Inheritance, Trade and the Ring
“ ‘There’s a tidy bit of money tucked away up there, I hear tell,’ said a stranger, a visitor on business from Michel Delving in the Westfarthing. ‘All the top of your hill is full of tunnels packed with chests of gold and silver, and jools, by what I’ve heard.’ ”
A Long-Expected Party, The Lord of the Rings
At the time of Bilbo’s adventure, as discussed in the previous section, the older age cohort of unattached men had an opportunity for wealth collection but probably were not primary inheritors of ancestral property because of their own heirless state. Single children, such as Bilbo, would have the best opportunities for both. Having a stable (though not necessarily friendly) relationship with landholding relatives would have been the usual state of affairs, as the majority of wealth in the Shire was tied up in farm land or (within the larger settlements) established businesses. There would be some small amount of Dwarf traffic between the Blue Mountains and the Iron Hills, but not a great deal. Bree is the only substantial trading location. Industry will be small, local and oriented around agriculture. The Dúnedain, as has been speculated on the Henneth Annûn list, probably had to send their own younger men out as mercenaries to maintain a flow of coin. In short, between the shrunken population and the lack of abstract units of exchange, the Shire was, socially and culturally, quite static.
The chief reason for maintaining this state of affairs in the North is Smaug. He descended upon Erebor in 2770 (1170, S.R.), only twelve years after the north had been devastated by the Long Winter. The elimination of Erebor as a dwarf colony (particularly in combination with the loss of Khazad-dûm) reduced dwarves to near penury for most of Thorin Oakenshield’s life span, and destroyed the largest portable-wealth creating society in northern Middle-earth. The spread of the Shadow of Dol Guldur would also have pinned down the elves of Mirkwood and Lothlórien, reducing the chances that they would move and trade. The flight of the Dwarves from Smaug (especially given the retreat westward after the battle of Nanduhirion outside the East-gate of Moria) eliminates the largest check upon the growth of the Orc population. There is no economic reason to do business in the North. The battle in the Shire is to avoid cultural and economic entropy. The most stabilizing force at this time is probably the Thainship of Gerontius Took, which starts in 1248 and extends until 1320, 72 years.
Bilbo’s adventure, in combination with the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur, reverses this equation. Smaug is gone. The Dwarves reclaim not just a colony, but a massive treasure, possibly greater than what they abandoned. The human population of the Long Lake region can safely increase, and can begin to do trade with the Beornings and woodmen of the upper Anduin, perhaps even doing some trade down the Anduin itself towards Rohan and Gondor. The Orc population has been severely reduced in the Battle of the Five Armies. Elves on either side of the Misty Mountains have more freedom of movement over the mountain range, as well as up and down the Anduin, encouraging an expansion of relations between the various elven realms. The East-West dwarf road is now a conduit for wealth, instead of dead-end to a dragon.
The Shire is the most stable and agriculturally productive land along this road, thanks to the work of the Old Took and his successors. They have a recovering population, and are relatively well insulated against the depredations of Mordor. After rapid turn-over of three very old Thains in the space of 19 years, the rich southern farmlands are being overseen by Fortinbras II, a relatively young (61) hobbit, who inherits the Thainship in 1339. This Thain is also Bilbo’s first cousin. Bilbo’s adventure happens in 1341-42, just a few years after Fortinbras becomes Thain.
Buckland is under the leadership of Gorbadoc ‘Broadbelt’ Brandybuck. His nickname indicates to me that he oversaw a time of agricultural prosperity, and kept people well fed, after taking over suddenly for a father who died at the onset of the Fell Winter. He is succeeded by another first-cousin of Bilbo’s, Rorimac ‘Goldfather’ Brandybuck (61), in 1363. Rorimac, given his nickname, appears to have brought a different type of prosperity into Buckland, one based on portable, rather than landed, wealth. This would make sense, as there would have been twenty years’ worth of increasing trade and commerce along the East-West road, accelerated by the tripartite influence of distribution of the dragon hoard, reduction of threats from Orc raids, and the retreat of the Shadow from Mirkwood.
The crowning touch in all of this is Bilbo’s own treasure. Bilbo, at the time of his return, probably had more portable wealth than any hobbit had ever possessed. Unlike a dragon or a dwarf, he does not hoard his treasure.  The spending for Bilbo’s Farewell Party should be seen as a concentrated example of how his wealth was used over fifty years for the enrichment of the Shire. He appears to have engaged in a great deal of social work with his wealth, endearing himself to ordinary hobbits, but probably not winning much approval from his own major clans: Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses. As with his position in the reproductive age cohort, he is the epitome of the wealthy “uncle”. His refusal to marry and settle down, even though he is in his early fifties and still considered quite marriageable, raises many eyebrows.
Thus, by 1663, three first-cousins, all grandsons of the Old Took, are in significant positions of wealth and authority in the Shire, though Bilbo’s position is secured by deeds rather than by title. The Shire straddles the major northland trade route, and provides agricultural and small handicraft exports and goods. The economy is good enough that a working class family, such as the Gamgees, can be supported through providing services for other families, though it probably helps that Bilbo is one of their employers. Furthermore, the service appears to have some monetary basis, presaging a change in social relations from blood and bond to contract and coin. Bilbo’s treasure provides the seed of prosperity for the Shire, allowing it to support its growing population at least as well as the population centers around Bree. It is worth speculating that, due to Bilbo’s generosity, the average standard of living in the Shire was better than that in the Breelands, at least for hobbits. It is also worth speculating that the influx of coin and precious metals may be helping to move the Shire towards a semi-modern, money-based economy. Ordinary people can think of selling things instead of trading or bartering them.
One other thing, however, arrived in the Shire at this time – the One Ring. While the only overt influence noted by Tolkien is Bilbo’s perpetually youthful appearance, it is interesting to speculate on what other effects it may have had during its seventy-six year stay. I am led to much of this speculation by the effect of the Three, Narya, Nenya and Vilya, on their wearers and environments. For example, Tolkien is emphatic that Galadriel used Nenya extensively to preserve and protect Lórien. Unlike the Three, Bilbo does not wear the One, and does not consciously exercise any power or intent through it. At most, he escapes the Sackville-Bagginses and other tedious relatives. However, we know, from the descriptions of Isildur, Gollum, Saruman, and Denethor, that the Ring can have dire effects on people whose hearts have some kind of twist or kink in them to begin with – Gollum murders on sight of it, Isildur cannot let it go, Saruman desires it just by studying it, Denethor wishes for it in much the same manner.
I posit that the Ring has a generally corrupting influence on the Shire population itself, inspiring a heretofore little-known vice – avarice. The obsession with Bilbo’s treasure is based not only on understandable curiosity, but by a more nefarious attraction, the influence of the One Ring. Lotho Sackville-Baggins is the epitome of those corrupted by the Ring. He envies and desires what Bilbo has. He engages in business deals with strangers, outsiders and unsavory characters. He purchases up land in huge amounts, far beyond his own ability to maintain, and brings polluting industry, as symbolized by the new mill, to the Shire. He could not do this, however, unless there were some taint of greed upon the general population. A significant number of hobbits are willing to sell ancestral land, become tenant farmers, cut old-growth trees, build modern industrial businesses, and treat with disagreeable strangers. It is through them that Saruman eventually gains control of the Shire, and then enslaves them.
In the time of Legacy, September 1389, the influence is beginning to be seen and felt as some hobbits, particularly the third age cohort (great-grandchildren of the Old Took), are beginning to attain political and social dominance. The strongest examples of this corruption are to be found among the great-grandchildren. Harkening back to older vices and desires, the relatively new Thain, Ferumbras III, is unmarried, heedless of his responsibilities as Thain, and is looked at as “unnatural”. I present him as someone whose desires are more carnal than economic, but also as someone who obviously knows how to manipulate his social standing to achieve his ends. It is an inversion of the example of the Old Took himself. Ferumbras is, like Primula, a child of the transition from one age cohort to another, and so, though a great-grandchild, is closer in age to some of the grand-children. His misbehavior is held up in the Shire as the ultimate expression of depravity. Though he makes no direct appearance, he is a constant, narrative presence.
The two other great-grandchildren who figure strongly in the story, Esmeralda Took Brandybuck and her husband Saradoc ‘Scattergold’ Brandybuck are clearly interested in wealth, and earn descriptions of being “Dwarven-hearted”, i.e., avaricious. They represent the newer, more modern type of corruption, and one which is most corrupting of other people. I speculated on Saradoc’s nickname to come up with a character who was a wastrel – born in a time of agricultural plenty, coming of age in a time of increasing wealth, he is a creature of desires rather than duty, though his desires are as much economic as carnal. Unlike Ferumbras, Saradoc and Esmeralda are reasonably well-regarded, for they are more aware of how they appear to others, or understand better how a good reputation will serve them over time.
The avaricious bent of the third age cohort meshes with its suspicion of, and its economic dependence on, the unattached “uncles” of the second cohort. Sexuality and the deployment of portable wealth meet as men who could not previously have married (due to women’s ability to be much more selective about potential mates) are now able to do so. Drogo Baggins, Frodo’s father, could be one of these “uncles”. While I place his marriage to Primula Brandybuck as taking place in 1348, only six years after Bilbo’s adventure and while Drogo is at an appropriate age for marriage (40), this would make his wife only 28 at the time of their marriage, both under-age and belonging to a younger cohort. Their marriage could in fact take place any time between 1348 and the winter of 1367 (just prior to Frodo’s birth). If it did take place later than my proposed date, this would make the marriage just that much more typical of the demographic and economic environment – a significantly older male with station and wealth selects and marries a much younger female, depriving her own significantly-gender imbalanced cohort of a marriage partner. Drogo is cousin to Bilbo, who more than likely provided Drogo with wealth to improve his marriageability. Primula is Rorimac’s youngest sister, a post-Winter baby, and might have been encouraged by her brother and parents to select a mate who would have brought wealth, stability and good family connections to the clan – or who still has enough power as a much-desired woman to reject the plans others have made for her. As long as Bilbo remains unmarried, any of his cousins could be considered possible heirs, so that also enters into considerations of how to relate to this odd, old cousin.
Bilbo himself would have been considered extremely marriageable for about twenty years after his adventures, while he was in this fifties and sixties, while his wealth was obvious, and while the influence of the Ring kept him looking young, but not unnaturally so. The matrons of Hobbiton would have agreed with Austin that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possessions of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Any female born before 1332, which would make her at least 28 by the time he turned 70, would have been considered a possible partner. Likely women would have been found in the five significant families with whom he already had family connections: Bolgers, Brandybucks, Burrows, Chubbs and Tooks. Though most men end their reproductive lives by their late sixties, some do sire children beyond the age of 70, most notably the Old Took. That he did not choose a partner, and that he did continue odd behavioral patterns (talking with Elves, having Dwarves and Gandalf as friends, engaging in scholarly pursuits), would have encouraged speculative demonization of his sexuality. Finally, there is the fact that he always carried the One Ring with him, and that its malevolent influence would have exacerbated the desiring behaviors of those around him. Bilbo therefore becomes an object of many desires and the locus of much contestation.
 ‘…as Mr. Baggins was generous with his money, most people were willing to forgive him his oddities and his good fortune. He remained on visiting terms with his relatives (except of course, the Sackville-Bagginses), and he had many devoted admirers among the hobbits of poor and unimportant families.’ A Long-Expected Party, The Lord of the Rings