(Updated on 2/3/16)
A lot has been said about this chapter, which explodes the narrative back into action right before the final moments.
The placing of it certainly draws attention. The point of the long drawn out farewells is a bit clearer when you see a sudden spike in the drama and tension at the end. Things aren’t ending with a whimper in Middle-Earth. Tolkien has been criticised for putting in multiple endings for his saga but I never really saw it that way. The book has multiple points where you could have made an ending I suppose, but “The Grey Havens” is the ending that Tolkien is clearly driving towards, and has been since “The Field Of Cormallen”. “The Scouring Of The Shire” is also something that has been hinted at numerous times at much earlier points in the story, in Lorien and throughout the interactions with Saruman and Isengard.
The allegory is the other thing. Many see “The Scouring Of The Shire” as Tolkien’s commentary on the rise of industry in previously agricultural areas of England. It is known that Tolkien was somewhat disgusted with how factories had “ruined” his previously idyllic country home. But he also insisted that “The Scouring Of The Shire” was not allegory for anything, as he insisted nothing in the story was a metaphor for anything else. That is an assertion that is hard to believe at times, but I am willing to accept that “The Scouring Of The Shire” is just the logical conclusion to the Saruman story arc that just happens to bear some similarities to Tolkien’s real life situation. The point of the chapter is not the evil of factories and mills after all, it is the evil of Saruman and the “might makes right” philosophy, that is in such direct contrast to the lives of the hobbits in the Shire. That, and it is a chapter that brings the larger story full circle: the hobbits have saved the world, now they have to save the place they started out from.
There is a new, imposing, gate at the entrance to the Shire, a very physical indication of things going wrong. Tolkien even uses the phrase “un-Shirelike” in the opening sentences to emphasise the point. Everything in the following pages, as the four hobbits take a gander at this evidence of the Shire becoming a closed shop, like the new guard house and the men garrisoned there, is meant to exude a feeling of tyranny and dictatorship. All of the traditional imagery, that Tolkien was well used to at the time with World War Two still fresh in the memory, is there. Lists of strict rules, hideous looking buildings blotting the landscape, references to the leader only by an authoritative title – “Chief” in this case though it could easily be “Fuhrer” or “Il Duce” – it’s all there. The hobbits in the guard house are terrified of “sneaks” informing on them.
It’s all horrible to see. What is worse, is the sense of familiarity you get from the native hobbits. They’re so used to this, so it must have been happening for a while. They make the impression of broken, defeated hobbits, terrified of any rule breaking, terrified of simply saying the wrong thing. “It won’t do no good talking that way,’ said one. ‘He’ll get to hear of it.” We’ll get the full story later of course, but is clear that the Shire has come under some manner of oppression, that the hobbit population is firmly on the lower rung, and they don’t seem to have any intention of getting out of it. Just read about their shocked, almost hysterical reaction to the words and acts of Merry and Pippin, two hobbits who haven’t been living under this cloud. It’s almost like they’re being reminded of how they used to be, and this thought scares the hell out of them right now. But still, amid the unease, amusing is the gatekeepers shock at seeing Merry, presumed “lost in the Old Forest”, a calamity so long ago and before so many thrilling adventures it comes almost as a distant memory for the reader.
And there is Bill Ferny, the first clear evidence of men being behind everything. Ferny is a coward, plain and simple, the very embodiment of the less noble aspects of the human species, and he runs for the hills at the first sign of trouble. His previous connection to Isengard has only been hinted at, and his appearance here should really be enough to set this off in the reader’s head.
One also gets a distinct sense of a communism critique in these pages as the hobbits talk about the “gathering” of local produce so equal “sharing” can occur, only for this to never quite work as it’s supposed to be. Tolkien is no George Orwell of course, and this is as deep as he gets on the topic, but it is there. The claim that the story contains no allegory certainly stretches a bit thin after a while.
The hobbits continue on in the morning, but still absent a sense of urgency. I suppose this is Brandybuck territory after all: for three of the hobbits, the state of the Shire won’t quite have hit home yet. The Shire Sheriffs are waiting on the road. Their leader gives a very pompous speech declaring that the four have been arrested: the reaction is one of laughter. This is a memorable scene and it is the real beginning of titular “Scouring”. The Sheriffs can only stare dumbfounded as the four heroes fall over themselves with titters at the site of the police actually trying to arrest them. The facade of totalitarian dictatorship really begins to fall apart here, as Frodo dismisses the arrest and almost casually invites the Sheriffs to follow him: his “Don’t be absurd”, an utter slap to the face of whatever authority the Sherriff’s have, is as powerful as a sword stroke. They continue to try and exert some authority but it is all so much bluster, bluster that they don’t even seem to really have any heart for. That the Sheriffs seemed to think it would be so easy tells its own story. But things are different now.
The resulting march is a humorous travesty, as the police state tries to maintain an image of power, only to fail badly. The “prisoners” order the Sheriffs around and sing songs as they go. It is almost as if the four hobbits simply need to walk through the Shire to remind the inhabitants of how things should be: the Sheriffs do not exist to actually “arrest” people, they are supposed to have a purely ceremonial function, and these four hobbits aren’t going to stand for anything else. Sam gets a bellyful of scared sounding rumours from one of the Sheriffs but the real exposition is coming in a few pages. For now, this info simply backs up what little we already know: men are in charge in the Shire and Lotho is at the heart of it. Pippin’s final interaction with the police is comic, but hints at darker things to come:
“‘You’re breaking arrest, that’s what you’re doing,’ said the leader ruefully, ‘and I can’t be answerable.’
‘We shall break a good many things yet, and not ask you to answer ‘ said Pippin. ‘Good luck to you!’”
Only Frodo seems to actually grasp the serious nature of the situation. While the rest laugh, joke and sing about what is happening, he descends into a sadder and sadder mood, as if he actually begins to realise what is coming. When he laughs off the arrest he is unbelieving that the situation is as dire as it would seem: now, looking at the countryside and the grim, scared looking inhabitants, it begins to hit him how bad things are. Bywater and the land around Bag End is in ruins, and “they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.”
Things get a whole lot more directly serious though as the group comes across some of these “ruffians”. Some interesting little bits of info here, as the bad guys mention the arrival of a “Sharkey”, some new big boss. The indications are that these guys are from Isengard – Merry points this out explicitly – and all the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.
The ruffians are not soldiers or even mercenaries really. They’re just bullies, bullies that are used to beating around weak hobbits. All that is required here is to stand up to them, as is usually required with any bully. The hobbits of the Shire may be brow beaten, but the four heroes coming back from the war aren’t. And they have the blades to prove it. Having sent the bad guys running with just a few stout words, we can see that the four hobbits are more than a match for these guys. Sam, Merry and Pippin are almost gleeful about the prospect of clearing them out, and of going after Lotho, who was a hated figure before they even left.
It is left to Frodo, who probably has more reason to dislike Lotho then anyone, to be the voice of reason. He comprehends, more clearly than the others, that Lotho is “a wicked fool, but he’s caught now”, likely just a pawn of someone else, and Frodo may even have guessed at who that someone else is. And the thought of fighting horrifies him, as it would any hobbit, especially the thought that some hobbits might actually be killed by other hobbits.
Frodo has always been a pacifist really – remember him trying not to wear a sword in “The Field of Cormallen”? – but the rest are realists, Sam especially. They can see that some fighting is needed, necessary. The bad guys aren’t going to leave just because they have been asked. Frodo, perhaps because of his inner troubles, is letting grief and sadness rule him. For the others, its anger. Merry and Pippin, the knights of the south, are coming to the fore from this point on, superseding Frodo’s leadership role. And they hatch their plans. They have some military know-how but the resulting plan is all based around the fact that the “ruffians” are outnumbered. If the Shire can be roused, the bad guys are finished. Merry blows his horn call, first heard way back in Book One, and the rising is on.
Sam goes running off to find the Cotton family, who appear to be the most well-regarded in the immediate area. Of course, that isn’t why Sam is running off to find them. His appearance, as a mailed warrior, must be startling to the Cotton family, but it is clear that Sam is merely trying to impress Rosie, the girl that he has been besotted with for ages. Tom Cotton is the centrepiece here, the patriarch who will be the main deliverer of exposition. But this little passage is for humor’s sake more than anything else, as Sam can only gaze slack jawed as Rosie jokingly berates him for leaving Frodo at the first sign of trouble. It works pretty well in that sense, and this small romantic sub-plot will be coming to its logical conclusion very shortly. It’s also damning for the likes of Arwen that Rosie Cotton gets boatloads more characterisation that the Elven Queen in these scant few moments.
Preparations are made for war as Bywater rises up. It is a simple enough plan, taking full advantage of the hobbit numbers and probable over-confidence of the enemy. But the numbers aren’t strong enough just yet, and so Pippin rides off to get help from his own people. It is rarely mentioned, that Pippin is actually the heir of the Tooklands, so this is essentially the Prince returning home and he’s bringing war with him. Everything we’ve heard about the Took’s so far tells us that they won’t be standing for any “ruffians” so we know that they will be involved in the fighting. It’s almost like a mini Pelennor Fields as we wait on tenterhooks for the vital reinforcements.
The second confrontation comes as some of the bad guys from before show up again. The occupiers of the Shire are cruel and simple men, content to try and bully and intimidate their way to power. When the hobbits stand up for themselves, the whole rotten image of their strength comes crashing down. Merry and Pippin’s simple plan is the doom of them here, as they waltz into a trap and suffer some casualties for it. Bloodshed occurs in the Shire, a pivotal moment in the story. “The Scouring” is a deadly serious business after all, and as Frodo feared, will take more than harsh words and bared steel.
As the crucial battle approaches, we finally get to hear some recapping of what’s been happening in the Shire. Simply put, Lotho attempted a power play with foreign backers, but got way too deep in a scheme he was only a small part of. He’s been used and now dumped, but his initial plans and actions weren’t terrible towards achieving his goals. Buying out lots of land, selling produce to outsiders and amassing more gold and power. All before “Sharkey” took over:
‘Who is this Sharkey?’ said Merry. ‘I heard one of the ruffians speak of him.’
‘The biggest ruffian o’ the lot, seemingly,’ answered Cotton. ‘It was about last harvest, end o’ September maybe, that we first heard of him. We’ve never seen him, but he’s up at Bag End; and he’s the real Chief now, I guess. All the ruffians do what he says; and what he says is mostly hack, burn, and ruin; and now it’s come to killing. There’s no longer even any bad sense in it. They cut down trees and let ‘em lie, they burn houses and build no more.”
The Isengard connection is clear for all to see now, as is the big player behind all of this.
Lotho’s scheming has turned the Shire into a police state in a very easy manner, as the place turned from rural paradise to Nazi Germany in just a year, only the Tooks resisting in arms. All that had to be done was to hire some goons and buy some land. The Shire’s lack of a proper government or any sort of civil structure has allowed Lotho to do whatever he wanted. Simply put, no one was in a position to stop him, there was no organised opposition. The idyllic life of the hobbits meant that were caught by this takeover completely unprepared. The absence of the Rangers is obviously important as well, as it was for Bree. Bree had enough of a human population to resist this kind of thing, but the Shire got screwed.
The fact that Lotho’s much disliked mother Lobelia was locked up for complaining is very telling about the actual state of the Shire now. Lotho clearly hoped to set himself up as the ruler of the place, but he was just a puppet for a higher power. That higher power is in charge now, clearly (as an aside, the re-telling of Lobelia’s arrest, with a classic country “she says, they says” framing, was like taking a step back in time to the Shire of the early chapters, in terms of dialogue).
After some badly-needed humour from Gaffer Gamgee (“And while you’re been trapessing in foreign parts, chasing Black Men up mountains from what my Sam says, though what for he don’t make clear, they’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!’”) the battle comes and it is short and sweet, the recounting barely lasting a page. As before, the blundering humans ride up, thinking they’re well on top, only to become surrounded and set upon. It’s just on a larger scale this time, which leads to more blood. The image of hobbits slaughtering men is one that feels very odd, but that is essentially what happens here, as the “ruffians” are outmanoeuvred and routed with ease. The Shire doesn’t have an army, but they’re all farmers: that means they’re strong (relative to their size) and can wield basic weapons with some competence (even if it’s just an axe or pitchfork). They’re also excellent marksmen by reputation, established as far back as the early pages of The Hobbit, and have the advantage of numbers.
And they certainly have the motivation. The precarious position of the bad guys is exposed as they are easily beaten, though some Shire natives do pay the price. Wouldn’t be realistic if some of them didn’t make it. Tolkien is quick to point out the important role played by Merry and Pippin, who run the show, the great military heroes passing into Shire legend.
“So ended the Battle of Bywater, 1419, the last battle fought in the Shire, and the only battle since the Greenfields, 1147, away up in the Northfarthing. In consequence, though it happily cost very few lives, it has a chapter to itself in the Red Book, and the names of all those who took part were made into a Roll, and learned by heart by Shire-historians. The very considerable rise in the fame and fortune of the Cottons dates from this time; but at the top of the Roll in all accounts stand the names of Captains Meriadoc and Peregrin.”
This whole passage reads as if it’s from some great chronicle years in the future, with Merry and Pippin raised to the rank of “god-like” heroes. Sam is forgotten about and Frodo is reduced to stopping indiscriminate killing. That the hobbits have to be actively stopped from pursuing this goal is eye-raising of its own accord.
The Shire is freed, and it’s pretty much down to our four heroes. With the “ruffian” army dealt with, it’s time to press on into the heart of the rot, as the focus turns to Hobbiton, Lotho and “Sharkey”. The narrative really plays up the horror that Hobbiton inspires, as Frodo and Sam survey a ruined landscape, the very place they struggled so much to protect, destroyed. Tolkien’s words are skilfully used, maximising the feeling of hopelessness, having accomplished so much and then having lost their homeland:
“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 they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up. beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.
‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree. had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears.”
Hobbiton was the heart of Lotho’s efforts and has borne the brunt of the “ruffian” tactics. What was once an idyllic rural heartland is now a poisoned industrial wasteland, albeit one that is not unsalvageable. The language used here is deliberately in line with that used to describe the outskirts of Mordor in “The Black Gate Is Closed”: a desolation that destroys the soul with the very sight of it. Sam bursting into tears is the fitting cap to this litany of outrages, all he hoped for in ashes.
Then there is Sandyman. It has been a long time since we saw Sam and his father verbally spar with the Miller’s family in the opening chapters. Sandyman is depicted as a willing collaborator, one ironically unaware that his time is just about up. He is deep in the business of the new mill, a structure that exists just for the creation of noise and pollution, a spiteful construction well in line with what we will see of “Sharkey’s” motivation in just a few moments. The enmity between these two families, like so many such enmities in rural life, will never go away. This is just the most extreme version of it. Sam gets his bittersweet last laugh here though, as Sandyman is forced to flee from the oncoming army. Tolkien never actually gets round to saying what becomes of the Sandyman family, but it can’t be anything good.
It’s Saruman of course, “looking well-fed and well-pleased; his eyes gleamed with malice and amusement”, his appearance in Bag End of all places providing a new measure of disgust. The riddle should have been long solved by now of course. All the clues were there, the only thing against it being his appearance in “Many Partings”, heading the wrong way. Saruman has always had an interest in the Shire after all.
He’s a trickster, a bitter, vengeful one. The impression is of a man – wizard – who knows he can’t win and just wants to hurt as many people as he can before the final end. He rejected Gandalf’s repeated offers of mercy and he is all the way along the dark path by now. All he wants to do is lash out with what little power he has left and hurt those who brought him down. His plans in the Shire deteriorated to a two-bit criminal operation just waiting to be overthrown, and now it has.
But it doesn’t matter. Saruman is typically oozing hatred, bile and venom in every word he says here: “I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries”. He knows he’s done the Shire a hell of a lot of harm. He takes glee in having done so under the eyes of the four heroes in front of him, making them think he was no longer a threat. He is utterly evil at this point, the last remnants of “the White” gone for good.
He’s seeking death too. Like a twisted version of Eowyn, he no longer cares about survival, just dealing damage. He taunts the hobbits to get himself a little bit more time, and the awesome power of his voice is shown again. Only Frodo and his friends are unaffected, but the reader must be by his terrible pronouncement: “Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed”.
Saruman tries to take Frodo out, one last attempt to harm his enemies. This attempt fails, but then Frodo gets to defeat Saruman. Beyond the limits of understanding, Frodo still encapsulates the hobbit philosophy and values by showing Saruman mercy, repeatedly. Frodo, perhaps, understands how to beat Saruman more than anyone, and that is to never turn into him, never give into the hate that Saruman so clearly let’s control him at this point. Perhaps by letting Saruman walk out of the Shire unmolested, Frodo is humiliating him, showing that even in the most extreme circumstances, some people will never turn towards their darker desires: they’re stronger than that, a mirror of Saruman’s true weakness.
This enrages Saruman of course, who one moment triumphant is now defeated again, and lets loose verbally with such immaculate spitefulness one last time: “You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! Well, I go and I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell”.
Of course, it won’t do to let this loose end remain as it is and Saruman’s bane is poor, maligned Wormtongue, now just “Worm”. The reader may well think he has suffered punishment beyond his crime and Saruman’s taunting here is the last straw. The White Wizard took what may once have been a loyal Rohirrim and turned him into this twisted monster, more Gollum than Grima.
The final fate of Lotho is revealed. It is somewhat strange for a character like Lotho to be so important to this section of the story and to never actually be seen. He’s a puppet ruler though, so maybe it suits. Lotho was a hobbit with delusions of grandeur, who got sucked into a plot far beyond his control. He did so off-screen and he ultimately died off-screen, a death so anonymous that this is the first people have heard of it.
And here’s another as Grima gives Saruman an ending he deserves, figuratively stabbed in the back by what was his last follower. No amount of persuasive words will stop that knife. Grima gets shot down too and all is at an end. The War of the Ring is over, its final moments bookmarked by the hideous sight of Saruman’s soul/essence rising from his corpse: “For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing”. Even in his death, Saruman proves himself little more than a small copy of Sauron, who passed similarly, but in much grander terms, denied access to the heaven across the sea.
That the war should come to an end in such a place as this is horrifying, as noted. But that is the end of the drama and action of The Lord of the Rings. All that is left is the rebuilding. “And that’ll take a lot of time and work.”
This chapter suddenly, and surprisingly for a first time reader, breaks up the growing mundanity of the extended ending, which was reaching troubling levels by the time of “Homeward Bound”. In the course of one of the story’s largest chapters, Tolkien expertly waves a grand mini-narrative, depicting with skill a Shire so horribly changed from the last time we saw it, and teasing out the “How” and the “Why” effectively. The action is short, but sweet, and the hobbit get a final thrilling victory over the forces of darkness in the world, that the author makes seem as epic as any other battle seen thus far. In many respects, this is the last hurrah for Merry and Pippin, who have grown and changed so much, with Frodo and Sam taking centre stage for “The Grey Havens”. Merry and Pippin lead the charge, and demonstrate their new power and authority at several points.
That being said, Frodo and Sam get plenty of great characterisation here themselves. Sam’s interactions with the Cotton family and his father are charming and humorous in equal measure, while Frodo’s pacifist streak and inner mercy, Christ-like in its purity, sets up some of what will occur with him in the last chapter. It is through them and their reactions that we fully grasp the terrible fate of the Shire, more than anyone else. And “The Scouring Of The Shire” also provides a brilliant and appropriate end for Saruman, far better than our last lingering look at him in “Many Partings”.
This really is one of the best chapters in the story, and a credit to Tolkien, who made the reader suffer through part of his extended epilogue only to pull this remarkable final bit of climatic storytelling out of his hat. Now, the heavy business is all finished. All that’s left is to finish the story off.
Next time, we reach the end.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.