The Shire as a Model for Anarchy
By John Zaharick
“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)…” J.R.R. Tolkien tells his son Christopher in a letter dated 29 November 1943. In the same letter, Tolkien goes on to say that “Government” should not be considered its own separate entity and that “the most improper job of any man…is bossing other men” (Letters 63-4). Taking these words and others of Tolkien into consideration, while reviewing the descriptions of hobbit behavior and the structuring of the Shire, leads one to the view that Tolkien created the Shire in his image of a utopia, being philosophical anarchy.
Rex Martin produces a definition of philosophical anarchy culled from its numerous supporters throughout the centuries, calling it “self-regulation of a social order or of a group of persons or of the single individual, where self-regulation was distinguished from coercive regulation by institutions of the State…In a word, anarchism would be a desirable state of society without government” (140). In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien informs the reader that “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’”, and then goes on to describe an idealized agrarian community in which the hobbits regulate their own affairs without a central ruler (18). While a Thain was appointed to rule in place of the fallen kingdom that had allowed the Shire to be established, by the time of Frodo “the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity” (Fellowship 19).
The closest thing to a government in the Shire is the democratically elected Mayor, but his only duties are “to preside at banquets”, manage the office of Postmaster, and serve as First Shirriff. Messengers outnumber police officers, and the primary concern of the latter is “the straying of beasts” rather than people (Fellowship 19). In the penultimate chapter, we learn that Robin Smallburrow sees being a shirriff as “walking around the country and seeing folk, and hearing the news, and knowing where the good beer [is].” When the shirriffs are transformed into a more totalitarian force, Sam says the position is no longer a respectable job, and upon being told they’ve been arrested and face trial and imprisonment, the four hobbits of the Fellowship break into laughter (Return 280-1). Police officers are anathema to anarchy, yet the officers of the Shire can hardly be compared to the bastions of authority that exist in real societies.
If the police are only concerned with socializing and keeping out stray animals, one has to then consider how order is maintained in the Shire. Here Martin’s emphasis on self-regulation becomes evident. Despite the fact that the kingdom that established the laws of the Shire has not existed for over a millennium, the hobbits continue to obey the laws out of their own free will (Fellowship 18). Like any true anarchist society should, the Shire operates under self-imposed order, not forced order from an authoritative body.
The existence of an elected official and a police force, however, seem to prevent the Shire from being a true anarchist society. A better description might be that of Robert Nozick’s minimal state. In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick’s argument that “the perfect society is one made up of many freely joined smaller societies in which face-to-face groups live their common life exactly as they please, and hold each other to it” (Kateb 826) mirrors the organization of the Shire, which consists of collectives organized by ancestral family names existing in close proximity to each other (Fellowship 18).
Nozick bases his arguments on the concept of property ownership. His fear of “the effort to redistribute property through the coercive activity of the state” leads to his defense of the minimal state (Kateb 820). This is also seen in Tolkien’s writings. When the Shire falls under totalitarianism, we are told “the ruffians went around gathering stuff up ‘for fair distribution’: which meant they got it and [the hobbits] didn’t” (Return 292). Discussing his political beliefs in a letter to Michael Straight, Tolkien says, “I am not a ‘socialist’ in any sense – being averse to ‘planning’ (as must be plain) most of all because the ‘planners’, when they acquire power, become so bad…” (Letters 235). Juxtaposing this (and possibly that which Nozick supports as well) is the monopolistic capitalism of Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who “wanted to own everything himself” and “order other folk about”, desires which are seen as strange by the other hobbits and which aid in the takeover of the Shire by tyranny (Return 291).
Instead of collective or monopolistic ownership, the Shire is based more on a system by which individuals possess no more than what they need to live comfortably, and individuality is esteemed. When Ted Sandyman allows Men to take over his mill and then goes to work for them, he is looked down upon because his father who had previously owned the mill was “his own Master” (Return 292).
Whether labeled as a true anarchist society or minimal state is a matter of details, but the Shire still exists as a land ruling itself with no central authority. The lack of any stable anarchist communities in history leads to the question then of how such a system was maintained for 1401 years in the Shire before tyranny briefly seized control (Fellowship 23). We are informed by the narrator that:
“Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.” (Fellowship 18)
While such a vision is an ideal, the multitude of beliefs and wants of people would inevitably lead to conflict. The Shire, however, remains peaceful. This stability seems to arise from the conformity of thought of the hobbits. All hobbits are characterized as liking “peace and quiet”, “a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside,” of being fond of the same colors (green and yellow), having an interest in genealogy, liking things “set out fair and square with no contradictions”, and drinking and smoking (Fellowship 10-11; 16-18).
Differences do arise between the groups of hobbits within the Shire (as in the Sackville-Bagginses desire for Bag End and the belief in Hobbiton that folks in Buckland are queer while in Buckland it is said that folks in Hobbiton are queer), but their main interest in routine and their own affairs keeps any disputes to a minimum (Fellowship 30-31; 104). Violence is nonexistent in the Shire as we’re told by Frodo that “No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire…” (Return 285). This lack of disagreement allows not only the presence of anarchy, but leads to the existence of a utopia. Tracy Lightcap writes “Members of utopian societies tend to be so well contented that no substantial political conflicts arise” (173), and without political conflicts, government is not necessary.
Of course, this conformity of thought is what allows the Shire to be easily taken over by Saruman’s men. With the exception of the Tooks and random others, the majority of hobbits easily fall into submission to the ruffians that invade (Return 288-9). The hobbits’ contentment with routine may keep the Shire free of violence, but it also leaves the land open to attack. With that in mind, one has to wonder how the Shire has remained free for most of its existence. Ironically, the Shire finds itself under the protection of monarchies throughout its history. Permission for use of the land that came to compose the Shire was given by the king at Fornost, with the hobbits only required to maintain “bridges and roads, speed the king’s messengers, and acknowledge his lordship” (Fellowship 13).
Thus, semi-independent from the monarchy, the hobbits were able to found an anarchistic agrarian society. When the northern kingdom fell, the Shire managed to remain independent for a thousand years, threatened only by plague and famine and not invaders, probably because so few know of its existence (Fellowship 14). The isolationist attitude of most hobbits most likely kept stories of their land relegated to legend rather than fact. The Shire cannot remain in this isolationist-utopian state, however, as long as the outside world continues to evolve. Ishay Landa criticizes claims that The Lord of the Rings is escapist by illustrating how escape is impossible in the world of the narrative, even in the little known Shire. “[W]hile the hobbits may heartily wish to take permanent refuge in their 'blind zone' of pleasant, uneventful routine, they will nonetheless be violently dragged out to become reluctant participants in a fateful historical quest.” (115)
Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin must fight to protect their society from the forces of Sauron, yet while they are away their land is invaded by Men under the allegiance of Saruman. Once the Shire has been freed from a year of tyranny, Aragon, now known as Elessar, declares the Shire “a Free Land under the protection of the Northern Sceptre” (Return 377). While the Shire can remain stable internally without authority, it requires the presence of an external, benevolent authority to protect it from external, malevolent authority.
In analyzing the politics of the Shire, it is important not to misunderstand claims by Tolkien that there are no allegories in The Lord of the Rings. “It is not ‘about’ anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political” he writes (Letters 220). There is a difference, however, between a story being allegorical, or representing abstract meanings through characters who act merely as symbols, and a story containing a political climate in which the characters exist. Every writer draws inspiration from his life experience, and it only makes sense that Tolkien’s political views would become manifest in the political systems present in his fiction. As he explains himself “…something of the teller’s own reflections and ‘values’ will inevitably get worked in. This is not the same as allegory. We all, in groups or as individuals, exemplify general principles, but we do not represent them.” (Letters 233).
The Shire is not an allegory of a political utopia, but merely a description of Tolkien’s vision of utopia, partially based on his desire for a simpler time. In his writings we find contempt for the rising technological world, from the polluting industries that spring up wherever Saruman takes residence (Return 292-3) to comments like “… the spirit of ‘Isengard’, if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case” (Letters 235). In regards to ruling systems, he finds distaste in treating political bodies as entities. He regards the “State” as “a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind…” and feels that leaders should be emphasized, not institutions:
Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy [sic].” (Letters 63)
Tolkien’s view of the corruption present in authority and government combined with his discontent for the rise of industrialization most likely influenced his construction of the Shire. The home of the hobbits takes the form of an anarchistic, agrarian society in which the people rule themselves and live in peace with their natural surroundings as opposed to exploiting them. “The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari [I do not wish to be made bishop] as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop” Tolkien declares (Letters 64). The view that only those who have no wish to lead are the best for the job since they’ll have no desire to abuse their power seems the best solution to avoiding corruption, although the problem of how and who to pick then arises. Beyond that, the next solution would be limit power to such an extent that it becomes meaningless, as in Nozick’s minimal state, or ultimately eliminate centralized power altogether, restoring command to the individual, and thus establishing anarchy.
Kateb, George. ”The Night Watchman State.” American Scholar. 45.1 (Winter 75/76): 816-23.
Landa, Ishay. “Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious.” Historical Materialism. 10.4 (2002): 113-33.
Lightcap, Tracy. “Uncertainty and Utopia.” Peace Review. 14.2 (2002): 169-174.
Martin, Rex. “Wolff’s Defence of Philosophical Anarchism.” Philosophical Quarterly. 24.95 (1974): 140-149.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.
---. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
---. The Return of the King. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.
© John Zaharick