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Normally I would put this in my "Dreamflower's Musings" anthology, but decided it would be better to remain with the other parts of my 2017 Back to Middle-earth Challenge pieces.
B2MeM Prompt and Path: Purple path; Square 4, Wild Card--"Complete any prompt from the Orange path" (non-fiction). I chose Worldbuilding.
Creator’s Notes (optional): This essay is basically backstory I have constructed for my version of the Shire, concentrating on a few aspects of Shire society, and some explanation for how I came up with that backstory.
Nearly all quoted references in this section are either from the Prologue of LotR, or from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien's Letter #214. I hope to later footnote this more thoroughly.
Summary: Tolkien gives us a lot of information about the society of the Shire, but only some of the particulars. Coming up with details is up to the author of the fanfic; here are a few of mine.
Throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives us a lot of information about the Shire and its society. In addition, his Letters, particularly Letter #214, and in some of the supplemental material, such as Peoples of Middle-earth we find a lot more clues about how the Shire works. Some things we are told outright, and other things we only understand through hints.
In addition, we also know from Letters and from various biographical material, that a lot of the Shire was inspired by places of his childhood, in particular the parts of rural England where he lived during his formative years. So finding out details of those sorts of places during that time, and perhaps a little earlier, prove useful in figuring out details that Tolkien himself never bothered with, either because they were irrelevant to the story he told, or because he simply had little interest in them.
Then there are the little things that seem odd about the Shire. Nearly all of the societies outside the bounds seem much less advanced in many ways. Hobbits seem to have manufactured objects not found elsewhere, and yet we are told they are an agrarian race which seemingly would not have the wherewithal to create such items as mantel clocks and umbrellas.
And finally, there is the nature of hobbits. Comfort seeking, but able to do without when necessary; family oriented; peace-loving, caring and compassionate; practical; isolationist as a people and suspicious of outsiders; yet also hospitable and gregarious. They are a very contradictory race.
I've tried to factor as many of these things as possible in fleshing out the Shire for the purposes of writing my stories.
In my earliest stories, I found myself feeling my way along as I tried to flesh out the legalities of some things as they might be practiced in the Shire. In this I was mostly guided by the Prologue in FotR, and by Letter #214. I also kept in mind how most of the early "voting" societies were run historically--most of them were not our modern democratic "one person, one vote" communities, but rather were oligarchies in which only certain persons in certain positions could vote. This then was the model I based my Shire politics on.
In the Prologue we are told: The Shire at this time had hardly any 'government'. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. From this declaration comes the foundation of Shire government as I envisioned it.
First of all, from Letter #214, hobbit families were considered a dyarchy, in which , in which master and mistress had equal status, if different functions. Either was held to be the proper representative of the other in the case of absence (including death). There were no 'dowagers'. If the master died first, his place was taken by his wife, and this included (if he had held that position) the titular headship of a large family or clan. This title thus did not descend to the son, or other heir, while she lived, unless she voluntarily resigned. However, in that same letter, we are given the tale of Lalia Clayhanger Took, who held on to the headship of the Took family even after her son became Thain. Lalia was by all accounts a very poor example of a matriarch, to say the least. So, in "my" Shire, I decided that for a few generations after Lalia's time, most widows of adult sons voluntarily passed that honor on because they did not wish to be thought of as "another Lalia". The aftermath of the Occupation of the Shire by Saruman's ruffians changed this back, as there were a lot more widows, and hobbits remembered the way it used to be.
At any rate, hobbits always remained patrilineal (the family name passing down through the male side of the family) and among the Tooks, the Thainship was always passed down to the eldest male. Generally, the head of the Family was the eldest male of the main line of the Family and his wife, or his widow if he were deceased. All matters of discipline were handled by the Family Head, whether great or small, unless he or she found that it was too tangled a matter or if it impinged on the rights or property of another Family. In such a case, the Family Head could request to consult with a neutral party; usually this was the Thain, although along the Brandywine and in Buckland it might be the Master of Buckland, or in some cases, perhaps the Mayor of Michel Delving. In a serious case, it might even be taken to all three. But such things were definitely rarities. Most of the time all such matters were settled by the family and for the family.
The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years at the Free Fair on the White Downs at the Lithe, that is at Midsummer. As mayor almost his only duty was to preside at banquets, given on the Shire-holidays, which occurred at frequent intervals. But the offices of Postmaster and First Shirriff were attached to the mayoralty, so that he managed both the Messenger Service and the Watch.
Since Tolkien did not give us the details of how an election was held in the Shire, I decided that in the oligarchy I imagined, there was a Convocation of Family Heads every election year, in which they picked a Mayor. For an issue of great importance to the Shire as a whole, the Thain could call for a special Convocation. This almost never happened.
The Thain was the master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms, but as muster and moot were only held in times of emergency, which no longer occurred, the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity.
I give the Thain a few more duties. He is one of the "go to" people in the case of disputes too complicated or touchy for a Family Head to deal with; he also co-ordinates duties that concern the Shire as a whole, such as the upkeep of the Stonebow Bridge over the Brandywine, or the condition of the roads. He can also call a Convocation when necessary. This is in addition to his duties as The Took and Head of his own Family.
The people in the Marish were friendly with the Bucklanders, and the authority of the Master of the Hall (as the head of the Brandybuck family was called) was still acknowledged by the farmers between Stock and Rushey. By the time of LotR, the Master of Buckland is considered second only to the Thain as an authority in the Shire, though his authority is limited by geography. The status of Buckland is one of convenience. Bucklanders would consider themselves a part of the Shire when it might come to those Outsiders (like Breelanders, or wandering Dwarves or Men), but think of themselves as separate from the Shire when coming to certain traditions or customs. There is clearly a great deal of intermarriage between the Brandybucks and the Tooks, and certain other Great Families.
Yes, I have done a lot of extrapolation and expanded on some things not overtly stated in canon. Tolkien's occasional use of the phrase "great families" has in my version of the Shire become Great Families. Using Peoples of Middle-earth as my guide, I decided that those families who received their own family trees in that book were the most prominent families of the Shire: those at the top are the Tooks, the Brandybucks, the Bolgers, the Boffins and the Bagginses. I added a sixth, the Proudfoot family right after, since they seem to be both prolific and married into the top families. These are the oldest families within the Shire and remain at the top unless an official decision is made to place them lower in the hierarchy. The top of what? The Great Roll of Families, which include those six plus about fifty more families of prominence. The remaining families of the Shire are attached in some way to the more prominent ones, although at some point a vote may place them on the roll.
Post-war, some families that were not prominent became that way--the Gamgees eventually ended up near the top, right after the Brandybucks, and the Cottons also gained a higher position, after the Boffins. The governance of the Shire did change somewhat after the War of the Ring, which I will cover more thoroughly in another section..
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