“clientelism is the main organizing force within Hobbit politics”
June 2, 2024 11:25 AM   Subscribe

The Moral Economy of the Shire is an analysis by Nathan Goldwag of how hobbit society is structured in Middle Earth, explaining what models Tolkien drew on, and how its shown in the books. This is one of a series of posts about Tolkien’s works, which range from an alternate history of a victorious Sauron to a consideration of whether dwarves are analogous to Jews and the metafictional nature of Lord of the Rings.
posted by Kattullus (49 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
marvelous studies! it's also neat to see some of the landscapes inspiring the stories: Lauterbrunnen really does look like Rivendell (starsandwildflowers)
posted by HearHere at 11:43 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Oh my goodness this looks like the very thing.
posted by Frowner at 11:46 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Enjoyed this! It’s easy to opine and grumble to myself about social systems I see in books, and so much appreciated when scholars dig in with both the history and the textual references to give me more concrete tools to think with.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:18 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Never had considered Dwarfs as Jews. Can see how that could be construed. In all my D&D/RPG/Boardgaming, Dwarfs are miners, who want to mine gold. Compare to HP's Gringott's portrayals FFS.

But, very interesting reads so far.
posted by Windopaene at 12:24 PM on June 2


typically the way to swerve away from the uncomfortable overlap between depictions of dwarves in 20th slash 21st century fantasy and vicious antisemitic tropes is to lean hard into making them scottish protestants instead
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 12:55 PM on June 2 [12 favorites]


The climax of The Hobbit is about the Arkenstone driving Thorin mad with greed, yes. But here’s the thing–the plot of The Silmarillion is all about Fëanor and his sons being driven mad by the Silmarils. Lord of the Rings is all about the One Ring driving everyone insane. Literally everything Tolkien ever wrote was about magic jewelry driving otherwise-good people into insanity. Jewelry: Not Even Once.

I like the cut of this writer’s jib.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:56 PM on June 2 [23 favorites]


yes but sometimes magical jewelry is nenya business
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 12:57 PM on June 2 [24 favorites]


yes but sometimes magical jewelry is nenya business

Oh, that’s a beautiful line, I’m speechless. Narya dry eye in the house.
posted by notoriety public at 1:14 PM on June 2 [11 favorites]


I liked this for pointing out the problematic feudalism of LOTR as gently as possible.

The weird thing about Tolkien is that he perfectly well knows how terrible a king or an aristrocrat can be— cf. Denethor and Lotho. But he just goes "But what if the lords were really nice people?" without thinking why actual lords are not socialized to be really nice.
posted by zompist at 1:25 PM on June 2 [15 favorites]


> But he just goes "But what if the lords were really nice people?" without thinking why actual lords are not socialized to be really nice.

you know i’ve never really thought of it that way before but 1) yes 2) it’s interestingly analogous to the “what if the bourgeoise woke up one day and decided to be super kind to everybody all the time” thing that dickens has going on
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 1:29 PM on June 2 [6 favorites]


I don't have a citation at hand but I seem to recall George Orwell commenting on Dickens along the lines of the above comment.
posted by Whale Oil at 1:37 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


I do wonder why Leaf is mentioned much more often as the driving force for Middle Earths economy... after-all, how will the Guild Navigators fold-space ("He who controls the Leaf, controls Middle Earth")?
posted by phigmov at 1:41 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


yeah and there’s that bit in the appendices about how samwise’s grandson ended up ruling the shire for thousands of years after merging his body with the scales of smaug and thereby becoming a nigh-immortal half-wyrm tyrant
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 1:54 PM on June 2 [19 favorites]


> I don't have a citation at hand but I seem to recall George Orwell commenting on Dickens along the lines of the above comment.

oh right that’s who i stole that from
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 1:55 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


George Orwell commenting on Dickens:
"even if Dickens was a bourgeois, he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel"
posted by HearHere at 2:07 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


after merging his body with the scales of smaug and thereby becoming a nigh-immortal half-wyrm tyrant
you took me for more of a ride there than I'd like to admit.
posted by shenkerism at 2:20 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


yes but sometimes magical jewelry is nenya business

Now you’re being Sillymarillion.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:21 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


The weird thing about Tolkien is that he perfectly well knows how terrible a king or an aristrocrat can be— cf. Denethor and Lotho. But he just goes "But what if the lords were really nice people?" without thinking why actual lords are not socialized to be really nice.

Well, I don't think he's confused as to why, I think he's exploring an idealized space where heroes are real, and it is possible for one to be a 'good' king. I don't think he's drawing up a blueprint for modern society, it reads much more as nostalgia coated yearning.

The article itself calls that out too:

I think Tolkien was very aware of the sort of society he was depicting in the Shire, and that he was describing an idealized, imaginary version of it that never quite worked as well as one would hope.

Which is how I read it.
posted by Carillon at 2:27 PM on June 2 [14 favorites]


Also, the Nazgûl were dead ringers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:22 PM on June 2 [24 favorites]


>> dead ringers

> BOOOOOOOO


oh my god, boo indeed. i didn’t expect to lose this thread’s worst tolkien pun contest but nevertheless i am forced to concede
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 3:27 PM on June 2 [9 favorites]


oh my god, boo indeed. i didn’t expect to lose this thread’s worst tolkien pun contest but nevertheless i am forced to concede

To be fair, you seem to be tolkien it in your stride(r)
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 4:00 PM on June 2 [6 favorites]


Abombadil.
posted by clavdivs at 4:33 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


Oh these are great essays. Someday I want to play/run Under Hill, By Water and the first article here would be useful.

I like squirearchy but it must have taken great restraint not to add shirearchy.

I remember when I reread LotR to scrub my brain from the movies bit, and one of the first things in Fellowship is hobbits taking carriages. A carriage would look like an alien spaceship in Jackson's Shire, I think.
posted by fleacircus at 4:53 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


The TT MUD is still operating for the interested
posted by dismas at 5:24 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]




I'm sorry that I am incapable of contributing to the puns, but I must say that this is exactly the type of blog that I have been missing now that everything has been engulfed by social media and all the search engines are garbage. I've read most of the LOTR content this evening and am now moving on to the rest of it.
posted by Frowner at 6:16 PM on June 2 [13 favorites]


My thoughts exactly, Frowner. Very reminiscent of Brett Devereaux. Who exchanged tweets with Goldwag recently, it seems.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:20 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Okay, TT Mud looks like it would be interesting, except that all your stuff vanishes if you log out, and the game sometimes randomly decides to restart on top of that.
posted by tavella at 6:22 PM on June 2


This is great nerdy overanalysis. Will be revisiting the site.

I like the political economy of the Shire.

I get his perspective in answering "are the dwarves Jews" on the Tolkien side, but I think it's a mistake to ignore the fact that Tolkien answered that "Yes, obviously, the dwarves are Jews." He seems focused on how it's not a straight allegory, but Tolkien didn't like allegory. I think the dwarves are a window into what the Jews were in Tolkien's imagination, just as the hobbits are a window into the English yeomen and minor gentry of Tolkien's imagination. Tolkien wasn't an active antisemite (unlike, say, Chesterton) but the dwarves were are foreign race who mostly hewed to their own and really liked, and were good with, money. (You can say everyone liked jewelry, sure, but the you wouldn't see hobbits delving too greedily, nor the elves, at least not for gold.)
posted by mark k at 8:44 PM on June 2


> you wouldn't see hobbits delving too greedily [...] at least not for gold.)

filing away "hobbits, driven mad by their insatiable quest for hygge, delve too deep and thereby awaken a cozy terror of the first age imbued with the fell cuddles of morgoth who was once known as melkor before his rebellion against eru snúgglevatar and the warm hominess eternal" as a fanfic idea
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 10:07 PM on June 2 [13 favorites]


The first article bugs me a bit because he doesn't talk about peasant communes. Dr Eleanor Janega has good post on her Going Medieval blog:
The Ditmarsians were extremely pumped about this. Nominally, they were still controlled by the Archbishop of Bremen, but in practice, they were what we now recognise as a peasants’ republic. They set up a series of communes, based around their local parishes, which chose their own representatives. As a collective, the terrae universitatis Dithmarsiae, or united lands of Dithmarschen passed their own laws, which was overseen by a common assembly. They also, crucially, administered their own resources, meaning that there were no overlords taking a cut along the way.

And the thing about all of this is that it worked super super well. Turns out a bunch of peasants were perfectly able to get their heads around the ins and outs of legislation and law making, as well as taxation and how to govern. It was always perfectly workable – the technological conceits of the time be damned.

...

Of course, I will not allow a discussion of my favourite collective groups in the medieval period to go past without discussing my boys the Taborites as well. The Taborites were a group of Hussites that were centred in, well Tabor, in Southern Bohemia. The town had been set up by the group following the successful seizure in 1420 of nearby Hradiště castle. As far as the Taborites were concerned, it was very good to topple the dominant counts who were still Catholic in order to ensure your religious freedom, yes. But what if you went further, razed their towns to the ground and then started your own based on a specific collective vision, and named it after Mount Tabor in Galillee? They thought that was cool, and I also agree.

A central part of the Taborite community was the belief that society should not be stratified, and that conceptions like servant and master must be abolished. Taborites would call each other brother or sister as an appellation, stressing the equality both in their community as well as that of all humans before God. This was extremely popular, and Hussites from all over Bohemia started to show up to get themselves free. The new residents were able to support themselves through farming (Hell yeah, peasants!) and also through control of the local gold and silver mines. However, even though there were jobs that had a theoretical variation in terms of “value” the Taborites weren’t having that. They instead declared that all property would be held in common, and abolished taxation. After all, if the whole community owned everything there wasn’t a need for taxation to redistribute funds, right?
Or in "The Dawn of Everything" by David Graeber he gives examples of complex systems being maintained without a central authority.
The same is, incidentally, true of kingdoms and empires. One very common theory held that these tended to first appear in river valleys, because agriculture there involved the maintenance of complex irrigation systems, which in turn required some form of administrative co-ordination and control. Bali again provides the perfect counter-example. For most of its history Bali was divided into a series of kingdoms, endlessly squabbling over this or that. It is also famous as a rather small volcanic island which manages to support one of the densest populations on earth by a complex system of irrigated wet-rice agriculture. Yet the kingdoms seem to have had no role whatsoever in the management of the irrigation system. This was governed by a series of ‘water-temples’, through which the distribution of water was managed by an even more complex system of consensual decision-making, according to egalitarian principles, by the farmers themselves.
I think there's an occasional tendency to criticize Tolkien by saying, in effect: "Nuh-huh, the Shire has nice stuff and a nice way of life so there must actually be a secret elite organizing it. Gotcha Tolkien, you elitist!"

That kind of works because the political economy of the Shire as described doesn't actually make sense. Bilbo doesn't seem to work for a living or do farm labour. But nor is there any kind of coercive hierarchy that could force one class to labour for another. There's no warrior aristocracy like in Medieval Europe, nor is there a centralized state like that which supported the 18th century gentry.

If you want to make it coherent you have to assume the existence of something that is not in the text. You can assume as the author does that there are hidden landowner-tenant relationships. But that doesn't make sense unless there is some kind of coercive force to maintain those relationships: what happens if the tenants refuse to pay rent or share their crop? So you have to start assuming a hidden warrior caste or military as well.

But you could also assume a peasant commune living in relative abundance that's willing to share food with oddballs like Bilbo. It's not that uncommon for their to be shaman or priests or mystics supported by their community.

Or you could even accept that the text just doesn't make politico-economic sense and just accept the author's fantasy of a land without oppressive authority where people are free to live without working. Why is it so threatening to dream of such a world?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:08 PM on June 2 [11 favorites]


Indeed. Tolkien said his ideal was a distant king and local anarchy, and that's what he wrote. Everything else is our attempt to reconcile his mythical setting with what we know of actual societies. But he has no particular obligation to be "realistic", it's a danged work of fiction...

... and to the point about idealised rulers, he explicitly said he wanted to write a mythology. And myths deal in ideals and types. The good lords, the bad lords, and in this case a Dark Lord also. He's not writing Capital, for goodness sake.

I mean I LOVE this kind of analysis but please let's not treat Tolkien as a political theorist.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:28 PM on June 2 [6 favorites]


I think most of this commentary is right, though to my British eyes some of the remarks about the society of the Shire sort of state the obvious.
I never thought of Gondor as classical, though. In fact one thing I thought the films did very well was provide exactly the right look - a Victorian romantic idea of the Middle Ages. Sort of a William Morris world (and of course he wrote some quite readable fantasy which may well have influenced Tolkien).
posted by Phanx at 1:04 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


I think it does a disfavor to Tolkien to narrow his influences down to Anglo-Saxon mythology. He was much more widely read than that. He was a scholar of Norse mythology and its obvious that much of the Ring mythology comes straight from the Volsunga Saga and from The Tales of the Nibelung. Dwarves, Dragons with hoards of gold, powerful rings and armor. It is all there. Tolkien composed his own epic poems about these same tales.

Tolkien was right to deny any association with Wagner who was using these same sources for his operas. But that doesn't mean they weren't using the same sources.

I also think it was Tolkien himself who originally wrote that Minas Tirith was a Byzantine city and the closest comparisons are Constantinople or perhaps Rome. These are older cultures, Numenorean, so they have to be classical despite what some modern set designer might think.
posted by vacapinta at 2:34 AM on June 3 [6 favorites]


>> yes but sometimes magical jewelry is nenya business

> Narya dry eye in the house.


pretend, if you will, that i replied to this with “oh, vilya stop it already?”
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 3:45 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]


amidst all this reverse-tolkieneering, while we're discussing novels informed by history, here's an inexplicable plug for Arkady Martine's excellent novel A Memory Called Empire

> It's a fantastic space opera that loosely follows the Byzantine Empire's annexation of Western Armenia in the fourth century." mpr news
posted by are-coral-made at 7:12 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Minas Tirith was a Byzantine city

Fair enough, except Byzantium was surely medieval.
posted by Phanx at 7:50 AM on June 3


I think there's an occasional tendency to criticize Tolkien by saying, in effect: "Nuh-huh, the Shire has nice stuff and a nice way of life so there must actually be a secret elite organizing it. Gotcha Tolkien, you elitist!" [ . . . ] If you want to make it coherent you have to assume the existence of something that is not in the text.

Except the elites aren't secret. The Tooks and Brandybucks have been prominent for generations. Long before he goes off with the dwarves, Bilbo is introduced as "a very well-to-do hobbit . . . people considered [the Baggins] respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but because they never had adventures or did anything unexpected." This stuff is in the text, it's not made up or extrapolated.

Tolkien was quite clear what he was basing the Shire on, and it wasn't the Taborites or Dithmarschen. It's the English countryside, it's Tom Jones with the already small handful of rough edges in that novel filed off. The Sam/Frodo relationship is socially equivalent to Partridge & Tom, or (for a contemporary of Tolkien doing this) Bunter & Lord Peter Whimsey. There's real affection that ties them together, but you know who's the social superior. (I hadn't even realized that Tolkien explicitly modeled Sam on batsmen from WWI, which makes the Bunter/Whimsey mapping even more exact.)

I agree with the OP author that observing this isn't a criticism, it's just who Tolkien was and the time he wrote in. It doesn't need to be some tiresome attempt and fun-ruining to acknowledge that.
posted by mark k at 8:27 AM on June 3 [5 favorites]


It's the English countryside, it's Tom Jones with the already small handful of rough edges in that novel filed off.

Nasty little Hobbits enjoying the ill gotten gains of an entirely elided empire while they do their Jane Austen shit.
posted by Artw at 8:46 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]


Fair enough, except Byzantium was surely medieval.

I dunno. Founded around the time of Homer, then became capitol of the Eastern Empire about 1000 years later, still a bit deal 1000 years after that, it was significant in both Antiquity and the Middle Ages (if you count the Ottomans, it was a significant early Modern city, too).
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:25 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Tolkien wrote somewhere that the king's crown of Gondor was based on the crown of the Pharaohs, and that there was a distinctly Egyptian cast to their art. He even did a little sketch of the crown, which I have to admit was a little silly, if endearing. Not the movie's design, for sure.

I have a book of Tolkien's letters, and the thing is, politically, he was a crank. He wasn't hateful or even very active about his beliefs, but it's a fact. He once wrote that monarchy was his ideal political system, even if the king in question was mainly interested in horse racing. His letters railed, in an arch and polite way, about how "Americanism" and "feminism" were destroying all he held dear. He really hated Americans, but IIRC he didn't mention what about feminism he hated. I suppose he thought it went without saying; he doesn't seem to have been unkind towards actual women.

So of course his idyll contains a king, but crucially, one that is far away -- except during a time of adventure and peril, which he does not value for its own sake. For Tolkien, there is little authority in a peaceable society because the authority is inside everyone's head. Where anarchy works, that seems to be how.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:29 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]


just accept the author's fantasy of a land without oppressive authority where people are free to live without working. Why is it so threatening to dream of such a world?

My secret theory is that, I think Toklien's elves, from Bilbo/Frodo's view, is like a fantasy of (the 'best'/elite) students from a professor's POV: eternally young, beautiful, full of brilliance and good spirit, elite but unmoored, coming and going for unknown reasons, somehow more real and alive but also somehow more transient, you get a contact high from them and want to be one of them but you can't, etc. A loving impression of the cream of the crop of aristocracy. The relationship is reversed perhaps even out of humility; Bilbo's time at Rivendell is spent learning from them.
posted by fleacircus at 10:55 AM on June 3 [11 favorites]


Founded around the time of Homer

Yeah, but we’re talking about the Byzantine Empire, whose dates virtually define the Middle Ages. And Tolkien was talking about its late imperial period, when like Minas Tirith, it was a large but weakened city standing as a bulwark against the menacing non-West people.
posted by Phanx at 12:56 PM on June 3


If we’re talking about the height of the Byzantine Empire, that was in the reign not Justinian, who I , at least, think of as very late Antique rather than very early Medieval. If you are imagining Gondor in all its glory, you are imagining still-Antique Byzantium. Gondor in LotR is probably more like Byzantium in 1200, so we can both be right.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:07 PM on June 3


Is it excessively curmudgeonly of me that his Sauron Victorious story imagines the Americas with no indigenous population and pretty much no Asia at all? I don’t remember if Tolkien made maps of the whole thing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:09 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


I mean, Minas Tirith is a fictional city, so you can imagine it however you like. But if you assert that it has to be classical because Tolkien described it as Byzantine, I believe you are mistaken.
posted by Phanx at 1:37 PM on June 3


GenjiandProust: Yeah, maybe it would be too wish-fulfillmenty, but I'd have loved it if the refugees arriving in the Americas had encountered local peoples and coexisted peacefully, integrating with each other over time...
posted by Zarkonnen at 4:19 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Mod note: This fun and fascinating post has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 5:46 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


I’m reading through the archives of this blog and there’s an incredible amount of stuff that’s right up my alley. Thanks for posting this!
posted by mbrubeck at 9:58 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]


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