Tolkein’s Shire has always felt like home to me.
Whilst the great author of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings fiercely rebutted any hint that his books were in any way allegory, the cosy patchwork-quilt countryside of Bilbo Baggins’ homeland simply rings true.
To me, England is the Shire, and all within hide a hobbit. There are good hobbits and bad hobbits here, but hobbits we are, inside if not out.
I’ll try to explain what I mean. We have our motorways, our hideous industrial centres, our deprived areas, our poor, our shunned and abused. I do not paint us a fairytale country. But just step outside the door of the small house we call home and you step into the Shire.
Yesterday we pottered off to Windsor Great Park, scene of our recent ghost hunting expedition. It was cold and the grass was still wet, the ground squelching under our wellingtons. But the sun shone with all the zeal of late autumn, hanging low in the sky and illuminating the colours of a pastoral landscape.
It was, quite simply, stunning. It took the breath away: frame after frame of unaffected beauty, like a film set. The dogs ambled along by our sides, straining at horses and glaring at swans. This place, despite its dreary climate, can work its way into your soul. And if you are born a hobbit, your spirit is marbled with the landscape of the Shire.
In peace time it is all too easy to take this island for granted, packed as it is with pictures and stories.
But in times of trouble our men have gazed at these places, and the affable, parochial life of Hobbiton, and been forced to leave bound for hell.
Such a choice had Frodo, and Sam, and Merry, and Pippin in Tolkein’s great masterpiece. They looked at all that was familiar and comfortable and made a decision to leave it for the greater good, their destination Mordor, and the great mountain which was the heart of darkness.
Their journey was long and, because they are fictional, their ending ultimately happy. But it is interesting that the evil which threatened Middle Earth made its way to The Shire and changed it beyond recognition, making it a place of fear in the absence of the four adventurers.
Today, in about 15 minutes from my writing, actually, our Shire will stop. Our part of the world is bustling with soldiers, scouts, guides, cubs and brownies, mayors and councillors, priests and people putting on their best bib and tucker, pinning on a poppy – our sign of remembrance – and heading out to Remembrance services everywhere.
Because the harsh reality is that people are forced to leave the Shire and travel across the world to meet their death far from home. Unlike Tolkein, Life is not an author who is biased towards happy endings. A whole generation of young men was lost to us in the First World War; and then, despite vowing it would never happen again, a threat to our shores forced us to sacrifice our loved ones again in the Second. And it continues.
We pause at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day. An ironic time which might make some bitter. Phil’s grandmother’s uncle was on the battlefield at the ninth and tenth hour of that eleventh day when the First World War was due to close. But by the eleventh, he had been killed. An artificial deadline robbed more than one creature from the Shire of their life that day.
I have ten minutes left before the Shire remembers. I must be ready to honour those who tore themselves away from our beautiful places, and never came back.
These pictures of the Shire – taken yesterday in brilliant Autumn sunshine – these are to honour them.