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  • Three is Company:Novel, Fairy Tale, and Romance on the Journey through the Shire
  • Martin Simonson (bio)

1. The Shire and the Nineteenth-Century Blend of Novel and Fairy Tale

In The Lord of the Rings, the narrative treatment of the Shire entails a series of problems related to the question of how to integrate it into the larger universe of Middle-earth. These difficulties are to a great extent derived from the creative labors of the author, who did not know how or where the story would end when he first wrote this part of the narrative.1 The tale starts off almost casually in the Shire, the land of the hobbits, where Tolkien had left Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit several years earlier, but the story soon becomes more complicated than its predecessor. The first chapters of The Lord of the Rings clearly show the problems that arose when Tolkien realized that he needed to take the hobbits and the reader from one narrative universe (that of The Hobbit) to another (Middle-earth as presented in the greater part of The Lord of the Rings). This first part of the journey, from Hobbiton to Crickhollow, becomes an exploration of the strategies that Tolkien had to develop in order to bring the two worlds closer to each other.

The outcome of this process shows the Shire as an idealized reconstruction of a rural England prior to the Great War,2 and the literary traditions that Tolkien uses to portray this world belong fundamentally to the realm of the novel,3 especially the Victorian novel. As an example, we can clearly see the influence of Dickens's The Pickwick Papers in Bilbo's birthday speech4 and in the character of Sam Gamgee, who shares several features with his homonym Sam Weller (Pickwick's servant), such as his role as quick-tongued and good-natured servant, his craftiness, his prejudices, and his general pragmatic attitude towards life. There are of course many other examples of this type of servant in Victorian literature, such as in the works of George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell among others, but the analogy with Sam Weller is perhaps most conspicuous since it is further enhanced by the episode taking place at The Prancing Pony, which is very similar to chapter 16 of The Pickwick Papers. At the same time, it should be noted that Tolkien was not very fond of this work (Letters 349).

Sam can also be identified with one of the prototypes of the hero's friends in the British imperial adventure novel of the Victorian and [End Page 81] Edwardian eras (Toda Iglesia 27),5 like those of Rider Haggard (especially Job, from She), something which could also be said of Gandalf, who initially takes on the role of the particular "helper-initiator" inherent in this genre, defined by Toda Iglesia as "the wise and powerful with fantastic and supernatural connections" (27-28).6

We also perceive touches of the narrative universe of Victorian novelists such as Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Moore, particularly in the portraits of English nineteenth-century rural life in general, in the parallels to the gossipy tone of the rustic villagers found in the dialogues that take place at The Ivy Bush and The Green Dragon in Hobbiton and Bywater. The tone, setting, and atmosphere of the episode that tells of the dinner at Farmer Maggot's house clearly recall several scenes from Far From the Madding Crowd.7 In addition, we notice an occasional humorous strain, similar to the tradition of elegant wit based on paradox and usually centered on the revelation of a cynical human nature, which was the trademark of Oscar Wilde:

"You don't belong here; you're no Baggins-you-you're a Brandybuck!"

"It was a compliment," said Merry Brandybuck, "and so, of course, not true."

(FR, I, i, 48)

While the hobbits travel through the Shire during daytime, their leisurely behavior is not far from that of the jolly group of traveling friends in The Pickwick Papers, but it is also close to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In a Boat, another novel belonging...


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