“Riverton” said the signpost to a new housing development. It sounds like somewhere from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien, somewhere from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. It would not be hard to imagine such tales unfolding among the fields and villages of Somersetshire.
The stories of Tolkien leave some people cold; his creation of Middle Earth with its history and language seems, to some, a work of eccentricity. Perhaps it is growing up in the land of Arthur and Merlin that makes Tolkien seem special. The Shire is a picture of the rural England I know. It is a picture of cottages and gardens and farms and tight-knit little communities. The hobbits are little people, ordinary people, unsophisticated people; people without power or status; they are the broad shouldered stockily built, yeomen farmers of Wessex.
It is said that Tolkien believed that England once possessed a mythology to match that of the Nordic or the Celtic peoples and that he sought in part to create a mythology to match that of other nations. Yet his work is far too subtle and developed for it to fall into company with myths from elsewhere. Tolkien doesn’t tell mythical stories, he creates a complete civilisation and culture. He re-creates a pre-industrial world where mechanisation is the work of evil powers, it is mechanisation that produces the warriors of darkness.
The First World War and the wholesale mechanisation of destruction, is thought to have had a great impact upon Tolkien, yet his civilisation reaches much further back than the preceding Edwardian or Victorian ages.
Bilbo Baggins has no desire to leave is home; his wish is for his hearth and his books. It is easy to understand why no hobbit would wish to venture outside of the Shire for all they could possibly desire is there. Tolkien’s world is one in which peaceful coexistence is possible; in which diverse groups can inhabit the same space, though preferably not the same house, for hobbit houses are compact. The Shire is a place in which characters can be ruggedly independent and still live in strong communities.
Tolkien offers a vision of an idyllic agrarian, pre-industrial society. Of course, no such idyll ever existed, but the enduring appeal of his work suggests there is something in it which still strikes a chord with people generations removed from the land. Driving along the Polden Hills in early autumn sunshine, there is almost a sense that hobbits and elves could well inhabit these lands.