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An exploration of utopia in The Hobbit
The Shire is J.R.R. Tolkien's tranquil paradise.
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and I were geeking out in the comments section of this post:
He said, “This conversation got me thinking about The Shire as a utopia (or at least Tolkien's ideal utopia). One of the core challenges Frodo faces, especially in the books, is the sorrow of leaving his home while knowing he'd likely never see it again. I feel like we could start an entire Tolktopia series on The Elysian.”
I wanted that exploration of Tolktopia so badly so I invited him to write it. Here is his essay:
The past three years have been full of existential dread knocking on the door of my inbox, group chats, and dinner conversations. If you’re like me, to escape this daily doom, you’ve sought comfort in the stories that allow you to process emotions separately in an imaginary world. The universe I’ve absorbed myself in is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Between re-reading the series, watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings adaptations, and even ordering The Atlas of Middle Earth for a bit of light nighttime reading, I’ve fully enveloped my world with Tolkien’s.
Elle’s interview with The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power production designer Ramsey Avery spurred my saturated Tolkien brain with the concept of utopia throughout the lore of Middle Earth.
The Elysian is thinking through a better future and writing utopian fiction about it. Join the literary salon 👇🏻
It doesn’t take much reading to narrow in on Tolkien’s attraction to utopia. Most of The Lord of the Rings characters long for and speak of a utopian past. Treebeard remorses over the loss of the Entwives, Gimli longs for the glimmer of the Dwarven home of Moria, and Boromir tries and fails to reinstate the glory of the kings of old. Above all other Tolkien races, the elves long for utopia. Throughout the book, the elves surrender Middle Earth in a “not my problem” attitude and begin migrating to Tolkien’s heavenly realm of Valinor.
Now, we could delve into Tolkien’s wider mythology to unearth more utopian treasures, but for those who are casual fans of the films or listen to the audiobooks as ASMR before falling asleep (like me), let’s begin our Tolktopia conversation concerning Hobbits.
On Tolkien Reading Day this past year (March 25th, the fictional date of the destruction of the ring and fall of Sauron), proclaimed fantasy fiend and late-night TV host Stephen Colbert posted a Q&A video about his favorite book series. One question asked about which piece of Tolkien’s work resonates with him the most.
Colbert responded by listing six specific chapters by name and specifically noted the third and fourth chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. “They read like a love letter to the English countryside,” Colbert said and described the details of the chapters like a Middle Earth Sierra Club member. “And those are the chapters that I return to over and over again because, yes, the Black Riders show up, yes, there’s a sense of danger and confusion over where Gandlaf is, but they’re incredibly peaceful, and nothing bad has happened yet.”
Side Note: I believe Colbert is underutilized as a late-night host. Can we make it The Elysian community’s goal to get him to comment in our Salon discourse?
Colbert’s tendency of bathing himself in the peace and fragility of the Shire is an instinct that resonated with me these past few years (it’s why I repeatedly use Howard Shore’s Shire themes while meditating). But that longing for tranquility is what Tolkien had in mind.
Tolkien’s description of the Shire is believed to have reflected the pre-war British lifestyle of his childhood, unaffected by the scourge of industrialism. Although the Oxford professor denied the contemporary allegory of his work throughout his career, the connection is glaring. Tolkien was also a bold defender of the natural world and humans’ participation in nature, not dominion over nature. You can understand Tolkien’s value of an anti-tech world through his defense of trees, which he professed his love throughout his life.
“Every tree has its enemy. Few have an advocate. In all my works, I take the part of trees against all their enemies,” Tolkien said.
Outside of the Shire’s rolling countryside and fertile soil, the structure of the Hobbit society is where we can extend the author’s view of utopia.
Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.
Unlike the Jackson films that introduce The Fellowship of the Ring with a sweeping prologue of the last alliance between men and elves narrated by the incomparable Cate Blanchett, Tolkien opens the books with the intricacies of Hobbit life.
This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.
The home country of the Hobbits was divided into four quadrants. There wasn’t much government, and families were “in charge of their own affairs.” Although there was generational wealth and land ownership, Hobbits appeared to universally accept their loosely structured agrarian society.
There was one elected official named the Mayor of Michel Delving, who was elected every seven years. The mayor’s duties are similar to the United Kingdom monarchy, essentially kissing babies and cutting ribbons.
The only two offices of government that the mayor presided over were the “Postmaster” and “First Shirr-iff” that were in charge of the two departments, the “Messenger Service” and the “Watch.”
The Watch was a collection of 12 Shirriffs, which served as the Hobbit law enforcement. They had no identifiers except for a feather in their caps, and their duties entailed the equivalent of a modern neighborhood watch.
The rest of the prologue of The Lord of the Rings details the family history of the Shire, pipeweed (Hobbits’ primary export), and then rolls into the first chapter set in the Shire and the beginning of the adventure of the one ring.
From Tolkien’s prologue, the reader learns the Shire’s structure of simplicity, longevity, and communal living in step with the land (I’m guessing it’s closest to a Marxist state run by a proletariat society).
So what’s the big deal about Hobbits that Tolkien decided his audience needed to know all this information up front?
From a literary strategy, The Lord of the Rings was a follow-up to The Hobbit and required further context to transition into a three-book adult-centric narrative. But from a story arch, it sets the innocence and attraction of the Shire.
Throughout the four central Hobbit’s journeys, they constantly refer to the majesty of the Shire, specifically Frodo, whose impending burden of sneaking the ring into Mordor is as intimidating and painful as his separation from his home.
I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.
At the end of the third book, Tolkien returns the Hobbit heroes to the Shire after almost a year separated on their quest to save the world. But they return to a dystopia, ruined by the industrial greed and devastation from Sharkey, AKA the vengeful and disgraced wizard Saruman in disguise.
Narratively, it’s jarring to have a climactic ending of Frodo destroying the one ring of power and then include an epilogue where the Hobbits must defend and restore the utopia they left behind.
From a traditional storytelling arch, Jackson’s anticlimactic telling of the Hobbits’ return to the Shire invokes feelings of melancholy and fulfillment compared to the book’s terror.
The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock.
This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank.
An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.
It’s a distraught contrast to the opening chapters that allow Colbert to indulge in his cozy feelings. But the ending hints that Tolkien’s Hobbit-centric perspective remained true from the prologue—a tale about Hobbits going there and back again to save the utopia they love.
So why did Tolkien conclude his epic with the “The Scouring of the Shire?” Why did he narratively destroy his in-world utopia just to build it back again? And what does Tolkien’s view of the Shire teach us about our own world today?
Comments are open for all subscribers! Let’s talk about Tolktopia….
Thank you for writing this Luke!
P.S. I’ll be back next week with an essay for my work & leisure series. Then we’ll be back to my capitalism series to explore how we can extend economic opportunity worldwide.