The Family, Distributism, and Hobbit Society

September 13, 2015

I’ve long had a fascination with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. In particular, I, like many others before me, have been enamored with hobbits and their way of life. While it was The Hobbit that first introduced us to these short, fury-footed people, it was in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that we received a deeper knowledge of them as a people. We saw more of their society, we saw more hobbits, Bilbo being the only one actually “seen” in the first book. What we learn is very interesting. Hobbits, it seems, are a rather agrarian people, “they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt.” (LOTR 1)

Now, Tolkien would be quick to tell us that hobbits and hobbit society should not be understood in a utopian way, “They, as all peoples and their situations, are an historical accident––as the elves point out to Frodo––and an impermanent one in the long view.” (Letter 154) Nevertheless, I think there are many lessons that can be drawn from the hobbits and their way of life. In this essay, I want to focus on just one of those ways: the centrality of the family.

Photo by Julian Nitzsche
Distributism, an excellent expression of Catholic Social Teaching, can be seen as prioritizing the family in the way Capitalism prioritizes the individual and Socialism prioritizes the state. This is evident from that landmark text of CST, Rerum Novarum. Pope Leo XIII in this encyclical writes, “No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: ‘Increase and multiply.’ Hence we have the family, the ‘society’ of a man's house––a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.” (RN 12)

A similar focus on the supra-political nature of the family can be seen in the foundations of hobbit society. Tolkien writes in the preface of The Lord of the Rings, “Concerning Hobbits” that “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.” (LOTR 9) Now there is much of distributism in this passage alone, but again, for now I want to focus on this family centered nature.
Family is so central to hobbits that Bilbo adopts a nephew of his to be his heir, namely Frodo, who himself will most closely align himself with two of his cousins, as well as his gardener. So, family is important to hobbits and it’s important to Catholic Social Teaching and distributism. Very nice. But of what import is this, particularly to the story of The Lord of the Rings. Well, let us consider one of my favorite chapters in the whole book, “The Scouring of the Shire.”

By Antoine Glédel
Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, three-quarters of whom are related, I might add, return from the destruction of the ring and Sauron’s forces to the Shire, their home. Instead of finding peace and comfort they find inns closed, old hobbit holes dug up, new mills built, and more besides. The companions don’t understand how this happened until they meet up with a rather stout local, and father to Sam’s beloved, Farmer Cotton. He explains to them what happened after Lotho Sackville-Baggins, another cousin of Frodo’s, took up residence in Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo's old home:

“‘It all began with Pimple, as we call him,’ said Farmer Cotton; ‘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.’” (LOTR 1012).

First, perhaps, we ought to note the notion that Farmer Cotton holds that it’s possible to own more than is good for one to own. This is certainly not an ideal that drives people like Donald Trump or television shows like Shark Tank. But, I must restrain myself, the focus here is on the family. And here’s where that comes in. Lotho wants to use his wealth and resources not only to buy more land and things, but to use his power and wealth to control those who have less. This is already an evident evil, thinking one ought to lead simply because one has more stuff, but it goes against two essential aspects of hobbit society: the hobbit disinclination for greed and tendency toward generosity, and the centrality of the family.

Remember the quotation from above; hobbit society had little government at the beginning of this story. Each family primarily saw to themselves, with some of its more affluent members also often looking after their poorer neighbours (it’s also interesting to note that poverty seems absent from hobbit society before the reign of Lotho and later Saruman, in that some may own less, but none appear in abject poverty without any land to call their own). Lotho turns against this, as he forces the growers of food and pip tobacco to grow more, but ships the lion’s share off to goodness knows where, certainly not to anyone in the Shire, except perhaps Saruman (the puppet master behind Lotho’s early reign and death) and his men. In fact, it appears to be Lotho’s turning away from the hobbit priority of the family that allows Saruman to get a foothold in the Shire and begin to destroy it. Lotho, by rejecting two key aspects of being a hobbit (generosity and family-centeredness) begins to destroy hobbit society.

One can even see aspects of both Capitalism and Socialism in the Lotho/Saruman run Shire. Ted Sandyman, the mean-spirited son of the miller from the beginning of the book, takes pride in no longer owning the small mill, but in being an employee of the bigger, and unnecessary, mill. All things grown by the hobbits must go first to the government before being redistributed. Even sharing from one family to another is made illegal, since it’s the government’s job to distribute food and so on. It isn’t until there is a return to the centrality of the family, evidenced by the number of children born after the scouring, as well as the planting of new trees, that the Shire can begin to return to some sense of normalcy.

There is much, perhaps, that ought not to be applied from hobbit society. It is not a perfect or utopian society. After all, it too gave rise to Lotho, and Ted Sandyman, and other hobbits that preferred things in the new Shire to the generous, family focused Shire of the childhood. Nevertheless, I think this centrality of family is one aspect that we need to look at more closely.

Pope Leo was right that the family is a society in itself and pre-dates the state. Perhaps there is a need to look to the hobbits and their love of family. This family centered society allows for small ownership of land and businesses. It allows for the passing down of land and businesses from within families. Think of the Tooks who had many generations living in a great hobbit hole called Great Smials, or the Brandybucks in Brand Hall. (LOTR 7)

Family being at the center of things allows us to consider so many other aspects of life and labor. A family focused economics, like distributism, will be concerned with fair wages on which one can support a family. It will be concerned with things like paid maternity and paternity leave, since the having of children will necessarily be a priority. It will help ensure that people can and do have at least some land, whether privately or commonly owned, in order to privately and commonly grow fruits and vegetables in order to feed themselves. For Tolkien these things go together, along with a generous spirit: “they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.” (LOTR 9) Perhaps a return to a focus on family as the foundation of society can help to heal some of the wounds inflicted on us by the modern age.

David Russell Mosley

David Russell Mosley blogs at Letters from the Edge of Elfland. He recently received a PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, and is the author of a forthcoming book, On the Edge of Elfland, a faërie romance that will be published by Wipf and Stock publishers sometime next year.  

Pope Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum [Encyclical on Capital and Labor]. Vatican Website. May 15 1891. Accessed 14 May 2015,

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins, 2004.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.