Midsummer in the Shire
This year, the summer solstice falls on June 20 or June 21, depending on your time zone. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the apogee of the light. In the Neo-Pagan religious tradition, the summer solstice is called “Litha”. It is one of eight holidays on the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. The name “Litha” is first found in the writings of the the 8th century monk, the Venerable Bede, who recorded that “Litha” was Anglo-Saxon name for the intercalendary time between June and July. But the reason why Neo-Pagans use the word “Litha” has less to do with an 8th century monk, and more to do with Hobbits.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his Lord of the Rings trilogy became popular in the United States in the early 1960s. With its lush landscapes, nature loving elves, despoiling orcs, and sentient tree “shepherds” (the Ents), Tolkien’s tale is credited with helping to inspire the environmental movement. It also helped inspire the first generation of Neo-Pagans. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon, and the name he gave to the Hobbit midsummer holiday was, naturally, “Lithe”. The name was later adopted by Neo-Pagans in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Shadow of Sauron
On the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, the summer solstice mirrors the winter solstice, which is called Yule. Like Yule, Litha is an ambivalent time. The days are at their longest, and thesun at its zenith. Neo-Pagans and many others light fires to celebrate the solstice. But in spite of all the fire and light imagery of the solstice celebrations, my mind inevitably turns to the shadows cast by those fires, shadows which will lengthen in the following months as the days get shorter.
Fire and shadows.
In light of the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and continuing rise of global CO2 levels, the solstice fires inevitably call to my mind the burning of fossil fuels and the warming of our climate. Climate change is the Jungian Shadow of our industrial culture. It is that part of our lives in the United States that we don’t want to look at, don’t want to acknowledge. And so it continues to work its destruction below the level of our collective national consciousness, in far away places like the the Arctic and Greenland, Subsaharan Africa and Pacific islands. Occasionally it bursts into our collective national consciousness during events like Hurricane Sandy and the drought in California, only to be quickly repressed again. Meanwhile, it insidiously works its destruction in our lives through fracking and the sprawl of tar sands pipelines.
The Scourging of the Shire
The looming threat of global warming caused by industrial capitalism reminds me of an episode in Tolkien’s tale called the “Burning of the Shire” or the “Scourging of the Shire” (which was omitted from the film unfortunately). In the penultimate chapter of the last book of the trilogy, the Hobbit heroes, Frodo and Sam, return from their journey to their idyllic rural home, the Shire, only to discover it has been taken over by a greedy industrialist, who was then replaced by the evil wizard Saruman.
“It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking overflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.”
For Tolkien, this episode was likely as an allegory for the destruction of the English countryside caused by industrialization and Tolkien’s own nostalgia when he returned home from the first World War.
Today, Britain is facing another “scourge”, the petroleum industry. And this scourge is not limited to Britain. We are facing a scourging of the entire planet. We are facing the Tolkien-esque equivalent of the triumph of Sauron in the War of the Ring.
The Battle for the Shire
And so, when we light our solstice fire this year, I will be thinking of shadows. I will be thinking of ruined landscapes. And I will be thinking of Hobbits. Little people who took up farm tools and kitchen implements and drove out the shadow of desolation from their homes. I will be thinking of Meriadoc Brandybuck who rallied his friends to fight and then lead the Hobbits to victory in the Battle of Bywater, the last battle in the War of the Ring.
‘… it will certainly mean fighting. You won’t rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo.’ …
‘No!’ said Merry. ‘It’s no good “getting under cover”. That is just what people have been doing, and just what these ruffians like. They will simply come down on us in force, corner us, and then drive us out, or burn us in. No, we have got to do something at once.’
‘Do what?’ said Pippin.
‘Raise the Shire!’ said Merry. ‘Now! Wake all our people!’ ‘They hate all this, you can see: all of them except perhaps one or two rascals, and a few fools that want to be important, but don’t at all understand what is really going on. But Shire-folk have been so comfortable so long they don’t know what to do. They just want a match, though, and they’ll go up in fire.’
Merry was right. Resisting the scourging of our planet will mean fighting. We won’t rescue our friends and families just by being shocked and sad. There is no place to find cover from this fire. Many people don’t understand what’s really going one, and they’ve been so comfortable for so long, they don’t know what to do. Individually, we may feel we are small and powerless, like the little people of the Shire. But, together, we are mighty!