Chapter 9 of The Fellowship of the Ring
On an intercity bus ride a few nights ago, I woke from a sleep to overhear two strangers chatting in the dark about fantasy novels. I gathered one was a theology student, and the other had worked for a church. They seemed super-humanly earnest. They discussed C.S. Lewis ("wonderful!") and J.R.R. Tolkien (not so wonderful), both agreeing that The Lord of the Rings was "hard going" and "like history".
|CS Lewis: Theologian approved.|
The whole scene reminded me of this week's chapter: a nocturnal journey, a hushed conversation, a hidden eavesdropper. In At the Sign of the Prancing Pony, the hobbits arrive in the town of Bree and try to evade the pursuit of the Black Riders. But before the action begins, Tolkien administers a heavy dose of background information: the architecture of Bree, race-relations in Bree and ancient migration patterns. No wonder some readers find this "hard going" and "like history".
Other readers (like myself) eat this stuff up with a spoon. De gustibus something something something, as dear old dad likes to remind me. But the strangers' conversation pointed me to a larger question. The Lord of the Rings contains so much lore -- but what is it missing?
It is missing a lot. We can see this from the description of Bree in the present chapter: "In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire." The lands are empty.
More specifically, there are three main things surprisingly absent from Middle-earth: people, government and religion. Let me take each one in turn:
- There are no people. Middle-earth generally, and especially the northwest, is severely depopulated. Bree and the Shire (which only have a few thousand people between them) appear to be the only settlements between Rivendell and the Grey Havens, a distance of about 500 miles (or the distance between Paris and Berlin). Indeed, we're told in the first sentence of this chapter that the lands are "empty" -- and this dominating wilderness is a huge theme in The Lord of the Rings.
But this depopulation not very plausible, whatever the cause. It's not how humans work: we fill up spaces, especially nice temperate spaces like north-west Middle-earth. For example, even after the Black Death carried off 25%-33% of the population of Europe, recovery was swift, with "prompt" economic, agricultural and political recovery. And although the population took a long time to fully bounce back, Europe did not become a wasteland.
- There is no government. Bree and the Shire appear to exist in a state of anarchy (in the original sense of that word - "without leaders"). We're told that the Shire has a mayor but that he's really more of a toastmaster:
"The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years at the Free Fair on the White Downs at the Lithe, that is at Midsummer. As mayor almost his only duty was to preside at banquets, given on the Shire-holidays, which occurred at frequent intervals." (FotR, Prologue)
So, on the one hand, we have a complex society (a postal network, inns and trade) but no way of resolving disputes, no authority figure, not even a local warlord (until Sharkey comes along). Frankly, this is freakish. In the world as we know it, prosperous villages can't spend hundreds of years in harmonious anarchy. Although there were some self-governing communities in the medieval world, they were not stable or long lasting (even Iceland had its chieftains and a complex system of government). The absence of any state in northwest Middle-earth is not plausible.
- There is no church. The topic of religion in Tolkien is fascinating, and probably deserves its own post. Here I'll simply say that devotion, ceremony and even faith are absent from The Lord of the Rings. There are no houses of worship, no clergy not scriptures. Nothing in the Shire, and nothing here in Bree. So far, the closest we've gotten to the Supreme Being is when Merry cries out "Lawks" (i.e. "Lord!") in Chapter 5 as he sees what a mess Pippin is making with his bath.
This is a huge rupture with the way that humans generally behave. Before modern times, no human society existed without some form of spiritual belief. And the Middle Ages were especially bananas for religion. At the heart of every medieval village and town was a church with its steeple rising into the sky. This was an age "drenched in mysticism", with religious belief impregnating every aspect of life.
I don't mean any of this as a critique. After all, Tolkien was writing a fantasy novel. He's entitled to bend reality as much as he pleases. And by leaving out these elements, Tolkien is able to focus on things he really cares about: the Edenic existence of hobbits in the Shire or the vastness of the wilderness (to give two examples).
I just want to point out how fantastic Middle-earth really is. It's nothing like our world as we know it, and certainly nothing like medieval Europe. To conceive of a temperate continent without a thriving population, without a state, and without any religion is an act of pure imagination, more audacious than giving us elves, dragons and magic swords.
Indeed, it's a mental leap that many Tolkien fans have trouble making. You see this especially in role-playing or computer games set in Middle-earth. In an effort to make the game more digestible, the lands fill up with little cities and local potentates, or characters take on classes like priests and animists. I can understand this from a game-play perspective, but sometimes these extraneous works distract us from Tolkien's unique vision. Middle-earth is a strange place with strange absences that make it nothing "like history."
[Image credit with kind permission: Ted Nasmith "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony" Gouache on illustration board (1990).]
You can find my commentary on Chapter 8 here.