Why hobbits eat local

SOME SEVEN OR SO YEARS before the 1937 publication of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien spoke to his friend C. S. Lewis about the importance of eating locally grown food. Tolkien’s words made an impression, and Lewis referenced them in a letter written in 1930 to another friend:

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, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood—they were not mistaken for 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. We of course who live on a standardized international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.

Prophetic thoughts

It is remarkable that Tolkien and Lewis had this conversation more than 80 years ago, before the modern movement to “think global, eat local” began, or the term “agrarian” came into wide usage, or broad criticisms arose of industrialized agriculture. Their concerns were both prophetic and profound.

The word “agrarian” appeared in the title of the book I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, written by 12 southern writers and first published in 1930, the same year Lewis wrote the letter. Although evidence suggests the term was coined over a century earlier from a Latin word meaning “of the land,” it did not gain popularity until much later in the twentieth century. Landmark conservationist books—Aldo Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac (1949) on rehabilitating a farm ravaged by industrial agriculture and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) decrying the widespread use of pesticides—remained decades in the future.

Over the decades since Tolkien’s death, poet, essayist, and novelist Wendell Berry outlined many of the principles of agrarianism. Like Leopold and Carson, Berry argued that respectful agricultural practices are healthier for the land and food grown on it. Future generations benefit from a long-term commitment to that land, especially when the food grown there is eaten by those who live on or near it.

Likewise the agrarian movement maintains that when those who work the soil are the same as those who have an economic stake in the soil and live near that soil, their practices are healthier. By contrast, Berry said, the “standardized international diet” eaten today often requires large-scale industrialized mono-crop agriculture dependent on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and high shipping costs.

The strength of the hills

Tolkien, while he did not use the term “agrarian” (or any other single term like it ) in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, referred in his personal letters to its opposite: “industrialized and militarized agriculture.” He provided in his stories an imaginative portrayal of the destructiveness of these techniques in contrast to the goodness and health of agrarian methods.

It is evident from correspondence that Tolkien—and Lewis—believed that when we eat locally we have a more profound connection to the land around us. We are thus more inclined to care about its health and more likely to see ourselves in relationship to that land.

When we are connected to our local land through our eating, they argued, something of the “strength of the hills” is in us—a reference by Lewis in his letter to the King James Version’s Psalm 95:4: “In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also.” Those words were composed in praise of God by a psalmist within the ancient agrarian Hebrew culture tens of centuries earlier. Thus Lewis and Tolkien suggested that something of God’s strength becomes ours when we are connected to the local hills and soil that God created. And something of that strength is lost, they thought, in a culture of industrialized agriculture and international diet. When we lose that connection, we become uprooted.

While it may be tempting to dismiss the Tolkien-Lewis conversation as passing comments by sentimental romantics, there is considerable evidence that Tolkien—whose younger brother Hilary ran a small family farm—was thinking more deeply about the issue than that.

By the 1950s when The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien was explicitly referring to “industrialized agriculture” and portraying its ravages in his fiction. His villains—from Sauron and Saruman in their dark towers to the hobbit Lotho Sackville-Baggins who takes over the Shire—regularly despoil the land over which they rule through industrialization. Mordor has slave-based agriculture and poisoned earth, Isengard is stripped of trees, and finally the Shire comes perilously close to moving to a culture in which food is grown as an export crop.

The Ent Treebeard, a treelike being in Tolkien’s mythology who serves as guardian of actual trees, responds to the wizard Saruman’s deforestation of Isengard: “We Ents do not like being roused; and we never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger.”

Treebeard continues, “It is the orc-work, the wanton hewing—rárum—without even the bad excuse of feeding the fires, that has so angered us; and the treachery of a neighbour, who should have helped us. Wizards ought to know better: they do know better. There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men bad enough for such treachery. Down with Saruman!”

Weeds and not gardens

This same devastation is brought home to the hobbits when they return to the ravaged Shire:

The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.

On April 25, 1954, Tolkien penned a letter to a fan who had inquired about the fate of the Entwives, the spouses of Tolkien’s beloved mythical tree-herding Ents. Tolkien thought that mechanized agriculture must have done the Entwives in too. “Tyrants,” he wrote, “even in such tales, must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metalworkers.” This letter is one of many hints that Tolkien associated large-scale, slave-based agriculture with horrific evil.

The letter goes on to say, “If any [Entwives] survived so [as agricultural slaves of the tyrants], they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult—unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic. I hope so. I don’t know.”

We also see Lewis and Tolkien not only defending the importance of having a connection to soil, woods, hills, and landscape, but also recognizing the sort of stories growing out of and upholding those connections; the sort of stories in which we see “nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood.” What Tolkien called “the literature of Faërie” grew out of the principles of agrarianism.

Both Tolkien and Lewis would go on in the 30 years following the letter quoted at this article’s beginning to devote much of their lives to writing that very sort of literature. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, explicitly included river gods and wood gods (nymphs and dryads). The killing of a dryad presages the downfall of Narnia in The Last Battle.

And in the final book of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis offers a stark contrast between the traditional English agricultural practices associated with the heroes of his farming community at St. Anne’s and the industrialized practices of the villainous folks at the Belbury mansion. Though the book does not portray dryads or nymphs, it does offer the famed sixth-century magician Merlin—who rises back to life from an old well in an old wood—a spirit much in communion with the spiritual qualities of nature.

Trees that walk

Tolkien avoided the linguistic associations of dryads with Greek mythology. But he still gave us in Lord of the Rings sentient trees (or near-trees and tree spirits) in creatures such as Ents, Entwives, and Old Man Willow.

And the beautiful and compelling Goldberry, spouse of Tom Bombadil, in human form is actually the Daughter of the River—which is to say, a naiad or river nymph. Tom Bombadil himself is probably best understood as a sort of earth spirit.

Did Tolkien intentionally set out to write “agrarian literature?” Almost certainly not. At least not in the sense that Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, or Annie Dillard did. Tolkien was primarily concerned with telling good and compelling stories. And several other themes held greater importance for him. Nonetheless, though agrarianism may not be the central theme, it seems clear from their letters and from the texts themselves that both Tolkien and Lewis took it seriously.

But why? The answers are many and complex. But one answer suggests that however peripheral the outward expression of agricultural concerns are in the writings of Tolkien of Lewis, the underlying principles behind their agrarian views came from a deep ideological core.

Both Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and Lewis, an Anglican, believed that the cosmos in general and the earth in particular were created by a good, caring, and loving Creator and were themselves proclaimed by that Creator to be good. The call to care for that good creation is central to the created purpose of humans—and elves and dwarfs and hobbits and talking animals.

All these are image-bearing creatures of the creative God (called in Elvish Eru Ilúvatar and in Narnia the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea). And while this creation has worth and value as a place for God’s creatures to live, it also has worth and value in and of itself. Tolkien’s whole Middle-earth creation narrative (the Ainulindalë, the first part of the published Silmarillion) echoes this idea from the book of Genesis, as does The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis’s creation account of Narnia.

Duty to the soil

What results from this doctrine of creation is an ethic of land stewardship that ought to govern the behavior of humans (as well as elves, hobbits, and dwarfs). It finds its clearest and most concise expression in the words of the wise wizard Gandalf, who near the end of The Lord of the Rings gives to the gathered heroes and Captains of the West at the Last Debate this call to duty:

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

In the context in which they are spoken, Gandalf’s words refer to duties other than agricultural ones. But the fact that he chose that metaphor speaks to its truth and importance. Each person has a duty to care for the soil—the earth that is to be tilled—so that it will be clean for future generations.

Lewis includes a similar charge given by Aslan to Frank, the first king of Narnia: “Use a spade and plough and raise food out of the earth;” care for the animals and do not enslave them. Such a duty stemmed from these authors’ understanding of a doctrine of creation and is at the core of their portrayals of agrarian practices, so that future generations might find the strength of the hills still in them. CH

By Matthew Dickerson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #113 in 2015]

Matthew Dickerson is professor of computer science at Middlebury College and the author of numerous books on myth, fantasy, and the Inklings, including Ents, Elves and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien and Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis.
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