Tolkien fact 69 – Merry Jane

[Note: I am not a botanist and I do not know relatively anything about plants or the growing of tobacco or marijuana. I use neither myself and have a small amount of experience with tobacco and virtually none with weed. This article is not going to be in any scientific journal any time soon so don’t blame me if every little detail about the cultivation of different plants isn’t 100% verifiable. It was a fun article to write, so lighten up and just have fun reading it.]

Repulsive puns as titles aside, this is one of the most common misconceptions I find people having that they don’t even know they have. Usually it stems from people who have only seen the movies and look no further than the face value of some of the dialogue there. The thing is: pipe weed is not marijuana; it is very likely a common variety of tobacco, if not definitely tobacco. Why do a lot people think it’s the former, though? Why am I so sure the hobbits and wizards of Middle-earth aren’t potheads? Let’s look a little closer at some of the facts:

merry pippin smoking banner
For starters, there is no evidence that Tolkien himself smoked marijuana or approved of its usage. After thorough research (by that I mean reading Buzzfeed article titles and clicking the first Wikipedia link after a vaguely-worded Google search) I’ve found that it’s highly unlikely cannabis would be easily accessible in most parts of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Of course, it’s not impossible, but extremely unlikely that Tolkien used or even was around it. Heck, it was a fairly fringe topic of the day and so he might not even have been aware of it. (This is pure conjecture, as I have no idea about the extended history of the Tolkiens and recreational drugs; he didn’t include that in the appendices.) My point here is that it’s unlikely Tolkien would include drug usage so unnecessarily and so heavily in a story that’s largely unaffected by it even being there. So why is it included?

Any person who physically described Tolkien almost always noted him carrying or smoking a pipe. He loved his pipes. His tobacco pipes. Tobacco smoking was in its prime in Europe when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings and his other works. Health concerns were either unknown or unimportant to those that enjoyed imbibing some leaves on a regular basis. The addictive and mildly comforting properties of the smoke were just enough to ease a tired Oxford professor into a chair for some drafts of a fictional war over a ring. It’s also said that, on top of Tolkien’s already fast and semi-slurred pattern of speech, most of the time a pipe was between his teeth as he talked, increasing the difficulty of understanding what he was saying. A semi-confirmed source (see [1] at the bottom of the post for more info) even quotes him as saying in an interview:

“Every morning I wake up thinking, ‘Good, another 24 hours of smoking'”.

All of this to say: the man loved his smoke and put it in his story for the fun of it. It’s difficult to say whether he already envisioned hobbits as chronic smokers when he created them, or if it’s a detail he thought would round out their characters later on. Either way, the halfings are the ones where this pipe-weed stuff meets Middle-earth, so let’s look there next.

gandalf smoking banner

The thing is, you don’t have to look very far into the novel to see the hobbits’ devotion to the Leaf. As a matter of fact, the second section of the prologue to The Lord of the Rings has the title “Concerning Pipe-weed”. Aside from the fact that Tolkien apparently considered this topic so important as to include it in the first eight pages of the book, it’s also interesting to note that in the first sentence of this section there is this curious phrase:

“…they… inhaled… the smoke of burning leaves of an herb… called pipe-weed or leaf, a variety probably of Nicotiana.” [More on this in a little bit.]

Tolkien then goes on to describe the interesting history and origins of pipe-weed as it relates to hobbits, honing in on Tobold Hornblower, claiming that he was the first to grow the “true” pipe-weed of the Southfarthing in the year 1070 (of the Shire-reckoning). Some of the names given to this favored plant are as follows: Longbottom Leaf (referring to the area Tobold lived in), Old Toby, and Southern Star. These names have sometimes come to be known as varieties of marijuana in some parts of the Western world, although this is likely traced back to the 60’s and 70’s, when both Tolkien’s works and many drugs caught on in most societies. There is no mention here of the hobbit-munchies or blood-shot eyes in Hobbiton due to Old Toby, unfortunately.

The information we do have in this prologue, however, is very important in making my argument that pipe-weed is not weed. The term Nicotiana given here (related to the word “nicotine”, obviously) refers to a genus of plants and shrubs found in many moderate climates around the world (thank you, Wikipedia). There are over 67 varieties of Nicotiana known today, some even manmade/hybrid.

tobacco species

It is difficult to know exactly which species Tolkien is comparing the halfing Leaf to, but it is likely Nicotiana tabacum, by far the most commonly cultivated species for recreational consumption. If this feigned history given by Tolkien is supposed to be extrapolated eventually into our era, it makes sense that the most popularly grown Leaf of the hobbits’ time would be the most popularly grown Leaf of our time. Simple tobacco of this nature does have its affects on the body: nicotine is technically a stimulant, but the addictive properties of smoking tobacco tend to give the smokers a sense of calming and tranquility when the addictive need is met. Of course, there are still possible psychoactive effects depending on what part of the plant is consumed and how it is done. But it’s unlikely that the simple rolling and crushing of the leaves of Nicotiana tabacum and smoking them out of a clay or wooden pipe would give the hobbits and wizards of the Third Age much of a trip.

pj smoking banner

So why do people so often think pipe-weed is Mary Jane? There was (apparently, as I was not born at the time and there is little information readily available specifically about this) some speculation started in the 60’s and 70’s that Tolkien’s Leaf could be a “harder” drug than nicotine. As I’ve just pointed out, I don’t think this claim can be founded on the book material or extra-book references. I think this is a product of the time and culture these ideas came out of. (I’m not committing the genetic fallacy here; I think these claims are wrong for other reasons, but I can see how this claim might arise at this point in time.) More recently, however, and on a more popular level, Peter Jackson’s early millennial adaptation of the story has revived the idea that there might be a little something more to the Longbottom Leaf than just nicotine.

There are a few references to pipe-weed and its effects in the main trilogy, such as Saruman’s conversation with Gandalf about the “halfing’s leaf”. Just look at the comments on this video clip for crying out loud:

weed comments

Merry and Pippin seem very… pleased when they greet the King of Rohan and his company at Isengard (as the top picture of this post shows). But perhaps the most blatant shot by Jackson to make us think Southern Star is dank comes from the infamous Hobbit trilogy. (It’s still difficult for me to write “Hobbit” and “trilogy” in the same sentence.) When Gandalf and his companions first meet Radagast, he offers the Brown Wizard a little Old Toby to “settle [his] nerves”. (I tried my very hardest [one search] to find a clip of this to link, but I think people couldn’t resist putting a rap song over the part where Radagast takes a “hit” in every video I saw of it. This generation… Great, now my recommended videos will include vaping and “HUGE RIP” compilations.)

radagast smoking banner

Not only this, but Saruman’s comment at the White Council in this movie about Radagast’s consumption of mushrooms also doesn’t help matters when it comes to Tolkien and recreational drug use. I’m not saying that Jackson was wrong to give this impression in his movies, as it can be quite comical to consider hobbits and wizards “tolkien up” (get it?), but it’s just simply not faithful to the source material.


 

I end here, having made my case for pipe-weed being (relatively) harmless smoking tobacco and not, as Peter Jackson has led millions to believe, marijuana. Cracking jokes about drugs is cool and “in” in modern society I suppose, but Tolkien was not referring to how cool it is to “get baked” and kill orcs. He wasn’t making a social statement about recreational drugs and very likely didn’t use any at all himself. (Again, I would say for certain that he didn’t use drugs at all, but I honestly do not know every detail about his life and so have to leave a very small window of possibility there.) The curious and endearing habit the hobbits and wizards have of smoking Old Toby is a fun detail Tolkien added for kicks and giggles. He often said he viewed himself as a hobbit (in every way but size) and it’s humorous to think of an old Oxford professor reclining in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell with Bilbo and Gandalf, talking about the Elder Days and blowing smoke rings as the fire burns low.

J R R Tolkien

Smoking may be a potentially harmful vice to pick up, but Tolkien sure does make it seem fun… and it’s not weed, guys. C’mon.

[Obligatory: Don’t smoke; it’ll kill you. Bye.]

Check out the TolkienFacts Facebook page!


Notes: [1] This link includes another link to the full interview; however, in a comment on this page, a user points out that the quote about “24 hours of smoking” was in a caption under a picture in the original magazine, and thus is difficult to come by online.

 

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