Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 01, 2010

There Is No Shire Party

If imitation is a form of flattery, it must be some sort of testament to a writer's skill when partisans of both sides of an issue become intent upon placing each other as the villains of the same work of fiction. Some examples of this are, perhaps, unsurprising. The original Big Brother of George Orwell's 1984 is such a wonderfully universal government baddie that it is little wonder that those on both the right and left see each other as being like it.

However, one of the odder (to me) manifestations of this trend is the tendency of those on both right and left who are of a certain SF/F geek stripe (and political and genre geekdom do seem to go together more often than one might imagine) to identify themselves with the Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and to identify their opponent with the modernizing and destructive elements who take over the Shire under Lotho Sackville-Baggins and "Sharky" (Saruman) while Frodo and his friends are away, and who are driven out in the Scouring of the Shire.

For those less familiar with those aspects of the story that didn't make the movie version: While Frodo and this three friends Sam, Merry and Pippin are off on the quest to destroy the One Ring, Frodo's cousin Lotho uses the influence and affluence of belonging to one of the Shire's leading families to run the Shire into a bit of a ditch. Most of the crops are exported, including nearly all the pipeweed, leaving Hobbits themselves with little left for themselves. Various "improvement" projects are undertaken, such as knocking down the picturesque old mill on the river in Hobbiton and putting up a large new brick structure which belches smoke and pollutes the river. Many trees are cut down, and dreary-looking brick buildings are thrown up. When people complain, "big men" (non-Hobbits) are brought in, and the previously harmless core of sheriffs is used to institute a half-penny police state. Finally, a shadowy figure known as Sharky is heard to have taken over, and Lotho is not heard from much, though he is said to still be in charge.

When Frodo and his friends return, the sheriffs attempt to arrest them for being out after dark and not following rules. However, they quickly unite with old friends such as Farmer Cotton (father of Rosie, whom Sam eventually marries) and his sons and raise the Shire. There is a brief battle between hobbits and the big men in the employ of Sharky, and it turns out that Sharky is none other than Saruman, who has slunk away from Treebeard's custody to cause what suffering he can for the returning hobbits by destroying the Shire as much as possible. Saruman is killed, despite Frodo's attempts to forgive and spare him, and the four friends devote much of their energy in their first years after returning to setting things to rights again in the Shire.

At first glance, you can see elements which both rightists and leftists can use to pin the spoiling of the Shire on those like their opponents. For the rightists, Lotho and Sharkey set up a "big government" with a centralized authority publishing rules on everything from when you're allowed out on the streets to the quantities of beer and fuel which can be consumed. Market freedom is also restricted, with the central authority collecting all production for "sharing", which mostly results in it being shipped out of the Shire for sale in order to line the pockets of those in charge. I think it's fair to say that Tolkien sees centralized power, economic planning and redistribution of resources enforced by the government as usually being tools for corruption rather than means towards the common good. He also clearly has a certain kind of limited government ideal (though not a classically liberal rights-based one) in that the right order which he sees are returning is one in which the King of Gondor keeps marauders away from the Shire and yet leaves it an essential un-governed area, while the post of Mayor in Hobbiton is a mainly honorary one whose duties center around presiding at banquets.

At the same time, leftists point out that one of the primary grievances against Lotho and the big men he brings in to run the Shire is that they set about maximizing production and exports while disrupting society and destroying the environment (cutting down trees, polluting the river and air, building ugly brick structures and generally making noise). They see this as an indictment of 'big business' and an endorsement of environmentalism. Further, the very same intrusive rule making and enforcement which rightists see as symbolizing intrusive "big government", leftists see as the jack-booted police tactics of rightists.

Perhaps there is some extent to which both sides can be seen as having valid points here, but I think the thing which one should be most clear on is that Tolkien's societal vision expressed in the Shire is one which does not fall within the spectrum of either modern leftism or modern rightism. In letters and interviews, Tolkien described himself as being a bit of a Hobbit, and in many ways the Shire represents an idealized version of the English country village life which Tolkien remembered from the turn of the century, when he was 8-10 years old. The Shire represents an admixture of Tolkien's memories of the few years of his childhood spent in a country village, in an area on the cusp of modernization, with a vaguely medieval era.

There is, in modern America, no political faction in support of a return to a pre-industrial society and economy -- and this is probably just as well since such a return is arguably both impossible and undesirable. There is, I think, real value to questioning whether all that is new is necessarily good and examining what we are giving up as we discard the old for the new. However, there is not (and arguably cannot be) an ideology in favor of returning to a Shire-like existence -- in part because such a society never existed in the first place. Further, I would argue that modern ideology, by its nature, is out of keeping with Tolkien's societal vision. The very idea of having an ideology is something contrary to the society portrayed in the Shire.


Baron Korf said...

Thorin nailed it on the head when he spoke his last words to Bilbo "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Preindustrial? Not going to happen. But less occupied with the greed that infected the dwarves from time to time, that is a worthy goal.

Foxfier said...

I can think of several folks who believe they want to return to a Shire-like existence-- the "localvores," for example-- the rub is that it's not possible without massive force, and even then it wouldn't work....

CBG said...

Umm, I see no bibliography here. Did you read Morris before speaking of Tolkien or the shire? Hmmm? This is almost tiring me Darwin. I've trolled the Internet for years insisting that nobody can understand Tolkien unless they FIRST READ MORRIS, yet people still refuse to read Morris and still insist on discussing Tolkien! YOU cannot understand the shire and I am closing me ears (and eyes) to you.

Foxfier said...



Darwin said...


Of course, you can't even mention Morris without having read McEachran. And no one has any business opening McEachran without having first read Isaacs and Lord Newell. Have you read these? I THINK NOT.

Furthermore, you can't even read this comment unless you've read Salubrius first. In the original. (What, you don't know what language the original was in? Get on with you...)

Ooo. Ooo. Who's the man now?


CBG said...


You read all that up in Pinckwerts; the notion that involution functioned eugenically was exposed long ago by Glumpe.

CMinor said...

I'm guessing you two shared an especially colorful professor at some time in the past...

Anthony said...

There are strains within the environmentalist movement which seem to like the idea of returning to a pre-industrial existence. And there was the Morgenthau Plan, where we would have (and partially did) impose that on Germany.

Back in the 60s and 70s, some number of hippie types actually did "return to the land", and many probably were directly inspired by The Shire. There are still remnants of that population in rural areas north of San Francisco.

Foxfier said...

Grimly, the first several years my family lived in a lovely valley in Washington state, there'd be a group of back-to-nature hippy types.

Mostly near Early Winters. (seriously, that's what it's called)

They'd find them after the thaw-- idealism is no substitute for basic survival information.

I haven't heard of any deaths the last few years-- there's also some really cool houses that seem to be inspired by the Shire in the movies. (Built stupid, but oh well. Set up to catch sunlight for warmth...and it's facing the west. /headdesk)

CMinor said...

Anthony & Darwin,
There are some elements of that view (albeit for different reasons) among the German Anabaptist descendant churches, to include avoidance of political activity (even voting) based on Romans 13.

Of course these sects and the hippie remnant would have less freedom to choose their way of life (and might be wiped out entirely) if they happened to be living under a regime that did not value their right to do so. Which may have to do with why most of us who choose political involvement--however much we might like to retire to the country and grow our own veggies and not bother about the rest of the world-- recognize that "Shire Party" is an oxymoron.

S_Cobbler said...

Going all preindustrial certainly isn't feasible; but racing all progress isn't human, so a conversation needs to be had somewhere as to what _is_ feasible and is less rushed to oblivion, as to what economic efficiency we would knowingly and willingly sacrifice for a more natural foundation or more long-term stability or whatever it is anyone desires that simply telling the market to move its bloomin' arse won't get us. Although, when it comes to the market, we could also stand to recognise that you can discuss what we should want to do with it, not necessarily against it; the market only reflects the choices of the members of society, and our options are therefore not between totalitarian intervention and letting things go as they are, precisely because we can influence what people will choose within the market.

As for the similarities between left and right complaints and identifications with the Shire, it sounds to me like the problem with big government is that it is big business and the problem with big business is that it is big government. If you ask me, the problem with either seems therefore to be more related to its bigness and less to its being business or government. Why anyone would turn to either to escape the other is beyond me; the question, as I said in the beginning, is how much of the advantages of bigness are you willing to knowingly give up to be [more] free of the disadvantages of bigness.

The answer, unfortunately, seems to be, "If people continue blaming it on government or business and refusing to ask the question honestly, not enough of us will agree on an answer to go it." But then, giving up because of that would make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Foxfier said...

Seems you've jumped at least a step in the conversation-- defining "racing all progress" and establishing that it isn't human.

You also seem to argue a lot by characterization, and seem to be limiting choices a great deal-- there are a LOT of choices besides big this or that.