September 2, 2023 - 8:00am

When he created hobbits, J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind the sturdy English yeomen of his early life. “They love peace and quiet and good tilled earth,” we are told. They are straightforward, honest folk who dislike complex machines, mind their own business, and retire to the pub at the end of the day. Their community, the Shire, is small, close-knit and self-contained, cut off from the cares of the wider world. They are, spiritually, an island race.

Tolkien made no secret of his affinity for this way of life, famously writing in a letter to a fan that “I am in fact a Hobbit […] I like gardens, trees, and unmechanised farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food […] I do not travel much.” This attitude is a longstanding motif of a particular English mentality, in which the real England lies in the countryside, in the manor house and the churchyard and the hedgerow, in old maids hiking to Communion through the mists of the autumn morning. Tolkien draws on this by making the Shire a kind of moral centre for the whole epic, drawing on his nostalgia for the vanished meadows and lanes of his boyhood.

Instinctively I am drawn to this way of thinking. And yet today, on the fiftieth anniversary of Tolkien’s death, I do find myself wondering whether the enormous popularity of his work — as well as the seductive pastoral vision of the Shire portrayed in Peter Jackson’s excellent film adaptations — has contributed to one of the enduring problems of modern British life: our suspicion of industry, dynamism, urban growth and innovation. This tendency is as old as the Industrial Revolution itself. William Blake’s complaint about “dark satanic mills” is more than two centuries old. In the 1820s William Cobbett was already grumbling about the expansion of cities and pining for the unspoiled Arcadia of his youth in Surrey. 

At least two incidents in The Lord Of The Rings — the refortification of Isengard and the Scouring of the Shire — are clearly intended to portray development and increasing economic sophistication in a negative light. The problem is that in the modern era, conservative-minded people’s too-frequent aesthetic and cultural disdain for the engines of prosperity, such as construction, finance, energy exploration and container ports, has genuine costs. It means more expensive housing and fewer, less well-paid jobs. It means less growth, which means less money for warships and hospitals and roads. Only this week the campaign group Britain Remade reported that infrastructure in the UK costs vastly more than in comparable countries, not least because opponents of particular projects have so many opportunities to veto, review, slow down and halt the work. 

None of this should be regarded as a wholehearted planting of my flag on the terrain of progress at all costs. I am a hobbit by temperament and lifestyle. I love the line given to Bilbo Baggins in the Jackson films: “Things are made to endure in the Shire, passing from one generation to the next.” But I am also a patriot who wants Britain to prosper, and to recover her national mojo. Ours is no longer the world in which Tolkien grew up, nor even the one in which he spent his last years. We must resist the temptation towards stasis, the impulse to coast on the delightful but diminishing legacy of a vanishing England. Tolkien himself was very careful to note that the Shire is not self-sustaining, dependent as it is on outsiders for security. 

Perhaps the marking of the half-century since the great man’s departure for the Undying Lands is a good occasion to reinvigorate our idea of what Britain might be.  

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.