The Politics of Hobbits (The Transfiguration of Place, Part I)
The following is the introductory section of a talk I gave last week at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” There are six parts in all.
There is a mythical place where many of us, including myself, have often fantasized about moving to. In it, people live a mostly agrarian lifestyle. There is little government, and what there is consists mainly of the post office, an informal sort of border patrol, and a handful of policemen who are little more than a community watch. There is also a mayor, but his primary duties are to give toasts and to preside at parties and such. Most people live in the homes their parents lived in, and hardly anyone ever thinks about buying up property and renting it out. And certainly, no one there would ever kill anyone else, no matter how annoying they became.
Life there is dedicated to the good things and the slow things, to plants and livestock and good food. On birthdays, people give away presents rather than get them, which means that if you go to plenty of birthday parties, you will have a fairly steady stream of presents coming in. And anything you don’t happen to like can get re-gifted, and no one particularly cares.
I am of course describing the Shire, the fictional home of hobbits, invented by author and Oxford Anglo-Saxon professor J. R. R. Tolkien to be reminiscent of the rural England of his youth, before what in those days was called the Great War but what we now call World War I. The Great War radically changed the face of Europe and of the world in general, though not only in terms of geographic borders. In that conflict, for the first time, the world came together in a new way, not for cultural or religious reasons, but rather to make war. And that war was fought by tearing men from their homes, taking them on long, long journeys, and most especially by pitting them against one another by using machines.
Tanks were first used in that war, developed by the British mainly as a means of breaking up the deadlocks of trench warfare. Although they had been imagined and described in a 1903 short story by H. G. Wells called “The Land Ironclads,” the first working tanks were rolled out in September of 1916 at the Battle of the Somme in France. With the distances traveled by soldiers in that war, and with the ground they were able to acquire with the use of tanks, no longer were men defending their homes and families by camping out next to them and digging trenches. Instead, they were rolling out massive armored units, wielding these terrible weapons, fighting for something much more ephemeral than home and family. They were of course fighting to turn back invasions from the Germans and their allies, but the mechanized era of warfare that was inaugurated in 1916 became the beginning of a very new kind of culture, something never seen before in the history of mankind.
A maelstrom followed, upending all the old rules of commerce, communication and economy, fueled by something exciting and yet, in retrospect, culturally very dangerous. You see, with the industrialization of war also came the industrialization of life in general, particularly with the most pervasive of industrial products—transportation.
Transportation turned out to be a temptation we as a race simply could not resist. At first, ever easier access to transportation meant that frequent travel was no longer solely for the wealthy. Yet it came to be critical to commerce. And it has now come to define us as people. Whole cities and suburbs are built assuming that their residents own cars. Many modern suburbs so presume the use of the car that a walker would have to travel for miles and miles to find a place to buy food.
And this mobility not only connects our homes with numerous places once too far away to make frequent stops, but it has also has changed us into people who no longer really have homes. Since the 1940s, another decade of major industrial advance, in a given year, between one out of eight and one out of five Americans will move to another community. 42% of Americans have lived in more than one state, and nearly one out of seven has lived in at least four states.
People who move this often are not, as you may imagine, going to live like hobbits. Hobbits are largely self-governing, but a mobile populace requires much more detailed and precisely defined legalities. With a neighborhood where people don’t really know each other, since their houses are basically for parking their cars and for sleeping at night, a more externalized and impersonal polity must prevail. Likewise, for a people who are unlikely to have much sense of personal loyalty to the town they live in, not having grown up there, there will need to be lines of information and entertainment that transcend the mundane local life and turn the mind toward what is national and, indeed in more and more cases, international.
This brings us back, however, to the politics of hobbits. One might ask how hobbits, who really have little in the way of legal life or a ruling class, could have politics. After all, we think of politics these days in terms of the power-brokering of the mighty, those who now wield those great fleets not only of tanks but also of stealth bombers, nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers. But political life has not always been defined by the clashing of governments and policies. In former times, the term politics referred much more broadly to all public life.
With that understanding, hobbit politics have numerous qualities which we might admire, though I think most people nowadays would probably prefer the Shire mainly as a vacation destination, not as somewhere they would want to live. After all, there are no video games there, nor are there exotic restaurants or Internet access or any of the other kinds of entertainments and comforts made possible by quick and cheap transportation. But hobbit politics are defined most of all by their place. Even the hobbits in Tolkien’s books who leave the Shire are constantly talking about it and trying to get back. The Shire is a place that its people love, and even within the Shire’s four Farthings and its little internal towns, people rarely move. Thus, generations upon generations of hobbits may live in the same neighborhood, walking the same streets, living in the same homes, tending the same gardens for centuries. This dedication to the same place has a name for it—localism.
My reading of history is such that most people were basically localists until recent times, though there was no need for a name for it. There was no television or cheap oil or cheap broadband access to draw our attention everywhere but here. Necessity and economics required that we know our neighbors, if only so we could trade or buy our necessities, so that we could find husbands and wives for our children, so that we would not be left bereft of comfort and help when tragedy struck. But now, all those connections have been stripped away, and our collective alienation is so acute that we grope around politically to try to find national, systemic solutions to almost all our challenges. It really used to be that your local family doctor would probably treat you anyway when you couldn’t pay him, but once our government told him that we’d pay him so he wouldn’t have to be charitable any more, something precious was lost. But why should he care? He probably doesn’t even live in the same neighborhood as you, anyway.