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Features, Legendarium, Tolkien 101

Tolkien 101: The Shire

09.28.10 | Kunochan | 3 Comments

Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.

If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.

The Shire as depicted in The Lord of the Rings Online.

There are two locations that appear in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that play central roles in both stories, and that can themselves be described fairly as “characters.” One of them is Rivendell, the sanctuary and fortress of Elrond Halfelven.

The other is the Shire, the homeland of that prosperous and agrarian race, the Hobbits.

In both books, the idealized world of the Shire is contrasted with the darker, more complex world Beyond the Borders. In both books, the hero spends the entire story dreaming of returning home, only to find his home in disarray, and himself unable to find peace there.

The Shire and its inhabitants are described in great detail at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings; and if you’re only familiar with the films, then that’s the best place to get more information. This article will provide a brief overview, plus some additional fun facts.

But first, here’s a brief history of the region known in the latter Third Age as “the Shire.”

The Age of the Trees and The First Age of the Sun

While the Great Events of the Age of the Trees and the War of the Jewels were going on away to the west in Beleriand and Aman, things were pretty quiet in central Eriador, where the Shire would one day lie. The Ered Luin, the mountains that formed the western border of Eriador in Bilbo’s time, were in ancient times the easternmost part of the doomed subcontinent of Beleriand.

At that time, Eriador was covered by a great forest. As Elrond says, “Time was when a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard.” By the era of LOTR, the only remnants of this great forest were the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire, and Mirkwood.

We know that at some point, three great hosts of Elves travelled west through Eriador on their way to Aman, and they most likely passed through what would one day become the Shire. Some Elves, like Gildor Inglorion and his people in LOTR, would later linger in the general region of the Shire.

More importantly, the Dwarves of the great Dwarf cities of Khazad-dûm, Nogrod and Belegost built a dwarf-road to facilitate commerce with the Elves of Beleriand in the First Age, particularly with the ill-fated King Finrod Felagund of Nargrothond.  This road was the same Great East Road used many millennia later by Bilbo in The Hobbit, and generally avoided by Strider and the Hobbits in LOTR.

We also know that at some point, tribes of Men made their way through Eriador, and some settled in that region. One group, known as Dunlendings, was related to the heroic People of Haleth from the War of the Jewels. The Men of Bree at the time of the War of the Ring were descended from these Dunlendings.

Then the War of the Jewels ended, the War of Wrath came, and Beleriand sank beneath the sea.

The Shire as depicted in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

The Second Age

In the Second Age, central Eriador was the site of a great war important to the history of Middle-earth. The land lay between two important Elf settlements, the Kingdom of Lindon and the realm of Eregion. Tolkien writes that during the Second Age, a Mannish settlement at Bree had already been established. But the area that would later become the Shire seems to have still been wild forest.

When Celebrimbor of Eregion created the great Elven Rings, Sauron of Mordor went to war to seize them. Sauron marched on Eregion, destroying it – and by the year 1699 of the Second Age, pretty much all of Eriador was ruled by Sauron. Soon the Dark Lord was at war with the Elves of Lindon and the newly-established Rivendell, as well as with the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm. He would have won, too, if it weren’t for those meddlesome Númenoreans from across the Sea.

A great battle, disastrous for Sauron, was fought at Sarn Ford on the Baranduin River, on what would become the southern border of the Shire. In the end Sauron was routed by the Númenoreans and their allies, and forced back to Mordor in defeat.

The Third Age

Arnor, the “Land of the King” or Northern Kingdom, was founded in Eriador in the year 3320 of the Second Age by Elendil, leader of the exiled Dúnedain who survived the destruction of Númenor. It was populated by other Númenoreans who had previously settled there, and by the aforementioned Dunlendings.

There’s no need to go into the long history of Arnor here, except to say that things didn’t go as smoothly as they did in the south in her sister-nation of Gondor. In the 9th Century of the Third Age, Arnor underwent a succession dispute and a civil war, and split into three states. These states were eventually destroyed between the 14th through 20th Centuries by the evil nation of Angmar, whose Witch-king was revealed to be none other than the Lord of the Nazgûl in disguise. The descendents of the rightful kings of Arnor were forced in to exile, to live in the Wild as the Rangers of the North.

Hobbits as a race were descended from Men, but Tolkien never described how this act of sub-speciation took place. We know that Hobbits first came over the Misty Mountains from the east in the middle of the 11th Century. They settled in the Breeland and Dunland.

In 1601 TA, some Hobbits gained permission from the King of Arnor (really the king of one of the successor states, Arthedain) to settle west of the Baranduin, which the Hobbits eventually renamed the Brandywine. The chaos of many wars had left the region abandoned, and the Hobbits were able to take over a land with fallow fields and existing roads and wells. The called the new land “the Shire.”

In 1637, many Hobbits died in the Great Plague.

Until the Battle of Fornost in 1975 TA, when the last vestiges of the Northern Kingdom were lost, the Hobbits of the Shire maintained allegiance to the King (and even sent archers to that final battle). Afterwards they continued to speak as if there were a king, but began to choose their own Thain as a military leader.

Although often described as a “little land,” the Shire was quite large, 120 miles from east-to-west and 150 miles from north-to-south, or 18,000 square miles; larger than modern Denmark, and about the size of Hawaii and New Jersey combined. The Hobbits divided the Shire into four farthings (Anglo-Saxon “fourth-ings”), plus the associated regions of Buckland and, after the War of the Ring, the Westmarch.

The Hobbits of the Shire became rather insular and parochial, resenting the traffic of Dwarves and Men (and occasional Wizards) along the Great East Road. They even viewed their Hobbit cousins in Breeland as suspicious foreigners. They little realized that their relative peace and safety in the middle of an unkempt Wilderland was due to the diligence of the scruffy Rangers they so readily dismissed.

The peace of the Shire was only broken on a few occasions. In 2747, a band of Orcs invaded the Shire, but they were repelled by Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took in the Battle of Greenfields. Thousands of Hobbits died in the Long Winter of 2758-59 TA; and in the Fell Winter of 2911-12, the Hobbits had to repel an invasion of wolves over the Brandywine.

In the Fall of 3018 the Shire faced its greatest danger ever, when the Ringwraiths of Sauron invaded in search of the One Ring. On September 22nd, Frodo’s birthday, a guard of Rangers tried to prevent the Nine from crossing at Sarn Ford, but failed.

At some point after Frodo’s departure (SPOILER ALERT if you’ve only seen the films but haven’t read the novels), Saruman seized power in the Shire through his agent Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Saruman, known locally as “Sharkey,” began a program of rapid industrialization, ripping down trees and building mills and factories. After his expulsion from Orthanc by Gandalf, the wizard fled to the Shire, intent on getting his revenge on the Hobbits.

Detail of The Scouring of the Shire by Hildebrandt.

After the War of the Ring and the Fall of Sauron, and Aragorn was installed as monarch of the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin returned to the Shire as princes, and freed the land from Saruman’s evil influence. At the Battle of Bywater, nearly 70 Evil Men were killed with 12 taken prisoner; 19 Hobbits died and about 30 were wounded. Saruman the Wizard was slain before the front door of Bag End by Gríma Wormtongue, who was himself killed by Halfling archers.

The Shire became a protected realm within the Reunited Kingdom, and Men were forbidden to enter it without permission of the King.

The Society of the Shire:

The Shire was essentially an agrarian anarchist society, with the minimum possible government. Tolkien wrote that the Thain, a hereditary post established after the final fall of the kings of Arnor, was “master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms; but as muster and moot were only held in times of emergency, which no longer occurred, the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity.” This role was most often held by the head of the Took clan.

Michel Delving (pronounced like “Mitchell Dell-veeng”) was the largest town in the Shire, and the Mayor of Michel Delving was the highest (and only) elected official in all the Shire. He served as Postmaster and Head Shirriff; these were the only two ongoing government services that existed in the Shire. After the War of the Ring, Samwise served as Mayor for seven consecutive seven-year terms.

Buckland in the east, on the opposite side of the Brandywine, was considered a satellite of the Shire, and was occupied by the Brandybuck clan. Their leader was called the Master of Buckland. Also, after the Westmarch was added to the Shire by King Elessar, its leader was called the Warden of Westmarch.

Basically, the Shire didn’t have any crime or internal strife because all Hobbits voluntarily followed “The Rules,” the traditional codes of conduct based on the laws established by the King of Arnor and by Halfling tradition. There is no mention of any taxes, court system, or of prisons, except during the brief reign of Saruman.

The Shire represented Tolkien’s ideal society, the way the author imagined rural England (specifically the West Midlands) could have or should have operated before industrialization. I would point out that, despite the lack of taxes and courts, the Shire was not the libertarian paradise of the Tea Partiers; nor was it the pipeweed-smoking free commune of the hippies.

Hobbits lived in a rigid society with highly restrictive social mores and hereditary caste roles. There were only two castes – free landowners and free laborers, with no aristocracy or serfs. But a Hobbit like Bilbo Baggins could only get away with violating social mores because he was a wealthy landowner. And a servant like Sam was only able to move up in the world because of the wealth left to him by Frodo.

Gandalf visits Bag End in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Some Shire Facts:

The name “the Shire” is Tolkien’s English “translation” of the Westron Sûza “Shire” or Sûzat “The Shire”. Its name in the Elven tongue of Sindarin was i Drann.

The larger towns of the Shire included Michel Delving, Stock, Frogmorton, Bucklebury (in Buckland), Hobbiton (location of Bag End), Bywater, Tuckborough (home of the Tooks) and, after the War of the Ring, Undertowers in the Westmarch.

Agriculturally, mushrooms were grown in the Marish along the Brandywine; pipeweed (tobacco) and grapes for wine were cultivated in the Southfarthing; and barley for beer grew in the Northfarthing.

In the year 15 of the Fourth Age, King Elessar and Queen Arwen travelled to the Shire, although for ceremonial reasons they did not enter it. At the Brandywine Bridge they met with the Thain, the Master of Buckland and the Mayor of Michel Delving. This was a merry meeting, as at the time those three positions were held by Peregrin Took, Meriadic Brandybuck and Samwise Gardner (né Gamgee) respectively.

If you lay a map of Middle-earth over a map of Europe, the Shire lays roughly where England would be.

For more info: The Shire on Wikipedia, The Thain’s Book and Encyclopedia of Arda.

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