Blockheaded Bracegirdles from Hardbottle and Other People Without History
It's long been my opinion that J.R.R. Tolkein was something of a folklorist at heart, even an old-fashioned--or maybe not so old-fashioned--anthropologist and indigenous-rights activist. His alter ego in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Wizard, shares Tolkein's fascination with "little people."
In Tolkein's book The Fellowship of the Ring, I believe, the other wizards universally belittle Gandalf for his interest in the Hobbits of Middle-Earth, these "amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you."
Apart from Hobbits, Elves, and Rangers, Gandalf's only true friend and ally is the wizard Radagast the Brown, who is friend to the animals, knows them and speaks to them. Radagast has taught Gandalf the animals’ languages and first introduced Gandalf to the giant eagles, who prove such useful deii ex machina in Tolkein’s plots. Just as Radegast can recite the lineages of the various animals, Gandalf avidly masters the histories and knowledges of the Hobbits--the local ideologies and practices of their everyday rural life. (I don’t think I need comment on the parallel drawn between "little people" and animals, their fellow denizens of the natural world.)
Gandalf last encounters Radagast on the way to his first meeting in The Fellowship with Saruman, then still their boss. In the novel it's striking to see how sharply the engaged interest of Radegast contrasts to the gentle but pointed ridicule of Saruman towards the great care Gandalf takes to learn about and spend time with Hobbits, beings so disregarded by the world. As Gandalf tells Frodo:
"Well, what can I tell you? Life in the wide world goes on much as it has this past Age, full of its own comings and goings, scarcely aware of the existence of Hobbits."
And then Gandalf adds:
"For which I am very thankful."
Indeed, by the end of The Return of the King, in the "The Scouring of the Shire" section--tragically, mistakenly omitted from the film--we see that the wide world does learn of the Shire and colonizes it, seeking to incorporate the Shire into the global capitalist system.
Under instructions from the imperialist colonizer Saruman, the Hobbits are transformed from subsistence farmers and small sharecroppers into factory laborers and are even enslaved to work on "pipeweed" plantations. Once put into place, this agricultural-industrial capitalist system outlives Saruman's fall from wizardry and even the destruction of Mordor, taking on its own life, as capital always does.
It takes heroic acts of tradition-reinvention and a sustained struggle of anti-progressive, counter-development, and violent guerilla action before the vanguard formed by Frodo, Sam, Pippen, and Merry--the latter two former criminals and wastrels now galvanized into capable military officers--is able to lead the Shire on back toward its backward-but-free original Edenic state.
(Now, Gandalf is of course an activist-scholar, a researcher as well as a political leader, and only his exhaustive archival efforts in the "stacks" at Minas Tirith enabled him in the beginning to identify the ring early enough to empower the Hobbits to save the world. But Tolkein’s defense of motivated scholarship is another story entirely...)