November 5th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Hazelwood closure will push up power prices in Victoria

CANBERRA OBSERVED Out of the shadows of the backbench ...

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Obama Administration exacerbates Syria conflict

INDUSTRY AND ENVIRONMENT Wikileaks reveals U.S, funding behind anti-coal campaign

TAIWAN New president cautious, ambivalent towards Beijing

OPINION How to convert citizens into subjects and victims

FINANCE Untangling some knots of international tax

BRITISH AFFAIRS Brexit revisited: courts may come into play

LITERATURE The paradoxical idyll of Tolkien's Shire

HUMOUR Assembled and curated by Sebastian Gunlighter

MUSIC Unresolved melancholies

CINEMA Bittersweet Woody Allan: Cafe Society

BOOK REVIEW From von Ranke to van Gend

BOOK REVIEW More mystery than history

BOOK REVIEW An empire's collapse


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal rebuts commission's 'Get Pell' campaign

U.S. AFFAIRS First Brexit, now Trump: it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

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The paradoxical idyll of Tolkien's Shire

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, November 5, 2016

In The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, the Shire, the home of the Hobbits, is based on a rural English village of perhaps the late 19th century.

Hobbits, like small men, but unlike them in having hairy feet, are pleasant folk: kindly but brave and enduring in adversity. It is pointed out near the end of the story that no hobbit has ever killed another in the Shire. The whole country has only 12 police, whose duties are largely concerned with rounding up strayed animals.

The hobbit Bilbo Baggins,
as Tolkien picutred him.

They live somewhat longer than men, commonly reaching 100, and Bilbo Baggins, the longest-lived, reaches 131 before he departs West over sea to the undying lands of the immortal elves. They are wood-crafty and skilled hunters at need.

What industries they have are limited to small-scale crafts, with blacksmith’s forges and watermills the most complex machinery. An evil wizard, Saruman, attempts to introduce industrialisation, ostensibly to increase production, but in fact it was a malicious attempt to ruin the hobbits’ happy lives.

This life, well captured in the Peter Jackson films, seems idyllic enough. But, as Tolkien was well aware – he made reference to it several times in his letters, and also in the dialogue of some of the characters – it has major shortcomings. Though the hobbits did not know it, or had forgotten, the Shire was kept in its happy and peaceful state by the unceasing labours just beyond its borders of the Rangers, the last remnants of the old kings.

The hobbits are unaware that they live in a world in ruins, blasted and devastated by colossal wars. They take the great roads and bridges for granted as having always been there. A last vestige of knowledge of the past and the wider world is that they say of wicked folk, who are mistakenly believed to be a comfortable distance away, that they have never heard of the King.

Many hobbits are illiterate, but those who can write use the ability mainly to write one another letters which, we can guess, are not exactly interesting to anyone else. The old gardener Gaffer Gamgee says, with, apparently dark misgivings, that Bilbo has taught his son Sam to write, “meaning no harm, mind you, and I hope no harm will come of it”.

They have some poetry or verse, some of which is reproduced in The Adventures of Tom Bombabil. Much is very simple but the rhyme scheme of one of the poems, Errantry, is very complex, and the lyricism of The Sea Bell is deep and unforgettable. Another poem written by Bilbo in Rivendell and quoted in The Fellowship of the Ring, is a real tour de force.

Hobbits love music and dances, and other creatures in Middle-Earth, Dwarves and Elves, also love music, but by and large the hobbits, and the humans who live in the human-hobbit village of Bree nearby, cannot be called cultured or educated. They nearly pay a terrible price for having turned their backs on the world, and are only saved by the four Hobbits – Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin – who have travelled and learnt of the world and of valour and high chivalry through perilous adventures.

The Hobbits of the Shire are probably much nicer than real 19th-century rustics, but they are rustics for all that.

The point is made again and again in the story that the folk of the Shire and Bree can only live in tranquility because they are protected by guardians whose “long labours” they know nothing of. “If simple folk live free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we would not have it otherwise.”

But the simple, kindly old Gaffer and the other rustic hobbits cannot fight the thugs and bullies Saruman has brought in to do his dirty work. It takes the hobbits who have been hardened and “heightened” by adventures in, and knowledge of, the wide world to do that.

Tolkien said he disliked allegory, and that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory, though it is hard to see the penultimate chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire”, as anything but an attack on the post-war British socialism sometimes known as the Attlee Terror, with its ugliness, greyness and endless pettifogging rules and prohibitions.

He also said, of course, that to say there was no allegory did not mean there was no applicability. Saruman nearly destroys the Shire because the simple and rustic hobbits, who have no understanding of political evil, go along with him. Too much rustic idyll is counterproductive to survival in a hard and dangerous world.

While, by the time of “The Scouring of the Shire” the great, Arthurian battles and adventures of The Lord of the Rings are over, it is one of the most important chapters of the book. The evil that the hobbits encounter returning home from their great adventures, though relatively small scale, strikes them as the worst of all, because it is their own homes that are ruined.

What Tolkien seems to be saying about the Shire is this: it is beautiful, happy and idyllic, and its inhabitants are in many ways enviable; but it is not enough. In a world without guardians, they are in deadly peril. For Australia, when there are neo-isolationist pressures building in America, it may be applicable indeed.

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