I think there is a tendency in many readers–myself included–to over-idealize the charming life and culture of the hobbits of the Shire. In this post from a while back, however, in which I contrast the socio-economic order of the Shire with that of Bree, I posed this question:
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.
Whatever the relevance of or answer to that question may be, in my latest reading of The Fellowship I’m struck by just how questionable some of the hobbits actually are in their economic orientation. Although the hobbits have made a practice of gift giving, as I’ve commented before, it is actually Bilbo who, among hobbits, is particularly distinguished by his generosity. At the Party we are told that, although he gave gifts to everyone, some individuals were so greedy that they shamelessly “went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate,” presumably to see if they could acquire yet another gift. And though he wasn’t a Shire hobbit himself, it’s hard not to see Smeagol’s ancient act of slaying his friend and relative Deagol over what he desired as a birthday gift as the hobbit’s own original sin and Cain-and-Abel narratives, in which all subsequent hobbits are, after a fashion, implicated. (If a hobbit could kill another hobbit over a present, then anyone can.) Back to the Shire, however, we read that “Frodo had a very trying time that afternoon,” for
A false rumour that the whole household was being distributed free spread like wildfire; and before long the place was packed with people who had no business there, but could not be kept out. Labels got torn off and mixed, and quarrels broke out. Some people tried to do swaps and deals in the hall; and others tried to make off with minor items not addressed to them, or with anything that seemed unwanted or unwatched. The road to the gate was blocked with barrows and handcarts.
Embarrassingly, the day after Bilbo’s generous feast, the road to Bag End looks like the aisles of Walmart only a couple of hours after the family Thanksgiving meal. The Sackeville-Baggins are, of course, the worst of the lot, being “rather offensive. They began by offering him [Frodo] bad bargain-prices (as between friends) for various valuable and unlabelled things. When Frodo replied that only the things specially directed by Bilbo were being given away, they said the whole affair was very fishy.” When they demand to see and are shown Bilbo’s will, they don’t even try to conceal their covetousness, contempt, and ingratitude: ” ‘Foiled again!’ he [Otho] said to his wife. ‘And after waiting sixty years. Spoons? Fiddlesticks!'” As for Lobelia, Frodo finds her “investigating nooks and corners and tapping the floors,” and he finds she has gone so far as to steal “several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” And these are the people who are Bilbo’s next of kin! The dragon-sickness, however, seems to have infected even some of the younger hobbits, as Frodo and Merry are forced to “evict three young hobbits (two Boffins and a Bolger) who were knocking holes in the walls of one of the cellars” and things even get physical when Frodo “also had a tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”
In sum, then, for all its virtues and charm, clearly not everything is alright with the hobbits so far as their desire for material possessions is concerned. Even before Saruman got there, accordingly, we see that the Shire was due for a “scouring.”