The Importance of the Scouring

Homeward Bound by Alan Lee

I have recently re-read the The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in a decade — this time to my son who had really enjoyed The Hobbit. When getting to the end I was reminded of a brief post Vox Day wrote about The Scouring of the Shire, which is the final major event of the novel. When I first read it many years ago, I found it a surprising turn of events but I didn’t give it much thought beyond that. In re-reading there is certainly foreshadowing with Sam’s vision in the Mirror of Galadriel and in smaller ways such as with Merry and Pippin’s happy discovery of halfling pipe-weed in the ruins of Isengard.

Vox says it is “a minor flaw, but it is a flaw nevertheless”, and suggests this is an early example of message fiction through Tolkien’s famously luddite-lite views on the modern world. Having had this in mind on re-reading, I disagree and consider it an important and logical end to the events though I do allow that one could argue the time-frame in which Saruman could have accomplished all this was perhaps implausibly brief.

To understand how it fits in with the wider story, it is best to start with The Hobbit. Bilbo of course is reluctantly dragged into an adventure through his long-dormant Tookish nature that he inherited from his mother. His adventure is almost scandalous to the notoriously parochial hobbits and his life is never the same on his return. Despite his heroic adventure with wizards, dwarves, trolls, goblins, elves and a dragon, he is simply thought eccentric on his return until his disappearance  early in The Fellowship of the Ring. As explained at the end of The Hobbit after arriving home to find his possessions being sold off:

Indeed Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons—he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighborhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders.

I am sorry to say he did not mind. He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party.

The Last Stage, The Hobbit

Though he genuinely doesn’t mind, Bilbo is never treated with the respect he deserves by his fellow-countrymen. One is reminded of our Lord’s lament in Mark 6:4 that,  “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Bilbo was no prophet but like prophets both real and mythical, he was not believed or appreciated in his lifetime. His adventure was not only a genuine achievement but also the preface to wider events that would involve all Middle-Earth.

It is interesting to note that when Frodo begins his own fateful journey, he takes steps to avoid Bilbo’s unwelcome return by selling the hobbit-hole and arranging his affairs. Though this is of course mostly with the intention to hide his true purpose from those around him.

The first hint of the Scouring of the Shire is through Sam’s vision in the Mirror of Galadriel mentioned above which I will quote at length:

Like a dream the vision shifted and went back, and he saw the trees again. But this time they were not so close, and he could see what was going on: they were not waving in the wind, they were falling, crashing to the ground.

‘Hi!’ cried Sam in an outraged voice. ‘There’s that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn’t. They didn’t ought to be felled: it’s that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater. I wish I could get at Ted, and I’d fell him!’

But now Sam noticed that the Old Mill had vanished, and a large red-brick building was being put up where it had stood. Lots of folk were busily at work. There was a tall red chimney nearby. Black smoke seemed to cloud the surface of the Mirror.

‘There’s some devilry at work in the Shire,’ he said. ‘Elrond knew what he was about when he wanted to send Mr. Merry back.’ Then suddenly Sam gave a cry and sprang away. ‘I can’t stay here,’ he said wildly. ‘I must go home. They’ve dug up Bagshot Row, and there’s poor old Gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of his things on a barrow. I must go home!’

The Mirror of Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring

This is easy to forget after all the events that follow and Galadriel cautions Sam:

Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them. The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds.’

So what Sam saw might not have happened with no inconsistency but also could have gone very differently if circumstances changed. It is doubtful for example, that Merry and Pippin would have been able to do much were they sent back from Rivendell without the experience of battle that followed after. Sam certainly could have done nothing had he attempted to return home from Lothlorien.

We get further foreshadowing of the events to come after Merry and Pippen meet with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli at Isengard and relate the details of their capture, escape and subsequent adventures with Treebeard. They are both (along with Gimli), delighted with the barrels of pipe-weed they discover in the aftermath of the Ent assault. The ever vigilant Aragorn after hearing their tale observes how unusual such a discovery should be:

All except one thing,’ said Aragorn: ‘leaf from the Southfarthing in Isengard. The more I consider it, the more curious I find it. I have never been in Isengard, but I have journeyed in this land, and I know well the empty countries that lie between Rohan and the Shire. Neither goods nor folk have passed that way for many a long year, not openly. Saruman had secret dealings with someone in the Shire, I guess. Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Théoden’s. Was there a date on the barrels?’

‘Yes,’ said Pippen. ‘It was the 1417 crop, that is last year’s; no, the year before, of course, now: a good year.’

‘Ah well, whatever evil was afoot is over now, I hope; or else it is beyond our reach at present,’ said Aragorn. ‘Yet I think I shall mention it to Gandalf, small matter though it may seem among his great affairs.’

Flotsam and Jetsam, The Two Towers

The last little details show that Saruman already had schemes set in motion in the Shire and that Gandalf is (or will be soon) aware of them.

We will now skip to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippen’s last days in Minas Tirith after the ring is destroyed and they have been reunited:

In those days the Companions of the Ring dwelt together in a fair house with Gandalf, and they went to and fro as they wished. And Frodo said to Gandalf: ‘Do you know what this day is that Aragorn speaks of? For we are happy here, and I don’t wish to go; but the days are running away, and Bilbo is waiting; and the Shire is my home.’

‘As for Bilbo,’ said Gandalf, ‘he is waiting for the same day, and he knows what keeps you. And as for the passing of the days, it is now only May and high summer is not yet in; and though all things may seem changed, as if an age of the world had gone by, yet to the trees and the grass it is less than a year since you set out.’

The Steward and the King, The Return of the King

Here we are reminded that little time has passed but that a major calamity has come and gone. Should that calamity have gone the other way, the oblivious hobbits would certainly have been affected. They had little realised their danger being protected for many years by the rangers — mostly unseen. The hobbits only have vague hints of the danger around them and their vulnerability. It is right that though an innocent people they should experience something of what the wider world has during this time.

While Frodo is destined for much the same life of retirement as Bilbo; Sam, Merry and Pippen are destined for more. As they approach their home and hear of the danger that has come to it, Gandalf gives them a similar speech to the one he gave to Bilbo and the dwarves after their rescue by the eagles though with much more finality:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’

Homeward Bound, The Return of the King

As Gandalf suggests, it was the hobbit’s time to prove themselves and to stand on their own before their people. How else could they prove to their kin what they had done and what they had become but through a very direct experience within their homeland? An experience where Pippen and Merry in particular come forward as heroes to their own people after being largely carried (sometimes literally), by the events of the past year?

Saruman himself says as much:

‘You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people, so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours. Oh no! Gandalf would look after your affairs.’

The Scouring of the Shire, The Return of the King

All the hobbits come together behind the mysterious four who have returned in strange dress and fight to remove the invaders from their lands. Had this not happened, the four hobbits would have all been thought as queer as old Bilbo and been the subject of dismissive or jealous gossip for the remainder of their days. The hobbits would have never had any inkling of how close their lands actually came to destruction or more than rumours of what had happened abroad. Frodo, as said, is to be without honour in his own land but then he is not destined to long live there anyway.

One more point to add is that the destruction of the ring is certainly the climax but by this time we are so invested in the characters we want to see their story go on. Although I was surprised at this final conflict in the novels, I didn’t lose interest. Indeed like many, I went into the appendix and scoured the timeline for what followed the final chapter. This in my experience, is always the mark of a truly great novel where you never want to leave these characters though all their affairs are settled.

So, The Scouring of the Shire, is an important part of the novel that gives the Shire a direct though abridged experience of what has gone by in Middle-Earth in the main narrative. It sees the pathetic end to Saruman and Grima and Merry and Pippin rise as young heroes and leaders in a renewed land.

If this is all not enough, let us finish with the words of Tolkien himself who said, “It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset” in the foreword to the second edition.

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