Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Hobbits and Empire: Geography and the Life of Nations in Tolkien’s Writings

May 10th, 2022 | 13 min read

By Holly Ordway

As we journey through J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth, we find a remarkable variety of distinctive landscapes, from the rural towns of the Shire, to the abandoned halls of Moria, the Elvish tree-city of Lothlórien, the Forest of Drúadan, the grasslands of Rohan, the stone city of Minas Tirith in Gondor, and many more. The Lord of the Rings gives us more than just the setting: in these places, we encounter people with their own languages and histories, in communities that are organically rooted in their fictional ground.

Fictional, and yet with intriguing connections to our own world: as Tolkien pointed out, in Middle-earth he had “constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place.”[1] The Shire, Tolkien explained, was “based on rural England”[2]; and Tom Bombadil is “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside.”[3] In annotations to a map of Middle-earth, Tolkien noted that Hobbiton was at the same latitude as Oxford.[4] We can even picture Tolkien as a dweller in the Shire, for he described himself as “a Hobbit (in all but size)” who likes “gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands.”[5]

The fictional world (with its real-world inspirations) was also, in its inspiration, connected to Tolkien’s sense of himself as an Englishman. He wrote that his ambition for his legendarium, the great body of work that includes The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, had been “to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story . . . which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.”[6] Love of his country is an element of his imaginative vision.

It is this connection that I wish to explore — necessarily briefly, for the subject is a large one. Tolkien invented a wide range of what we might imprecisely be tempted to call ‘nations’ for Middle-earth, with one of them, the Shire, profoundly connected to his own home. How did geography and nationality, place and patriotism, relate in Tolkien’s thought?

Tolkien’s associations with England and its countryside are deep and readily apparent — but as a Catholic, he was also on the margins of English culture. England in Tolkien’s childhood and early adulthood was a country that was still only uneasily tolerant of the Catholic Church. Though legally most discrimination against Catholics was over by the 20th century, the after-effects of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement (1558-59) and the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89) could still be felt and certain barriers between Catholics and British society at large remained in place. In a number of respects, indeed, that continues to be true to this day. At Oxford all the formerly Catholic college chapels (including two of Tolkien’s colleges, Exeter and Merton) remain Anglican, and the monarch is still constitutionally barred from being a Catholic, although in 2013 the Succession to the Crown Act did permit heirs to the British throne to marry a Catholic.

As Virginia Luling points out, Tolkien’s religion was “the embattled faith of a minority with memories of persecution” and not, as in other countries, “synonymous with power and establishment”; the land he loved “was not the England that became a commercial Empire, not a conquering but a conquered nation.”[7] Tolkien’s own self-perception was that of someone belonging to a group that had been, and in some respects still was, disenfranchised and marginalized. It is therefore perhaps to be expected that Tolkien also took a firm stand against anti-Semitic sentiment at a time when it was all too common.[8]

Tolkien’s sense of patriotism was essentially local and anti-imperial, though he was born at the height of England’s global Empire. Writing to his friend Christopher Wiseman in 1914, Tolkien said that although he believed in the “duty of patriotism,” he could no longer defend the Boer War and was “a more & more convinced Home Ruler.” Interestingly, he added, “I don’t defend ‘Deutschland über alles’ but certainly do the Norwegian ‘alt for Norge’ which translates itself.”[9] Love for country meant love and self-sacrifice for one’s own native land, without trying to dominate others: patriotism, not nationalism.

His dislike of totalitarianism and imperialism (both ancient and modern) appears in various places in his work, including a 1944 letter to his son Christopher, where he wrote, “I should have hated the Roman Empire in its day (as I do), and remained a patriotic Roman citizen, while preferring a free Gaul and seeing good in Carthaginians.”[10] The chronological context of this remark is interesting, coming as it does toward the end of the Second World War. For Tolkien, the Romans seem to have been symbolic (at least in part) of the totalitarian and machine culture that he so consistently opposed: the archetypal imperial power that is determined to impose its will both on nature and on other nations.

As a historically educated man and a Catholic to boot, Tolkien would, of course, have been well aware that many important elements of civilization came from the Romans — and indeed he would later thoroughly enjoy, with his daughter Priscilla, a trip to Italy. He was willing to recognize a similarity between Aragorn’s coronation in Minas Tirith and “the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome”[11] — though it is worth pointing out, for the avoidance of confusion, that this comparison is to a medieval re-envisioning of the Roman Empire made “Holy” by the Christianizing of Europe, not to the ancient, pagan version that preceded the conversion of Constantine. But Tolkien had also seen first-hand, in both World Wars, that horrifically destructive wars could be instigated by nations that boasted a high degree of ‘civilization.’ Indeed, it is worth observing that Saruman, who seems the wisest and most learned of the wizards and is the head of their Council, is the one who is most tragically corrupted by the lust for power.

It is notable as well that in The Lord of the Rings, Boromir’s desire to possess the Ring for the defense of his homeland of Gondor, though rooted in good intentions, betokens an unhealthily nationalist outlook derived from his father. Denethor states the priorities of his political philosophy baldly when he declares “there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor” — as clear an example of the absolutization of national interest as one could hope to find, and it comes from a character who is shown to be self-centered, mistrustful, and oblivious to the welfare of his own family, let alone the people under his rule.

We can see another instance of Tolkien’s rejection of imperialism and colonialism in his depiction of Ghân-buri-Ghân and his people, the Wild Men who, at a crucial moment, lead Théoden’s forces through their woods to enable them to help break the siege of Gondor. Tolkien’s description highlights their strangeness: Ghân-buri-Ghân is “a strange squat shape of a man, gnarled as an old stone, and the hairs of his scanty beard straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss. He was short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy, and clad only with grass about his waist.” One possible critique of the scene is that they are stereotypical aborigines, but this works to Tolkien’s purposes. In appearance, they are exactly the kind of people who are cruelly exploited, ignored, dismissed with condescension, or treated with irony in so many of the adventure novels of that era. However, in The Lord of the Rings, the scene is presented with restraint and without disrespect.

Furthermore, Tolkien includes several nods toward the problems of race relations. In the initial discussion, when Éomer condescendingly questions how he can know the number and location of the orcs as he claims, Ghân-buri-Ghân retorts, “Wild Men are wild, free, but not children. . . . I count many things: stars in sky, leaves on trees, men in the dark.” Théoden then sides with the Wild Man, over and against Éomer’s doubts, saying that Ghân-buri-Ghân speaks “shrewdly,” and accepting his offer of assistance. Here we see Tolkien presenting a scene in which Éomer’s potentially racist assumptions about the Wild Man’s intelligence — perhaps based on his imperfect command of the Common Tongue — are confronted and rebuked; and we learn shortly thereafter that Ghân-buri-Ghân’s assessment of the tactical situation is indeed correct.

We see that the Rohirrim learn to trust the Wild Men, despite their evident differences: “to no heart in all the host came any fear that the Wild Men were unfaithful, strange and unlovely though they might appear.” But Tolkien does not allow the reader naively to mistake this moment of racial harmony for true reconciliation. After Théoden accepts the help of the Wild Men, Ghân-buri-Ghân makes a request in turn: rather than accepting the offered riches as a reward, he requests that the men of Rohan leave the Wild Men alone and “not hunt them like beasts any more”; Théoden replies, “So be it!” Both of these remarks are significant. First, Tolkien shows us that the warriors of Rohan, whom we have come to admire, have in the past unjustly treated the peaceable Wild Men like animals. Théoden admits this: he does not argue with Ghân-buri-Ghân about the accuracy of this claim, but simply and directly agrees to change his people’s ways.

Second, and significantly, Tolkien returns to this point later, reinforcing it. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn proceeds with his company to the forest of Drúadan, where he has his heralds proclaim: “Behold, the King Elessar is come! The Forest of Drúadan he gives to Ghân-buri-Ghân and to his folk, to be their own for ever; and hereafter let no man enter it without their leave!” The observers hear the drums of the Wild Men acknowledging this announcement. Aragorn as High King thus both ratifies Théoden’s agreement and extends it: not only will the Wild Men be left in peace, as they requested, but their sovereignty is recognized. One of the first actions of the true King, then, is to give away some of his power; we get a glimpse of the way that this kingship does not operate in terms of the usual worldly goals of an Empire. We see in Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings that Aragorn would later also make the Shire a “Free Land under the protection of the Northern Sceptre,” a land for hobbits where humans are not to enter, thus emphasizing the way that his kingship is intended for the protection and flourishing, not the control and exploitation, of his subjects.

If we see, then, that Tolkien’s view of nations is essentially anti-imperial, what was the positive form of his patriotism?

The connection to one’s native land was, for Tolkien, fundamentally geographical, veritably rooted in one’s home turf. C.S. Lewis recalled that “Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations. . . . there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the country­side. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.” In the modern day, however, consuming foods sourced from all over the world, we “have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.”[12] For Tolkien, the rootedness of a people in a certain place had little to do with

racial inheritance, or with political ideology, and more to do with their relationship to the land and its fruits.

In explaining the nature of his early ambition to create a mythology he could dedicate to his country, Tolkien explained that he intended that the “tone and quality” of this body of stories “be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East).”[13] Tolkien admits this ambition almost with embarrassment, calling it “absurd,” but this is, I suspect, at least partly genuine humility and partly his (very English) aversion to anything that hints at earnestness and self-praise, for it is not an impossible idea, even if very difficult to achieve.

Tolkien’s view that there is such a thing as a genius loci is characteristically nuanced, and held in a productive balance with his understanding of individual moral agency. Insofar as landscape and climate have an influence on culture and character, it is in a dynamic rather than a determinative way. He observes that the best way to understand the relationship; between innate personality and outward change in a person is by comparison to “a seed with its innate vitality and heredity, its capacity to grow and develop.” Some of the changes we may observe in a person are “unfoldings of the patterns hidden in the seed” which can be “modified by the situation (geographical or climatic) into which it is thrown.” So far, we have a sense of the relationship of personality and place. Then he explains further:

But this comparison leaves out inevitably an important point. A man is not only a seed, developing in a defined pattern, well or ill according to its situation or its defects as an example of its species; a man is both a seed and in some degree also a gardener, for good or ill. I am impressed by the degree in which the development of ‘character’ can be a product of conscious intention, the will to modify innate tendencies in desired directions; in some cases the change can be great and permanent.[14]

In The Lord of the Rings, we see how Frodo gives himself entirely to the Quest, making a complete self-sacrifice to destroy the One Ring. Tolkien explains that Frodo’s actions are not best described in political terms, but rather in ‘humane’ terms, that is, with regard to relating to others (whether these are humans, Elves, hobbits, and so on). Frodo, he says,

naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the ‘humane’– including those, such as ‘easterlings’ and Haradrim, that were still servants of the tyranny.[15]

Frodo, though rooted in the Shire, could and did choose to act for the good not just of his own home, but of all the communities of Middle-earth.

Though Tolkien’s own sense of place was grounded in Britain and northwest Europe, his vision of the ‘humane’ is expansive, and indeed deeply Christian: the Quest is to destroy Sauron’s regime, for the benefit of all peoples, everywhere in Middle-earth, even those who are still fighting for Sauron. Indeed, it is notable that in The Lord of the Rings, the first official judgments that Aragorn makes after his coronation as King are centered on reconciliation: he “pardoned the Easterlings that had given themselves up, and sent them away free, and he made peace with the peoples of Harad; and the slaves of Mordor he released and gave to them all the lands about Lake Núrnen to be their own.” Although these places and peoples are not the focus of the particular story he is telling, we see that they have not been overlooked; they have a value and importance in their own right. Tolkien wrote of his ambition that “other minds and hands”[16] would in time contribute to his mythology; perhaps here we see a gesture toward those tales that others might someday tell, filling in the blank spaces in the vast canvas of Middle-earth’s legendarium.

In his views on nations, nationalism, and patriotism, Tolkien shared the perspective of another deeply humane and learned man, his fellow lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson.[17] Tolkien’s fellow Inkling John Wain wrote, in his biography of Samuel Johnson, that Johnson and his friends at ‘The Club’ were “patriotic”

in the sense that they wished their country well and were glad to be thought well of by it. Which is not to say that they were infected with the evil nationalism that sees its own nation as a mechanism for seizing power and wishes to see it go on and on, blindly seizing more and more power until the day comes of the inevitable conflict with some rival expression of a collective will. Johnson, conspicuously, was free of jingo patriotism, being anti-expansionist and anti-imperialist. In wishing his country well, he primarily wished it to be a civilized place where people could be happy.[18]

This essay is adapted in part from Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Word on Fire Academic, 2021).

Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. 283.
  2. Letters 250.
  3. Letters 26.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, annotations on a map by Pauline Baynes, Tolkien: Voyage en Terre du Milieu, ed. Christian Bourgois, 72–73.
  5. Letters 288.
  6. Letters 144.
  7. Virginia Luling, “An Anthropologist in Middle-earth.” Mythlore 80, vol. 21, no. 2 (Winter 1996). 53.
  8. See Letters 37–38 and 410n.
  9. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. Revised and expanded edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2017) 1399.
  10. Letters, 89.
  11. Letters, 376.
  12. C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume I. Edited by Walter Hooper. (New York: HarperCollins, 2000) 909.
  13. Letters 144.
  14. Letters 240.
  15. Letters 240-241.
  16. Letters 145.
  17. Tolkien, of course, knew the writings of Johnson. They formed part of his undergraduate studies, as we see in his lecture notes (Bodleian MS. Tolkien A 21/4), they were discussed at Inklings gatherings, and of course the author of the famous Dictionary would have been a significant figure for Tolkien and his colleagues in their work on the New English Dictionary (which became the Oxford English Dictionary).
  18. John Wain, Samuel Johnson (London: Macmillan, 1974) 236.