If imitation is a form of flattery, it must be some sort of testament to a writer’s skill when partisans of both sides of an issue become intent upon placing each other as the villains of the same work of fiction. Some examples of this are, perhaps, unsurprising. The original Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984 is such a wonderfully universal government baddie that it is little wonder that those on both the right and left see each other as being like it.
However, one of the odder (to me) manifestations of this trend is the tendency of those on both right and left who are of a certain SF/F geek stripe (and political and genre geekdom do seem to go together more often than one might imagine) to identify themselves with the Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and to identify their opponent with the modernizing and destructive elements who take over the Shire under Lotho Sackville-Baggins and “Sharky” (Saruman) while Frodo and his friends are away, and who are driven out in the Scouring of the Shire.
For those less familiar with those aspects of the story that didn’t make the movie version: While Frodo and this three friends Sam, Merry and Pippin are off on the quest to destroy the One Ring, Frodo’s cousin Lotho uses the influence and affluence of belonging to one of the Shire’s leading families to run the Shire into a bit of a ditch. Most of the crops are exported, including nearly all the pipeweed, leaving Hobbits themselves with little left for themselves. Various “improvement” projects are undertaken, such as knocking down the picturesque old mill on the river in Hobbiton and putting up a large new brick structure which belches smoke and pollutes the river.
Many trees are cut down, and dreary-looking brick buildings are thrown up. When people complain, “big men” (non-Hobbits) are brought in, and the previously harmless core of sheriffs is used to institute a half-penny police state. Finally, a shadowy figure known as Sharky is heard to have taken over, and Lotho is not heard from much, though he is said to still be in charge.
When Frodo and his friends return, the sheriffs attempt to arrest them for being out after dark and not following rules. However, they quickly unite with old friends such as Farmer Cotton (father of Rosie, whom Sam eventually marries) and his sons and raise the Shire. There is a brief battle between hobbits and the big men in the employ of Sharky, and it turns out that Sharky is none other than Saruman, who has slunk away from Treebeard’s custody to cause what suffering he can for the returning hobbits by destroying the Shire as much as possible. Saruman is killed, despite Frodo’s attempts to forgive and spare him, and the four friends devote much of their energy in their first years after returning to setting things to rights again in the Shire.
At first glance, you can see elements which both rightists and leftists can use to pin the spoiling of the Shire on those like their opponents. For the rightists, Lotho and Sharkey set up a “big government” with a centralized authority publishing rules on everything from when you’re allowed out on the streets to the quantities of beer and fuel which can be consumed. Market freedom is also restricted, with the central authority collecting all production for “sharing”, which mostly results in it being shipped out of the Shire for sale in order to line the pockets of those in charge. I think it’s fair to say that Tolkien sees centralized power, economic planning and redistribution of resources enforced by the government as usually being tools for corruption rather than means towards the common good. He also clearly has a certain kind of limited government ideal (though not a classically liberal rights-based one) in that the right order which he sees are returning is one in which the King of Gondor keeps marauders away from the Shire and yet leaves it an essential un-governed area, while the post of Mayor in Hobbiton is a mainly honorary one whose duties center around presiding at banquets.
At the same time, leftists point out that one of the primary grievances against Lotho and the big men he brings in to run the Shire is that they set about maximizing production and exports while disrupting society and destroying the environment (cutting down trees, polluting the river and air, building ugly brick structures and generally making noise). They see this as an indictment of ‘big business’ and an endorsement of environmentalism. Further, the very same intrusive rule making and enforcement which rightists see as symbolizing intrusive “big government”, leftists see as the jack-booted police tactics of rightists.
Perhaps there is some extent to which both sides can be seen as having valid points here, but I think the thing which one should be most clear on is that Tolkien’s societal vision expressed in the Shire is one which does not fall within the spectrum of either modern leftism or modern rightism. In letters and interviews, Tolkien described himself as being a bit of a Hobbit, and in many ways the Shire represents an idealized version of the English country village life which Tolkien remembered from the turn of the century, when he was 8-10 years old. The Shire represents an admixture of Tolkien’s memories of the few years of his childhood spent in a country village, in an area on the cusp of modernization, with a vaguely medieval era.
There is, in modern America, no political faction in support of a return to a pre-industrial society and economy — and this is probably just as well since such a return is arguably both impossible and undesirable. There is, I think, real value to questioning whether all that is new is necessarily good and examining what we are giving up as we discard the old for the new. However, there is not (and arguably cannot be) an ideology in favor of returning to a Shire-like existence — in part because such a society never existed in the first place. Further, I would argue that modern ideology, by its nature, is out of keeping with Tolkien’s societal vision. The very idea of having an ideology is something contrary to the society portrayed in the Shire.