Ch. 3 – Mayor, Master, Thain

Mayor, Master, Thain – Bilbo POV

In which trouble and change are discussed, and respectability keeps causing problems.


Bilbo has a less than satisfactory conversation with one of his cousins and I get to address one of my deep dissatisfactions with JRRT and fanfiction.

One of the most aggravating exchanges in all of LotR comes in the Council of Elrond where Aragorn/Strider/Still Not King spits out some snotty shit about “the simple folk” and how the people in Bree (and by extension the Shire) have to be kept ignorant of the growth of Sauron’s powers and the need for self-defense.

‘And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

To which I say, “Go fuck yourself, ape man.” Who the hell are you to deliberately withhold information from the people living in the north who need that to prepare and participate in their own defense?  This noblesse oblige crap was such a sour note that I hated the character on the spot. Those are the words of tyrants and autocrats, who see grown, intelligent people as children (or servants/subjects), fit only to be manipulated and treated as less than fully human. It is one of the places where the Professor’s own Edwardian bigotry about lesser peoples comes through uncontested by his deep humanism.

It also sets up the Shire as a bucolic haven that suddenly, inexplicably, in the space of less than a year, is taken over and laid waste by a gang of ruffians. This kind of social collapse should have taken years – so what has been happening in the Shire such that it was so fragile when Frodo fled in mid-September of one year that it has been become an occupied territory by the following spring? Something else has to have been gnawing away for some time and it was not plausible to me that hobbits had no sense of things going wrong, even if they did not know exactly how to address it.

And so, I introduce the Troubles and the destabilizing influence of change. These themes are continuing in my subsequent Shire Stories.

It’s also a place for me to address the sociologically vacuous nature of most fanfic, which posits a reasonably complex agrarian society that somehow thrives in the absence of any formal political structures. JRRT himself spins a tale of a people ungoverned by anything except tradition – except when he doesn’t. There’s a Thain, the Master of Buckland, and a Mayor of Michel Delving who somehow has authority throughout the Shire. There’s a rudimentary police (shirriffs) and postal delivery system. Then there are obvious but undefined social classes of gentlehobbits, great families, farmers and serving folk. How do these power structures actually work?

The challenge in a traditional society is twofold – how do you deal with the rights of an individual/outgroups vs. the clan/in-groups, and how do you deal with forces of change that cannot be held off? The recent American election can be seen as a (partially) successful attempt by the most tradition-bound and clannish elements of society to stomp on the claims of outsiders and fend off the growing forces (climate, political, economic, technological, demographic) of change confronting the nation. That’s how forces of reaction and revanchism sabotage a modern social order.

But what about that traditional society faced with that dual challenge, when modernity is still several centuries off? That’s the background against which Bilbo and Frodo’s personal stories play out.



2 thoughts on “Ch. 3 – Mayor, Master, Thain”

  1. This is good gapfilling. The first two chapters were mostly introducing and developing characters, this chapter introduces not only Rory (who does a lot of thinking on larger subjects) but dealing with how the underlying politics works. I agree with you that a lot must have been going on under the surface for Lotho, Sharkey and the ruffians to have done so much harm in so short a time.

    This is a much worse conversation for Bilbo. Rory is much more pleasant than Esmie, is understanding the need, but then agrees with Esmie about “respectability” and says it won’t be bad for Frodo (Bilbo’s instincts knows that’s not true) and he’s in denial about what it would be for Bilbo, because Pal has forbidden him to come near. Not good.

    I don’t have the same first impression of Aragorn. I think I must have been 13 when I first read LotR. I liked him. And Gandalf. And Elrond, etc. Everyone I was supposed to like, from JRRT’s point of view. I was much older before it occurred to me that I should question authority & arrogance. I still mostly like him (Strider, not Elessar) … but by college and thinking about trade-routes, my reaction to the King’s closing the Shire’s borders was “yeah, sure, that’s not going to last long”. I like his friendship with Bilbo and it’s sad for both that Bilbo wasn’t able to go to Strider’s wedding. He’s fun to grump about, though.

  2. Hi Julie,

    I’ve warmed up to the fellow over the years, mostly due to Bilbo and Finduilas giving me a few pokes and rolling their eyes, but Aragorn is a singularly flat and tedious character. Strider is more interesting. It is sad that Bilbo wasn’t strong enough to go to Gondor. I wish he had. Even if he never came home, it would have been a grand adventure.

    Yes, hearing the “But you aren’t respectable” argument from Rory really gutted Bilbo here, even as he can acknowledge its validity. It’s the hypocrisy of it all that gnaws at Bilbo. Outward conformity and inner depravity are difficult to battle.

    All societies, even “simple” ones, are mind-bogglingly complex. It is hard to interact with people beyond your immediate circle of family and companions. “Transaction costs,” to use a political economy term, are prohibitively high when you don’t have a system to ensure fairness and reciprocity – in their absence it’s merely the rule of the strong. Hobbits have learned how to cooperate in a hostile world. They have a kind of practical democracy in place, with very little distance between elites and the rest of the population, they have more (at least in my way of thinking) equity between genders, though it is clearly a patriarchal, patrilineal order, than the Big People, and they are much less internally competitive for social and political goods. They have rules, formal and informal, that keeps the peace and facilitates trade.

    And Bilbo Baggins has turned it all upside-down.


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