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Tolkien and Austen: Better Together

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Portrait of Jane Austen by Miriam Ellis
"Thank You, Jane" - Miriam Ellis

Can life amongst the Bennets make you love the Bagginses more? Can a walk through the Shire lead you to Meryton, or Hartfield, or Uppercross? At first glance, there may seem to be little in common between the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen, between Elizabeth's long journey to the altar and Frodo's quest of Mount Doom, but as I've recently discovered from a substantial forum discussion, there are countless modern readers who list these two authors as their absolute favorites, with some giving first place to the one or the other, while many say they can't quite decide whom they love best.

I believe I've uncovered some unifying themes that explain this dual admiration, and this article will delve into what unites Tolkien and Austen and why reading and studying both will help you increase the pleasure you derive from either.

The Green and Pleasant Land

two regency ladies walking in the countryside
A Regency walking party - Miriam Ellis

Avid Tolkien fans will go to almost any lengths to imagine themselves in the Shire. They cosplay, paint, draw, make films, study maps, and, in the words of Chaucer, goon on pilgrimages to and through England (or even New Zealand), just to feel like hobbits for a little while.

But the simplest way to steep your senses in the feeling of the Four Farthings may be to find the nearest comfortable armchair and a collection of Jane Austen's works. Indulge yourself in the country walks of Anne Elliot, and Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price. Roll down a green hill with Catherine Moreland or pay calls with Emma Woodhouse and you will place yourself at the heart of Austen's genius which famously centered on "three or four families in a country village".

Two hobbits on a walking party, by Miriam Ellis
A hobbit walking party - Miriam Ellis

It is the country part that matters here, because it represents the bucolic peace which I believe has become an indispensable source of solace to modern readers. We enter a welcome quiet when we inhabit the shires of Pride & Prejudice, or Persuasion, or Mansfield Park.

There are verdant pastures and shady woods and wagon roads and charming villages with old inns and the sense of a spacious, uncrowded landscape all about us. We find our minds at leisurely ease. And if we are Tolkien readers who have always longed to join a hobbit walking party, we discover that the Age of "less noise and more green" was real. Pre-industrial English folk inhabited it, it wasn't so very long ago, and it is this rootedness in England's green and pleasant land that is the key ingredient uniting the masterpieces of dear John and dear Jane.

The black country near Tolkien's Birmingham
The black country near Tolkien's Birmingham

They are the joint inheritors of William Blake's 1808 industrial revolution protest poem:

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.

I propose that one of the lasting appeals of Austen's works is that they give us the last glimpse of rural England before the effects of the industrial revolution were fully felt throughout the land, and that this was one of the lost roads on which Tolkien oftenest wandered in thought. History tells us what happened to the varying shires, and explains how we have arrived at Climate Change in our own day. Tolkien and Austen's pasts dictate our present.

Mr. Darcy, Derbyshire and the Industrial Revolution

Mr. Darcy from the 1980 film version of Pride and Prejudice
Mr. Darcy, Pride & Prejudice, 1980

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1892. Austen's protagonists revel in evergreen woods and hazel hedgerows as a norm of her times, but a little over a century later, Tolkien would state,

"The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman." (Lord of the Rings, 2nd Edition, Foreword)

In John's earliest years, there were still beloved, green places, the loss of which he mourned for life, and the through-line that takes us from pastoral Austen to post-industrial Tolkien actually exists right within the pages of Pride and Prejudice. "Janeites" celebrate (and swoon over?) Elizabeth Bennet's fortunate attainment of Mr. Darcy and the Pemberley Estate where "she had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste", but "Tolkienists" may catch a note of discord in the blissful, nuptial setting.

Arkwright Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire
Arkwright Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire

Darcy's Derbsyhire is, in fact, the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Tolkien permitted a humble water mill to exist in the Shire for the processing of local grain, but it was the abundance of water in Derbyshire which caused Richard Arkwright to build his first factory of spinning frames there for the mass production of cotton goods. Just four years before Jane Austen's birth, Arkwright installed 500 women and children in this five-storey brick mill, paying them with money that could only be spent at the company stores, and developing the fire-resistant iron construction frames that made possible the skyscrapers of our modern cities. The county was also the scene of one of the world's first steam-powered railways.

While Austen never explicitly tells us what Darcy's ten-thousand-a-year is based upon, his location in that county makes it likely that his ancestors would have owned vast tracts of land on which to raise sheep or mine lead, which were two of the leading sources of pre-industrial regional income for the landed gentry. Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice in 1796 and achieved publication in 1813, and we can hazard a guess that Mr. Darcy might well have invested in the connection of Derbyshire to the Midland Railway system in the 1830s, unless he found himself on the side of those who protested the construction as a blight on the county.

The profound psychological and physical impacts of industrialization on the English people would become well-attested by later novelists like Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1854 North and South, Charles Dickens in his horrifying depictions of factories like the brick fields of Bleak House in 1852, and in the short and sad lives of the Brontë sisters in the polluted factory town of Haworth. It took time for industrialization to wreck the health and environment of England, and Jane Austen's novels give us something like the last gasp of fresh air before the dark towers began looming on every horizon. We turn to her stories for a kind of spiritual oxygen as we ponder where the minds of "metal and wheels" have gotten us.

Tolkien's illustration shows a modest grain mill
Tolkien's illustration shows a modest stone-built grain mill

In writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's Shire memorializes the lost world of which he caught a last ephemeral glimpse, and sub-creates a better history for England in which the hobbits find the courage to scour the Shire clean of Saruman's machinery.

"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."

As we know, the hobbits set about healing this wretched state of their homeland, and if readers cannot physically go back in time to Jane Austen's era before mechanized industry was everywhere, we can at least dally in thought at Highbury or in Hobbiton, breathing fresh air. Consider this passage from Persuasion:

photo of english wood in autumn
Autumn in England - Credit: Cattan

"Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn--that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness--that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling."

And this from The Lord of the Rings:

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself 'Perhaps I shall cross the river myself one day.' To which the other half of his mind always replied 'Not yet.'”

The primacy of nature (not machines) and the power exerted on humans by the changing seasons are among the first reasons why reading both Tolkien and Austen will help you get the most out of the texts. Moreover, given that the Climate Change resultant from the industrial revolution is now depriving us of these very seasons which all of our ancestors through time have known and lived by, these celebrated works may give us the strength we need to scour our own Shire and demand a return to more essential, traditional rhythms of life.

The Martins and The Gamgees

Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo
Tolkien's Bilbo

The Victorians are often mentioned in connection with Hobbit society, but in J.R.R. Tolkien's own portrait of Bilbo, he gave him the trousers of a Georgian or Regency gentleman. In Victoria's long reign, the only men likely to wear knee breeches were liveried servants. Like Beatrix Potter, when Tolkien illustrated his characters, he conveyed a sense of story by featuring the fashions of an earlier age.

This clothing cue connects us neatly back to Jane Austen's era and it can be amusing to hunt for parallels amongst the well-known casts. We can imagine Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh vying for precedence in any parlour. Bilbo could just as well have presented vain Lydia Bennet with a mirror as he did to Angelica Baggins. A letter of invitation from Charlotte Lucas culminates in Mr. Darcy's first proposal and ends up impacting Elizabeth's life almost as much as Frodo's fate is set by Gandalf's Prancing Pony epistle urging him to league himself with Aragorn. There is a mad king and a mad steward in the distant background, and war on the borders, but life in the Shire and the shires consists mainly of tea parties and short journeys and gossip and dining on roast mutton and visiting and celebrating with country dances and waiting for the post.

Painting of Baghot Row
Number 3 Bagshot Row - Miriam Ellis

The list of similarities would grow quite long if you tried to catalogue it, but for me, the most hobbit-like of all Jane Austin's creations is the Martin family, glimpsed along the borders of Emma. They are an obscure family of farmers, and like Tolkien's Gamgees, live within sight of their "betters" - in this instance, Misters Bilbo and Frodo Baggins of Bag End and Mister George Knightley of Donwell Abbey.

Young farmer Robert Martin is described as plain, sensible, neat, open, straight-forward, and well-judging. We could as well be speaking of Sam Gamgee or any ordinary hobbit who fits Tolkien's description as unobtrusive, nimble, with good-natured faces rather than beautiful ones, broad, bright-eyed, and full of plain hobbit-sense. The time Emma's protégé, Harriet, spends at the Martin farm sounds full of simple pleasures like naming Welch cows and walking three miles to gather walnuts and sitting in a summerhouse and listening to the singing of shepherd boys. We can readily imagine young Elanor Gamgee prizing just such a visit to her Cotton cousins in Bywater.

Robert Martin, foolishly dismissed by Emma as an unworthy suitor to her friend, wins out in the end when Harriet, after many uncomfortable adventures in the more elegant world of her "superiors", returns to her more native heath and marries onto the farm. I think it is one of the best, if least touted, romances in Austen because it lacks the polish of the gentry parlour, and because it reminds me of how right it feels when Samwise finally regains the simple pleasures of hearth and home and family after faring amongst the great folk in the wider world.

Painting of Sam Gamgee, Rose and Elanor
"Well, I'm back." - Miriam Ellis

Tolkien held rustic, rural English folk in such high regard that he based his most beloved sub-creation - the hobbits - on their manners, appearance, customs, and traits. It's in salt-of-the-Earth characters like the humble and honest Robert Martin that we find these attributes exemplified in a non-fantasy setting. To know the Martins is to come closer to the Shire, with its fresh air, blue sky, farmyard sounds, good nature in people and reliance on nature in society.

If you would like to increase your immersion in the country charms of Hobbiton, spend some time with Jane Austen's Martins, and the Musgroves, and at Barton Cottage. If, conversely, you wish you could take your Regency heart into the realms of faërie, visit J.R.R. Tolkien's Shire where the world is still green. I have been reading both authors since childhood, and like many fellow enthusiasts, have strongly come to believe that the texts of each give a better understanding of the others, lending more color, light, shade, sound, music, depth and delight to the reader. Indeed, they are simply better together.


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