One of the courses I'm teaching this term is on Pastoral. We start with 'classic' examples of the mode: touch on Theocritus, go into Vergil's Eclogues in some detail, devote a week to Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, and then another to As You Like It. Then we look at some 'anti'-pastoral, with Goldsmith's Deserted Village and Crabbe's The Village. After that we delve into Wordsworth, trying to understand his 'spots of time' and going through 'Michael' in depth. Last week was Adam Bede, and this week is: Tolkien.
Now, you may ask 'but is Tolkien really an example of pastoral literature, Adam?' A reasonable question. Part of the point of this week's session will be to try and tie-together some of the 'what becomes of pastoral?' discussion we've been having in class. And one of the things I'm trying to argue, with this syllabus, is that pastoral in its bare-bones form, as (that is) a set of recognised conventions, of the happy shepherds, sunny countryside, song contests, wine, food, sex and love-longing type, evolves into something broader, something shaped by a number of particular cultural forces, and two in particular. One is a fetish for 'authenticity': so Wordsworth's rural spaces are arduous, difficult places in which to live and work, but that enables precisely a hard-won existential authenticity, focused via the spot-of-time, which replaces hedonism as the transcendent value of the pastoral itself. Man is closer to his true being in the countryside than the city, Wordsworth thinks, and his true joy is spiritual rather than material. And that transcendence picks up on the second major force: the way Christianity itself has styled itself as a pastoral religion. Christ is the good shepherd, and we are the sheep: as a shepherd looks after material sheep, so Christian priests, pastors, look after spiritual sheep—us. So it is that Wordsworth's 'Michael' tells a story of physical and emotional endurance and hardship in order to ground the pastoral value of the life of the elderly shepherd title character, but also parses that tale as a story of quasi-Christian covenant: Michael with the angelic name, his son Luke with the apostolic one, the lost sheep, the sheepfold as covenant, and the sense throughout that although Luke strays never to return, and Michael dies, and even his sheepfold falls to ruin, yet there is something beyond the realm of matter that endures, and which finds expression in the body of, in the very existence of, Wordsworth's pastoral poem.
My sense is that pastoral, now, can't help but fold together these two traditions: the pagan and the Christian, the 'pastor' as rural shepherd and as priest. Adam Bede is, in part, a hymn to the beauty and existential wholeness of rural village life (Middlemarch is too); but Adam Bede literally begins with a sermon, preached by a woman no less, and the 'story' grafted into the fundamentally story-less literary-pastoral space, is a moral one of seduction and sin, death, pilgrimage, atonement and salvation. It's not coincidental that this all happens 'in Nature'.
It's also relevant that Eliot sets her 1859-published story in 1799. Pastoral starts as another, better place, a rural arcadia defined in contradistinction to the city, or (as in Shakespeare's play) the court. But soon enough it becomes another, better time—a past time, of course. This temporal mode of pastoral has the advantage of being unfalsifiable, but it also connects with the backward tug of human experience. That so many of share a sense that things were better 'back then' exerts a gravitational pull on the arcadian mode. This also chimes with Christianity; for Eden is of course the prime, originary locus amoenus; and Christianity as a faith is about not the omnipresence of God in the world so much as the past-historical arrival of God into the world and His departure therefrom, ascending post-crucifixion.
Now all this, it seems to me, has an important bearing on Tolkien's novel. The Lord of the Rings is, as he wrote to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray in 1953, 'of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.' I would argue that it is a profoundly pastoral work in a similar way to this.
It is, for example, a love letter to the English countryside, as rendered fictionally as 'the Shire', the most amoenus of all loci, as far as Tolkien was concerned. It finds not just beauty but a kind of wholeness and transcendent value in 'Nature', and goes further than most pastoral in gifting not just life but motion, speech and thought to such normally unthinking uncommunicative entities as trees. As pastoral traditionally does, it intersperses its text with songs, and insofar as pastoral is allergic to 'narrative' and 'plot' it is striking that the story doesn't really get going until Frodo and his friends have passed out of the Shire, and moved into other, still beautiful but less specifically pastoral locations. Indeed, re-reading it for the hundredth time to teach it again this year, I have been particularly struck by just how long Tolkien's novel tarries in the Shire—by, that is to say, how reluctant the story is to let go of its pastoral starting-place and actually become story. The Peter Jackson movie trilogy is, of course, much more impatient to crack on with things, so much so that it cuts out great chunks of the first half of Fellowship of the Ring: not just Tom Bombadil, but also the sojourn with Farmer Maggot and family, the Hobbits' misadventure with the barrow wight, and even the fact that Frodo initially leaves Bag End not to depart on some great quest, but only to move to a new house in Buckland. The movie is much more in thrall to Plot than the novel. Which is to say, the novel is much more invested in Pastoral than the movie.
So, yes, there are obvious things that can be said about Lord of the Rings as pastoral: the way it defines its value as anti-urban, anti-machine and nostalgic for the past, something with which it has endowed subsequent Fantasy novels (crudely: SF is urban, materialist, machinic, future-oriented and satiric; Fantasy is rural, invested in transcendent or 'magical' value, past-oriented and Pastoral). I could spool this out into a much longer discussion about Fantasy vs SF, but this blogpost is already really pretty lengthily unspooled. So I'm going to limit myself to noting a couple of things.
Say for the sake of argument that you buy my thesis that Lord of the Rings is pastoral. Say you agree that this explains the reluctance of the novel to leave its Shirey pastoral space and crack on with the notional 'story', and why the ending of the novel is so invested not only in returning to the Shire, but in restoring it specifically as rural idyll, tearing down the factories and re-seeding the land. Say that you read, or re-read, Tolkien's novel in this light and are struck, as I am, by how much textual space he gives to (often lovely!) descriptions of the natural scenery, by how much it is precisely Nature that externalises Value in the novel, such that people who work with the grain of Nature are good by virtue of doing so, and people who work against it are defined as bad. Say you agree with all that.
One puzzling question remains. Where are all the sheep?
There must be sheep in Middle Earth, at least in the north-west corner of it where we find the Shire. In The Hobbit the Trolls Bilbo stumbles upon complain about having nothing but sheep to eat ('Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don't look like mutton again tomorrer'). More, we can read the landscape Tolkien so lovingly describes. It's based on England, yes; but England doesn't look the way it looks now at random. Once, and not so very long ago in the larger scheme of things, England was all forest. The forests were cleared partly so we could grow crops, but mostly so we could graze animals, and the key animal for the history of England is the sheepish one. (Not for nothing does the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords sit on an actual woolsack). The Enclosures, one of the key events in British social history, happened largely because sheep were so much more profitable than peasants. So, reading across to Tolkien's alternate England, the fact that the ancient forests are so often interrupted by open grasslands must be because that territory has been cleared for sheep. It's a classical pastoral landscape in fact.
And yet, with an exception which I'll come to in a moment, there are no sheep in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien describes the landscape through which his characters walk with loving precision, but always in terms of landscape, never in terms of livestock. Horses and ponies are mentioned, but only in terms of their passengers. At one point the narrative even switches-out p.o.v. with a fox, startled by the wandering Hobbits:
A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.But no sheep! Fields, open to the sky, but no sheep in them. Isn't that odd, for a pastoral?
'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. 
Well one way of addressing that would be to say: it's not a pastoral. But bear with me. I'm wondering if there is something studied in this absence of sheep, in the same way that there is something studied in Middle Earth's absence of churches, temples and all the paraphernalia of religious worship. I am, of course, both aware of, and wary of, that rhetorical strategy that goes: 'evidence of x proves my thesis, but the absence of evidence of x is even more conclusive proof of my thesis!' Still, might it be that the novel's lack of in-story references to shepherds and sheep indexes a larger story in which it's all shepherds and sheep? Since the novel is not allegorical, there is no simple Aslan-is-Christ correspondence between the characters in Lord of the Rings and Christian doctrine, but the two most obviously Christ-like figures are Gandalf and Aragorn. Can we read them as two lords-are-my-shepherd individuals? Gandalf 'shepherds' his flock, leading the other eight members of the Fellowship through the landscape (he even has a crook. Well a staff); and when he falls in Moria things go awry for his sheep. Aragorn, like the Good Shepherd, goes to immense pains to recover the two lost sheep from his flock, when the orcs seize Merry and Pippin. Does 'flock' oversell it? How many sheep make a flock anyway? (More than two; but eight would surely be enough). And 'flock', as Tolkien certainly knew, is an interesting word, linked to two closely-related Old English terms, flocc (“flock, company, troop”) and folc (“crowd, troop, band”), the latter being the root of our 'folk'. That's a significant convergence of meanings, I think.
So far as I can see, there are only two specific references to sheep in the novel (there may be others that I'm missing). The first comes, significantly I think, when the Hobbits stay with Tom Bombadil, and listen to his wide-ranging tales. He narrates 'many remarkable stories' and spends a good deal of time on the woods.
Suddenly Tom's talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the downs. They [the Hobbits] heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight. Hence, you see, the illustration at the top of this post. Sheep lived once in this landscape, but not anymore. What this means, I think, is that the novel's pastoral is inflected by a flavour of elegy. The old ways are passing. That's one of the novel's big themes.
One other datum, from Bombadil's house, which is relevant to the question: who is Tom Bombadil anyway? It concerns the Hobbits' bedding. They sleep, we're told, under sheepskins, or at any rate under 'blankets of white wool'  (not exactly the same thing, I know). So who is Bombadil? He is the oldest being in Middle Earth, closely connected with precisely the natural landscape the hobbits are about to leave (he himself leads them to the edge of his land, but will not cross over). When Gandalf calls-in on him at the novel's end, we discover that he has no interest in the seemingly great events that make up the bulk of The Lord of the Rings as a novel: 'quite untroubled,' Gandalf reports, 'not much interested in anything that we have done and seen'. But there's an exception, one thing that does interest him, and it's the group's encounter with the Ents.
Of course the Ents are, precisely, shepherds: or, more precisely herders of the trees ('arboriherds' I guess; or maybe a more Tolkienian neologism would be 'trēowherds'). As Treebeard tells Merry: 'Sheep get like shepherds, and shepherds get like sheep. ... But it is quicker and closer, with trees and Ents' . That's the second specific reference to sheep in the novel. [Over on FB my friend Edward James points out another, elvish reference: “'To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,’ laughed Lindir.”]
If Bombadil has an affinity to the Ents, that's because he is himself, as spirit of the natural world, a shepherd of sorts—a kind of meta-shepherd we might say. (It relates to the fact that these are all characters in a world shepherded by the author, Tolkien: it's always struck me that the name 'Tom Bombadil' is a soundalike Bombadilized version of the name 'John Ronaldreuel' ... let's sing together, shall we? "Old Jom Ronaldrill is a merry fellow;/Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are ..." Alright, alright. Maybe not). A short answer to the question who, or what, is Tom Bombadil would be to say: he is pastoral. He is the idiom of the beautiful natural spaces that are the locus of value in Tolkien's imaginarium, from which his characters have to depart to fight evil, but to which they must also return.
A blogpost on The Lord of the Rings would hardly be complete without an appendix, preferably one quite dense and rebarbative, only glancingly relevant to the main body of text, sitting there inviting the reader to skip over it. And here's mine. It has to do with Timothy Morton's account of the novel as an 'environmentalist' work. This is one small part of Morton's hectic but stimulating Ecology without nature: rethinking environmental aesthetics (Harvard University Press 2007), situating Tolkien both in terms of the longer tradition of ‘Romantic nationalism’ and environmental art. For instance:
As the idea of world (Welt) became popular in German Romantic idealism, so the nation-state was imagined as a surrounding environment. The idea of the nation as “homeland” … demanded a poetic rendering as an ambient realm of swaying corn, shining seas, or stately forests. Nature appeared sublime “there” and yet fundamentally beyond representation, stretching beyond the horizon and back into the distant, even pre-human past. It was a suitable objective correlative for the je ne sais quoi of nationalist fantasy. Walter Scott’s invention of historical novels, realist fictions generating an entire world in a bubble of past-tense narrative, did as much for environmental nationalism as explicitly Romantic criticisms of modern society and technology. [Morton, 97]He goes on to read Tolkien in this light.
The Shire, in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings depicts the world bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them. Tolkien’s work embodies a key nationalist fantasy, a sense of “world” as real, tangible yet indeterminate, evoking a metonymic chain of images—an anamorphic form. The Lord of the Rings establishes not only entire languages, histories, and mythologies, but also a surrounding world. If ever there was evidence of the persistence of Romanticism, this is it.This is interesting stuff, although Morton evidently feels rather condescendingly about the book itself: ‘what gets lost in this elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch that could assuage the ravages of industrialism?’ he asks, answering ‘hesitation, irony, ambiguity’, glossing the middle term via Schlegel. I can see the ‘kitsch’ part, although it doesn’t strike me as a necessarily bad thing (on the contrary). But something is missing from this analysis; precisely the unexpected thing (the unexpected party) that Morton claims the novel erases. Since this is particularly true of the book’s engagement with ‘environmental aesthetics’, it’s a shame Morton doesn’t discuss it. Take: Tom Bombadil. It’s true he was smoothed over and erased by the more commodified film version of the tale; but he’s a crucial figure in Fellowship of the Ring (in some senses the crucial figure). He does not represent, but literally embodies, the irreducibility of ‘nature’ as something other than the ‘human’ world. Of course, he embodies this through a metaphysical logic of incarnation that is crucial to (Catholic) Tolkien’s world-view; and it’s possible that Morton has little sympathy with incarnation from an OOO-point of view—I don’t know, but I can imagine that the way the Christian concept prioritises ‘the human form’ over all over objects, to the point where the universe itself, or God, or (in LotR) Nature somehow metaphysically ‘is’ the human form … I can believe that such views are immiscible with OOO. Nonetheless one the things that is so wonderful about Tom Bombadil is precisely the way he doesn’t fit the well-tooled story model, the ‘road’ that the film-makers trod. It is precisely his gnarly peculiarity, his oddity, his naffness (blue coat, yellow boots! Endless fol-de-rol singing!). His non-identity. He represents precision a sort of narrative hesitation -- that's why Jackson and his screenwriters ditched him for their film version.
In Heidegger’s supremely environmental philosophy, the surrounding ambience created by Tolkien’s narratives is called Umwelt. This is the deep ontological sense in which things are “around”—they may come in handy, but whether they do or not, we have a care for them. It is a thoroughly environmental idea. Things are oriented in relation to other things: “the house has its sunny side and its shady side.” Others (elves, dwarves, men) care for their surroundings differently. The strangeness of Middle-earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narratives. The road comes right up to you front door. To step across it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside. There is a sense that the story, and the world it describes, could go “ever on and on” like the road in Bilbo Baggins’s song. But wherever we go in this world, however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar, insofar as it has all been planned in advance, mapped out , accounted for. This planning is not quite as narrowly rational as a modern factory. Still, the recent film of The Lord of the Rings, with its built-in commentaries on the special edition DVD about the craftsmanship and industrial processes that went into making it, reveals something true about the book. The Umwelt is a function of holistic, total design, total creation: Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with a how-to booklet thrown in. The holistic world that ‘”goes ever on and on” is exciting and involved, but in the end, it is just a gigantic version of the ready-made commodity. This is ironic, since one of the themes of the work is the resistance to industrialism and specifically to commodity fetishism, in the form of the hypnotic ring itself.