There is something wonderfully apt about the word “middle” in both Middlemarch and Middle-Earth. In the case of Middle-Earth, of course, the Earth is midway between Heaven and Hell, caught in the opposing struggles of darkness and light. To be from Middle-Earth is to be one who is torn between death and immortality.

“Middlemarch” looks like it should be cognitively similar: the swath of land in the midst of a wider land, or maybe, the provincial place that is neither a backwater nor a great city. “Middle” also has resonances of the Middle Class, the bourgeoisie. And the Middle Class is exactly where we have found ourselves in Middle-Earth thus far. The Hobbits of the Shire and the Men of Bree are alike in this: they are not savages, not the laboring poor, not serfs or dependents; but neither are they kings and lords. They desire to be quiet and live in comfort. The life of high ideals and sacrifice is not for them.

Butterbur is loveable precisely because he is bourgeois, flourishing in his place and not recking either the glories or the dangers of a higher code or calling. When Strider begins to show him Frodo’s danger and the possibilities of a darker world intruding on Bree, his answer is classic.

“Me? Leave Bree! I wouldn’t do that for any money,” he says. And then, naively, “Why can’t you stay here quiet for a bit, Mr. Underhill?”

In all of this, the inhabitants of Bree and the Shire are very like the inhabitants of Middlemarch. They distrust living by extremes, and the littleness of their provincial lives is the same. In Middlemarch, in Bree, and in the Shire, “sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”*

One could say that Tolkien and George Eliot look at the same coin from two sides. Eliot shows mundane provincial life being redeemed from the inside; Tolkien shows it redeemed from the outside, by those willing to venture out into the world of romance, and back again.

*George Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 1.