As ever, dear readers, welcome.
Tolkien was never shy, in his correspondence, to state his position in relation to government. As he says in the draft to an undated letter to Joanna de Bortadano:
“I am not a ‘democrat’ only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power—and then we get and are getting slavery. (Letters, 246, dated by Carpenter as “April 1956”)
If not democracy, then, what form of government would he have preferred? In 1943, he wrote to his son, Christopher, then in training in Manchester for the RAF:
“Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.” (to Christopher Tolkien, 29 November, 1943, Letters, 62)
So JRRT was a monarchist?
At the beginning of the same letter, however, he had written:
“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)–
or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.”
By this latter phrase, I’m presuming that he meant he would have preferred the absolutist government which Charles I represented,
whose rigid ideas of kingship had much to do with the coming of the English Civil War,
and Charles own eventual trial for treason and execution, in January, 1649.
His two sons, Charles and James,
in turn, when the monarchy returned in 1660, although they didn’t go quite so far as their father, were hardly liberal rulers, the second, James II, appearing so to hark back to his father’s ideas that he was literally chased from the country and replaced by his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William.
To become the rulers of England, however, William and Mary were required to agree to a list of Parliamentary conditions, the “Bill of Rights”, which limited their power as the first “Constitutional Monarchs”. Parliament had clearly learned its lesson from the behavior of a century of Stuarts and weren’t about to allow the government to fall back into the hands of absolutists.
And yet—in that same letter, Tolkien adds:
“There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit!”
Tolkien means, of course, this being 1943, not the attacks of “whiskered men with bombs”, but the sabotage of Nazi industrialism—and yet, there is that final wish that such sabotage may continue, after the war!
If all of this might seem a little confused, there is a theme which runs through it: even though JRRT lived in a world of increasing electric conveniences, employed a typewriter on a regular basis, used the railways and, for a few years, owned a motor car or two, the past—the pre-industrial past in particular—was to be preferred to the present.
And what would this look like and be like? We can begin with those words from the first chapter of The Hobbit: “…in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
And we have Tolkien’s own image—
I’ve looked at this picture for a long time, admiring its neatness and detail, but working on this posting and on JRRT’s ideas about government, I found myself seeing something new in it—perhaps an unconscious model from Tolkien’s own medieval experience?
The Shire is Tolkien’s creation of what must have appeared to him to be a nearly-idyllic English countryside of an earlier time— but what time? It’s clearly pre-industrial—when it is in the process of becoming industrial in “The Scouring of the Shire”, industrialism is depicted as Saruman’s revenge upon the hobbits who had helped in his downfall:
“You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people, so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours…if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson. One ill turn deserves another. It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
(an Alan Lee)
Let’s look a little more deeply into the image of Hobbiton with which Tolkien presents us.
In the foreground is a mill, with its power source, a stream, rushing over a weir to the left and then down to power the wheel, which appears to be either of the breast shot or the undershot variety (the water strikes the middle of the wheel or passes below the wheel to drive it).
Beyond the mill, we follow an unpaved road past a number of what appear to be farm houses, including, on the left, something which appears like the walled farms found along the Franco-Belgian border which Tolkien would have seen during his time in that area in 1916, the most famous being La Haye Sainte, a landmark (and Allied strongpoint) during the battle of Waterloo.
(a modern diorama of one of the French assaults)
That same farm has, in its farmyard, a dovecote, as, like chickens—and there appears to be a henhouse on the right, just beyond the mill—doves are a source of protein.
In the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, JRRT tells us that “All Hobbits had originally lived in holes in the ground…” but, having been granted the Shire, “…suitable sites for these large and ramifying tunnels…were not everywhere to be found; and in the flats and low-lying districts the Hobbits, as they multiplied, began to build above ground…even in the hilly regions and the older villages..there were now many house of wood, brick, or stone.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, “Concerning Hobbits”)
Although the mill appears to be built of stone blocks, with a tiled roof, the houses beyond seem to be plastered and white-washed, so it’s impossible to tell what they’re built from, but, as we follow the road beyond those houses, the countryside widens out and we can see a series of colored strips of land and, rising above them, The Hill, as it’s called in The Hobbit, into which a number of hobbit homes have been built, and, above them, by itself, is what must be Bag End, constructed by Bilbo’s father, Bungo, for his bride, Belladonna, nee Took. (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
So far, then, we have a mill, farmhouses along a road, fields beyond, rising to a hill, on top of which is Bag End, home of the very wealthy Mr Baggins. So what was it that all of this reminded me of?
The Normans, when they came to England, brutally appropriated the countryside, constructing very early castles, called motte and baileys, to dominate the landscape.
The motte (from the later Latin mota, “mound”) was raised from the surrounding countryside by the enslaved locals, and it became the headquarters and living quarters for the invading Normans, with the lower enclosed yard, the bailey, for their soldiers, attendants, and livestock. Beyond this could be open ground (better for defense) and beyond that would begin the farmland which the Normans turned to their own use, seizing it from its previous owners, the Anglo-Saxons.
In time, the motte and bailey became the castle, often using the same site, simply turning earth and wood into stone.
(This is Launceston, originally a motte and bailey built post 1068, and gradually rebuilt into its present form.)
Also in time, this occupation developed into the feudal system, in which a military hierarchy evolved into a social system, where those at the bottom (the great majority of people) were dominated by those above them in succession.
For this system to work, the Norman king parceled out land to his senior lords, the barons, who then gave out the land to lesser nobles down to the individual estate, the manor. In return, the various levels of nobles would provide troops and taxes up the chain of control to the king.
A typical manor, often a self-supporting community, with the manor house of the lord, its own mill and church and even blacksmith, would look something like this—
Although all land eventually belonged to the lord of the manor, it was parceled out in distinctive ways. First, it became common practice to divide land into three parts, two to be planted each season, a third to be allowed to regenerate itself by being left uncultivated, or fallow. Some of the land was worked directly for the lord (all tenants had an obligation to farm for him), then there might be freemen, who owned a certain amount of land—as long as they paid a tax to the lord. Below them were peasants, who were free (as much as anyone was below the level of the nobility), but owned no land and worked for others. And, below them, were serfs, who were more or less slaves, people who were as much a part of the estate as the land itself. As well as being divided into three, each of those three was divided in turn, as you can see from the diagram above, into strips, each controlled by the lord or various community members.
Put this diagram now, against that picture Tolkien painted of Hobbiton.
There is no church or blacksmith, but there’s the mill, the village street, the strips of cultivated land, and, above, there’s the hill—or is that a motte?
Thanks for reading, as ever.
Remember to pay your tithe– or arrange a secret meeting with John Ball (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ball_(priest) ),
And remember, as well, that there’s always
I note, by the way, from what appear to be flowering horse chestnut trees (they have cone-shaped white flowers)
that it’s May in Hobbiton.