The Shire’s Military Structure?

Sam Gamgee (Hobbits)

Raising the Shire

They are (or were) a little people, about half our height […] have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs

The Hobbit, ‘An Unexpected Party’, Chapter I

Ranks of skilled archers cleverly readying their bows. Organized groups of infantrymen waiting for the signal to attack. One word and any intruders will find themselves facing serious consequences.

It is hard to conjure up the imagery of an army within the Shire, based on the rather rustic and easy-going characteristics of the above quote.

Yet, these are the Hobbits of the Shire – as penned by master fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien himself. The nature-loving, food-consuming folk, conceal a fierce sense of love and loyalty to Frodotheir own people and the land: giving rise to a modest force of defence that joins the ranks of the more popular – and significantly larger – armies in Middle-earth.

These same Hobbits – from whom arises the foolishness of Sam Gamgee, the narrow-mindedness of Hamfast, the antics of Bilbo Baggins, or the offensiveness of Otho and Lobelia – have, nonetheless, a fiery personality; a personality that mixes their love of living things with a steadfast resilience in conflict.

Peaceful Halflings?

At no time had Hobbits of any kind been warlike […] In olden days they had, of course, been often obliged to fight to maintain themselves in a hard world; but in Bilbo’s time that was very ancient history.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Concerning Hobbits’

Reading The Lord of the Rings, we do not fall under the impression that Hobbits are born as warriors – albeit in exceptional circumstances, such as Sam’s defiance at Cirith Ungol or Merry and Pippin’s presence in the battles of the War of the Ring.Sam Gamgee

In order to understand better the nature of Hobbits, one has but to look at the Prologue of the novel, where Tolkien gives us some interesting insights into the everyday lives of these individuals, and their particular characteristics.

Though slow to quarrel, and for sport killing nothing that lived, they were doughty at bay, and at need could still handle arms. They shot well with the bow, for they were keen-eyed and sure at the mark. Not only with bows and arrows.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Concerning Hobbits’

It is not unreasonable to think that the Shire maintained a small armed force for its own protection and that of the people. Indeed, during Bilbo’s time “there was still some store of weapons in the Shire” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Concerning Hobbits’).

The Thain of the Shire

In The Hobbit, readers come across several references to the adventurous and courageous spirit of the Tooks. Unlike other families, such as the Bagginses, Bolgers and Gamgees, they consisted of a large clan of Hobbits – an independent cluster of relatives living in a region of the Shire known as Tookland.

Whilst Hobbits do not appear to have had any specific military system, we are informed that the Thain was the leading authority in terms of an armed force.

The Thain was the master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’

 

Old Took

In this one sentence, we are informed that the Hobbits had set up several measures in order to ensure that any trouble remains outside of the Shire. The Thain was responsible for setting up and commanding the rallying of forces in case of any threat: a relatively downsized version of an army.

The Hobbitry-in-arms would undoubtedly have consisted of a small force of archers and casual infantrymen with rudimentary weapons for swords and spears.

However, Tolkien was quick to state that these meetings and musterings were uncommon, and that by the start of the War of the Ring, had almost ceased to exist. However, as we shall see, the events at the Battle of Bywater, reintroduced these customs for the defence of the land.

The title of Thain was given to the chief of the Tooks, and had been handed down from father to son for hundreds of years. A unifying symbol of protection for all the Hobbit families of the Shire.

Shire-muster

Our first glimpse of a substantial mustering in the region of the Shire, comes in Chapter IX of The Fellowship of the Ring. Fredegar Bolger – left behind to oversee and suppress the inquisitiveness surrounding Frodo’s departure – finds himself in a tight spot and a close encounter with several Ringwraiths: intent on seeking out the Ring-bearing halfling, at all costs.

The terrified Hobbit plucks up enough courage to escape and warn nearby inhabitants. Soon, the alarm is raised:

The Brandybucks were blowing the Horn-call of Buckland […] The alarm was spreading […] All about Crickhollow there was the sound of horns blowing, and voices crying and feet running.

The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Knife in the Dark’, Chapter IX

It is not surprising, therefore, that this region in the Shire would constitute a small force in order to control any mischief.

The Four Hobbits

This demonstrates that apart from the Tooks, other families – in this case, the Brandybucks and others within the region of Buckland – had similar ways of taking up arms and gathering in force.

***

Towards the end of the War of the Ring, as the Shire was overwhelmed by ruffian invasions, Tookland resisted any attempts at being conquered, and as Frodo returned from his quest, it was the Thain and his followers that assisted in the victory of the Battle of Bywater.

The Thain has raised all the country […] Before long they marched in, a hundred strong, from Tuckborough and the Green Hills

The Return of the King – ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, Chapter VIII

Undoubtedly, whilst no rigid military authority was maintained, the Tooks were the core foundation of the Shire’s defence.

The Shire as a battlefield

So ended the Battle of Bywater, 1419, the last battle fought in the Shire, and the only battle since the Greenfields, 1147, away upon the Northfarthing.

The Return of the King – ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, Chapter VIII

The only two battles to ever occur in the Shire, are in fact the most relevant sources of information in comprehending the existence of an armed force of halflings.

Bullroarer TookThe Battle of the Greenfields was fought as a result of the Hobbits’ response in repelling a strong band of Orcs that had made its way too far west and into the Shire.

The youngest son of the then ruling Thain, Bandobras ‘Bullroarer’ Took, assembled a company of Hobbits and drove off the evil creatures under the command of the orc chieftain, Golfimbul.

No other information exists of this event, except several references to Bullroarer’s extraordinary feat in riding a horse and beheading the leader of the orcs.

Nevertheless, as we have already seen, the Hobbits were able to assemble in force and confront the present threat.

It is a remarkable fact that, although Tolkien tells us halflings were not warlike and did not have particular skill in arms, they managed to overthrow a band of orcs – who were significantly larger and more efficient in combat.

This point sustains the possibility that even in times of peace, selective groups of Hobbits would have underwent some form of training routine to hone their sword-wielding and archery skills.

***

Almost three hundred years later, history repeated itself, when the Shire was invaded by ruffians at the end of the War of the Ring, and the Hobbits rose to face this peril.A Tolkien illustration by Ted Nasmith

As the four Hobbit companions make their way towards Hobbiton, they “take over” the revolt against the intruders.

Merry and Pippin, having gained considerable experience on the battlefield, take care of the strategic implementations to trap an approaching force of ruffians.

Whilst Pippin rides towards Tookland, hoping to urge the Thain to muster his forces and bring “back an army of Tooks in the morning”, the rest of the hobbits around Hobbiton make their own preparations.

[…] apart from many younger lads, more than a hundred sturdy Hobbits were assembled with axes, and heavy hammers, and long knives, and stout staves; and a few had hunting bows.

The Return of the King – ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, Chapter VIII

Battle of Bywater (Hildebrandt)As already stated, whilst the assembly is not an army – but rather a militia (an armed force consisting of common citizens) – the measures to neutralize the attack are instant and efficiently undertaken.

Akin to the Battle of Greenfields, the Battle of Bywater saw an enemy force that was considerably stronger and physically larger than the apparent feebleness of the Hobbits.

Yet, through sound strategy and sheer determination in overthrowing their subjugators, the battle was won and peace was restored.

The Battle of Fornost

It is, perhaps, ironic that one of the most interesting references to a Hobbit force, also happens to be mentioned in passing – leaving us with nothing more than guesswork and speculations.

To the last battle at Fornost with the Witch-lord of Angmar they sent some bowmen to the aid of the King, or so they maintained, though no tales of men record it.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Concerning Hobbits’

Whilst it would be a fascinating prospect in reading about Hobbit archers going to battle against the Witch-King, the last few words of this quote may discredit the whole statement.

 

Witch-king (Fornost)

Yet, it does not necessarily mean that such an event did not happen. Historical records, both in a fictitious world – such as Middle-earth – and our own, may vary significantly.

We have already seen evidence that some Hobbits were skilled with bows (chiefly used for hunting purposes); and a company of archers composed entirely of halflings, stationed in the Shire, would not have been unreasonable.

If we look back at the political situation at the time, the northern kingdom of the Dúnedain was almost wiped out in the wars against the Witch-king.

Conflicts sprung treacherously close to the borders of the Shire, and it is not difficult to consider that the ruling Thain would have sent a small force to aid in the final defeat of the Ringwraith’s armies.

Shirriffs and Bounders

Apart from the reference to archers and a few troops, Tolkien gave us fragments of information indicating the presence of a systematic armed force among the Hobbits.

The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent […] There were in all the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’

Ferry manDuring the events of the Scouring of the Shire, the Shirriffs were group leaders under the command of the ruffians, with no authority whatsoever: except for overseeing their respective band of Hobbit recruits.

Whilst they are not – to a certain extent – a military force , they were nonetheless part of the Shire’s custom to maintain order.

A rather larger body, varying at need, was employed to […] see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue: ‘Of the Ordering of the Shire’

These Bounders, we are told, had increased substantially during the War of the Ring, in order to keep at bay any intrusions in the Shire.

Similar to the armed force in Tookland, Bounders would most likely have been simple Hobbits – with limited training experience – recruited to carry out such tasks: a proper example of a militia in the Shire..

Mapping a Structure

With this information in mind, it would be possible to sketch a rudimentary hierarchical tree of the military structure in the Shire.

It is by no means an accurate rendition, and does not necessarily represent strict divisions between the diverse titles and a chain of command.

 

Shire Hierarchy Tree

***

Apologies for the length of the article, but I just felt the subject matter would lose substance if spread over two or more parts.

So if you’ve read through all of it, congratulations and my heart-felt thanks! 😀

Till next time…

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20 thoughts on “The Shire’s Military Structure?

  1. Great article into the nature of Hobbits and a nice selection of references. It seems as though an adversary won’t know what they are messing with until they mess with them. They only take to war when there is something worth fighting for. I also get the impression there was no standing army, but processes, traditions and people were in place to create a defensive force when needed (e.g. a citizen’s army). Perhaps there were families where father’s trained their sons in the use of hunting bows from childhood, thus ensuring the continued existence of these skills (perhaps also perpetuated through contests in any festivals – not sure if there is any reference to these type of events).
    I tend to believe they sent a group of archers to the last battle of Fornost. Firstly, I think Hobbit stories are basically truthful, even if they may exaggerate a bit, and secondly, archaeology was very immature in those days so no wonder they found no reference to their contribution amongst the ruins of the Northern Kingdom. Even a great lore-master like Elrond did not know as much about Hobbits as I would expect him to know – perhaps if I meet him one day we can discuss how he let this happen. 😉

    • Thanks Bob.

      You’re right about the “citizen’s army” – it certainly seems to be that way.

      Also, I too believe that the archers at Fornost actually occurred but – Men being men – overlooked their relevance and simply forgot about them!

      • I agree as well, I think it likely the hobbits did send archers, and were perhaps even more involved in the history of Middle Earth at one time than is remembered. It would explain why the Rohirrim and others have vague familiarity with the name “halflings”, yet have no more in depth knowledge. So much was lost with the fall of the North kingdom that even the name of the Witch KIng has been forgotten.How much more likely that any record of hobbit archers would have been lost to the remaining chronicles in Gondor? And pure conjecture here, SOMETHING inspired Gandalf to take an initial interest in hobbits and the Shire.

    • I’m pretty sure he didn’t because Gandalf was the only member of the Wise or Elven-wise who ever went in for Hobbit-lore (save Saruman’s study of herb-lore after picking up the love for the Halflings’ leaf from Gandalf).

    • I thought men fared badly in those battles – so badly in fact that Fornost was destroyed and the WK was only defeated by a combined force of Elves and Men of the South. If that is the case, it’s likely that the hobbits would have perished along with the rest of the Northern Army.

      Sad, but it would explain why it wasn’t widely known.

  2. An excellent article and one of my favourites so far. I really enjoy your writings on the fictional military systems of this world. I find your outline of the structure convincing and I can see Halflings taking up arms and being brave defenders of their homelands. Young Halflings/Hobbits being trained by their fathers in archery is very likely as it is a useful skill to have not only limited to war time.

  3. Fantastic post – I’ve never really thought about this outside the context of the scouring of the Shire, so this was really helpful (and fun) to read through. I can definitely see the Hobbits taking up arms in self-defense. Conquerers they’re not, but I wouldn’t discount the power of someone who loves peace and home when that peace and home are threatened!

  4. It just never would have ever occurred to me that Hobbits were anything other than peaceful if I hadn’t read the books. Especially after Peter Jackson’s portrayal of the peace- loving folk of the Shire.

  5. It seems the world is becoming aware of the military structure of Hobbits. I noticed an article very like this on TORN, 😉

    If Scotland goes independent you could always forward this to SMoD for their armed forces.

    • Just an added note. I think the idea of not having a standing army (like the Hobbits) was once intrinsic to the English perspective on liberty which followed on into American thinking as well. This was before they both became powerful military nations, in the case of Britain the 18th C, I think. I wonder if, in the case of the Shire, any of this factored into Tolkien’s thinking.

  6. Excellent article, I really enjoyed it. I actually don’t find it surprising that the Hobbits prevailed at the Battle of Greenfields. Obviously it depends on the size of the ‘strong band of orcs’- is it 50 or 200?- but the Hobbits have several advantages. First, their skill with the bow; you only have to look at the Battle of Agincourt to see what a small group of well-drilled bowmen can do to a much larger, heavily armed force. (The bowmen of Agincourt were not a standing army either, they were drawn from the shires and baronies of England.) Secondly, their knowledge of the country; they would know the Shire like the back of their hands, the orcs would be on strange ground. Thirdly, their ability to ‘vanish in the twinkling of an eye’ plus their fondness for yellow, green and brown clothes (perfect camouflage in the agricultural country of the Shire) would seem to give them all the tools to wage a perfect guerrilla war.They could choose their site, lead the orcs on and then strike. Also, I wonder if they had a rudimentary cavalry? We know Bullroarer rode a horse, but we also know Hobbits are perfectly capable of handling ponies. Would Bullroarer have charged on his own? Possibly if he saw a decisive opening I suppose, but in general the stolid Hobbits are not given to taking stupid risks. My imaginary take on the battle is of the Hobbits leading the orcs where they wanted them, softening them up with showers of arrows from cover, then Bullroarer and a few of his mates charging in to take out Golfimbul and leaving the rest of the orcs leaderless and demoralised.

    • JJ O’Callaghan, thanks for the excellent feedback 🙂

      Your reference to Agincourt is an excellent example on the potential capabilities of a small Hobbit force winning over an outnumbering force.

      As to cavalry, yes, Bandobras’ case seems to be an exception – but it seems plausible that on the day of the Battle of Greenfields, a handful of hobbits on horses may have guarded the Thain’s son and took part in the charge.

      Unfortunately, we cannot confirm whether this could have happened or not.

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