Hobbits and Gandalf often smoke pipe-weed. The way it is referred to implies it may have intoxicating effects similar to marijuana.

“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."

Is it supposed to be the Middle-earth version of a drug?

  • 4
    If you drop the "l" instead of Tolkein you'd have "tokin'" Dec 14, 2013 at 5:13
  • 6
    I thought pipe-weed was tobacco. Do you have a quotation that refers to its intoxicating effects?
    – user14111
    Dec 14, 2013 at 5:25
  • 15
    @Gelfamat It sounds exactly like what a tobacco smoker like Tolkien would say. Even though I admit a stoner version of LotR would be funny, you're reading too much into that paragraph.
    – Andres F.
    Dec 14, 2013 at 22:47
  • 6
    @AndresF. - nail on the head, it is exactly what a tobacco smoker would say.
    – user8719
    Dec 15, 2013 at 0:46
  • 8
    That would explain why, in the books, it took Gandalf like 17 years to actually do anything about the ring. Feb 10, 2014 at 13:57

5 Answers 5


In the prologue to LotR Tolkien refers to pipe-smoking:

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.

Tolkien himself was a pipe-smoker all his life, and referred to it in Letter 294 in these terms:

I should forgo smoking on these occasions, but I have found being interviewed increasingly distasteful and distracting, and need some sedative.

(My emphasis)

Regarding observed drug-like properties, it would be useful to note that nicotine itself is a highly addictive drug with psychoactive effects. If I may quote the Wikipedia article:

When a cigarette is smoked, nicotine-rich blood passes from the lungs to the brain within seven seconds and immediately stimulates the release of many chemical messengers such as acetylcholine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, vasopressin, histamine, arginine, serotonin, dopamine, autocrine agents, and beta-endorphin. This release of neurotransmitters and hormones is responsible for most of nicotine's effects. Nicotine appears to enhance concentration and memory due to the increase of acetylcholine. It also appears to enhance alertness due to the increases of acetylcholine and norepinephrine. Arousal is increased by the increase of norepinephrine. Pain is reduced by the increases of acetylcholine and beta-endorphin. Anxiety is reduced by the increase of beta-endorphin. Nicotine also extends the duration of positive effects of dopamine and increases sensitivity in brain reward systems.

There doesn't seem any need to complicate matters by looking for other explanations. Nicotine on it's own is sufficient.

  • 13
    @Gelfamat - it actually is. Nicotine on it's own is sufficient to meet all the requirements of how Tolkien describes pipe weed, looking for an alternative is giving a more complex explanation priority over that. And don't forget - Saruman is just a character in Tolkien's story (and a character who doesn't understand pipe-weed at that); he's not Tolkien himself.
    – user8719
    Dec 14, 2013 at 16:42
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    @Gelfamat - because of the prologue to LotR: "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".
    – user8719
    Feb 9, 2014 at 16:55
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    @Gelfamat - at this point it really looks as though you've already decided what you want the answer to be and you're just going to distort everything to try support that. In which case why bother asking a question in the first place? As such, this question isn't suitable for SE and I'm voting to close.
    – user8719
    Feb 9, 2014 at 22:29
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    @Gelfamat - in your question you're asking "Is it supposed to be the Middle Earth version of a drug?"; in a comment you flat-out state "in Middle Earth nicotiana contains THC". So yes, you have already decided what you want the answer to be.
    – user8719
    Feb 9, 2014 at 22:57
  • 2
    let us continue this discussion in chat
    – user8719
    Feb 9, 2014 at 23:03

The references to pipe-weed make it pretty clear that it was, in fact, normal tobacco.

  • Tolkien smoked tobacco, usually with a pipe.

  • He doesn't say for sure that pipe-weed is a strain of nicotiana, but says it probably is. He does say with certainty that it is the leaves of the plant that are smoked (whereas most pot smokers smoke the flowers of the cannabis plant, not the leaves).

  • He never explicitly describes the effects of pipe-weed at length, as far as I can recall, but the effects he implies seem to be limited to mild relaxation, which is indeed the primary effect of smoking tobacco.

  • In the same paragraph as the "nicotiana" comment, Tolkien calls it "the tobacco of the Southfarthing".

  • In The Two Towers, he says Merry pulled out a pouch of "tobacco".

  • In The Hobbit, he uses the word "tobacco" exclusively, never "pipe-weed".

  • A letter from Tolkien to a pipe smoker who wrote him asking about what kind of tobacco and pipes the hobbits used.

  • An entire book written about the subject.

  • In the "Homeward Bound" chapter of The Return of the King Butterbur brings Gandalf and the hobbits "a wad of uncut leaf" of pipe-weed. A tobacco leaf is huge, and must be cut before it is smoked, even if it will be used to wrap a cigar. Marijuana leaves are small, don't come in "wads", and are not usually smoked (pot smokers smoke the "buds", i.e., flowers, not the leaves).

As it happens, I smoke tobacco via cigarettes, cigars, and a pipe. I've also been known to smoke... um... less "legal" things. As cool as it would be to say that Gandalf smokes pot, or even other intoxicants, this is almost certainly not the case. All the effects of pipe-weed as Tolkien describes them are consistent with tobacco use.

Tolkien was many things, most of them awesome, but he wasn't particularly "hip". When he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he was a solidly middle class professor at Oxford, with several young children. At that time, marijuana was almost unknown outside of the jazz scene. It, and other smokable intoxicants, like opium, were demonized and incredibly taboo. Tolkien would hardly have promoted the use of illegal drugs, especially among children (the primary audience of The Hobbit, and part of the audience of The Lord of the Rings).

All the evidence points to the conclusion that pipe-weed was just plain old tobacco.


The case has been pretty well made that it's tobacco, but it's odd that the alternative that keeps being raised is marijuana. Numerous other herbs like yarrow, mugwort, chamomile, and sage have been smoked for their mildly intoxicating qualities for a very long time, and would certainly be more likely to fit Tolkien's intents than marijuana, not to mention the quasi-british climate of the shire.

I smoke neither tobacco nor marijuana but do occasionally enjoy some mugwort and yarrow flowers. I like to think that Gandalf would approve.


David Day's A Tolkien Bestiary straight out says that pipe weed is a variant of tobacco. So it's no more a drug then cigarettes are.


Before the days of the War of the Ring the Hobbits were a quiet folk who could claim little influence on the World beyond the Shire. But of one thing, however, they did boast to be the makers and masters, and that was the smoking of the herb nicotiana, which was named Galenas in Elvish. When originally brought from the land of Numenore by Men, it was prized only for the scent of its flower.

It was the Hobbits of Bree who grew it specially for the purpose of smoking in long-stemmed pipes. Knowing not the Elvish name for the plant, or caring little if they did, they renamed it Pipe-weed after its most common use. Hobbits derived great enjoyment from this pastime, and, in the way of Hobbits towards things of pleasure, smoking Pipe-weed was rated as a high art.

  • A good find, but Day appears to have no special insight into Tolkien's work (than any other scholar would have, I mean).
    – Valorum
    Oct 13, 2023 at 8:46

The effects of True Tobacco are different from modern chemically bathed cigarettes and e-cig formulae. So Tolkien's reference would be authentic, while a modern observer may be unacquainted with actual tobacco's properties. Middle Earth had tobacco.

  • 2
    I'm a tobacco smoker, and the properties described by Tolkien are exactly the reason I smoke.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jul 18, 2015 at 5:10

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