The Scouring of the Shire
At the end of the day, the crux of the issue is more philosophical than cinematic: Tolkien has far less confidence in human potential and the power of purely human fellowship than does Jackson. And why not?  

-Analysis by Greg Wright


THE RETURN OF THE KING
MONTHLY FEATURE: NOVEMBER 2004

The Scouring of the Shire 

This page was created November 23, 2004
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

The Scouring of the Shire
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In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo witnesses a frightening vision, courtesy of the Mirror of Galadriel. The placid, agrarian Shire is being despoilt and burnt, and peace-loving Hobbits like Samwise Gamgee are being scourged with whips.

It is only a vision, of course. As Galadriel tells Frodo in Tolkien's novel, the Mirror does not necessarily show what will happen, but what might yet happen—and each potential future rests on our actions in the here and now.

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And in the here and now, we know that in Peter Jackson's filmed adaptation of Tolkien's novel a despoiled Shire is simply not in the cards. As long as the Extended Edition of the final film was in the offing, though, the Tolkien purists among us could cling to those Mirror images with desperate hope, thinking maybe—just maybe—they were clips of further footage related to the episode that Tolkien called "The Scouring of the Shire."

But the slate of added scenes is now set in stone, and Jackson's version of the story features no such scouring. Jackson's languid, contemplative conclusion to his Return of the King will remain as symphonic—and as dissonant, to some viewers—as it was in the original theatrical release.

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And as I have asked more than once over the last three-plus years, is such disappointment any great tragedy? After all, can I praise Jackson for his daring and artistic integrity one December, then rake him over the coals the following November because his Extended Edition doesn't suit my fancy? The answer is, of course, yes, I can, whether it's fair or not—disappointed critics can be as capricious as a disillusioned Denethor when they please.

Yet in spite of critical license, I will decline castigation of Jackson's effort, judging that good stewardship of Tolkien's art warrants another, better response: clarifying why The Scouring of the Shire was so important to Tolkien, and explaining, perhaps, why it is rather less important to Jackson.

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Tolkien's Scouring

In Tolkien's original story, Frodo and his companions take more than six months to complete their return journey to the Shire following the downfall of the Barad-dûr. During this time, a diminished and spiteful Saruman leverages his prior trading connections with the Shire, wresting control of most of the Shire from the Hobbits. "Sharkey's Men," as Saruman's lackeys are called, intimidate their shorter, furry-footed humanoid cousins with threats, clubs, imprisonment and economic thuggery. Rumor has it that Sharkey's Men may even have killed some Hobbits. Trees are cut to fuel new engines and mills, crops are shipped off to distant points at obscene profits, cozy Hobbit-holes are razed to make room for ghastly houses, and additional scores of traitorous "Shirriffs" are recruited from among the Hobbits to help "keep the peace." In short, Saruman turns the Shire into the kind of average post-rural, proto-industrial fascist Western nightmare that Marx would have loved to hate.

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Oddly enough, it seems that Gandalf has some inkling of the trouble Saruman has been causing; but not only does he do nothing to prevent it, he sends the Hobbits back to clean up the mess on their own. "I am with you at present, but soon I shall not be," Gandalf tells the homeward-bound Hobbits while in the Bree district. "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 understandûr My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help."

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Gandalf is correct, of course. The Hobbits prove quite capable of routing Saruman's thugs, of sending the illegitimate Shirriffs scurrying, of freeing the captives, and, in the long term (with Galadriel's far-sighted help), of healing the broken land. Merry and Pippin, in particular, use their knighthood and increased physical stature to good advantage. And even the final mercy that Frodo shows to Saruman proves to be the Wizard's own undoing, as the ever-fawning Wormtongue ultimately deals the fatal blow to his thankless—and pointedly graceless and merciless—master. But the victory comes at a cost. Men die. Hobbits die. Lots of them. The Shire is scoured, but at great cost.

The Significance of the Scouring

And this gets at the heart of the importance of The Scouring of the Shire. For Tolkien, the end of the story was not, and could never be, merely the destruction of the Ring and the fall of the Barad-dûr. The last battle of the War of the Ring was fought in Bywater, not Cirith Gorgor. Tolkien believed that the great battles are not just fought "over there"—the battles that really matter are those closest to home.

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The Scouring of the Shire is a call to social action. What good is it, Tolkien asks, if we send a few good men—the youth of an entire generation, in the case of World War I—to fight in a foreign land if we foster corruption and abuse at home? What we ask in that case is for the survivors to fight yet another war when they return. Much has been made about parallels between Tolkien's narrative and the events of World War II, but perhaps it is no accident that The Lord of the Rings has soared to phenomenal popularity in America over nearly half a century overshadowed by the specter of a much smaller war in the jungles of Viet Nam. Even in 2004, that war raged on in our Presidential campaign. The scouring of our own shire continues.

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And appropriately so, given the present war in Iraq: The Scouring of the Shire is also a reminder that evil, even in diminished form, is still pernicious and insidious, fully potent in any environment that harbors, excuses or nourishes it. What our own Shirriffs did in Abu Ghraib was no less scandalous than the beheadings that continue at the direction of the Sharkeys of the modern age. Thuggery is still thuggery. Complicity is still complicity, and evil is still evil.

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But the Scouring is also an acknowledgement of injustice in the face of an unreasonable mercy. Sure, Gandalf was right that the pity of Bilbo—the pity that stayed the elder Hobbit's hand and let Gollum live to see several thousand more days—did rule the fate of Men: that in the absence of mercy, Gollum would never have been present at Mount Doom to salvage Frodo's failure. But back in the Shire, Tolkien raises an even more nagging question: why, when twice given the chance to do otherwise, did Gandalf show mercy to Saruman—the Wizard who should have known better, the Wizard to whom mercy was most definitely not deserved?

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If only Gandalf had slain Saruman, the wretched wizard would never have gone on to ravage the Shire. The taking of one life would have spared nearly a hundred others.

We might as well ask (and perhaps Tolkien wishes us to): Why does God allow evil to persist? As Saving Private Ryan argued, the evil bastard you show mercy to today will still be an evil bastard tomorrow. The practical solution is: Show no mercy, for you will receive none.

But Tolkien's answer is not so pragmatic. Rather, it's Biblical. We show mercy not because it's deserved, nor because it's practical, but because it's the godly thing to do. "While we yet sinners," the Apostle Paul observed—while we still God's enemies—"Christ died for us." We show mercy because God has shown mercy to us, even while we are unrepentant.

And this leads to a troubling observation: that social justice may seemingly be subverted by impractical spirituality. And Tolkien has this to say: Yes, even diminished evil will prosper whereever it may find safe harbour; but Trouble in the Shire is not the end of the story: good will also prosper, even if it finds no safe harbor—and ultimately, good triumphs. The day will come, Tolkien says, when all our Shires will be scoured. There is a Redeemer, and as the prophet Malachi said, "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire." Tolkien's Gandalf, as a servant of that Secret Fire, has as full confidence in that future as did Tolkien.

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The Gaping Hole in Jackson's Adaptation

And what about Peter Jackson? In the first place, presenting the story of The Scouring of the Shire would dictate a fourth film—one with its own exposition, its own story arc, climax and resolution. There is simply no way even a four-plus hour film could sustain such a self-contained narrative in its closing scenes.

But at the end of the day, the crux of the issue is more philosophical than cinematic: Tolkien has far less confidence in human potential and the power of purely human fellowship than does Jackson. And why not? Two World Wars taught Tolkien that only faith in an external, greater Good could sustain him. Yet astounding human potential, and the fellowship found in an amazing production team, did manage to bring Jackson through his war to bring Tolkien's Rings to the screen.

So Jackson has little use for lessons about external evil and external good; he has even openly expressed doubts that such things exist. Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Sir Ian McKellan and others have far more interest in social action than Jackson. And at Helm's Deep we already found out the extent to which Jackson's vision of mercy differs from Tolkien's.

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Without interest in or sympathy with Tolkien's themes, and in the face of narrative and commercial pressures, what's a director to do? Punt, and leave the pricklier issues to the books. And that's probably as it should be.

So as you pick up your Extended Edition DVD on December 14, think about The Scouring of the Shire, because you won't find it on video. Think about picking up the book, too, and reminding or finding out for yourself what The Lord of the Rings is really about. And remember that, for Tolkien, the Return of the King wasn't just about Aragorn.

LOTR Coverage Index here

E-mail Greg Wright here

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