59

We know for a fact — leastways, according to Mithrandir — that a certain corslet of mithril chainmail would be valued more than the Shire and everything in it:

‘What?’ cried Gimli, startled out of his silence. ‘A corslet of Moria–silver? That was a kingly gift!’
‘Yes,’ said Gandalf. ‘I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it.’
The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 4: "A Journey in the Dark"

No bollocks, you may say. The worth of Frodo's chainmail was demonstrated when it later protected his life from the thrust of an orc chieftan's spear. But, does that really make it more valuable than the Shire “and everything in it”? What was that referenced value, and how did Gandalf gauge it?

  • 16
    This may be very difficult to answer as Tolkien never described all of the Shire and didn't like to discuss economics as much as he tried to great a mythology for England – Edlothiad Feb 22 '17 at 11:42
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    My obligatory "The last Ring-Bearer" quote on such topics: "It is rather hard to analyze the reign of the first Princes of Ithilien, Faramir and Éowyn, in political or economical terms – it appears that they had neither politics nor economics over there, but only a never-ending romantic ballad" – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 22 '17 at 22:03
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    I'm guessing this doesn't include The Ring as being in the Shire. – Bill K Feb 23 '17 at 0:08
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    As a different way of thinking about it, if not for the mithril armor the ringbearer would be in greater peril - and it is presumed if the ringbearer died then nothing would have any value whatsoever, becauese Sauron would destroy it. So effectively absolutely anything would have a value greater than the Shire, if it had even the tiniest chance of improving the likelihood that any part of Middle Earth could survive - and it's not like that could be said for much of anything else in the Shire. – BrianH Feb 23 '17 at 1:18
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    It is simply a common figure of speech. It has nothing to do with actual values or monetary amounts. – Fattie Feb 23 '17 at 13:34
119

It's a metaphor non-rigorous comparison rather than an evaluation of literal worth.

To paraphrase Gandalf's statement "A King would part with lands greater than the shire (and everything therein) for such a coat of mithril."

He (Tolkien, through Gandalf) simply couched his explanation in terms we (or a hobbit) would understand, by comparing it to something with which he was familiar.

We use similar language, "That business has a greater turnover than some small countries", leaving pedants to ask . . .
Which small countries?
Are they developing world countries or Industrialized countries?
What's the GDP of these comparative countries?
Which definition of GDP are you using?
What was your selection criteria for a "small" country?
Who checked your facts?

etc., etc.

I doubt Gandalf knew the current worth of the Shire, nor did he get regular updates on Mithril stock prices.

  • 22
    It may have been directed to Gimli, but Gimli already knew it's worth. The metaphor was for the Hobbits. – Binary Worrier Feb 22 '17 at 13:56
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    nor did he get regular updates on Mithril stock prices Are you implying a manufactured good is worth exactly as much as its parts? How skilled was the one who crafted it? How much have their other wares sold for? If the buyer is a collector it is probably worth more since Gandalf was around it, are we considering that? – Captain Man Feb 22 '17 at 15:56
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    I think this answer is wrong — I certainly took it to be meant literally. The last line in your answer is key, but it’s entirely possible that the worth of market value of small amounts of mithril is so ridiculously high that, scaled to a whole armour made of mithril, its value would indeed dwarf an unimportant economy such as the Shire’s, without requiring an exact calculation. This isn’t that unrealistic for an item’s value (as a gift, it kind of is though). – Konrad Rudolph Feb 22 '17 at 16:40
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    xkcd.com/1257 – leftaroundabout Feb 22 '17 at 19:47
  • 6
    For comparison, consider the value of a titanium mail shirt in 1066. – Joshua Feb 22 '17 at 20:29
54

We don't know.

This is a good question, but there is no satisfactory way to answer it given the limited information that we have in the books. Tolkien, for all his excellent worldbuilding, gave us very little insight into how the economies of Middle-earth work. Neither do we have much of a description of the lands of the Shire outside those immediately concerning our heroes. For example, the entry in the Tolkien Gateway website for the Northfarthing (roughly a quarter of the lands traditionally composing the Shire) tells us little more than that the air was fresh there, it was rocky, and that heavy snow was common in one part of the Northfarthing. See the entry here: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Northfarthing

We also don't have any clear indication for what the value of goods was in the Shire because we don't see much buying and selling. We don't know what a hobbit would pay for a pair of brass candlesticks or what Pippin would have to pay to buy a bushel of apples or even what a small farm would cost. We do know that Frodo apparently thought it was believable that he could sell Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses (probably for less than it was worth) and still have enough to live on and to buy a small house in Crickhollow but that's not really much to go on.

I would point out that one of the few discussions of trade dealings with hobbits is a conversation between Gandalf and Gimli's father Gloin about hobbits in Unfinished Tales.

'"What!' cried Glóin. 'One of those simpletons down in the Shire? What use on earth, or under it, could he possibly be? Let him smell as he may, he would never dare to come within smelling dis­tance of the nakedest dragonet new from the shell!'

'"Now, now!' I said, 'that is quite unfair. You do not know much about the Shire-folk, Glóin. I suppose you think them simple, because they are generous and do not haggle; and think them timid because you never sell them any weapons. You are mistaken.

This hints at trade between the dwarves and the hobbits of the Shire. The line about hobbits being generous and not haggling suggests to me that perhaps hobbits tend to undervalue trade items in comparison to other races (or at the very least in comparison to dwarves). This could color Gandalf's perception that the mithril coat could buy the Shire. It suggests that you can buy more for less from hobbits than you might from a dwarf.

The hobbits themselves seem to place enough value on the coat to put it in a museum at one point (the Mathom-house at Michel Delving). However, even the word "mathom" connotes a certain degree of uselessness. This is the description of mathoms from Concerning Hobbits:

The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.

We are told that many of the weapons in the Shire were basically mathoms at the Museum. "Mathom" is one of the few uniquely hobbitish words that we get and I think the reason it survives in their language is likely because the other races of Middle-earth probably don't have a word that quite encapsulates the concept. To hobbits, a mathom is something that is supposedly valuable -- but actually not valuable at all because they can't use it. To put it another way, a dwarf might refer to many of the objects that hobbits call "mathoms" as "treasures" -- as the classification of the mithril coat itself as a mathom demonstrates.

This underlies an important point. Even if the coat is "worth more" than the Shire, that doesn't mean that you could literally buy the Shire with the coat. It's not like you could walk up to the Thain and say "hey, I'll trade you this mithril coat for the Shire and everything in it." Even if the Thain had that sort of power (he doesn't), then it's not likely that he would think this a good deal because hobbits don't attach that sort of value to mithril coats. You'd have to first trade the coat for lots and lots of gold or other goods and then start buying up individual farms. This might work well for awhile, but the hobbits are likely to get suspicious when they see that one person is buying up so much land in the Shire. Lotho Sackville-Baggins oppressed the Shire partly by buying up massive amounts of land and goods, but it didn't work out so great for him in the end.

As for whether Gandalf meant this statement literally --it is very possible that he did not, but I would point out that Frodo, at least, seems to take it somewhat literally.

Frodo said nothing, but he put his hand under his tunic and touched the rings of his mail-shirt. He felt staggered to think that he had been walking about with the price of the Shire under his jacket. Had Bilbo known? He felt no doubt that Bilbo knew quite well. It was indeed a kingly gift.

Finally, Gandalf, although he loves hobbits and is a big supporter of them, also sometimes makes some pretty condescending statements about them. Here's one example:

Ever since Bilbo left, I have been deeply concerned about you, and about all these charming, absurd, helpless hobbits. It would be a grievous blow to the world, if the Dark Power overcame the Shire; if all your kind, jolly, stupid Bolgers, Hornblowers, Boffins, Bracegirdles, and the rest, not to mention the ridiculous Bagginses, became enslaved.

Another example is when Merry is telling Theoden about Tobold Hornblower and Gandalf interrupts with:

"You do not know your danger, Theoden," interrupted Gandalf. "These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience.

This is played for humor (and it is very humorous), but it's pretty rude and condescending of Gandalf when you think of it. Merry is an important person by Shire standards who is meeting the king of a foreign land for the first time -- a king who has literally never met hobbits before -- and Gandalf interrupts Merry to basically tell Theoden that hobbits are always boring people with their unimportant little histories.

Of course Gandalf also frequently extols the virtues of hobbits, but I think he likes the idea of hobbits as humble and sort of silly. His statement about the mitril jacket may be in this same vein. It may be meant to convey to the hobbits that Bilbo and now the other hobbits are now involved in Important Matters which make Shire doings seem small by comparison. Of course, I think the hobbits already know this, but it isn't beyond Gandalf to point it out.

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    A maðom was the Ænglisc word for an article treasured, usually sentimentally. E.g. the former possessions placed in funeral boats, or buried in barrows, would be called ‘maðoms’. bitterscroll.blogspot.com/2006/02/… – can-ned_food Feb 22 '17 at 15:49
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    @can-ned_food That's really interesting! I was trying to formulate more of an in-universe explanation for why "mathom" is one of few hobbit words that we see, though. – robopuppy Feb 22 '17 at 15:52
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    @can-ned_food: Which is probably why Tolkien, a scholar of ancient English, used "mathom" to translate whatever the actual Hobbitish word happened to be. See the appendix about translations for similar instances. – jamesqf Feb 22 '17 at 19:26
  • 1
    It is simply a common figure of speech. It has nothing to do with actual values or monetary amounts. – Fattie Feb 23 '17 at 13:34
8

No, I think it was a quite literal statement taking in terms of absolute value.

Think about it, Mithril is rare enough that no-one, not Gandelf, Elrond e.t.c. had any substantial amount of it.

Probably the only people who did were dwarves.

Even when it was being actively mined under Moria, it was worth over 10x what gold was.

It hasn't been actively mined in many many years which would massively increase the price as well. Most kings would give a massive fortune for a well crafted suit of mithril mail which would basically make any assassination attempt far less likely to work and would make him much tougher on the battlefield.

It's sheer rarity combined with the fact it is literally the best material for any number of useful applications mean it would literally be priceless.

Also he said the value of the shire, normally that doesn't include selling the people into slavery, just the value of the buildings and properties.

  • I'm guessing you wanted to write a comment to another answer but were unable to do so. Well, keep at it and add some more details and a few mathematical figures. Also, don't forget that Gandalf did say “the Shire and everything in it.” – can-ned_food Feb 22 '17 at 16:21
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    @can-ned_food "the value of Columbus, Ohio and everything in it" wouldn't generally be construed to include people. And everything ≠ everyone. – Wildcard Feb 22 '17 at 18:12
  • @Wildcard Hmm, that is is odd! The post shows no signs of edit, but when i first read that ultimate paragraph (or line, as it is), i read something completely different. First comment invalid — well, the second half of it, i guess. – can-ned_food Feb 22 '17 at 18:15
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    Just remember, Sauron had most of the mithril. – Spencer Feb 22 '17 at 19:47
7

Let's do some deeply dubious maths!

There's about 100,000 hobbits in the Shire (1).

England's GDP was $3 billion (1990's $) in 1500(2) with a population of 3.75 million(3), implying each person produces $800 a year. (This would be in line with with international poverty levels of $1-$2 a day.)

So the Shire produces around $8M a year [edited: thanks Matt!], putting a mithral coat well within the scope of today's super-rich.

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    You're leaving out the value of 18,000 square miles of shire land, the values of the buildings, the value of the cash enconmy, value of livestock, timber, crops in the field and other natural resources. – Binary Worrier Feb 22 '17 at 15:34
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    . . . not to mention price per head of hobbit as sold into slavery :p – Binary Worrier Feb 22 '17 at 15:35
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    I think you dropped some zeroes... 100k hobbits each producing $800 per year nets you $80M, not $80k. – Nuclear Wang Feb 22 '17 at 15:58
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    @Matt it is alt-math. – Jason Hutchinson Feb 22 '17 at 16:31
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    Deeply dubious maths - is that like Advanced version of JKR maths? :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 22 '17 at 22:05
6

Tolkien describes the shire as having an area of 18000 square miles (11.5 million acres). The shire consists almost entirely of prime farmland. The price of prime farmland in modern times is about $6000 per acre. The total price of the land comes to $69 billion, which would be most of the cost of the shire if it were sold today.

Alternatively, medieval arable land rents were in the ballpark of 6 pence per acre per year[1]. After inflation that comes to $28 per acre per year.[2] The medieval risk free interest rate was around 8%[3], so the land value would be around 12.5x the land rent, or $350/acre. This results in a total shire land value of $4 billion.

1:  Medieval Suffolk: An Economic and Social History, 1200-1500 p.47
2:  https://www.measuringworth.com/inflation/
3:  A History of Interest Rates by Sidney Homer, p.137 table 11.
  • 1
    Rather specious mathematics, but this is probably about the correct pathway. – can-ned_food Feb 22 '17 at 18:37
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    Given that Eriador was almost entirely depopulated, farm land was neither scarce nor in need. Modern farmland prices aren't applicable. – chepner Feb 22 '17 at 20:04
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    We don't know that the Shire consists "almost entirely of prime farmland." In fact, we know that there are forests and bogs in the Shire. We know that hobbits primarily occupy themselves with farming, but that isn't the same as saying the entire Shire is prime farmland. Some of it could be poor farmland or not farmland at all. And some of the land has houses or other structures on it. How do we put a price on a smial? – robopuppy Feb 22 '17 at 22:05
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    Also, you are going by modern, 1st world country prices. Thats a really really bad comparison. Medieval period prices would have been relatively much much much cheaper for farmland. You are probably looking at more like $10 an acre. In medieval times, the nobles would spend more on a bottle of wine than an entire peasant farm was worth. The value of land has increased massively over time with population increase. Land prices massively spiked in the 1950s. Before that land was far far cheaper. $20-100 per acre would probably be a far more realistic figure. – Drenzul Feb 24 '17 at 10:12
  • For comparison, here is what 315 billion dollars worth of gold looks like: businessinsider.com/… – Gaurav Feb 26 '17 at 2:13
3

A lot of fascinating information and perspectives revealed here, but I thought it necessary to tackle this one myself.

The short of it is this:
Depends on who wants it.


Now, although Gandalf certainly wasn't referring to any precedent in trade or to any published evaluations of the Shire in the estate markets — as Binary Worrier and others noted, — I believe that a lot of people have been seriously underestimating Gandalf's knowledge and awareness of the state of affairs in Middle-earth.
However, as it was also mentioned — by robopuppy, for one, — he wasn't attempting to provide any of that information to either Gimli or the hobbits. He was most probably, as he often did, making light of the fact that a simple hobbit–turned–burgler seemed an unusual recipient for such a reward — as reward it was:

Now the dwarves took down mail and weapons from the walls, and armed themselves. (…)
“Mr. Baggins!” he cried. “Here is the first payment of your reward! Cast off your old coat and put on this!”

— TH, ch 13, § 2, ¶ 19..20


So far as concerns the economy of the Shire, it appears that it was largely self–sufficient.

The Dwarves were mentioned as possible customers, but there seems to be little evidence of that on a wholesale market. Dwarves needed food and cloth and drink, to be sure, but they received most of that from Men and, in decreasing amounts, from Elves. Evaluation of an item for commerce is a reciprocal concern: The Dwarves would pay in finely crafted weapons, armor, jewellery, and other articles such as goblets and harps. The hobbits had little use for Dwarvish goods, and so why would the Dwarves be bothered to deal with them?

It seems that, by and large, the Shire was not especially valuable to anyone but the hobbits themselves. The Rangers kept out evil folk and monsters which were brutal and rampant, but I would venture that only those who were exceptionally greedy or malicious would take any interest in the Shire — e.g. Saruman or Sauron. And, for the most part, they either didn't really know it existed or were busy with other more pressing affairs.

The chief export, if we could call it that, of the Shire was certainly its pipe-weed. That, however, was largely only sold to those who visited the Shire and were aquainted with its folk; to most Men, the art of smoking pipe-weed was entirely unknown, as was evidenced by Théoden's surprise when he first met Merry and Pippen.

So far as concerned most Men who knew of its existence, the Shire probably was seen as a large and confederate country of underdeveloped agriculture, inhabited by a small and reticent folk. There is no reason to believe that the arable land was especially fertile.
As was already explained, we have little means by which to place a market value on such land. The hobbits certainly would've been unwilling sellers in a currency market, as there was almost nothing which existed as currency between hobbits and Men, and so little possibility for a monetary condition to arise. Trade could've been possible, if the Outsiders had anything of value to a hobbit, but I very much doubt that most hobbits would be willing to see Outsiders take ownership of their lands and holes.
The only reason Saruman a.k.a. Sharkey did so was because of his conniving voice and wiles.


Ergo, I will hazard to say that the one thing of certain value which the Shire clearly offered cheaply and abundantly was — the hobbits. Yes, the labor of the meek and humble hobbits would've been quite tempting to the greedy and the malicious.
We don't know exactly how many hobbits lived in the Shire, but we can be certain there were more than a handful.

  • I'm not saying that this is the best possible answer, or that it is better intrinsically than any of the others, but that extrinsically, with relation to the question, it is the most pertinent to the sort of thing I was expecting. – can-ned_food Feb 25 '17 at 13:27
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    The "depends on who wants it" answer is one of the big problems with trying to put a value on anything in Middle-earth. We are given several different races and peoples who all value very different things. What is an elven tree house worth to a dwarf? Probably nothing, but to an elf, it might be very valuable. What is a hobbit smial worth to a Man who'd probably bump his head on the ceiling? Very little, but it'd be worth considerably more to a hobbit. – robopuppy Feb 25 '17 at 17:58
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    Also, Middle-earth doesn't appear to have much of a continent-wide economy. Instead, we seem to have a lot of little kingdoms who trade mostly, though not entirely, within their own domains. It isn't just the Shire that is isolated -- the men of Rohan seem to think Galadriel's elves are a myth though they live rather close to them, for example. Our heroes seem to think it incredibly suspicious that Saruman would have Shire products, which shows that Shire products don't typically get traded this far afield. So we can't really say "what would this be worth?" without saying "to which people?" – robopuppy Feb 25 '17 at 18:06
  • You're wrong to suggest that there was little trade with the Dwarves in the Shire. When Tolkien first wrote the Hobbit it had no connection to Middle-earth,and he made Bilbo seem like a well to do 19th century British landowner. When he wrote the LOTR and revised the Hobbit to fit in he elimated a lot of the 19th century stuff, but some remained. So Bilbo and the Shire have exotic plants (potatoes) and exotic silk, and rather advanced technology like umbrellas, tissue paper, and mantle clocks, which could only have been made by Dwarves, implying trade of food for Dwarf products. – M. A. Golding May 4 '18 at 17:30
2

It was a figure of speech, and the value is most definitely less than the value of the Shire

Gandalf is a Maia, loyal to Ilúvatar, and as such operates according to the moral principles of Tolkien's universe. One of the fundamental conflicts between the Good as put forth by Ilúvatar and the Evil as put forth by Melkor is whether spiritual or material things have greater value. It is abundantly clear that the correct answer is spiritual things, and that the passing material things of Arda have value only insofar as they contribute to a spiritual good.

One of the chief flaws in mankind is the issue of mortality. Ilúvatar created man as mortal so that they might in the fullness of time join the heavens, but over time as Arda decays Man is tricked into seeing his mortality as a curse.

The value of all the world's gold or mithril or any other such material good could not possibly be equal to the worth of even a single person's life, as Gandalf was keenly aware. The use of the phrase, here, then is an exaggeration for the benefit of Gimli (and the others present), as a disregard for the value placed upon the mithril would be disrespectful to them and to a great number of other people.

  • See to BrianDHall's comment to the question: the mithril corslet, by protecting the Ringbearer's life, had worth for that purpose. Whether Gandalf knew Frodo bore it at that time, and whether he considered this, is interesting but only tangentially related to the question. – can-ned_food Feb 25 '17 at 5:47
-1

There were probably more people living in the Shire than in all the rest of Eriador combined. The Dwarves who lived in the Blue Mountains probably bought most of their food from the Shire.

Bilbo and Frodo Baggins had a lot of foreign and/or highly advanced products in Bag End. Probably only a few hundred wealthy households in the shire had such products, but they are still evidence for international trade in the era of LOTR and the place of the Shire in it.

I suspect that there were large islands in the sea south and west of Eridador and the borders of Middle-Earth maps.

Possibly there was a chain of islands leading to the "New Lands" that rose out of the sea at the fall of Numenor, lands that were fore runners of the modern North and South America.

Possibly there was another chain of islands leading to the East of Middle-earth, arching past the southern coast of Middle-earth, occupied by people who were not very much connected to the Dunedain but also little affected by Sauron, and willing to trade with the west.

And possibly the Elves and Dwarves of Lindon and the Blue Mountains were visited sometimes by traders from islands that were in the near end of those chains of trading islands, traders bringing goods from from the proto-Americas and the far east of Middle-Earth in exchange for advanced Dwarf technology made in the Blue Mountains or traded from farther eastern Dwarf communities.

It is possible that the Dwarves tried Hobbit pipe weed and liked it but didn't get addicted to it because of their toughness and resistance to control. But human traders may have found that it was addictive and bought it to trade in the proto-Americas. Thus the Dwarves may have bought a lot of pipe weed from the shire and sold it to traders.

Thus the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains may have been involved with the trade to both the proto-Americas and the east of Middle-Earth, and traded their advanced technology for exotic luxury goods. And if the hobbits of the Shire were a main source of food for the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains, and possibly their source of pipe weed, they may have acquired some of the trade goods.

Thus the wealthy Hobbit landowners may have acquired potatoes and tomatoes from the proto-Americas, and silk from the east of Middle-earth, and Dwarf technology like umbrellas, tissue paper, mothballs, and mechanical wall and mantle clocks. The Dwarves may have tried such advanced and modern technology out in the Shire, a rather small market, before deciding if it was worthwhile to make large amounts to export to larger markets.

It is hard to estimate the value of the Shire, since there was not much demand for farmland for hundreds of miles around it. But the Shire was the largest cultivated area for hundreds of miles and the only exporter of food and probably also pipe weed for hundreds of miles. If some rich and powerful lord had wanted to buy a small and fairly prosperous country at the time of LOTR, the Shire was pretty much the only one in Eriador at the time, the only one he could even try to buy.

So the relative uniqueness of the Shire makes it hard to put a price on. If Gandalf was right about the value of the mithril coat compared to the Shire, it must have been very valuable indeed.

  • 2
    At least 8 uses of "possibly, probably or suspects" in your setup, giving me to suspect this answer is pure speculation. – Binary Worrier Feb 24 '17 at 7:25
  • It would be a possibility, but alas, I cannot find any evidence that anyone traded with the Shire in large enough volumes to be considered a routine affair. The only ones who did were nearby towns such as Bree, and then not very often. Rather, it seems that the Shire kept to themselves, and that everyone else didn't take much notice of them. – can-ned_food Feb 25 '17 at 5:54
  • Tolkien depicted the Shire as resembling 19th century rural England. How could 19th century rural England exist without 19th century industrial England and international trade? Rather poorly, I suspect. My speculations are attempts to explain how the Shire, a remote backwater, could appear so much more modern than the highest depicted cultures of Elves and Men - while adding as little as possible to Tolkien's world. – M. A. Golding Feb 25 '17 at 19:50

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