Today, September 22 (by Shire-reckoning or otherwise), marks the twin birthdays of two of the finest halflings in all of fantasy fiction: Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, ringbearers, heroes of Middle-earth, and lovers of food, ale, pipeweed, and books. But while their journeys there and back again are much beloved, one of their greatest highs together is our first introduction to their world in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Shire isn’t the actual opening to Fellowship of the Ring, of course. Like all good things Lord of the Rings, it takes a bit to get there, regardless of the cut of the film you watch. First, we have to hear Galadriel tell the tale of the Rings of Power and their Dark Master, the final battle of the Last Alliance, and see Elrond implore Isildur to destroy a ring we know he’s already lost to. In the extended cut, there’s even a bit more as we see Isildur’s hubris paid in blood, and how the One Ring floated on from the heir to the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor and into the pocket of a certain Shirefolk. It’s only then—after all those sweeping views of magical rings, ancient evils, an epic battle between good and evil, high drama and higher tragedy—that Fellowship actually begins. With a map, one that pulls away from all this action and over to the tiny, pastoral lands of the Shire, and we’re pulled out even further beyond it, to the homely, messy comfort of Bag End.
It’s a stunning contrast, to be immediately wrenched from the brown-greys and molten tones of the fields before Mount Doom, and into the intimate lens of Bilbo’s home. That intimacy continues, even as we move from Bilbo being our focal attention to him being a narrator to our true introduction to the Shire and its people, the Hobbits. Gone are the flurries of arrows—bristling as they fly through ranks of Elves and Men—replaced with the fluttering of fields of grass and wheat in a gentle breeze. Gleaming armor replaced by overhauls, flannel, and flower-printed dresses, shields and helmets replaced by frills and bonnets. There are no orcs, only Hobbits, smoking, laughing, drinking, playing, working. A peaceful people and a celebration of the calm earned in the fury of the battle we were watching unfold just minutes beforehand. The most monstrous sight in all of the shire is no orc or Dark Lord, but perhaps a cow.
So many cows.
Accompanied by Howard Shore’s beloved, instantaneously ear-worming “Concerning Hobbits”—light and airy strings to contrast against the bombastic brass and choral chants of the Battle of the Last Alliance—it is a masterclass in scene-setting. Instantly, you are introduced into the world of the Shire and its denizens, and equally quickly told just how alien the world of conflict around them is. These aren’t warriors or great keepers of the peace, Bilbo tells us as he writes his own history into prose: they are simply livers of life, symbolic of a peace that has endured for generations at this point. The Shire becomes Fellowship, and the trilogy at large’s, happy place.
When Frodo and his friends find themselves wrested from the lives they knew by Gandalf and thrust into a battle against the most almighty of evils, whenever they come close to faltering in their quest to destroy the ring, it’s “Concerning Hobbits” that flutters back into Shore’s score. It’s there to remind us of these opening moments—the unlikely beginnings Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all came from, reminding them (and us) what waits for them when their quest is done, spurring them on to the heroism they all accomplish. Introducing us to the Shire in this manner, an idyllic view into a life that could be—more homey, more loving, more warm than any of the sweeping and epic vistas to come along in the trilogy’s long road back to the Shire by the end of Return of the King—we are given an image to be reminded of throughout the saga’s highs and lows.
“For things are made to endure in the Shire,” Bilbo’s narration tells us, as strings swell, and Gandalf and Frodo continue their ride up through Hobbiton in the Wizard’s rickety cart, “passing from one generation to the next.” He may be talking about his and Frodo’s home in Bag End, but really, it’s about this romantic world our unlikely heroes are from, the peace that they fight for—and the beauty of the fact that Hobbits have been living that ideal for generations before them, and will do so for generations after.
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