Daily Archives: August 7, 2012

A Book Review: Pipe Smoking in Middle Earth – Mark Irwin

Blog by Steve Laug


I have been putting off reviewing this book for quite awhile now. I ordered it from Mark at the end of May and read it the first time in June, soon after it arrived. The reason I put it off is because I have also been rereading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know what read this is – I have been reading and rereading it for over 50 years probably. Each time I do I learn more and get more lost in its brilliant images and the magnificent tale. Well, since this is not a review of the LOTR but of Mark’s book I better get on with it.

Mark has done a masterful job in describing the pipes and tobaccos as he imagines them from many years of reading and rereading the books. His own book is filled with descriptions of the tobacco and the pipes of Middle Earth. He has hand drawn illustrations of the pipes of each of the pipes from a combination of his imagination and the descriptions provided by Tolkien of both the individual and their pipes in the pages of the Hobbit and the LOTR. He draws both his words and illustrations in marked contrast with those seen in the movies by Peter Jackson.

The book is divided into two major sections for ease of reading. The first is a series of essays on the pipes, tobacco and smokers of Middle Earth. The second is an annotated concordance or all of the occurrences of pipes, tobaccos and smokers in the Hobbit and the LOTR as well as other books of Middle Earth. Each of these two major divisions is further broken down. The first is broken into an introduction and six essays/chapters on a variety of topics pipes and tobacco as seen in Tolkien’s books. This section is illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Mark. The second is broken into two parts – a concordance on the books (Hobbit, LOTR and other relevant Middle Earth books) and a concordance on the extended version of the movies by Peter Jackson. It also has a variety of pen and ink drawings. The book closes with end notes worthy of the scholar Mark is.

The little book opens with an essay entitled Charring Light in which the direction of the book is delineated. The essay poses two problems that face the pipeman as he deals with the pipes, tobaccos and smokers of Middle Earth. The first is diminishment, or downplaying the role of pipes and tobacco in the books. He sets out a convincing argument that this is what Peter Jackson does in the movies. The second is enlargement, or over emphasizing the role pipes and tobacco play in the books and neglecting the larger purpose of the saga and its author. Mark is convinced that Tolkien shows us the middle way between diminishment and enlargement. To illustrate this he cites “an apocryphal but probably authentic letter” where Tolkien writes that basically he has said all that needs to be said about pipe smoking and Hobbits in the prologue. Mark’s purpose is to strive to stick with the text and set out the facts regarding what the books say about pipe smoking and what can be inferred from the text. He seeks to leave behind his own opinions and ideas and search what is on the pages of the books.

The details of the first six essays/chapters need not be mentioned at this point, as you can purchase the book and have a read yourself. But it is enough to say that they cover a variety of topics pipes and tobacco such as pipeweed or leaf, the pipes of middle earth, smoker’s accessories and how to blow smoke rings. Mark covers each of these and other topics relevant to Tolkien and pipe smoking in the chapters of this part of the book. I was repeatedly amazed at what he lifts from the books in his descriptions and drawings. For example take this section from the chapter entitled “Tolkien’s Smoke Ring”:

The Hobbit begins with Bilbo’s smoke, continues through the narrative with another nine evenly-spaced references to the art of smoking (smoke-rings in particular), then ends as Bilbo hands Gandalf the “tobacco jar” – which are the last two words of the story. And let us never forget that Bilbo’s finding of “the precious” – the One Ring – is precipitated by his search in Gollum’s dark cave for another treasure, albeit one much less perilous – his pipe.” PSME pg. 13.

Mark goes on to note the number of references in each of the three divisions of the Lord of the Rings to show that the pipe smoking concern that is evident in the Hobbit is repeated in the LOTR. Each volume of the three part division has numerous references to the pipe and tobacco. In fact Tolkien considers it important enough to include a section entitled, Concerning Pipeweed in the middle of his tripartite prologue of the book. Mark writes in a clear and captivating style and demonstrates a grasp of the middle way that Tolkien set forth in the “letter” referenced above.

In each of the chapters of the first section he uses the same clear and forthright style to show the type of pipes the characters may have smoked according to their personality and style as described in the story and how they used the pipe in their lives. The section on the tobaccos of Middle Earth is entertaining and probably the best explanation of the kinds of tobacco that may have been in Tolkien’s mind as he wrote about them in his books. Well done Mark.

The second major section of the book is devoted to a concordance of citations about pipes, tobaccos and pipesmokers as I mentioned above. Mark has done a stellar job of cataloguing these quotations in an annotated presentation. He works through each – the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings and other Middle Earth related books gathering the quotes and references. Each citation is complete with reference notes to the page, chapter and section of the book cited. He continues the same process with an annotated concordance to the Peter Jackson movies (extended version) and quotes the scene and segment of the movie where the quotation was used.

The book is a short 112 pages of interesting and imaginatively written material on what has to be one of my all time favourite author’s books. Thank you, Mark for a job well done. I only have one serious complaint for you – why didn’t you extend the book, and like Peter Jackson make and extended version for those of us who cannot get enough.