Conceptions of the Pastoral in The Fellowship of the Ring

"Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees are loved."
--Letter to editor of Daily Telegraph, 30 June 1972

"They are entirely without  non-human powers, but are represented as being more in touch with 'nature' (the soil and other living things, plants and animals), and abnormally, for humans, free from ambition or greed of wealth. They are made small . . .partly to exhibit the pettiness of man, plain unimaginative parochial man . . ., and mostly to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men 'at a pinch'."
--Letter to Milton Waldman, ca. 1951

The first two books of the Lord of the Rings, commonly called The Fellowship of the Ring, contain two very different portraits of the pastoral ideal: the Shire and Lothlórien. While they differ in a number of remarkable ways, they nonetheless share something in common--a connection of the inhabitants to the land and a kind of power present in place and people that is somewhat, if not entirely, inseparable one from the other. (Something similar by extension can be said of Tom Bombadill and perhaps Bree.) As Sam observes:

Now these folks aren't wanderers or homeless, and seem a bit nearer to the likes of us: they seem to belong here, more even than Hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they've made the land, or the land's made them, it's hard to say, if you take my meaning. If there's any magic about, it's right down deep, where I can't lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking. . . . I've never heard of a better land than this. It's like being at home and on the holiday at the same time, if you understand me. (447-448/II.vii)

Strangely enough, the Elves of the Golden Land and the hobbits of the Shire also share a kind of inward-turning parochialism that makes them unaware or less than interested in the things of the outside world, and both are realms protected (by Galadriel and the Rangers) destined to change in the coming world--the Elvish realm to fade away and the Shire to assume more of its own defenses.

Why would these two very different realms carry such emotional and imaginative freight for Tolkien? A detailed study of this question would need to examine Tolkien's long-standing attitudes towards nature, the village, and technology, as well as nineteenth and twentieth-century uses of the pastoral in general. But a good start can begin by asking what Tolkien's portraits of these bucolic settings idealizes.

The Pastoral Tradition

We should keep in mind that the typical conventions of the pastoral tradition, begun in the classical period by the Sicilian Theocritus and carried on by the Roman Virgil and emblematic of such works as Phillip Sidney's Arcadia and Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis, are rather formal in nature:

  • Idealized rural life of shepherds and shepherdesses.
  • Rustic innocence, idleness, little actual shepherd-like work.
  • Stresses the loves and sorrows of the shepherds.
  • Individuals speak in courtly rather than natural language.
  • Nature or natural objects may personify the shepherd's emotions.
  • It tends to express the complex through the medium of the simple.

This last characteristic was most notably formulated by William Empson in his Some Versions of the Pastoral, and it suggests that the pastoral setting can move beyond the specific conventions of the tradition, yet still hold onto a certain idealization of the human condition or at least an examination of that condition within a genre that stresses stock conventions and that trades in these types as a way both to reflect and endear its readers to certain moral and aesthetic virtues.

There are other conventions that the pastoral may absorb, as well.  The pastoral romance can also be seen to borrow in some versions another ancient habit of playing off the country and the city, with the country as a garden of peace, innocence, simplicity, and community over against the corrupt, hypocritical, back-stabbing urban world. 2) Ironically, the comic tradition of playing up the rustic bumpkin's ignorance and poor taste, ever gawking at the higher culture, can also be joined with this tradition of admirable innocence, yet 3) the theme of rural wisdom and skill in farming can also play a role in the pastoral setting, as does 4) the divinization of nature through the neo-pagan revival of the nineteenth-century.

It would seem, then, that the high and low, the holy and the comic, the perilous and the home-spun can be found in the pastoral tradition, and Tolkien willingly combined its broad conventions and attitudes. What do the following examples reveal about the importance of landscape and geography?

  • First Journey (88-93/ I.iii)
  • The Walking Song (96-97/ I.iii)
  • The Mound of Amroth (434/ II.ii)

Consider how the following characters and locales represent different mixtures of these qualities:

  • Shire folk (27-29, 35-36, 46-47, 82-83)
  • Shire songs (112-113, 126)
  • Sam (55-56, 79-80, 226, 254, 258-260, 336, 347-348)
  • Butterbur (I.ix, also 326-327/ II.ii)
  • Farmer Maggot (114ff., 128, 165, also "Bombadil Goes Boating")
  • Haldir (
  • Galadriel (452-455/ II.vii)

Tom Bombadil

"Tom Bombadill is not an important person--to the narrative. I suppose has has some importance as a 'comment'. . . .[I]f you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is war."
--Letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April 1954

"I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it. . . . I do not mean him to be an allegory--or I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name--but 'allegory' is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: he is then an 'allegory', or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are 'other' and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with 'doing' anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. Even the Elves hardly show this: they are primarily artists."
--Draft of letter to Peter Hastings, September 1954

Another interesting test-case for this pastoral combination is Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. Goldberry is clearly some kind of naiad, as poem like "Adventures of Tom Bombadil" would suggest--in that poem Tom follows the medieval pastorale troubadour tradition of the singer catching and seducing the shepherdess. Bombadill, on the other hand, is a figure of great mystery. Readers and critics have suggested any number of options for what he represents:

  1. Eru (an option Tolkien found appalling);
  2. The Vala Aulë
  3. Another, otherwise unnamed Valar
  4. A Maia "gone native"
  5. An Ishtari (like Radagast the Brown)
  6. A personification of a geographic region
  7. An Earth principle
  8. An archetypal trickster figure
  9. An example of the unaccountable anomaly in the system
  10. A singular being without species
  11. An unaligned spirit 
  12. A power in service to knowledge instead of knowledge advancing power.

Discussion Questions

  • How can Bombadil--his character, life, and manner--represent a certain combination of the pastoral? 
  • How would Tolkien's account of him as an expression of "natural science" fit into this? (I. vi-vii, also 328-329/ II.ii)
  • Which explanation for Bombadil do you find most attractive?

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd (1851)


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding