Riding in Carts With Hobbits
There was a certain propriety which accompanied the literary Hobbit, a sense of "all was well right up until this point". And that was a false sense of propriety. The hobbits, like the Elves, had their own regrets and concerns. The Shire-folk had forgotten (or liked to pretend they had forgotten) that they once lived in Bree. Bree was now a foreign land. And before Bree they once lived in the lands east of the Weather Hills, or south of the Gwathlo river.
Hobbit stories don't become interesting until someone shakes up their lives. Every day, for many years, Hobbits will live quietly in their hills and gardens, and then one day someone comes along and takes away their innocence. It might be a Necromancer who turns Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood. Or it might be a Witch-king who unleashes a devastating series of wars. Or it could be a wandering wizard who decides he needs to set right a few wrongs, and realizes that Hobbits might just escape close scrutiny long enough to accomplish a few things.
Whatever the cause, there comes a day in many a Hobbit's life when he packs up the family in one or more carts and heads off into the countryside. Such migrations, or flights, have to be hard on anyone. The leaders of the ancient Helvetii, a group of Celtic tribes who lives in the Alps, east of Gaul (France), forced their people to burn their homes and villages. The Helvetii and their allies entered Gaul with nothing but their carts and such animals as they could keep with them. There was to be no turning back for them.
The decision to leave their Alpine homeland must have been hotly debated. The Helvetii couldn't simply just up and go on a whim. Some scholars, through the years, have suggested -- in fact, have insisted -- that the Helvetii were following an ancient Celtic practice called ver sacrum, a ritual expansion of tribes into new territories. The Celts of northern Italy shared tribal names with Celts in the Alpine region, and with Celts in Gaul.
The Helvetii and their allies claimed they were fleeing west to escape the threat of German and Slavic tribes. Julius Caesar used the Helvetii migration as an excuse to establish a power base in Gaul, and once he had defeated the Helvetii, forcing them to return to the Alps, he went on to conquer all of Gaul. Caesar's Gallic campaigns triggered one final Celtic migration, from northern Gaul into Britain.
Every time the ancient Celts moved or expanded, regional political arrangements went to Utumno in a hand-basket. Whichever kingdom or city lay in the path of the migration was usually trampelled, but the enemies of that unfortunate people often found new allies in the Celts as they moved through lands. The custom of ver sacrum is disputed, though it is mentioned by ancient writers. But archaeologists and historians generally accept that the Celts and Germans were probably following ancient practice in sending out "colonists" whenever their populations became too great.
The archaeological record for European farming communities suggests that, about 8,000 years ago, farmers moved into Europe through Greece. It is assumed that they pushed the older, wandering clans west and north. The farmers brought with them domesticated animals, superior tools and weapons, and a knowledge of agriculture which enabled them to raise larger families, live in larger communities, and live longer.
Agriculture and animal husbandry empowered clans to become tribes and nations. But the technology was insufficient to support large populations. So, every few generations, the villages had to exile part of their populations. The local farms were consuming all the land with traditional slash-and-burn technology which provided for brief periods of good farming before the farmers had to move on. South American farmers are destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical jungle each year using similar technology.
Although slash-and-burn farming requires that new land be opened every few years, the farmers can move around in the same general region so long as their numbers stay about the same. But agriculture feeds many hungry mouths, and people tended to have many children. Although most children probably did not reach maturity (for a variety of reasons), the farming communities gradually spread eastward and northward for about 3,000 years. And then new peoples, whom we call Indo-Europeans, started coming into Europe, and they started the process of expansion all over again.
The Indo-Europeans were not simply agriculturalists. They were warriors and nomads. And they were inventors. They designed carts which were efficient, easy to build and maintain, and capable of hauling a lot of goods. The Indo-European cart design remained essentially unchanged even up until the 19th century, when American pioneers and Russian serfs used wagons that looked very much like their 5,000-year-old predecessors to open new lands on two continents.
Those Indo-European peoples who moved into Europe settled among the farmers in the heavily forested lands and adopted some of their lifestyle. One of these customs was the traditional slash-your-way-out-of-farmland. According to Tacitus, who wrote about them in the 1st century CE, the Germans, a northern group of Indo-Europeans, adopted the custom of requiring families to leave their farms every year. Tacitus had the impression that German tribes sort of swarmed about the countryside, burning their homes and rebuilding them each year.
Such measures may have been extraordinary, and they may have had political motives behind them. Archaeology shows us there were fortified towns in northern Europe, connected by roads and seaborne traderoutes, as long ago as 1400 BCE. The western Germans, from whom came the Saxons, Franks, and Burgundians of early medieval history, were arguably the most primitive tribes in the north. But they nonetheless had their own large towns and could muster respectable armies capable of destroying seasoned Roman legions, including Quinctilius Varus' three ill-fated legions in the early 1st century CE.
All these wandering barbarian farmers most likely provided Tolkien with a blueprint for his Hobbit migrations. The Hobbits were not warlike. They did not conquer empires. Instead, they found comfortable homelands and settled down for as long as the local politics permitted them to do so. Much like the Celts and Germans, who diverged from the same ancestral Indo-European sub-cultures sometime in the late 3rd or early 2nd millennium BCE, the Hobbits became divided into two populations after they entered Eriador.
Now, many people will be quick to point out that there were three Hobbit groups: Fallohides, Stoors, and Harfoots. Yes, that is so. But the Fallohides and Harfoots stayed in the north. They crossed the Misty Mountains via the High Pass (above Rivendell -- the same pass where Thorin and Company were captured by Goblins in The Hobbit) and settled in Rhudaur, probably between the Mitheithel and the Weather Hills.
The Stoors crossed the Misty Mountains via the Redhorn pass, and they split into two groups. Some of the Stoors wandered north to the Angle and settled in Cardolan. The rest of the Stoors settled in Dunland, south of the Cardolan border. It is probably not a coincidence that Hobbit families descended from the Stoors of Dunland have "Celtic" names, whereas Hobbit families descended from the northern groups have "Germanic" names. Many readers have observed through the years how the Dunlendings seem to be a bit "Celtic".
In fact, the Bree-folk all have names which fit into popular Celtic motifs (Appledore, Heathertoes, etc.). That is, they are "nature-names". Whether rightly or wrongly, people have -- since the late 18th century -- increasingly associated the Celts and the Druids with nature worship and a sort of anti-city pastoralism. In reality, the Celts were very active city-builders. But we remember them mostly for their hill-forts and their migrations, and for their mysterious Druids.
Tolkien's Celtic identification for the Dunlendings and their relatives is established mostly through his place-names for the Bree-land: Bree is a British word for "hill", and Archet, Coombe, and Staddle are all derived from ancient British (Celtic) names. The animosity between the Dunlendings -- driven from their homeland by the Rohirrim -- and the Rohirrim also resonates with the Arthurian tales of Celt versus Saxon.
But Tolkien himself suggested the Celtic connection in Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings:
The names of the Bucklanders were different from those of the rest of the
Shire. The folk of the Marish and their offshoot across the Brandywine were
in many ways peculiar, as has been told. It was from the former language of
the southern Stoors, no doubt, that they inherited many of their very odd
names. These I have usually left unaltered, for if queer now, they were queer
in their own day. They had a style that we should perhaps feel vaguely to be
Celtic elements in England. I have sometimes imitated the latter in my
translation. Thus Bree, Combe (Coomb), Archet, and Chetwood are modelled on
relics of British nomenclature, chosen according to sense: bree hill, chet
"wood*. But only one personal name has been altered in this way. Meriadoc was
chosen to fit the fact that this character's shortened name. Kali, meant in
jolly, gay, though it was actually an abbreviation of the now
unmeaning Buckland name Kalimac.
We can speak of four periods of Hobbit migration within the histories established by Tolkien: A) their original migration into the Vales of Anduin, which the "Dwarves and Men" essay in The Peoples of Middle-earth implies took place in the early Third Age; B) their migrations into Eriador, which Appendix B to The Lord of the Rings says occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries of the Third Age; C) their migrations west to Arthedain or eastward, back to the Vales of Anduin; D) their migrations to the Shire.
The Shire, of course, expanded several centuries later into the Buckland, and many centuries afterward into the Westmarch. But these expansions appear to be different from the volkwanderungs of the earlier periods. Whole clans left their homelands, perhaps burning their homes to discourage their own retreats, and passed across vast tracts of countryside to reach new lands where they had to start over. Everything a self-sufficient Hobbit family owned would have to be moved on their backs or in carts pulled by ponies and/ or small cattle.
The first three migrations all occurred for similar reasons: war or the threat of war drove the Hobbits from their lands, much as the Helvetii and their allies left Helvetia (approximatel the same region occupied by Switzerland) in the 1st century BCE because of the threat of war from the east and north. The fourth migration differed from the earlier migrations because, for the first time, the Hobbits made a peace-time migration. This was more like a ver sacrum. The Hobbit chieftains Marcho and Blancho gathered as many of their people as would follow them and set out for the former royal demesne beyond the Baranduin river.
For reasons unknown to us, the Hobbits divided their new homeland into four parts, the four farthings. The division probably did not occur at first. Rather, it may have been established after the fall of Arnor, after Angmar had been defeated and the Hobbits could return to their homeland. Their homes had probably been destroyed, and the Hobbits had to rebuild everything. It was only when Aranarth (apparently announced that he) would not restore the kingship that the Shire chieftains began arranging matters for themselves.
The Shire Hobbits settled down in small folklands built around clan leaderships which, over the course of a thousand years, mostly broke down. A few of the old families retained their distinctive clan traditions, but most of the Shire-folk became homogenized into a fully sedentary society. They opened new lands, to be sure, but only one large migration is mentioned before the return of royal authority in the Fourth Age. The Oldbucks left the Shire (or some of them did) and established the Buckland. Why a Thain would elect to give up his authority is a mystery, but it may be that the Oldbuck family had become so numerous they simply needed their own land. In that respect, the ancient Celtic migrations echoe faintly in the last great Hobbit shuffling of the Third Age.
Celtic farmers were pretty advanced for their time. They were, in fact, better farmers than the Romans (according to some opinions). Celts used iron plows and developed crop rotation. So, despite their reputation for wandering around the landscape, the Celts tried to stay in the same place for as long as possible. The migrations are considered one solution to a problem with growing population.
The Hobbits, being a diminutive people, would not have required as much land as full-sized men, but they must have still needed to break new lands every couple of generations. The Shire must have been a very large tract of land for their earliest populations, admittedly reduced in 1636 (the Great Plague) and 1974 (the fall of Arnor). As the Oldbucks crossed the Baranduin, the Tooks may have sent colonists north after the Battle of Greenfields (2747), since Bandobras Took had many descendants in the northern part of the Shire.
The older communities would thus have been stable and self-sufficient, constantly sendig a stream of colonists to the younger communities, which in turn would have sprouted new communities closer to the fringes of the Shire. Aragorn's gift of the West-march to the Shire-folk in the early Fourth Age establishes their need to expand once more. The settlement of the West-march would have been an important event. All across the older Shire, Hobbit families would be loading up carts, bidding farewell to loved ones, and setting off in search of a new life.
Opening new lands and facing the perils they might bring (such as the Old Forest's angry trees) were apparently not so much adventures to the Hobbits as deeds born of necessity. Armed with axes, shovels, hammers, and picks, the Hobbits set about the arduous task of conquering new lands whose former inhabitants had long since fled. Hence, they had no need to become the great warriors the Celts were once renowned at. A Hobbit farmer only needed to defend his crops against the incursions of hungry neighbor children.
But if people wonder where the Hobbits got off to, the answer must be obvious. There came a time when the encroachments of Men were too threatening. The old boundaries had broken down or been forgotten. So, they loaded up the carts, attached the ponies and little cows, and set off down the road, heading further west. Somehow, they never quite made it to the Sea, but they kept moving along. And they are on the road still. Kids, carts, and all.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.