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.