As always, welcome, dear readers.
It’s clear that, before the advent of Sharkey and his “big men”, the Shire had little need of law enforcement:
“The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed. They had, of course, no uniforms (such things being quite unknown), only a feather in their caps; and they were in practice haywards than policemen, more concerned with the strayings of beasts than of people. There were in the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work. A rather large body, varying at need, was employed to ‘beat the bounds’, and to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 3)
That Sharkey and his thugs were able not only to take over the Shire, but reorganize and expand these Shirriffs into their own hobbit enforcers, suggests how nearly useless they could be—unlike the body which we suspect they may have been modeled upon, Hitler’s notorious private police force, the SA (SturmAbteilung—“Storm(trooper)Detachment”).
The consequence occurs when Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam return to the Shire (a wonderfully atmospheric depiction by Allen Lee)
and their fearlessness so shakes this ersatz-SA that they quickly collapse, leaving only those “big men” to deal with an improvised army of angry hobbits.
(by Ted Nasmith—always one of our favorite illustrators)
If the subsequent violence weren’t there to darken the picture (along with the deaths of Sharkey/Saruman and Grima), the plight of the Shirriffs would be almost silly, as the hobbits they attempt to take prisoner turn the tables, almost making the Shirriffs into prisoners:
“It was rather a comic cavalcade that left the village, though the few folk that came out to stare at the ‘get-up’ of the travelers did not seem quite sure whether laughing was allowed. A dozen Shirriffs march in front, while Frodo and his friends rode behind. Merry, Pippin, and Sam sat at their ease laughing and talking and singing, while the Shirriffs stumped along trying to look stern and important.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
These Shirriffs in their haplessness (you can see “Shire”—from Old English scir—said “sheer”—here, combined with gerefa—something like “yeh-REH-fuh”—“official”) reminded us of the Ank-Morpork City Watch in the novels of Terry Pratchett (1948-2015),
and, if you’re a fan, as we are, you’ll immediately recognize our subtitle as a borrowing from his 1989 novel.
The City Watch are the police
of the city of Ankh-Morpork, on Discworld, Pratchett’s personal planet.
As the City Watch, they are not actually guards, but, rather, what, in our world, would be early policemen.
In their general look and behavior, however, they’re not like the City Watch of King’s Landing,
but a bit more simple-minded, like the Keystone Cops (1912-1917) of silent film.
Comedy and the constabulary go back a very long time. Ancient Athens employed mercenaries from north of the Black Sea, the Scythians, as the muscle in their police force.
The Athenian comic dramatist, Aristophanes (c446-c386), saw the comedy in such foreigners who seemed not too bright—mostly because they spoke Greek badly—and yet represented the state.
There was a kind of combined watch and fire department, called the Cohorts of the Watch (Cohortes Vigilum), in Rome, but we don’t know of anything in surviving Roman literature which portrays them as figures of fun. Shakespeare, however, has given us a constable, Dogberry, whose name alone is ridiculous. He is head of the Watch in the town of Messina in Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9?)
and his instructions to his men will give you an idea of how Shakespeare wants us to view this officer of the law:
You shall also make no noise in
the streets; for, for the watch to babble and to
talk is most tolerable and not to be endured.
We will rather sleep than talk: we know what
belongs to a watch.
Why, you speak like an ancient and most quiet
watchman; for I cannot see how sleeping should
offend: only, have a care that your bills be not
stolen. Well, you are to call at all the
ale-houses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed.
How if they will not?
Why, then, let them alone till they are sober: if
they make you not then the better answer, you may
say they are not the men you took them for.
If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue
of your office, to be no true man; and, for such
kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them,
why the more is for your honesty.
If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay
hands on him?
Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they
that touch pitch will be defiled: the most peaceable
way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him
show himself what he is and steal out of your company.
(Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 3)
Here we see a combination of kinds of comedy:
- misuse of words (these are called “malapropisms” from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in WB Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775, who constantly garbles meanings—“malaprop” is from French mal a propos, “inappropriate”)—as when Dogberry says “to talk is most tolerable and not to be endured”, where Dogberry means intolerable
- opposite meaning—when the unnamed watchman says “We will rather sleep than talk: we know what belongs to a watch.”—one of the meanings of “to watch” is “to stay awake”! And Dogberry agrees with him: “for I cannot see how sleeping could offend.”
- giving oneself away—the tasks of the Watch are clearly to include enforcing curfew hours for taverns and catching thieves and Dogberry’s response to questions about drunks (“let them along till they are sober”) and thieves (“the less you meddle or make with them, why the more is for your honesty”), where “meddle or make” means “have to do with them” give us the picture of an officer who will sleep on duty and avoid his duties when awake. (We would also point out that line about sleeping on duty: “only, have a care that your bills be not stolen”. “Bills”, here, doesn’t mean records of debt, but a medieval weapon, a billhook,
suggesting that these constables are so inept that, not only will they be sleeping on duty, but also they will be in danger of losing their weapons while doing so.)
Constables, competent or note, were the norm in the Renaissance and beyond, policemen in the modern sense being an early modern invention. For us, with our interest in the Victorian world, this means the London Metropolitan Police, founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 (and hence, in slang, called “bobbies” or “peelers”).
With their distinctive uniforms and, in time, helmets, as well as their truncheons (clubs), rather than firearms, they quickly became familiar figures in 19th-century Britain, so much so that it was easy for WS Gilbert to introduce them as comic opponents for his pirates in his and Arthur Sullivan’s 1879/80 operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.
Like Dogberry and his watchmen, they are depicted as timid, but Gilbert does something more: he makes them sentimental, as the sergeant
|WHEN a felon’s not engaged in his employment,|
|Or maturing his felonious little plans,|
|His capacity for innocent enjoyment|
|Is just as great as any honest man’s.|
|Our feelings we with difficulty smother||5|
|When constabulary duty’s to be done:|
|Ah, take one consideration with another,|
|A policeman’s lot is not a happy one!|
|When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling,|
|When the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime,||10|
|He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling,|
|And listen to the merry village chime.|
|When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother,|
|He loves to lie a-basking in the sun:|
|Ah, take one consideration with another,||15|
|A policeman’s lot is not a happy one!|
(We have no idea why there is this bracketing around our quotation, but, when we tried to get rid of it, it stubbornly remained. Rather than struggle with it, since it has given us the quotation, we decided to leave it, with apologies for our rather primitive computer skills! A “coster”, by the way, is, basically, a city pushcart salesman. The word is short for “costermonger” = “apple seller”.)
You can see what will happen when such constables attempt to subdue anyone, let alone pirates.
This brings us back to those Shirriffs, and we leave you with the idea that, although the sergeant in The Pirates of Penzance sings that a policeman’s lot is not a happy one, in literature, from Aristophanes to Tolkien, it is sometimes a comic one.
As ever, thanks for reading, with
and stay well!