14

I am reading The Return of the King, and when I got to the chapters concerning the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, something struck me. Earlier in the story, Theoden was shocked to see Merry and Pippin smoking "pipe-weed", which was almost unknown outside of the Shire; intrigued, he promises Merry that they will go to Edoras and Merry can tell him about this strange habit.

In RotK, as Theoden lays dying, he tells Merry that he regrets that he will not be able to fulfill his promise.

"Pipe-weed", of course, is tobacco. And therein lies the problem. Since Middle-Earth is stated by Tolkien to be in a pseudo-historical, pre-historic Europe, how did non-European plants like tobacco get there before the 'modern' age? Does Tolkien provide any explanation?

Then I remembered additional examples: Bilbo served tomatoes at his party, and Sam wished he had potatoes for his rabbit stew, and then pined for fish and chips ("chips" being French fries, also made from potatoes). These are also not native to Europe.

But of course, no one in The Lord of the Rings seems to know that other continents exist, and I don't know of any reference to an analog of the Americas in Tolkien's legendarium. It seems unlikely that anyone had ever traveled between Middle-earth and the Americas, to say the least.

Doing a little research, I found an entry on tomatoes at Tolkien Gateway, which states that tomatoes were also mentioned in the original version of The Hobbit, but Tolkien later changed the word "tomatoes" to "pickles", presumably because of the issue I am addressing here.

Did Tolkien ever address how these plants came to Middle-earth, or admit that their presence there doesn't make much sense?


Note: Many people have been arguing that Middle-earth is not necessarily supposed to be on our planet earth. From Tolkien's perspective, this argument is nonsense. I will let him address this topic in his own words (all quotes are from Tolkien's letters unless otherwise noted):

‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like the Mercury of Eddison). It is just a use of Middle English middel-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men ‘between the seas'. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.

And:

May I say that all this is ‘mythical’, and not any kind of new religion or vision. As far as I know it is merely an imaginative invention, to express, in the only way I can, some of my (dim) apprehensions of the world. All I can say is that, if it were ‘history’, it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or ‘cultures') into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe; though the Shire, for instance, is expressly stated to have been in this region (I p. 12).6 I could have fitted things in with greater versimilitude, if the story had not become too far developed, before the question ever occurred to me. I doubt if there would have been much gain; and I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and our Days is sufficient for ‘literary credibility’, even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of 'pre-history'.

And:

I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place. I prefer that to the contemporary mode of seeking remote globes in ‘space’. However curious, they are alien, and not lovable with the love of blood-kin. Middle-earth is (by the way & if such a note is necessary) not my own invention. It is a modernization or alteration (N[ew] E[nglish] D[ictionary] ‘a perversion’) of an old word for the inhabited world of Men, the oikoumenē: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern-imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. O.English middan-geard, mediæval E. midden-erd, middle-erd. Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-earth is another planet!

And:

As for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised ‘dramatically’ rather than geologically, or paleontologically. I do sometimes wish that I had made some sort of agreement between the imaginations or theories of the geologists and my map a little more possible.

And:

I imagine the gap [between TA and now] to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.

And:.

In (5) we meet the conception of the dragging of Tol Eressëa back eastwards across the Ocean to the geographical position of England - it becomes England (see I.26); that the part which was torn off by Ossë, the Isle of Íverin, is Ireland is explicitly stated in the Qenya dictionary. The promontory of Rôs is perhaps Brittany.
-The History of Eriol or Aelfwine. [This was among the earliest writing Tolkien did regarding Middle-earth, and later, he decided against the idea of "dragging" an island to the current location of the British Isles; instead, he chose to say that the seas eventually rose and surrounded the Shire, turning it into the British Isles]

Were he here today, Tolkien would insist, as he frequently did during his own lifetime, that Middle-earth is absolutely, unquestionably, without any doubt, and with complete certainty, a place in our own world, roughly analogous to a prehistoric version of modern Europe (the LotR wiki has even produced a map showing how Middle-earth and Europe would presumably align). Arda is meant to be earth, albeit in the distant past.

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    Do we actually know that pipe-weed is tobacco specifically, and not some other smokable grass like cannabis, which was definitely known in Europe in Antiquity (dare I suggest the Hobbits were regular marijuana smokers?)? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 26 '15 at 5:24
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - yes. In The Hobbit, he never uses the term pipe-weed, he always says tobacco. He also regularly calls it tobacco in LotR. He says it is a strain of nicotiana, i.e., tobacco. And he says the leaves are smoked; we pot smokers smoke the buds - i.e., flowers - of the cannabis plant. – Wad Cheber May 26 '15 at 12:51
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    Middle Earth has elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, dragons, orcs, and magic rings -- but you draw the line at potatoes? 8-)} – Keith Thompson May 28 '15 at 7:19
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    Komodo "dragons" are dragons because we call them that. They're just big lizards. In any case, my comment above was almost entirely a joke. It's a reasonable question, I just find the situation amusing. (Elves, dwarves, dragons -- hey, wait a minute, potatoes??) – Keith Thompson May 28 '15 at 19:14
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    @WadCheber A worm? (in particular a long one :P) – BMWurm May 31 '15 at 11:15
19

There are four crops in Middle-earth that shouldn't be there at first glance:

  1. tomatoes
  2. tobacco
  3. corn
  4. potatoes

Tolkien revised tomatoes out of the story (at least sometimes, I had thought always), which gets that out of the way. Possibly he considered it a mistake.

Tobacco/pipe-weed is explicitly brought over by the Númenoreans, who were great mariners who had sailed all the way around the world, both pre- and post-Fall.

Thus it was that because of the Ban of the Valar the voyages of the Dunedain in those days went ever eastward and not westward, from the darkness of the North to the heats of the South, and beyond the South to the Nether Darkness; and they came even into the inner seas, and sailed about Middle-earth and glimpsed from their high prows the Gates of Morning in the East.

(Akallabeth)

For the Dunedain held that even mortal Men, if so blessed, might look upon other times than those of their bodies' life; and they longed ever to escape from the shadows of their exile and to see in some fashion fee light that dies not; for the sorrow of the thought of death had pursued them over the deeps of the sea. Thus it was that great mariners among them would still search the empty seas, hoping to come upon the Isle of Meneltarma, and there to see a vision of things that were. But they found it not. And those that sailed far came only to the new lands, and found them like to the old lands, and subject to death. And those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said: 'All roads are now bent.'

That's why it's called westmansweed. We have to assume it died out sometime later, thus explaining why Europe didn't have any in more modern times.

Corn also has a simple answer: it's not maize. It's a European cereal.

Potatoes are rather more difficult. It's possible the Númenoreans introduced those as well, but if so, it is never said. I don't believe there is any published explanation. But absent any other explanation, it's probably safest to assume that the Númenoreans brought it over, and the inhabitants of Middle-earth failed to cultivate them and they died out.

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    According to Akallabêth, corn was also brought to Middle-Earth by the Númenóreans: "the Lords of Númenor set foot again upon the western shores in the Dark Years of Men, and none yet dared to withstand them. For most of the Men of that age that sat under the Shadow were now grown weak and fearful. And coming among them the Númenóreans taught them many things. Corn and wine they brought, and they instructed Men in the sowing of seed and the grinding of grain" – Jason Baker May 25 '15 at 13:03
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    @JasonBaker: Maize-corn or cereal-corn, though? According to Encyclopedia of Arda, at least some of the corn is definitely the cereal because of the wording: "There Treebeard sings a song of the Entwives that contains the line, 'When spring is come to garth and field, and corn is in the blade' (III 4 Treebeard). The expression 'in the blade' describes a young cereal plant that is yet to grow an ear, so we can be sure what is meant by the word 'corn'." – Shamshiel May 25 '15 at 13:08
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    It's unclear, I'm by no means an agricultural expert, so it's hard for me to comment, but here's what I can find about corn: In Fellowship, corn in the Shire is described as "tall and full" (Book I Chapter 3); in Two Towers, Treebeard describes Entwives has having "hair parched by the sun to the hue of ripe corn" (III 3); a song of the Rohirrim describes corn as tall (III 6). Not sure if any of this is definitive to maize-corn. Even if that's what Tolkien means, it may just be an anachronistic word choice, for the benefit of the reader – Jason Baker May 25 '15 at 13:19
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    @JasonBaker - I can't offer a conclusive answer either, but wheat grows high/tall, hair can be wheat-colored, and all cereals and grains are sometimes referred to as corn in Britain. – Wad Cheber May 25 '15 at 18:15
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    @WadCheber It's not just sometimes. In English English, "corn" is a generic term for any cereal crop, and never means maize specifically. – Mike Scott May 25 '15 at 18:47
11

Middle-Earth may represent Europe with in the context of Tolkien's work - but it is not necessarily the same Europe that we know and was around 6,000 years ago. This is covered by this other question: How exactly is Arda supposed to be an ancient Earth? - Tolkien's work is supposed to be a modern mythic epic, not "historical" fiction.

There are many more glaring questions to pick up on if you want to start from pipeweed and potatoes - for example, cultivation of grains and animal husbandry, iron working (even bronze working) are all more recent historically than the proposed events of Lord of the Rings - yet, we see bread, beasts of burden, swords and armour.

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    yes, but - mythic epic - not historical – HorusKol May 25 '15 at 4:56
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    @WadCheber No, the Shire is not the British Isles, because the Shire belongs in an "imagined Earth". For example, in the British Isles there is no magic, no buried Hobbit bones, no evidence whatsoever of any of the cultures or geography described in LotR. Pipe-weed is the least of inconsistencies ;) – Andres F. May 25 '15 at 13:58
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    "[...]imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet."; Letters. And of course he was working on a story set in the 'modern day' with the descendants of Numenoreans. – Shamshiel May 25 '15 at 22:52
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    @WadCheber you are right about what Tolkien states about Arda and Middle-Earth - but, he also wrote it as a mythic epic, and so was less interested in true history and geography. It's like saying Camelot and Albion are real... – HorusKol May 26 '15 at 0:54
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    @WadCheber: fair enough, but Tolkien does also say, in those quotes that you added “ I could have fitted things in with greater verisimilitude, if the story had not become too far developed, before the question ever occurred to me. I doubt if there would have been much gain; and I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and our Days is sufficient for ‘literary credibility’”. Sounds like a decent answer there. – Paul D. Waite May 26 '15 at 9:06
6

According to the Akallabeth in the Silmarilion when Eru destroyed Numenor he turned the flat earth into a spherical one so that Numenorian sailors living on the shores of Middle-earth now found that if they sailed far enough they would return to Middle-earth. At that time Eru also created new continents - presumably the Americas.

I forget the exact wording but if I remember correctly there was a strong implication that in the late Second Age some of the exiles living in Middle-earth and perhaps Elves of the Grey Havens did sail around the world and did discover the Americas. Thus tobacco, potatoes, and tomatoes could have been imported to Middle-Earth from the Americas.

It is a mystery why and how only the hobbits seem to have grown and smoked tobacco in more than three thousand years of the Third Age, and I do not know if other people grew tomatoes and potatoes in other lands outside the Shire.

We should hope that tomatoes and potatoes were also grown only by the hobbits in the Shire, because that would require a less terrible disaster and catastrophe at the end of the Fourth Age - when presumably the shape of lands and seas changed to that of the modern world - to wipe out all specimens in Middle-earth.

Bilbo also had a silk jacket. There was an industry producing silk on a small scale from wild silkworms in the Mediterranean region by about the fifth century BC. China invented the domestication of silkworms and produced silk on much larger scale. By the time of the Roman Empire silk was being imported in large amounts thousands of miles from Chine along the Silk Road.

So was Bilbo's silk waistcoat made from local wild silk or imported thousands of miles from some eastern land?

5

Douglas Anderson mentions this in The Annotated Hobbit on page 41, referring to "cold chicken and tomatoes" from the original edition being changed to "cold chicken and pickles":

This revision brings up the question of why it should matter whether Bilbo's larder was stocked with tomatoes or pickles. Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-earth, suggests that as Tolkien wrote the sequel to The Hobbit, and as he came to perceive the hobbits and their land as characteristically English in nature, he recognized tomatoes as foreign in origin and in name. They were imports from America, like potatoes and tobacco, which were quickly adopted in England. Though Tolkien does use the word tobacco in The Hobbit a handful of times, it is strictly avoided in The Lord of the Rings, where pipeweed is used. There, as well, potatoes are given the more rustic name taters. Tomatoes were therefore out of place in the Shire as Tolkien came to perceive it.

In short, it's something that seemed right when he first wrote it for a children's book, but as he came to think more seriously about this fictional world, he realized that these new world foods didn't strictly belong. Unfortunately he was kind of stuck with them at that point, so he tried to wiggle out of it by giving them alternate names so you could kind of think they might be something else but similar (of course he didn't manage that completely, since Sam does call "taters" potatoes at one point in The Two Towers).

Personally I think that might have been about the best compromise he could have managed--Middle Earth wouldn't be quite the same with tobacco etc. removed entirely. When it comes down to it, Middle Earth is a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, not a historical simulation, so their inclusion is forgiveable.

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    Great answer and +1. There's at least one other reference to potatoes: Sam talks about "fish and chips". – Wad Cheber Aug 5 '15 at 5:12
2

WRT pipeweed, it's only Tolkien's assumption, added in a footnote, that it was a variety of Nicotiana. That was probably due to societal biases: tobacco use was common then, and other smokables severely frowned upon by government. It might even be something added at the insistance of the publisher.

It seems much more likely to me that it was, in fact, some variety of cannabis. First, because of its described effects (which in my experience, at least) are more like cannabis than tobacco. Second, because a wise wizard ought to know the health problems tobacco would cause, and so not adopt the habit.

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    Problems: 1. Wizards almost certainly can't get cancer. 2. Tolkien was not what we might call "hip", and would have known almost nothing about marijuana. 3. He began writing his stories in the early 30's, and published them in the early 50's. When he began, pot was not widely known about outside of the jazz scene, especially among musicians. When he finished, it was a little more popular, but still not part of the public consciousness on a large scale. 4. Tolkien was a conservative at heart, and wouldn't have been inclined to promote use of a drug associated with the counterculture. – Wad Cheber May 25 '15 at 22:14
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    5. Tolkien smoked tobacco, usually with a pipe. It appears that he didn't know about the health risks. middle-earth.xenite.org/2012/04/24/… – Wad Cheber May 25 '15 at 22:19
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    6. 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, including myself, smoke the flowers of the cannabis plant, not the leaves. – Wad Cheber May 25 '15 at 22:24
  • 7. He never explicitly describes the effects of pipe-weed, 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, which I also do. – Wad Cheber May 25 '15 at 22:26
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    It seems silly to suggest that Tolkien didn't know what pipe-weed was - he invented it. He called it tobacco first. And he himself smoked tobacco with a pipe, not marijuana. He wrote at some length about the types of pipes hobbits used, and what kind of tobacco it was. It was tobacco. There can be no doubt. – Wad Cheber May 28 '15 at 19:39
1

Perhaps those plants got to Middle-earth from Númenor before it was drowned. Númenor could be equated with the Americas if you stretch your imagination enough.

On a more prosaic level, it was just an oversight on Tolkien’s part, and it would be pointless to seek a “real”, historically accurate explanation.

  • +1, but Numenor ceased to exist, forever. The Americas exist. Thus, Numenor is not the Americas – Wad Cheber May 26 '15 at 19:34
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    Númenór was also known as "Atalantë (the Downfallen)". It's explicitly Atlantis, not the Americas. – LAK Jan 29 '16 at 20:09

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