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Letter 214

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 214
RecipientA.C. Nunn (draft)
DateUndated, probably late 1958 or early 1959
Subject(s)Hobbit birthday, marriage, and inheritance customs

Letter 214 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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Reader A.C. Nunn pointed out an apparent contradiction in The Lord of the Rings: In "A Long-expected Party" it is stated that Hobbits gave presents to others on their birthdays, but in "The Shadow of the Past" Gollum said the One Ring was his "birthday present" and his account of how he got it indicated that his people received presents on their birthdays. Nunn asked if (1) Sméagol’s people were not Hobbits, or (2) if the present-giving custom had changed, or (3) if the customs of Stoors differed from other Hobbits, or (4) if the text was in error. Nunn called Tolkien a "model of scholarship" and asked if he could research the matter. Tolkien drafted a reply to A.C. Nunn's letter that was never sent. In the draft he went into many details of Hobbit customs and other lore not found elsewhere.

Tolkien claimed that he was no model of scholarship but only a "recorder" when it came to matters of the Third Age. The faults in his records are not due to errors but omissions and incompleteness of information, due to the necessity of compression for the narrative of the story, which meant that alternatives (1) and (4) above could be dismissed. Although Gandalf said "I guess" when he stated that Sméagol’s people were of Hobbit-kind in more modern language he would have said "I deduce".

Alternative (2) was possible, but since the records described Hobbits rather than "Hobbits of the Shire" in particular, the custom of giving presents was in some form common to all varieties, including Stoors. Alternative (3) was naturally true, but even a deep-rooted custom could be different in the differing branches. When some Stoors migrated back to Wilderland in T.A. 1356 they lost contact with the other Hobbits. Over 1,100 years elapsed before the Déagol-Sméagol incident and at the time of Bilbo's party in T.A. 3001 it had been nearly 1,650 years since the separation. Hobbits were slow to change but the remigrant Stoors went back to a wilder and more primitive life while the Shire-folk developed a more settled and elaborate social life. Tolkien said that the customs of the riverside Stoors must remain conjectural but that he could lay out the facts concerning the Shire in some detail.

"Birthdays" had considerable social importance. A birthday celebrant was called a ribadyan (which, according to Appendix F would be rendered a byrding). Birthday customs were regulated by fairly strict etiquette, in many cases reduced to formalities. On birthdays the byrding gave and received presents. In "A Long-expected Party" the narrator omitted the reception of gifts by Bilbo since it did not concern the Party, but it was the older custom and thus most formalized. When the narrator had Gandalf talking to a hobbit about Sméagol and Déagol he would not comment on the custom.

The receiving of gifts was an ancient ritual connected with kinship, originally a means of recognizing a byrding’s membership in a family (anciently a short time after birth when the child’s name was announced). Parents gave no presents to children (except for rare cases of adoption) but the head of the family was supposed to give something, even if only a token. The giving of gifts was a personal matter not limited to kinship, and a form of “thanksgiving” for services, benefits, and friendships.

When Hobbits reached age three they gave presents to their parents, supposedly something "produced" by the child (found, grown, or made by the byrding). This may have begun the custom of giving on birthdays, and why it was "correct" that things given be presents owned or produced by the giver. In the Shire at the time of the Party "expectation of receiving" was limited to near kin and those living within 12 miles (a "twelve-mile cousin" was a stickler for the law in Hobbit expression). Received gifts had to be delivered in person, properly before the birthday (or by nuncheon on the day itself at the latest), and received in private. (Precisely to avoid embarrassments that occur in our wedding-exhibitions, said Tolkien. As an aside, he stated that only flowers were gifted at Hobbit weddings.)

Déagol was a relative of Sméagol (as were all in their small community) and had already given a customary present to him before they went fishing. Déagol was a mean little soul and begrudged having given the gift; Sméagol being meaner and greedier used his birthday as the excuse to claim the Ring. Sméagol implied that Déagol’s gift was poor and insufficient.

Present giving by the byrding varied much in form in different time and places, and according to the age and status of the byrding. The master or mistress of a Shire house would give to all under their roof, in their service, and usually to near neighbors, although they could extend the list of recipients as they pleased. The withholding of a usual gift was taken as a rebuke. "Not very expensive" was the rule so Bilbo’s giving at his Party was exceptionally generous. The giving of a party was another common ceremony, and all invited received presents from the host.

Tolkien stated that all these details do form a definite picture of sentiment and custom, even if more could be said. He might have put them into the Prologue but that it was too long and overloaded according to some critics. However, he had written all of the details (in this draft) because there was no shorter way to answer A.C. Nunn’s inquiry. Since the giving of information always opens further vistas he ventured to add more data lest what was given would prompt further inquiries.

Gandalf represented Sméagol’s grandmother as a family ruler of high repute, even calling her a "matriarch", which called for comment. Hobbits were universally monogamous and "patrilinear" (family names descended in the male-line) and normally the titular family head was the eldest male. In the large powerful families (such as the Tooks) the head of what we would call a clan was the eldest male of the most direct line of descent. But family "government" was not a monarchy, it was a "diarchy" in which master and mistress held equal if separate status. If the master died first his titular headship of the clan was taken by his wife and did not descend to the son while she lived. Under the right circumstances a long-lived woman of forceful character could be the "head of the family" until she had full-grown grandchildren. Laura Baggins was head of the Baggins of Hobbiton until age 102, holding the title for 16 years before her son Bungo succeeded her. Bilbo only became the Baggins’ head when his mother Belladona died in S.R. 1334.

Due to strange events the Baggins headship was in doubt. Otho Sackville-Baggins was heir to the title, but after Bilbo returned alive in S.R. 1342 after being presumed dead no one would presume him dead again. When Master Samwise reported that Bilbo and Frodo went over the sea in S.R. 1421 it was still impossible to presume death; in S.R. 1427 newly elected Mayor Samwise established a rule of succession and inheritance in such situations. Presumably Ponto II then became the head of the Baggins.

Tolkien supplied an example of a Hobbit matriarch: Lalia the Great, wife of Fortinbras II, who served as head of the Took Family. He died in S.R. 1380 while she outlived him by 22 years (she missed Bilbo’s Party not because of age but because of her size and immobility). Her son Ferumbras III had no wife because no Hobbit lady wished to live with Lalia in the Great Smials. She died in S.R. 1402 when her clumsy attendant tipped her over the threshold and down the steps to the garden. The attendant was rumored to be Pearl Took, the sister of Pippin.

The office of the Thain, being of military origin, descended strictly through the male line. In other great families the headship might pass through the daughter of the deceased to the head’s eldest grandson. In such cases the heir took the name of his mother’s family while retaining the father’s family name in second place; this was the case with Otho Sackville-Baggins, who obtained headship of the Sackvilles through his mother Camellia. His ambition to achieve the rare distinction of being the head of two families was rather absurd but explained his exasperation with Bilbo and his adoption of Frodo.

There was no reason to suppose that the Stoors of Wilderland were strictly matriarchal and there was no trace of such in the Eastfarthing or Buckland. Gandalf’s use of "matriarch" was not "anthropological" but only meant a dominant female who had outlived her husband. It was likely that in the recessive and decadent Stoors of Wilderland that the women-folk tended to preserve better the past and so were of special importance. This did not mean though that any fundamental change had occurred in their marriage-customs. Monogamy was universal in the West – other systems were regarded as repugnant and only done "under the Shadow".

Tolkien appended a note stating that he had started this letter nearly four months before. His wife smashed her left arm in their garden and so 1958 was a frustrating year, which had left him no time to deal with the Silmarillion. At this point his draft ended.

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