Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Shire as Eden and Faerie

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. 



  1. I really like this idea of the Shire becoming Faerie for Frodo, and I like very much the way you point to what Frodo says about falling asleep again as the hobbits come back to the Shire, but what then do you do with the dream that Frodo has in Tom Bombadil's house and which he sees realized when he sails into the West: has he entered a dream there, too, or has it become his "faerie reality"? Just trying to tease out the implications of your insight!


  2. I think so much in your post in spot on! I had never thought of the Shire as an Eden before but I agree with you. The Shire demonstrates a sort of peaceful anarchism and freedom from hardship and worry that is hard to imagine in our primary reality or in the rest of the secondary reality of Middle-Earth. After the events of LOTR, especially Saruman’s invasion of the Shire falls and its inhabitants come to know division, fear, and hardship.

    I like your insight that in many ways the outside world is a Faerie to Pippin, Merry, and Sam, and that they function as our elfriends, introducing the readers to this faerie. However I am not sure what to think about Frodo. To say that the outside world and the shire switch place for Frodo implies that while the Shire becomes distant and magical the rest of Middle-Earth becomes more near and real of homely. However, I do think that after his ordeal Frodo could feel at home and engaged in reality in Rivendell, or Minas Tirith, anymore than in the Shire. I think that while wearing the ring part of him has entered the shadow world that he sees when he puts on the ring and therefore all of Middle-Earth becomes distant and dreamlike compared with the darker world he carries is his own heart and mind. He can be at home nowhere. However, my view has its own complications. If it is the shadow in his soul that makes middle-earth and the Shire faerie-like then would the greater light and glory of Valinor seem more distant, more faerie-like? Maybe a new faerie that was always other (but also glorious) is better than losing a home to otherness.


  3. I totally agree with you about wanting to live in the Shire (and the eating and drinking and walking around barefoot)! I think Rivendell is my favorite place in the whole of Middle Earth, but I don’t know that I could live there forever (my short, human forever); it’s a little too perfect, a little to ethereal, a little to . . . elven. (I also agree with you about the music: I have my ipod set up to play the hobbit music as my morning alarm; it always starts my day out well!)

    You make a good point about the defilement of the Shire being like the Fall and the expulsion from Eden; the Party Tree makes a good comparison with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but it’s interesting that Saruman is really the serpent and the apple in many ways.

    I think classifying the Shire after Frodo’s transformation as his Faerie is very accurate. In a way, it seems like this makes Frodo even more like us because the Shire is our Faerie, too (really, just part of it, but the only totally unspoiled part (until the end)). I also like your comparison between the deaths of Telperion and Laurelin and the defilement of the Shire, that, in each case, “the wreckage is used to rebuild,” but the rebuilt version is forever tainted and inferior to the original. This diminished rebuilding seems to be a recurring theme in Tolkien’s work. So sad!