A post on what might be described as the “libertarianism” of Tolkien’s Bree-landers. I have commented before on Aragorn’s “laissez-fair love of Bree.” Yet what first prompts Gandalf’s remark about the King of Gondor’s affection for Bree, it is worth noting, is Butterbur’s concern that the new monarch should at once restore order and yet “let Bree alone,” an anti-interventionist outlook that Barliman seems to share with many of his fellow Bree-landers. Much earlier in The Lord of the Rings, when Bree-land is first introduced, her men are described as “brown-haired, broad, and rather short, cheerful and independent: they belonged to nobody but themselves…” Upsetting the stereotype, this independent spirit, rather than making them especially isolationist, segregationist, and prejudiced, seems rather to have made them more, not less open and cordial to those different from themselves: “they were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants of the world about them than was (or is) usual with Big People.” This libertarian tendency, moreover, seems to be connected with (interestingly enough) their pioneer, frontiersman origins:
According to their own tales they were the original inhabitants and were the descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world…. [W]hen the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Breemen still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass. In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire.
For most readers, of course, it is not the comparatively more commercial and cosmopolitan Bree, but the secluded, idyllic, rustic, bucolic, and semi-anarchic Shire (Tolkien describes it in one place as “half republic half aristocracy”), that stands out as the political ideal in The Lord of the Rings. Yet the Shire’s original founding as a colony of the hobbits of Bree-land implies that the latter may in part, if not in large, be responsible for whatever passion for limited-government and responsible self-rule that the Shire-folk inherited (similar, and perhaps not wholly unrelated to, their inheriting from the comparatively more innovative Bree-hobbits the noble practice of pipe-smoking). As the unique political situation of Bree-land is further described, “The Big Folk and the Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk. Nowhere else in the world was this peculiar (but excellent) arrangement to be found.” Clearly, for the narrator, if not for Tolkien, in some ways it is the unique polity (such as it is) of Bree-land that represents a kind of political ideal, one from which the comparatively insular and isolated Shire-folk have to some extent unfortunately departed. More than mere accidental participants in this remarkable situation, moreover, this enlightened perspective seems to be essential to the identity of the Bree-hobbits in particular: “There was Bree-blood in the Brandybucks by all accounts.” It is thus with more than a hint of irony and understatement that we are told how the Shire-hobbits regard their distant relatives in Bree as “Outsiders,” “dull and uncouth,” when the latter were in fact “decent and prosperous, and no more rustic than most of their distant relatives Inside.”
Given the Shire’s later political misfortunes toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, we might wonder, in conclusion, what role (if any) the apparent failure of her hobbits to achieve the Bree-lander’s delicate balance–a synthesis between spirited independence and a cooperative symbiosis of heterogeneous groups–may have played in the Shire’s eventual vulnerability, first, to the capitalist aggrandizement of Lotho Baggins, followed in turn and replaced by the socialist tyrannies of Saruman-cum-Sharkey.
Other posts on Tolkien’s political/social philosophy.
In an interview, which Carpenter cites in his biography, Tolkien refers to the Hobbits as having a “bourgeois smugness,” which seems like a pretty good way of summarizing the Shire, although I admit that I had never really thought about the relationship between Hobbiton and Bree before. Most interesting.
Yeah, the “Tolkien Professor” (Corey Olsen of Washington College) has a great discussion in one of his lectures of the more problematic side of Shire culture, but I had never paid attention to the narrator’s interesting remarks on Bree until just recently.
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