In J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional realm of Middle-earth, the Shire is the region that is occupied by Hobbits. It is located in the northwest of Middle-earth, in the 'continent' of Eriador and the Kingdom of Arnor. Its name in Westron was Sûza "Shire" or Sûzat "The Shire".
According to Tolkien, the Shire measured 40 leagues (222 km, 120 Númenórean miles) from the Far Downs in the west to the Brandywine Bridge in the east, and 50 leagues (278 km, 150 miles) from the northern moors to the marshes in the south. This is confirmed in an essay by Tolkien (on the Languages of Middle-earth) wherein he describes The Shire as having an area of 18,000 square miles (47,000 km²). In order for this figure to be accurate it must be assumed that the Shire was roughly rectangular in shape.
The Brandywine (Baranduin) river bounds the Shire from the east. (Hobbits also live in Buckland, which lies east of the river and west of the Hedge protecting the Shire from invasion from the Old Forest; however, Buckland was not formally recognised as part of The Shire until after the War of the Ring, when it was granted officially to The Shire by Aragorn King Elessar.) From the north and the west The Shire has no topographical borders, but rather is bounded by the ancient south and east roads, and by vague geographical features such as the Tower Hills.
The Shire was settled by Hobbits in the year 1601 of the Third Age (Year 1 in Shire Reckoning). The Hobbits (who originally lived in the vale of Anduin) had migrated west over the perilous Misty Mountains in the decades before that, and before entering The Shire they had lived in Dunland and parts of the depopulated Arnorian splinter-realms Cardolan and Rhudaur. It has been speculated that the Hobbits had originally moved west to escape the evils of Mirkwood, and the trouble caused by the Easterlings.
The Shire was a part of Arthedain, and as such a part of Arnor. The Hobbits got official permission from King Argeleb II at Norbury (Fornost) to settle the lands, which were not populated and seen as the King's hunting grounds. The Hobbits considered themselves as subjects of the King, and sent some support troops to the great battles Arnor fought against Angmar. After the fall of Arnor, the Shire remained a minor but independent political unit.
Its small size, relative lack of importance, and brave and resilient Hobbit population made it too modest an objective for conquest. More important was that the Shire was guarded and protected by the Dúnedain Rangers, who watched the borders and kept out intruders. The only strangers to enter the Shire were the Dwarves travelling on the Great Road that ran through the Shire to and from their mines in the Blue Mountains, and the occasional Elves on their way to the Grey Havens.
Officials of the Shire were the mayor at Michel Delving in the White Downs, the Thain from Tuckborough who was the head of the important Took clan, and the Master of Buckland at Bucklebury. While nominally the mayor was the leader of the Shire, in practice the Thain ruled over the four Farthings, and the Master ruled over Buckland.
This peaceful situation changed after Bilbo Baggins' acquisition of the One Ring in the year 1343 of the Shire Reckoning. Shortly after the beginning of the events described in The Lord of the Rings (autumn of the year 1419 in Shire Reckoning), the Shire was first visited by the Nine Ringwraiths and then captured by Saruman. It was liberated with the help of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin after the end of the Quest of the Ring. After Aragorn's return as the King of Arnor and Gondor, the Shire became a protected enclave inside the Reunited Kingdom. He is known to have issued an order that forbade the entrance of full-sized Men into the Shire.
The Shire is described as a small but beautiful and fruitful land, beloved by its inhabitants. The Hobbits had an extensive agricultural system in the Shire, but did not proceed with industrialization. Various supplies could be found in the Shire, including cereals, fruit, wood and tobacco (a favourite treat of Hobbits). Its relatively peaceful existence during the perilous period preceding the defeat of Sauron can be attributed to the vigilance of Gandalf and Rangers of the North led by Aragorn who used daring tactics to keep evil at bay. However when these set out to a distant war, the Shire became essentially defenceless, which led to its capture. But the damage which Saruman caused by forced industrialization was undone by the Hobbits' efforts. The Shire was restored with soil from Lórien, given to Sam by Galadriel. The year 1420 (SR) was considered by the inhabitants of the Shire to be the most productive and prosperous year in their history.
The industrialization of the Shire was based on Tolkien's witnessing of the extension of the Industrial Revolution to rural Warwickshire during his youth, and especially the deleterious consequences thereof. The rebellion of the hobbits and the restoration of the pre-industrial Shire may be interpreted as a prescription of voluntary simplicity as a remedy to the problems of modern society.
On Tolkien's maps, the Shire is located at about the same position as England is on modern European maps and has been cited as an example of Deep England ideology (of course, England being an island while Shire is inside the continent). Throughout the narrative, Tolkien also implies numerous points of similarity between the two, such as weather, agriculture and dialect. One can also see England as Tolkien's source of inspiration for the shire in its very name (Shire is English for "county" - see English Shire).
The Shire was originally divided in four Farthings (Northfarthing, Southfarthing, Eastfarthing, and Westfarthing), but Buckland and later the Westmarch were added to it. Within the Farthings there are some smaller, unofficial divisions such as family lands: the Tooks nearly all live in or near Tuckborough, for instance. In many cases a Hobbit's last name indicates where their family came from: Samwise Gamgee's last name derives from Gamwich, where the family originated. Outside the Farthings, Buckland itself was named for the Oldbucks (later Brandybucks). See further Regions of the Shire.
The Shire was quite densely populated in parts with many villages and a few towns, but it still was open enough to allow for wide forested areas and marshes.
See also: Thains of the Shire.