The Scouring of the Shire is the opposite of what people think it is

An unusual feature of the The Return of the King, the last book in the Lord of the Rings series, is the amount of time spent on the ending. The ring itself is destroyed around two thirds of the way through the narrative (or halfway if you count the appendices), leaving a huge amount of space for resolutions for characters and wrapping up loose ends. While some people enjoy the closure, others feel it unnecessarily drags on. This is how I felt the first time I read the “Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter, where the hobbits return to the Shire only to find Saruman and his minions taken it over but they are ejected after a brief battle. It seemed very anti-climactic and petty in comparison to the epic battle for the fate of the world that had just been fought.

However, I did some reading and found that many people enjoy this scene, in fact they argue it is one of the most important of the entire series and were disappointed it didn’t appear in the movies. Pretty much every article and discussion I could find on the chapter tells the same story, that the Scouring of the Shire is based on Tolkien’s experience from World War 1. The chapter is actually about the difficulties soldiers faced when they returned from war and found society had drastically changed while they were gone. It’s a bittersweet ending showing how despite the fact the hobbits fought so hard to protect their homes and preserve the Shire, they return only to find it has irreversibly changed. Some argue Tolkien is actually saying that Frodo failed.

So with this in mind, I realised that I must have missed the nuance during my original reading, so I decided to reread the chapter. Yet I was shocked by what I found, the chapter isn’t about the First World War or the changes society underwent, it is the complete opposite.

The first problem with presuming that Tolkien was writing about the First World War, is that he never said he was and there doesn’t seem to be any primary source to support the claim. In fact, in the forward to the Fellowship of the Ring, he makes it clear that he dislikes allegories and the Lord of the Rings is not an allegory for British society.

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. . . But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.

He even compares the War of the Ring with the Second World War arguing that if the first was an allegory for the second, the ring wouldn’t have been destroyed but rather used against Sauron and the hobbits would have been worse than slaves. He further goes on to explain that merely because someone lived through certain events, this doesn’t mean that those events must therefore have influenced their writing. To me, this is a clear refutation of the claim that because he lived through the First World War that it influenced how he wrote the Lord of the Rings. But clearest of all, Tolkien singles out the Scouring to explicitly deny it is an allegory or social commentary of any kind.

it has been supposed by some that ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever. It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. 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.

I presume that everyone who confidently asserts that the scouring is commentary on WW1 has missed this section because I don’t think he could make it any clearer. It is not a political or metaphorical reference in any way. If there is any influence, it seems to be industrialisation or just the realisation that society changes over the time and the world does not stay the same as it was in your childhood. If you had to attach any metaphorical significance to the Shire (which Tolkien has made clear you should not) it should be about childhood nostalgia as the Shire embodies a childlike simplicity.

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I’ll be honest, rereading the Scouring of the Shire is a disappointing experience. Despite being one of the longest chapters in the entire series, it takes a long time for anything to happen as there are numerous skirmishes and lots of exposition before the actual battle. I was also surprised at how awkward and clunky the writing was, especially the dialogue. The Lord of the Rings is a very black or white kind of book, but this takes it to a whole new level. The villains are bumbling idiots and cowards like from a children’s book and always referred to as “ruffians” (the language is very quaint, the worst insults are “fool”, “rascal” and “cook-a-whoop”). The villains are so blandly evil and the heroes so purely good that it reads like a Famous Five novel.

If anything, the chapter reads like a bad allegory for Communism and I don’t blame people omitting this when they praise the section, it has all the subtlety and insight of a Fox News segment.

‘We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these “gatherers” and “sharers”, I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.’ . . . the ruffians went round gathering stuff up “for fair distribution”: which meant they got it and we didn’t

The hobbits discover there are rules about everything and all pubs are closed, except for the ruffians who hoard everything for themselves. The Shire would resemble a police state, if the police weren’t so inept as to be almost harmless. They try to arrest the hobbits, but the hobbits just laugh them off.

It was rather a comic cavalcade that left the village, though the few folk that came out to stare at the ‘get-up’ of the travellers did not seem quite sure whether laughing was allowed. A dozen Shirriffs had been told off as escort to the ‘prisoners’; but Merry made them march in front, while Frodo and his friends rode behind. Merry, Pippin, and Sam sat at their ease laughing and talking and singing, while the Shirriffs stumped along trying to look stern and important.

This seems more like a comic farce than a bittersweet social commentary. The shirriffs pose such little threat that the hobbits escape simply by walking faster than them, all in all showing how little danger there is and how low the stakes are. Simply pulling out their swords is enough to scare off the minions.

The writing is so clunky that it reads like a religious morality story where the heroes are perfectly noble to the point of sanctimonious and the baddies boast about evil they are and how much they love doing bad stuff.

‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. 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.

However, the tone does finally get more serious when the hobbits see the damage done to the Shire, where many house have been destroyed, trees cut down and the river and air polluted. I have to admit that for a long time I misread the title of this chapter as “The Scourging of the Shire” (scourging as in whipping, with its connotations of slavery, punishment and suffering) which would make sense if the theme of the chapter was the damage done to the Shire. But it was only while preparing this article that I realised the word is actually “scouring” (as in to vigorously clean) which shifts the emphasis in the opposite direction. Had the story ended here and the chapter be called scourging, then it would be understandable if people thought the chapter was about the suffering caused to the Shire.

However, I think people forget the story doesn’t end there and there is another chapter, Gray Haven, where essentially all the damage is undone and everything goes back to normal. This undermines the idea that the ending is bittersweet, because there is almost no bitterness at all. Sam even notes that it was easier than he had expected. The police state is dismantled, the shirriffs dismissed, the rules abolished, the ruffians chased off, the secret stores of food are found and everyone co-operates to rebuild the destroyed houses. It’s even commented that they made things better than before.

Had the trees been left destroyed, it could be used as an example of the cost of war, but Sam uses magic dust given to him by Galdriel to regrow all the trees. I can’t for the life of my understand how people think the Shire ends up getting destroyed or the theme is the cost of war, when Tolkien goes out of his way to make the happiest possible ending.

Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year. Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth. All the children born or begotten in that year, and there were many, were fair to see and strong, and most of them had a rich golden hair that had before been rare among hobbits. The fruit was so plentiful that young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased. Except those who had to mow the grass.

In the Southfarthing the vines were laden, and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. ‘The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer in an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! that was proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’

If anyone thinks the ending is about the disillusionment of soldiers, they must have read a different book. Merry and Pippin become famous heroes, loved by everyone, without any jealously and given pride of place in the history books. It’s even noted that they hadn’t been changed by their adventures except to make them more jovial. Sam ends up marrying the woman he loves, having a happy family and becoming elected mayor seven times (each time for a seven-year period). The only exception is Frodo, who struggles to fit back in, but this is mainly due to the physical wound he received, rather than personal reasons (at least as far as I can tell, Frodo is oddly absent from the last two chapters).

So although many believe the message of the Scouring of the Shire is that you can never return home because it will have changed or the cost of war, it’s actually the opposite. Once they clean the Shire out, everything does go back to normal, in fact it gets even better. Everyone does get a happy ending (arguably even Frodo, who goes to Elven heaven).

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4 thoughts on “The Scouring of the Shire is the opposite of what people think it is”

  1. Thank you, interesting. I’d not thought about this for a some time. A sentence comes to mind, but for the life of me I can’t remember exactly which book it’s from (not JRRT though). IIRC it goes something like :
    “We can all go home, but only once we realise that ‘home’ is a place we’ve never seen before” —implying that everything changes, including the traveller themselves.

  2. Huh, I read that chapter as a coming of age chapter. Prior to this the “little people” deferred to the “big people” and often claimed how unprepared they were to contest the battles of an age. But as Gandalf says, it is time for the Hobbits who have been trained to use their new skills and perceptions. The Hobbits at the beginning were timid and mild people and easily cowed. Now they have leaders to follow who are not timid and mild and who take charge and show them what to do. The ruffians aren’t communists or whatever, they are organized crime, organized by a malevolent force wanting to squeeze the joy out of the Hobbit’s lives. And, just because the big issues have been settled, well the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and there will always be the need to stand up for ourselves.

    This actually is one of my favorite episodes in the book (which I have read dozens of times and listen to (the audio version)) as it brings everything full circle, back to the beginning. The morale of the story children, is that there are no isolated places, no gated communities, in which to hide from the issues of society as a whole. Everyone has to deal with these things in their own way with their own resources.

    BTW, the comment regarding how few ruffians were involved reminded me of the numbers of British soldiers and “diplomats” that held down the British Empire. Most people think there were armies and hordes of officials and there were staggeringly few of both of those. They kept their conquered countries subjugated through bluster and threat, just like the the “ruffians.”

  3. Very interesting article for those who like Fantasy and Tokien’s universe. For me the Scourging of the shire was a lesson: no matter what, you are part of this world and if there’s conflict, it will find you

  4. Wow, thanks for examining that. It seems like almost no one has discussed that chapter since the movies were released. I did read the foreword and it always comes back to me when I’m tempted to think of the story as allegory. The concept I took from the Scouring is that those who hide themselves in the pleasant places in life are prone to subjugation.

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