Until We Came to Hobbitgrad

The Lord of the Rings is ‘long and boring; no one can lift the damn thing’. As a child, your parents read you The Hobbit, and you are wide-eyed and beside yourself, because it is your first introduction to epic literature, clad in the irresistible garb of high fantasy and given potency by elements of actual drama. You are still reeling, delighted, and then your parents tell you that there are three more books of the stuff, in the form of the saga-in-chief, the Lord of the Rings. And so you pick it up, dive in, and set off on Ring Trek: The Next Generation with Frodo and company. Somewhere between Rivendell and the gates of Moria, however, the boredom overtakes you, and you become the first of the Fellowship to fall by the wayside, before even Bill the pony. You put the book down. You are eleven.

Every person to whom I mentioned that I was reading the Lord of the Rings told me a version of this story. ‘Ah, yeah, I started reading that when I was a kid; then it got boring.’ Part of the problem, of course, is that the book is not one for children; people just think it is because there are wizards.1 But the problem with the work itself – and this may be evidence of the fact that it is not for children – is that it is boring. Not entirely, of course, and the flaw of its boringness is often completely overwhelmed by its tremendous virtues,2 but one of the roughest stretches of boredom falls right after the departure from Rivendell toward the end of volume I and lasts until the appearance of the Rohirrim about a third of the way into volume II.3 No wonder you laid the damn thing aside.

I will not try to discuss all my problems with the Lord of the Rings in one piece, nor do I present them as a unified theory of the book; others here are more competent to discuss it in positive terms, and I will no doubt agree with every word they say. I will leave my racist critique of the saga for a later article (for it is hell of racist, a fact of which Tolkien, to his credit, seems to have been aware4), and I will relegate to an offhanded comment here my observation that what Tolkien accomplished in three volumes over a thousand pages he could easily have managed in two thirds of that. I reserve the right to return to and decimate his assertion that the similarities with Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen end in both rings’ roundness.5 No, today is about the most specious of Tolkien’s assertions about his own epic:

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. […] it has been supposed by some that the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot […] without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever.” (I, 6-7)

With particular reference to the Scouring of the Shire,6 this is a big pile of what I imagine one must be extra careful not to step in when one is walking across the rolling plains of Rohan, densely populated as they are by the national animal. Unluckily for Prof Tolkien, I did not read his books when I was a susceptible child or a gullible undergraduate at the Oxford college he and I shared. When it comes to an author pulling rank to assert what significance a work does and does not have, I am “wise enough to detect all his counterfeits.” (II, 182).

The fact is, the Scouring of the Shire is the clearest and most obvious manifestation of the theme of counter-revolution and restoration that characterizes many of the political changes that occur throughout the Lord of the Rings. It stands in juxtaposition as a kind of anti-Caucasian Chalk Circle, a morality play about the evils of Communism and industrialization. In order for there to be true peace, asserts this last-gasp argument long after the main saga’s conclusion, everything must be put back exactly as it was and never change again, lest Elessar and Arwen be gunned down in the basement of Minas Tirith among their hemophiliac children.

The Shire and the Hobbits that live in it are peaceful,7 but not egalitarian: the metaphors of authority are monarchical,8 and there are very clear class divisions, with respect and influence awarded to the bourgeoisie.9 Social legitimacy is based on heritage,10 and the attitude toward outsiders moves between skepticism, phobia, and hostility unless they are exotic and amusing, in which case they are disregarded in every capacity except their ability to entertain.11 Even the extravagant formal requirements of such transactions as the transfer of property or inheritance12 echo the preoccupation in historical English law with certainty at the expense of justice,13 with keeping property in the family.

Class markers come in the form of wealth, but also of names (‘Sackville’, the Latin root is of significance14). Speech, the great brand of social status in England, is adapted here to serve the same function (as it is throughout Lord of the Rings), and the role of speech as a class and status marker is an allegory, one which the author-tyrant admits and encourages in the pages of his realm.15

Lest there be any doubt about the authorial attitude toward this ancien régime, consider its recurrence as a beacon of hope and a source of strength throughout the toughest going for the ring-bearer and his companions,16 and its position, both at the outset and the end of the saga, as the last good place in Midgard (apart from Gondor, whose own ancien régime has been newly reinforced), and its complete restoration to its unspoiled, pre-revolutionary state as the final sign that the tumult of the saga, the War of the Ring, is over once and for all.17

The revolution that I speak of is the ‘scouring’ of course, which is brought to the attention of the reader in Book VI, Chapter 8, the penultimate chapter of the entire three-volume work. To give you an idea of where we are located dramatically, the first sign that something is amiss in the land of Hobbits comes at III, 277: it has been 55 pages since Gollum fell into the lava with Frodo’s middle finger at the summit of both Mount Doom and that plot-tension diagram your English teacher used to draw on the board. Aragorn the Many-Epithetted has been King of Gondor for 47 pages, and we are so far into the protracted denoument – so close to the tearful departure from the Grey Havens – that, to quote Frodo, it “feels like falling asleep again” (III, 276).

Thus the scouring would be jarring enough simply from the sheer fact of its positioning. It is made all the more so by the terms in which it is presented. In rapid succession, the caricature elements of Stalinism are constructed: we have the Chief, the proletarian dictator, who has shed his pre-revolutionary class markings.18 (And Frodo forthwith announces his intention to deal with the dictatorship by returning it to the confines of pre-revolutionary Shire class structure: ‘it is evidently high time that the family dealt with him and put him in his place’: III, 277, emphasis mine.) The new regime has a secret police and a network of spies.19 He is enthroned at Bag End, the seat of Bilbo’s wealth- and heritage-based mystique.20 The major villainy of this new Shire order seems to be having introduced collective ownership of the means of production, or as Tolkien sneeringly names it, “sharing”. (As we are treated to a mocking, cartoonish explanation of the Shire’s planned economy,21 Pippin, avatar of the counter-revolution,22 greets it with a dismissive yawn.) The bourgeoisie and the authority figures of the old regime are disappeared to internment;23 a ‘green and pleasant land’ is ruined by centralization and industrialization.24

And so the bar to resolution of the story (which, I would argue, was really resolved when Frodo gave Gollum the finger, but that’s not Tolkien’s position25) is the toppling of this brave new Shire, accomplished by natives, yes, but natives who are now agents of the monarchs of the south,26 and perhaps the last great act of the ancient power structures fading from the world is that they put the Shire back exactly as the protagonist Hobbits left it, right down to every tree and leaf.27 Now we can finally be at peace, which is signified by Sam’s stepping into the pre-revolutionary social structures himself: a family,28 children, (inherited!) wealth, and status.29

The Lord of the Rings is not a four-legs-good, two-legs bad roman-á-clef about how the problem with the world is that we are not all white heterosexual subsistence farmers in rural England, and anyone who suggests so would be wise to put down their pens until their fever has broken. But as someone who is actually rather taken with high fantasy and predisposed to sympathy for it, even I could not look away from the “contemporary political reference” of this last episode of the novel.

Tolkien’s description of writing the Lord of the Rings during the years 1936 to 1949 is a fascinating foreword to the saga, and sheds perhaps more light on it than the author would like. I imagine grey, war-filled years; Tolkien, far removed from the Mordor-like destruction in London,30 nevertheless living in a time when the shadow was growing, a time in which there was war all around him and his own war, the “war which it was my task to conduct, or report”, deprived him of even inner peace. Sauron is not the Führer, nor was meant to be, but it flies in the face of reality to argue that Europe’s attempts to destroy itself did not pollenate the turmoil of Middle-earth.31

By the time the Lord of the Rings was completed in 1949, the elation of victory was giving way in the West32 to the beginnings of the Cold War. It would be nonsense, Tolkien is right, to look for allegorical parallels at the level of character or event, but the narrator’s lament at the passing of the Third Age is a mournful acknowledgment of the dawn of the atomic age; a conservative’s lament of the unstoppable march of ‘progress’. The counter-revolution is a victory, but one that the book itself says will not last forever: the price of peace is mortality. Don’t let the dwarves and elves and wizards fool you: The Lord of the Rings is not for children, and the struggles of the modern world are carved into it, their runes readable on every sword-blade.

  1. The full dismantling of this fallacy is something I will leave to my co-blogger Tanadrin, but suffice it to say that it is the biggest and dumbest barrier to this sort of fiction, and the raising of it by an interlocutor is pretty good evidence of irredeemably boring thought-processes. [back]

  2. Again, I am not the resident Tolkien fanboy, but Lord of the Rings is a damn fine book that you should definitely read. The problem, of course, is that repeating that assertion over and over again doesn’t make for very interesting articles. [back]

  3. Interrupted only by Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog, which I believed is best described in literary-critical jargon as ‘fucking bad ass.’ [back]

  4. Chism (J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, “Racism, Charge of”, 557) is probably right that this is a mixture of conscious and unconscious racism and/or Eurocentric bias; the racist undertones of Lord of the Rings are unmistakeable, particularly with regard to the juxtaposition of the races of men working for Sauron and the ones opposing him, and Tolkien should have known better. There is some evidence that he did, but even if guilty on all counts it’s not enough to sink the whole enterprise. [back]

  5. Laughable; they both rely on the same source material, for one. [back]

  6. As to the saga-in-chief, I accept entirely Tolkien’s assertion that it is not an allegory for World War II, even though (and especially because) it was written between 1939 and 1944. Tolkien eliminates this contention very convincingly, like so many Ents marching into Isengard, with what I choose to believe is criticism of the Allies’ own misconduct in the real-world war’s prosecution: “If [World War 2] had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron” (I, 7), and anyone who has read the work knows the implications of that for the moral integrity of the seizer and user. [back]

  7. “At no time had Hobbits of any kind been warlike, and they had never fought among themselves” (I, 14); “No Hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire” (III, 285). [back]

  8. “Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws” (I, 18). [back]

  9. “the Took family was still, indeed, accorded special respect, for it remained both numerous and exceedingly wealthy” (I, 19; cf I, 30-31) [back]

  10. ibid. [back]

  11. Of Gandalf: “whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fire, smoke, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing of it.” (I, 33) [back]

  12. I, 47: seven witnesses signatures in red ink, “among other things”; real-world wills require between zero and two. [back]

  13. Cf J Martin, Hanbury and Martin’s Modern Equity, ch 1. [back]

  14. So T Shipley, JRR Tolkien: Author of the century, but echoing a truth about formality-register and root origin in all post-1066 varieties of English. [back]

  15. Appendix F, Part II (III, 411). [back]

  16. Of the dozens of examples, the most poignant and desperate is III, 224: “His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.” [back]

  17. III, 300: “And the very last end of the War, I hope […] To think that it should fall here, at the very door of Bag End!” and also III, 302-303. [back]

  18. ‘“Do you mean Lotho?” said Frodo. “I suppose so, Mr Baggins; but we have to say just ‘the Chief’ nowadays.” “Do you indeed!” said Frodo. “Well, I am glad he has dropped the Baggins at any rate.”’ (III, 277) [back]

  19. ‘The new “Chief” evidently had means of getting news.’ (III, 279), cf. descriptions of collaborators at III, 285. [back]

  20. “Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years […] and it was popularly believed that the hill at Bag End […] was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure” (I, 29). [back]

  21. III, 278-279. The phrase ‘fair distribution’ in a further description at III, 292 mocks the closing words of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944), either by coincidence or not. (Tolkien certainly read German.) [back]

  22. He is a Took, one of the authoritative families of the Shire (the Thain, “the Took”, is the only Hobbit with formal political authority, which he holds by hereditary office: I, 18-19) and musters the decisive military strength of the Hobbit rebellion in that capacity. [back]

  23. Even Lobelia herself, the veritable queen of bourgeoisie Hobbits, whose imprisonment is described at III, 293. [back]

  24. Described mostly in terms of construction, lumber-cutting, quarrying, and smokestacks at III, 292-293, 296. [back]

  25. cf. note 17. [back]

  26. Merry of the King of Rohan and Pippin of the King of Gondor, facts reiterated by the invocation of that mannish authority against their fellow-Hobbits at III, 285; perhaps an appeal to the Hobbits’ pre-revolutionary monarchical conceptions of authority (see note 8). [back]

  27. Accomplished with Elven magic: III, 302-303. [back]

  28. He may have Rosie Cotton once the counter-revolution succeeds (III, 288). [back]

  29. He moves into Bag End as a married man at III, 304, the daughter follows on straight after, and he inherits the Baggins wealth as heir at III, 309. [back]

  30. At the Oxford Union, they used to tell tales about why Hitler didn’t bomb Oxford, but they were surely as fantastical as anything to be found in Tolkien’s legendarium. [back]

  31. Which, after all, is Europe: cf. Tolkien writings ad nauseam. [back]

  32. Of Middle-earth and of the 20th century. This is not a coincidence: allegory or no, West is West and East is East. [back]