a barrel of Old Toby and perfect your smoke-ring blowing, because today we are going to talk all about the issue concerning pipe-weed.

When attempting to understand pipe-weed, one must look no further than the author himself. JRR Tolkien was a huge fan of smoking pipes. A lot of footage exists that documents that fact, showing him smoking his pipe. Out of all the races in Middle-earth, Tolkien had a soft spot for hobbits and closely identified with the race. He is famously quoted in saying that he was a “hobbit in all but size.” So, just as Tolkien enjoyed smoking a pipe and tobacco, his favorite race enjoyed smoking a pipe and tobacco as well.

“But come on; is that really tobacco in that pipe?”

If JRR Tolkien’s innocent smoking habits aren’t enough to convince you that the hobbit’s pipe-weed is something simply comparable to tobacco, let us examine briefly marijuana and its place in the world at the time Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. Marijuana dates back to ancient times. It was described in a Chinese medical reference from 2737BC and was widely regarded as an aid to reaching euphoria. Fast forward the 1960s. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy was taking hold in popular culture and marijuana was taking hold as a recreational drug of choice. Written between 1937 and 1949, it is unlikely that Tolkien, despite being a scholar, knew of marijuana. If he did know if it, it is even more unlikely that he knew of its future uses and popularity.

If you are still unconvinced, let us look at the facts. First, Tolkien’s own description of pipe-weed from the Lord of the Rings prologue:

 “There is another astonishing thing about Hobbits of old that must be mentioned, an astonishing habit: they imbibed or inhaled, through pipes of clay or wood, the smoke of the burning leaves of a herb, which they called pipe-weed or leaf, a variety probably of Nicotiana. A great deal of mystery surrounds the origin of this particular custom, or ‘art’ as the Hobbits preferred to call it.”

Nicotiana” or more commonly referred to as tobacco plants, is the undeniable proof that Professor Tolkien intended for pipe-weed to be interpreted as tobacco. Furthermore, another name for hobbit’s pipe-weed directly stated by Tolkien is “leaf.” Tobacco is produced from the leaves of a nicotiana plant, whereas it is the flowers on the cannabis plant that are generally smoked.

It seems rather clear that JRR Tolkien never intended pipe-weed to be seen as anything more than simple tobacco. However, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and his recent first installment of The Hobbit trilogy, it seems pipe-weed takes on a different interpretation. Various scenes involving the smoking of pipes seem to show characters becoming “mellow” or buzzed on something beyond simply ale. Examples include hobbits Merry and Pippin smoking and feasting at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and when Gandalf offers Radagast the Brown a puff on his pipe in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Even Saruman the White weighs in on the issue, telling Gandalf at one point that his love of the “halfling’s leaf has clearly slowed [his] mind.” Saruman never said such a thing in the books. However, in the Unfinished Tales, Gandalf gives an interesting account regarding pipe-weed:

“Both the silence and the smoke seemed greatly to annoy Saruman, and before the Council dispersed he said to Gandalf: ‘When weighty matters are in debate, Mithrandir, I wonder a little that you should play with your toys of fire and smoke, while others are in earnest speech.’

But Gandalf laughed, and replied: ‘You would not wonder, if you used this herb yourself. You might find that smoke blown out cleared your mind of shadows within. Anyway it gives patience, to listen to error without anger. But it is not one of my toys. It is an art of the Little People away in the West  merry and worthy folk, though not of much account, perhaps, in your high policies.’

Could this “patience” that Gandalf says smoking brings to him be due to something similar to the mellowing effects of marijuana? Perhaps. It is possible that pipe weed isn’t exactly tobacco either, as Meriadoc Brandybuck in his book Herblore of the Shire, describes different strains of pipe weed, the three most popular being Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, and Southern Star. Could these different “strains” of leaf have varying affects on the mind and body?

So what is pipe-weed? In a fantasy world such as Middle-earth, we may never know exactly what it is. It seems that Tolkien simply endowed the race most like himself with a love of smoking similar to his own love of smoking. Take it as you will and let fans and critics alike dispute its nature.

But if anything, remember this: even Saruman in all of his disapproval secretly smoked pipe-weed too.

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22 Comments

  1. Hi Rachel,

    some very nice thoughts there – maybe I should update my “Drugs and drug-like substances in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit'” talk with recent research. Thanks for reminding me of this 🙂

  2. Fantastic article, Rachel!
    Love that bit about Saruman at the end there, hahaa.

    • The first time I read that Saruman tried it and then had a secret interest in the Shire so that he could continue to get pipe-weed for himself… I just lost it. It is probably one of my favorite little things i have ever heard haha

  3. I think Tolkien intended for the pipe-weed to simply be tobacco. Some people say that smoking is relaxing. I don’t know as I’ve never smoked. The link between marijuana and the Hobbits’ pipe-weed is something new, in my opinion.

    • Personally, I agree – I think in Peter Jackson’s films it became something more than just a pipe of tobacco which is where a lot of the questions come from. I doubt Tolkien even knew about marijuana and if he did, he probably didn’t think of it as something that hobbits would smoke like he smoked.

  4. I absolutely love this article and as a pipe-smoker, I’ve always had to “defend” the point that Pipe-Weed is tobacco.

    Now, being an active tobacco smoker, I can say that it does in fact calm the nerves and clear the mind. So this always threw the argument that “leaf” is something other than tobacco right out the window, in my mind.

    • Thank you so much for you input!! I don’t smoke at all, so I wasn’t sure if tobacco really could “clear the mind” as Gandalf says pipe-weed does for him. I had never heard of tobacco doing that for someone (aside from the fact that I know people who smoke who are calmer and more focused after a cigarette), so I wasn’t sure if that could be likened to the “mellowing” that marijuana users experience. Thank you again for your comment. If there was any seed of doubt left in anyone’s minds… there shouldn’t be anymore!!

      • A cigarette gives you a quick buzz that you soon become addicted to. Pipe tobacco is more of a sublime experience. It makes you feel deeply relaxed and happy, contemplative, at peace and a strong love for all things simple and natural. There are massive amounts of nicotine in some pipe tobaccos, that’s why the characters are smiling and eyes glazed 🙂 Tolkein loved pipe smoking and wrote lovingly about it. He wouldn’t write so lovingly about (marijuana) something he didn’t do.

    • Well, gandalf did say ” variety ‘PROBABLY’ of Nicotiana”. 🙂

      And Tobacco calm is just like with cigarettes. but nowhere near marijuana.

      Marijuana can also calm one down and allow them to “to listen to error without anger.”. Something Tobacco doesn’t really give.

  5. Beregond, Anders Stenström says:

    I once wrote a long article about pipes, pipe-weed and smoking, and then found at least one piece of more tangible evidence: the pipe-weed from S.R. 1417 that Merry and Pippin found in Isengard in 1419 was “as fine a pipe-weed as you could wish for”. This is quite normal for tobacco, but marijuana stored that long would have lost much of its quality.

    • Marijuana can get better with some aging. If smoked immediately after drying can have an awful taste. If cured properly, and some strains can take a very long tine to cure properly, can be vary tasty.

      • Indeed, it’s oxidation, sunlight, heat, and manhandling (squishing, grinding) that reduces potency the most. oxidation can be a problem when air-curing, but once cured properly, storage in an airtight container in a cool dark place will allow it to retain potency for years. vacuum packed in a cooler for example (not TOO cold, because freezing is also no good, as the trichomes will simply ‘fall off’ during the thawing process).

  6. Great article!

  7. Brigo Broadbelt of Crickhollow says:

    Might I say that as loving of nature’s bounties as we hobbits are, it is a love of fine tastes and smells that stimulates our creativities, and thus we enjoy the pleasures of various ales and pipeweeds for their esthetics primarily, not for their consequences of overindulgence. “Mary J” stinks, simply put; and though some may claim it as the root of our chronic “munchies”, I dare say little of our farming would get done if the smoking of it were common!

  8. At the risk of sounding boring, Tolkien never intended his use of the word ‘pipe-weed’ to mean anything but tobacco. The last line in The Hobbit is ‘Thank Goodness! said Bilbo laughing, and handed him [Gandalf] the tobacco jar.’

  9. Such a great article, Rachel! Well done!

  10. When I smoked I’d always whip out and spark a nic cig when I was tense. It helped me to relax and think a little better. Especially if I hadn’t had a hit of nicotine for a long while. I agree that Tolkien means for pipe weed to only be tobacco.

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  12. I don’t think it was tobacco or Marijuana. It was a weed that did have some psychoactive effects. I think it calmed and focused the user and gave him a sense of well being. That’s why they liked to smoke it. Tolkien was ahead of his time, his imagination dreamed of things no one every thought of.

  13. I feel like no one is noticing the fact that marijuana use was fairly common before the 1960s in America. Including among British soldiers during World War I. Tolkien was a British soldier in WWI. I’m sure Tolkien knew of marijuana.