A Chris Trotter rewind – 20 years of LOTR

As LOTR turns 20, I think the best political cultural evaluation of the movie and the Shire that is NZ was written by Chris Trotter back in 2016…

Sleepy Hobbits? Or, Something Worse?

ARE WE “SLEEPY HOBBITS” – or something worse? Certainly, it doesn’t sound very sinister. Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury’s description of the New Zealand electorate seems a lot more like gentle chiding than a full-blown assault. Kiwis are upbraided for their general failure to respond appropriately to the increasingly alarming news reaching their ears. Comparing them to the complacent patrons of Hobbiton’s Green Dragon, Martyn chastises New Zealanders for being much more interested in listening to gossip than hearing news.

Martyn’s characterisation acquires greater force, however, if his audience’s only reference point is Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Significantly, concerns about the project’s burgeoning length required Jackson to leave out what is, in many respects, the most powerful chapter of the entire trilogy – The Scouring of the Shire.

It is only when Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam return home that the universal impact of Sauron’s bid for absolute power strikes them. With a rising sense of outrage, and horror, they see that their beloved Shire has been transformed into what Tolkien clearly wants his readers to recognise as an industrial wasteland. Worse still, the Hobbits themselves are in the process of being industrialised. The sturdy peasants and artisans of the trilogy’s opening chapters, along with their aristocratic masters, are on the point of being turned into proletarians. They have been driven from their hobbit-holes and herded into barracks. Trees have been cut down. The old flour mill belches black smoke.

Not everyone, however, believes this to be a bad thing.

“This country wants waking up and setting to rights … and Sharkey’s going to do it; and make it hard, if you drive him to it. You need a bigger Boss. And you’ll get one before the year is out if there’s any more trouble. Then you’ll learn a thing or two, you little rat folk.”

Even some hobbits have succumbed to the new order. Ted Sandyman, the miller, scoffs at Sam’s anguish at the Shire’s obliterated beauty:

“Don’t ‘ee like it, Sam? … But you always was soft. I thought you’d gone off in one o’ them ships you used to prattle about, sailing, sailing. What d’you come back for? We’ve work to do in the Shire now.”

Given the way Jackson behaved when his “independent contractors” made a bid for better wages and conditions, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that he decided to keep The Scouring of the Shire out of his movie.

Tolkien makes it clear that tyranny warrants only one response from those it oppresses: rebellion and revolt. Led by the four veterans of the War of the Ring, the Hobbits rise up against “Sharkey”, the new “Boss”, and overthrow his new order. More importantly, they follow the disease to its source – the Wizard Saruman, whose magic, corrupted by Sauron, has wrought so much havoc, even in the Shire.

It is only in Jackson’s movie that the Hobbits (with the obvious exceptions of Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam) are portrayed as sleepy and complacent. The film version, similarly, misrepresents the Shire itself. According to Jackson, it is a happy (if utterly powerless) Utopia from which brave souls, very occasionally, venture out, but into which nothing untoward – excepting, briefly, Sauron’s Black Riders – ever venture in.

Tolkien’s fantasy is much more realistic. His Shire is not overthrown by rampaging Orcs, but by the fear and greed of its own inhabitants. As the steadfast Farmer Cotton explains to Frodo:

“It all began with Pimple, as we call him … and it began as soon as you’d gone off, Mr Frodo. He’d funny ideas, had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about. It soon came out that he already did own a sight more than was good for him; and he was always grabbing more, though where he got the money was a mystery: mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations. He’d already bought Sandyman’s mill before he came to Bag End, seemingly.”

If that doesn’t remind New Zealanders of the fate of their own beautiful country, then Martyn’s right, we really have become “Sleepy Hobbits”! Or, maybe, something even worse. Could it be that we, too, have fallen victim to our own Pimples, our own Ted Sandymans? That far too many of us have allowed ourselves to be ordered around by the Shirrifs? The Boss? By Sharkey?

We must hope not. Because in our own case – in our own Shire – we cannot rely upon four returning heroes to put things right. “Raising the Shire” is something we will have to do on our own. Forging our own swords. Stringing our own bows. Summoning our own neighbours. Only when we have fashioned our own horns and bugles will we, like Tolkien’s Hobbits in revolt, be able to send their clarion blasts echoing across New Zealand’s fields, towns and cities:

Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!
Fire, Foes! Awake!

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