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.