‘I have no doubt that Smeagol’s grandmother was a matriarch, a great person in her way”
– Gandalf, “The Fellowship of the Ring”
A couple of months ago, I kicked off this blog with a biography of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the most prominent female hobbit in the series, and a firm favourite of mine despite the fact that she’s such a cantankerous old bat. However, on reflection I felt that I hadn’t really explored how women fit into hobbit society more widely.
In contrast to some of the other races of Middle-Earth, we don’t have a lot of formal information about how hobbit society works or how women fit into it: Tolkien never wrote the Shire equivalent of the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar”, or even anything along the lines of the brief paragraph on Dwarf women in Appendix A of “The Return of the King”. Most of what we do learn is anecdotal – and aside from Lobelia, probably the most intriguing female hobbit we learn about is Smeagol’s grandmother, the redoubtable if long-dead matriarch of a clan of Anduin Stoors.
Smeagol’s grandmother has her origins in what I presume were initially a couple of throwaway lines in chapter 5 of “The Hobbit”. As Gollum casts around for the answer to Bilbo’s second riddle, we learn that in his long-ago youth he lived with his grandmother in a hole by the river. A page later, just as it looks as though he is going to fail to answer Bilbo’s second riddle, he suddenly remembers “thieving from nests long ago, and sitting under the river-bank teaching his grandmother, teaching his grandmother to suck…” – eggs, as it turns out, the answer to the riddle. Like the earlier reference in chapter 1 to the goblin-chieftain Golfimbul whose demise led to the invention of the game of golf, this was almost certainly something Tolkien threw in for comedy effect – an amusing use of a rather silly colloquial expression, and nothing more.
Come “The Lord of the Rings”, however, we find Tolkien fleshing out the story of Smeagol’s youthful riverbank adventures as part of the overall attempt to develop Gollum into a more complex, tragic character than the fleeting villainous presence of “The Hobbit”. This is where we learn that this redoubtable woman, described by Gandalf as “stern and wise in old lore, such as (her people) had”, ruled over a family which, while no doubt rather modest in the big scheme of things, was nevertheless “large and wealthier than most” among the Anduin Stoors. Her position as head of the family is underlined by the fact that it was she who ejected Smeagol from her hole and exiled him from the family, setting off the chain of events that would culminate in a certain riddle-game under the Misty Mountains several centuries later.
What is more, hundreds of years after his exile and the disappearance of his whole community, this formidable woman continues to loom large in her grandson’s memory. Not only do his memories of carefree days of childhood egg-sucking surface during his conversation with Bilbo, but we learn that during his interrogation with Gandalf, he repeatedly tried to cover up the true story of how he obtained the Ring by claiming that it was a gift from his grandmother, who owned many such things – a claim rightly dismissed by Gandalf as “ridiculous”, but which nevertheless reflects the stature she had within her community and in her grandson’s early life.
So, Smeagol’s grandmother clearly played an important role as the matriarch and main authority figure of her little clan. The question is – how typical is this of hobbit society? Do hobbit women typically exercise this degree of independence, or was it a characteristic of the now-defunct Anduin Stoor community to which Smeagol and his grandmother belonged, or was his grandmother simply propelled into that position by the absence of any male authority figures or by her own forceful personality? From the little evidence we have, both the first and the last would appear to be the case. While (as in other Middle-Earth societies, and indeed in Britain in Tolkien’s day) men appear to be the default heads of hobbit families, women nevertheless enjoyed a significant amount of influence, particularly in the event of their partner’s death. As Tolkien wrote in a letter to A.S.Nunn:
“The government of a ‘family’, as of the real unit: the ‘household’ was not a monarchy…It was a ‘dyarchy’, in which master and mistress had equal status, if different functions. Either as held to be the proper representative of the other in the case of absence (including death). There were no ‘dowagers’. If the master died first, his place was taken by his wife, and this included (if he had held that position) the titular headship of a large family or clan. This title thus did not descend to the son, or another heir, while she lived, unless she voluntarily resigned”.
Presumably, then, this was the position Smeagol’s grandmother found herself in: with her partner dead, this redoubtable widow was able to take over, in her case assuming not only the titular headship of the family but also the authority to make decisions affecting the whole clan (such as the decision to cast Smeagol out from the family)