Of all the places described in Arda, the place I’d most like to visit is the Shire. Rivendell takes a close second and Lothlorien a close third, but the beauty and simplicity of the Shire have always called to me (this is probably not unrelated to the fact that the music associated with hobbits and the Shire on the movies’ soundracks is among my favorite themes on the score). As someone who enjoys eating and drinking outside in the sun, doing crafts, and walking around barefoot, I have always imagined that of all the races, I would fit best in the land of the hobbits.
As was mentioned in class (if only briefly), the Shire is a sort of Eden. I want to explore this a bit further. The inhabitants of the Shire, hobbits, are deeply connected to the earth. They are gardeners, farmers, woodworkers. They live in the ground. They walk around without shoes, and can move silently throughout the forest. They have herblore. And because of their size, they are literally closer to the ground than any of the other races. And the land of the Shire is lush. It is fruitful and gorgeous, with fields and meadows and gardens: this is not an industrialized world. It is practially flowing with milk and honeyMost significantly, there is a giant important tree in the center of Hobbiton.
The demise of Hobbiton is also akin to the fall from Eden. Before Saruman came to the Shire, hobbits were peaceful. They would occasionally get into spats about things like property ownership (and let’s be honest, if all you have to worry about are umbrellas and spoons, you’re doing pretty well), but there had not been violence for literally hundreds of years. They were an isolated folk, mostly unlearned in reading and writing, and they knew very little about the outside world – indeed, they went out of their way to not get outside information. In short, they were ignorant. But when Saruman comes to the Shire, he corrupts the hobbits and changes their society forever. The hobbits are forced to acknowledge the outside world and deal with it. Some turn and join the Men, others try to protect themselves by laying low. The Party Tree is cut down, and the Machine comes to the Shire – Saruman begins ruining Frodo’s home the way he ruined Isengard: by tearing up trees and nature and building fires and bellows and machinery. And, most importantly, for the first time in hundreds of years, hobbit blood is shed. They learn about the outside world and they learn about violence. It is a loss of innocence for the hobbits, similar to the loss of innocence in Eden.
The Shire also functions in an interesting way for our hobbits. As we’ve discussed before, the Shire and the hobbits form our entry point into Middle Earth. It is familiar, we understand the feelings of these people, and through them we can understand elves and dragons and giant spiders – we can understand Faerie. As elf-friends, they view the world outside the Shire as an othered world, and for them (and for the reader), the Shire is solidly and securely their primary reality, their home. For Merry, Pippin, and Sam, it is the anchor they latch on to when they seem lost, because for them it is the place of return, the place they want to come home to. The entire point of their quest is to keep the Shire safe.
For Frodo, however, I want to propose that the Shire and the outside world switch positions: the outside world is real and, once he leaves the Shire, the Shire is his Faerie (of course, this is not instant, the process is slower; as Frodo becomes more entwined with the Ring and further away from the Shire, the less real the Shire becomes for him). As we have mentioned before, regardless of whether it is good or bad, Faerie is often used as an escape. It is a dream, a magical foreign world. Frodo had always been somewhat of an outsider among hobbits. He had odd birth circumstances. He was able to read and write, and he, more than any of the other hobbits he traveled with, knows the outside world – he had heard of its races, knows its lands from maps he had studied, and, most importantly, knew its other languages. He did not shy away from the outside world, he embraced it, and wanted to travel just like his improper uncle Bilbo. In many ways, even before he was given the Ring, Frodo was an unusual hobbit. He saw himself as separate from the hobbits, as is shown when he is talking to Gandalf and explains how frustrated he could get with the whole lot of them.
This, in addition to the burden of the Ring, fundamentally changes the way the Shire functions for Frodo in the story. While Same, Merry, and Pippin see it as a home to return to, Frodo from the start never has that hope. Frodo thinks he will never return, and so the Shire becomes a dream for him – a Faerie. Its beauty and peace and quiet becomes the unkown, the other, the magical. The Shire becomes a wonderous haven that he can escape to, not a physical place to return to. When he returns to the Shire, the difference between his view of the Shire and the other hobbits’ view of the Shire is explained when Merry says, “It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded,” and Frodo says, “Not to me. To me it feels more like falling asleep again.” (p. 997) It is partially for this reason that the destruction of the Shire is so devastating to Frodo: his Faerie has been breached by the outside world, and, much like Telperion and Laurelin, and like the trees, though the wreckage is used to rebuild as the trees are used to make sunlight and moonlight, the Shire is forever tainted. However, because Frodo had stopped thinking of the Shire as an actual place that he would see again, and began using it as a dream, I think the Shire would have been ruined for him even if Saruman had never come. Poor Frodo’s wounds, and his transformation of the Shire into a Faerie, meant that he would not have been able to enjoy the Shire even if it had been the same as he had left it.