Kentucky Hobbits

A review of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot (Ignatius Press, 2014), by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards.

Russell Kirk often said that his true formation as a conservative had more to do with reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott than anything else. We also know from James Kibler’s work, among other historians, just how important Scott’s novels were to the culture of the antebellum American South. Similarly to Kirk’s experience, literary scholar Joseph Pearce has said that he was pre-evangelized to a Christian worldview and to general conservative principles in reading J.R.R. Tolkien. There is perhaps a lesson here in the potential of cultural impact from literary fiction with grounding in the permanent things. The 2014 Ignatius Press book, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot, by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards does a good job exploring the great Oxford philologists’: “political-economic vision”, and why he believed that “propriety, honor, and tradition – particularly that of Christendom – were crucial to sustaining freedom and a flourishing civilization” (pg. 34).

While generally despising direct allegory, Tolkien wove a deep Biblical and Christological palladium into his mythic narrative of the victory of Providence over the dark lord who held Middle-Earth bound in a fallen order. The Christian message of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories has been well explored by Tolkien scholars such as:  Peter Kreeft and the aforementioned Joseph Pearce. However, chapter one of The Hobbit Party cites Joseph Pearce explaining that Tolkien himself indicated “that the political significance of the work [Lord of the Rings] was second only to the religious in its importance.” The Hobbit Party steps in to explore the political and cultural images of Tolkien’s, which connect extremely well to that of the Southern Agrarian Tradition.

For Tolkien, hobbits are rather the beau-ideal of the agrarian conservative. Hobbits are salt-of- the-earth yeomen who place a high value on tradition and respectability, may be dandyish, yet are practical and straightforward – good country folks as we might say. Tolkien himself personally identified with these characteristics:

I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much. (Tolkien’s Letter to Rhona Beare, October 25, 1958)

While we may imagine, and rightfully so, the countryside of England, Scotland or Ireland as a landscape setting for our hobbits, Tolkien may have had his Southron American cousins in mind as well. I found it interesting to read Guy Davenport’s essay Hobbitry from his 1997 book The Geography of the Imagination, in which he recounts a conversation with a Shelbyville, Kentucky history teacher named Allen Barnett who had been a classmate of Tolkien’s at Oxford. Davenport had elucidated Barnett concerning the literary success of his old friend to which Barnett responded:

Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.

Davenport describes his immediate reflections upon this revelation:

And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the Hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality –I remember the fun recently of looking out of an English bus and seeing a roadsign pointing to Butterbur. Kentucky, it seems, contributed its share. Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phonebook, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living.

Are there lessons to be gleaned from these Kentucky Shire Folk as an alternative to the emptiness and crass materialism that late modernity otherwise extends us? Write the authors, “One of the most attractive features of this land of small people is that it is also a land of small government” (Pg. 30). And the text goes directly on:

There is a clue here to understanding Tolkien’s vision of the free society. The Shire is consistent with Tolkien’s stated preference for government that is less about meddling and more about protecting people’s basic freedoms. Notice how different that vision is from the rigid game of international corporate-government cronyism that is with us today, and that was alive and well in the Europe of Tolkien’s day.

The Hobbit Party has chapter titles that speak for themselves as to their traditional agrarian conservatism, for example “The Lonely Mountain versus the Market” and “The Fellowship of the Localists.” But wherever one lands in the spectrum of conservatism from anarcho-libertarian to Catholic- distributist, what Bohemian Tory will not appreciate the title of chapter one?: “In a Hole in the Ground There Lived an Enemy of Big Government”?

Fr. James V. Schall S.J. aptly wrote in the Forward to The Hobbit Party:

The Mordors of this world are places where all gifts cease. The eye that sees everything allows no privacy. It allows us no place wherin we can be ourselves. The Hobbit “Party” in contrast is a scene of joy and abundance, of the time when all else is done, a time for listening to tales that explain who we are… The divine plan follows not just the paths of universal history and the great heroes of this world, but the detours of Nazareth, Tarsus, and Tagaste, where Augustine, in his teens, read Cicero. Seemingly insignificant places are often where the real events that define our essential being took place.

The connection of the One Ring with the Theological doctrine of Original Sin is explored in Chapter 2 (page 38 of the book), and this sets the stage for the striving for ordered liberty in a fallen society – “freedom under justice” (pg. 67). Tolkien meant “the essential differences between the totalitarian and free society” to be manifest in his work:

One is a landscape of fear and domination; the other is a place where exchanges and mutual endeavors are pursued freely and where needs not filled by the markets are typically met through voluntary gift giving and receiving. In a letter about the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote that “the supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specifically about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills.” Sauron and his ring exemplify this supremely bad motive – Gandalf and the ring of fire, the opposition. (pg. 74)

It is perhaps significant that the Lord of the Rings was banned in the Soviet Union. Socialists could see that Tolkien’s work critiqued their vision as a form of “Sarumanism” (pg. 159). The Hobbit Party gives an historical account of the black market copies of Tolkien’s works that floated through Cold War era Eastern Europe, and concludes with this anecdote:

And so it was in August 1991, when the Soviet experiment was taking its last, gasping breath, anti-Communist groups in Moscow raised up a banner over barricades they erected as Communist tanks were closing in on them. “Frodo is with us!” the banner read. (pg. 188)

 Another interesting feature of The Hobbit Party is that one of the authors (Jay Richards) visits modern Southern Agrarian, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, as a practical application of what this can look like in contemporary society:

…we enjoyed a lengthy tour of his Polyface farms – a reference to the many different kinds of animals on the farm, including cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. The farm is nestled in a valley in rural Virginia amid green fields, rolling hills, large patches of trees, and some farmhouses that date back to the Revolutionary War. If you picture the Shire, you won’t be too far off. Salatin has a robust Christian understanding of stewardship and animal husbandry. (pg. 154)

They summarize Salatin’s distrust of government interference stating:

In one of his books, Everything I want to do is illegal, Salatin tells harrowing tales of how much freedom has been taken away from farmers and food producers who simply want to exercise their creative freedom and compete, but are battered and suppressed by food and agricultural bureaucracies that often seemed designed to eradicate small operations. The picture he paints is of a government that has gotten so large that many agricultural companies prefer to curry favor with federal regulators rather than to compete fairly for customers. (pg. 153)

One point of criticism for The Hobbit Party, in my opinion, is its polemical engagement with elements of the so called distributist movement, which I find somewhat unnecessary in a work otherwise attempting an entry level defense for traditional society and free markets through the literary picture forged for us by Tolkien.  One of the better explanations of the term distributism was written by Hillsdale College professor, Allan C. Carlson, in his work From Cottage to Workstation: The Family’s Search for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993):

[Society should] move toward a broadened distribution of land and other private property among citizens, with a strong preference for family-held and -operated enterprises. Hilaire Belloc, the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and Wendell Berry have, in different times and places, joined in with Chesterton and Zimmerman in offering a shared vision of the good society, reborn through a primary commitment to autonomous families rooted in communities of character.

The authors of The Hobbit Party specifically criticize those distributists that look for some form of government controlled provisional involvement to assist in this fundamentally conservative social transformation; and in this criticism I entirely agree with the authors, a criticism equally applicable to all neo-conservatives and many nationalist populists as well. It is the alliance of industrial corporatism with Big Government (G. K. Chesterton referred to these as “Hudge and Gudge”) that continues to distort the authentic application of what we often call capitalism, but should probably be called free-markets. Chesterton rebuked those self acclaimed capitalists who would close the free market to their neighbors by their cronyism and profiteering dealings with the power of the State. He wrote in Chapter 3 of The Superstition of Divorce that the problem with this type of crony-capitalism or corporatism is not that it creates “too many capitalists, but too few capitalists”.

I also regret that certain statements on this issue made in the footnotes of The Hobbit Party were not placed in the main body of the text instead. I have in mind footnote Chapter 8.38:

If distrubutism is merely a perspective that values limited government, widespread property ownership, strong families, and government policies that do not actively interfere with robust local food markets, etc., then we, Joel Salatin, F. A. Hayek, and Tolkien are all dstributists.

The societies of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth alliance of heroes are far from perfect cultures; the prejudices, imperfections and foibles of Rohan, Gondor, the Shire, as well as the various kingdoms of Elves and Dwarves etc. remain constantly on display. It is a fallen world, and ultimate redemption is sought outside of this age. Yet, this does not diminish the imperative those characters retained for defending their traditional heritage and principles while set upon the journey. And so The Hobbit Party adduces the teaching with which many Kentucky Hobbits would finally agree:

This purpose or end includes this earthly life but also eternal life with God and the saints. Our ultimate purpose – to combine the claims of the Catholic catechism and Westminster confession – is to love, seek, know, glorify, and enjoy God forever. Such a message is only latent in the Lord of the Rings, but we are offered glimpses of it, as with Gandalf’s fervent service to the “Secret Fire”, and in Frodo’s realizing he can find ultimate healing only by leaving Middle-Earth and sailing to the Undying Lands. (pg. 103)

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