The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

When I finish a novel and I’m casting around for the next to read, I’ll often spend  a few evenings dipping back into an old favourite, one of those evergreens I like to re-read a few pages or chapters or beloved passages of. Lately I’ve been re-reading portions of Lord of the Rings, which I first encountered some fifty years ago.

Well, it got me to thinking.

Looked at critically, Tolkien’s masterwork breaks a great many of the rules that present-day writers, agents, and editors obsess over.

But readers, the people who actually matter (because they, not the writer’s critique partners or agent or publisher, are the ones shelling out the money for the book) don’t care one bit.

First, LotR is written in third-person omniscient, or “God’s eye view,” in which the author dips into each character’s thoughts at need. This  viewpoint technique is deprecated by writing mavens today as being distancing, and frequently dissed as “head-hopping.” Compounding his sins, Tolkien often employs the passive voice and uses adverbs liberally, with several on almost every page of the book. A writer trying this today would get mauled by their critique group, and I guarantee their manuscript would bounce off an agent’s slushpile faster than hail off a tin roof.

But that’s only the beginning.

As Frodo and his companions traverse Middle Earth, we discover a vast, empty land curiously devoid of any significant trade, agriculture, homesteads, or even travelers. Oh, the dwarves mine and craft metal, and we get the token farmer like Maggot in the Shire, and mentions of agriculture and crafts in Minas Tirith, but seriously, is any of this truly credible without a visible functioning economy?

I think it is. Certainly we never encounter trading caravans traveling between regions, but I suspect that – in fact, Tolkien implies it in a few places – the realms of Gondor, Rohan, and so on, actually do have agriculture and artisans, smiths and woodworkers, hide tanners and potters, glassblowers and stonemasons, thatchers and ploughmen: but other than one or two mentions Tolkien simply doesn’t bring them onstage or discuss them. Why? Because they’re not generally relevant to his story and thus he had no interest in describing them. There are occasional hints and implications of regional economies, and, before Middle Earth fell into a darker age, of a greater, interlinked economy, but no more.

One thing I stress repeatedly in my craft book and when I edit books for indie authors is that the only person whose opinion matters is the reader. An author shouldn’t be writing for their critique group, and certainly shouldn’t take all the nitpicky advice they’re given to heart. Yet sadly, I’ve seen more than one perfectly fine tale diluted and fractured by authors trying to address their fellow writers’ concerns over where the ore for the iron is mined, who grows the food, and so on ad nauseam. Some concerns may be valid, of course; but in the example I’m using here, I maintain they’re not.

For a story, a novel, a world to be credible, all that stuff doesn’t need to be told or shown on the page, it simply needs to be known to the author. The obsession for detailing and showing everything is a modern one, an industry fashion, and really doesn’t matter a whit to the reader. As generations of adoring Tolkien fans have proved, if the story flows and involves them and the author does nothing to break the spell, they will keep turning the pages.

Writing a great book isn’t so much about doing a ton of things right (and certainly not by the fashion of the day) as it is about telling a great story and simply not doing anything wrong.

Tolkien knew his world worked, and the reader senses it. I very much doubt that the vast majority of LotR readers give a thought to the details of Middle-Earth’s economy. What concerns them is the pressing matter of the ring and the imminent destruction of all that is beautiful and fair in Middle Earth, not to mention Frodo’s own dire plight.

To date, the LotR books have sold more than 150 million copies. Game, set, and match to the author.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

  1. fantasywind

    There is quite a bit of information on economic matters, entirety of the Shire has working economy, we know that Tolkien described the land, it’s geography, it’s biology to make sense and be working in terms of economic activity:

    “The poorest went on living in burrows of the most primitive kind, mere holes indeed, with only one window or none; while the well-to-do still constructed more luxurious versions of the simple diggings of old. But suitable sites for these large and ramifying tunnels (or smials as they called them) were not everywhere to be found; and in the flats and the low-lying districts the Hobbits, as they multiplied, began to build above ground. Indeed, even in the hilly regions and the older villages, such as Hobbiton or Tuckborough, or in the chief township of the Shire, Michel Delving on the White Downs, there were now many houses of wood, brick, or stone. These were specially favoured by millers, smiths, ropers, and cartwrights, and others of that sort; for even when they had holes to live in. Hobbits had long been accustomed to build sheds and workshops.”

    “The land was rich and kindly, and though it had long been deserted when they entered it, it had before been well tilled, and there the king had once had many farms, cornlands, vineyards, and woods.

    Forty leagues it stretched from the Far Downs to the Brandywine Bridge, and fifty from the northern moors to the marshes in the south. The Hobbits named it the Shire, as the region of the authority of their Thain, and a district of well-ordered business; and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living…”

    In fact there is a lot of information also in many supplementary texts, other works of Tolkien, you can find references to economic matters in Silmarillion even, in The Hobbit, in Lotr narrative itself, in Tolkien letters as well, in fact this one tells the most:

    “I am more conscious of my sketchiness in the archaeology and realien than in the economics: clothes, agricultural implements, metal-working, pottery, architecture and the like. Not to mention music and its apparatus.
    I am not incapable or unaware of economic thought; and I think as far as the ‘mortals’ go, Men, Hobbits, and Dwarfs, that the situations are so devised that the economic likelihood is there and could be worked out. Gondor has sufficient ‘townlands’ and fiefs with good water and road approach to provide for its population and clearly has many industries though these are hardly alluded to. The Shire is placed in a water and mountain situation and a distance from the sea and a latitude that would give it a natural fertility, quite apart from the stated fact that it was a well-tended region when they took it over (no doubt with a good deal of older arts and crafts). The Shire-hobbits have no very great need of metals, but the Dwarfs are agents; and in the east of the Mountains of Lune are some of their mines (as shown in the earlier legends) : no doubt, the reason, or one of them, for their often crossing the Shire.”

    • Thank you very much for your comment and those excerpts, Fantasywind — I really apprecaite you taking thet time. That last material from the letter is especially interesting.

      Best,
      Dario

      • fantasywind

        As I said there’s much more of that :). In the Lotr narrative itself there are references to money and prices, Hobbits that are employed by other Hobbits and so on.

        “My cousin Hal for one. He works for Mr. Boffin at Overhill and goes up to the Northfarthing for the hunting.”

        “The purchase of provisions fell almost to nothing throughout the district in the ensuing weeks; but as Bilbo’s catering had depleted the stocks of most stores, cellars and warehouses for miles around, that did not matter much.”

        “The next day more carts rolled up the Hill, and still more carts. There might have been some grumbling about ‘dealing locally’, but that very week orders began to pour out of Bag End for every kind of provision, commodity, or luxury that could be obtained in Hobbiton or Bywater or anywhere in the neighbourhood.”

        And that’s the very first chapters of Lotr :), furthermore:

        “Bill Ferny’s price was twelve silver pennies; and that was indeed at least three times the pony’s value in those parts. It proved to be a bony, underfed, and dispirited animal; but it did not look like dying just yet. Mr. Butterbur paid for it himself, and offered Merry another eighteen pence as some compensation for the lost animals. He was an honest man, and well-off as things were reckoned in Bree; but thirty silver pennies was a sore blow to him, and being cheated by Bill Ferny made it harder to bear.”

        Even in The Silmarillion there are references to these matters:

        “[The] Naugrim learned many secrets of craft [from the Eldar] in those days, so that the smiths and masons of Nogrod and Belegost became renowned among their kin, and when the Dwarves began again to journey into Beleriand all the traffic of the dwarf-mines passed first through the hands of Caranthir, and thus great riches came to him.”

        The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Ch 13, Of the Return of the Noldor

        Other extended texts contain various interesting information:

        “There dealings between Men and the Longbeards must soon have begun. For the Longbeards, though the proudest of the seven kindreds, were also the wisest and the most farseeing. Men held them in awe and were eager to learn from them; and the Longbeards were very willing to use Men for their own purposes. Thus there grew up in those regions the economy, later characteristic of the dealings of Dwarves and Men (including Hobbits): Men became the chief providers of food, as herdsmen, shepherds, and land-tillers, which the Dwarves exchanged for work as builders, roadmakers, miners, and the makers of things of craft, from useful tools to weapons and arms and many other things of great cost and skill. To the great profit of the Dwarves. Not only to be reckoned in hours of labour, though in early times the Dwarves must have obtained goods that were the product of greater and longer toil than the things or services that they gave in exchange – before Men became wiser and developed skills of their own. The chief advantage to them was their freedom to proceed unhindered with their own work and to refine their arts, especially in metallurgy, to the marvellous skill which these reached before the decline and dwindling of the Khazad.”

        Of Dwarves and Men, PoME X

  2. I agree with your post’s approach, Dario. As a Tolkien afficionado, I read the world of Middle Earth as having an economy without needing it shown or told in detail – a given, implied etc. Inns seemed to exist – as did mushrooms. Pipeweed got to Isengard. Rare swords and armour implies smiths. And so on. Subtle suggestions were enough.

    • Hi Roland, and excuse my late reply — I somehow missed this.

      Yes, I think it’s implicit enough; also, MIddle Earth in that age is a land land pretty much in ruins and stagnant, a period like our own Dark Ages (I know, that’s not the PC name anymore, but we’ll have to live with that. LOL). Good point on the pipeweed in Isengard, I’d forgotten about that. So some trade is going on, and there are mentions I think of the corsairs raiding sea-trade. I don’t think that LotR in its current form could be published today, editors would insist on more detail and description of economy and trade. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded an appendix on it just out of sheer interest and my love for Tolkien’s world. But he didn’t think it worth going into, and that’s good enough for me.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Roland, always nice to see you here!

      — Dario

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