The Scouring of the Shire: In Defense of Untidy Endings

[Scour, v. To clean or brighten the surface (of something) by rubbing it hard, typically with an abrasive or detergent.]

'I shan't call it the end, till we've cleared up the mess,' said Sam gloomily. 'And that'll take a lot of time and work.'

Peter Jackson's cinematic re-telling of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King is known for its multiple endings, and each is pleasant enough. Healing, courtship, weddings, coronation, tributes, celebrations, departures and returns, the message is clear: war is over. There is at last a King in Gondor, and evil is destroyed.

Most visually stunning is the return of the four hobbit heroes to the Shire. Following the dark, brooding color palette of Mordor, the lush green is a sight for sore eyes. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin find their homeland just as they remembered it. Life goes on in the Shire, full of cheer, pipe-weed, and beer. There is no more conflict. Oh, there is a kind of sadness among the four as nostalgia sets in, along with a kind of regret that their neighbors are quite incapable of knowing the full significance of their exploits. Things will never quite be the same because they themselves are not the same. But all told, Jackson finishes his nearly ten-hour epic by returning to pastoral scenes and the deep, satisfying peace of Sam's final words to Rosie: "Well, I'm back."

Tolkien's version is not nearly so tidy, which can be a let-down to casual readers and an irritant to CGI-loving directors of blockbuster films. Compared to the terror of Helm's Deep or the thrill of Pelennor Fields, the 'Battle of Bywater, 1419' (as it is known to posterity), is a decidedly parochial affair. No orcs, goblins, trolls, Nazgul, or Oliphaunts, just a few Hobbits subduing a gang of ruffians under the command of Captains Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took. The "Scouring of the Shire" (as Tolkien's chapter is called) may not be an expected or convenient ending, but it has the merit of being true.

What am I saying? True? It is fiction, to be sure. But there is Truth here, with a capital "T." Truth that (cinematic run times notwithstanding) should be neither skipped nor changed.

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The travelers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam's own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water's edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.

The four heroic hobbits do not return to the Shire of their memories. It is not lush and green. The pipe-weed is all missing (having been sent to Saruman's stores in Isengard), the taverns are closed, and beer is banned. The only thing there is no shortage of is "rules," as new and ever-lengthening signage informs them, and which they promptly tear down in contempt. Old Gaffer Gamgee comically explains how dire is his personal situation: "While you've 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 full reality is not so comical. At their first meeting with a gang of ruffians Frodo says, "Much has happened since you left the South. The Dark Tower has fallen, and there is a King in Gondor." Yet here they stand dumbstruck at the Dark Tower in miniature looming over Bag End: a brick chimney belching black smoke. Here someone called "Chief" lords it over the Shire, not the one enthroned in Minas Tirith.

'This is worse than Mordor!' said Sam. 'Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.'

'Yes, this is Mordor,' said Frodo. 'Just one of its works.'

This is not the sentimental and satisfying return of the cinematic version. Why is Tolkien dragging this out? Do we really need another battle? Is this one of those Victor Hugo chapters, the ones that remind you he's being paid by the word? Daniel Defoe, inventor of the English novel, frankly botched the ending of his otherwise brilliant Robinson Crusoe by throwing in one last, completely superfluous adventure. He just couldn't help himself, as further evidenced by his literarily disastrous sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. As the saying goes, quit while you're ahead. Is Tolkien falling for Dafoe's brand of self-indulgence here?

Hardly. He knows the Truth too well. Breaking the power of Mordor does not suddenly (as Peter Jackson would have it) transform the world into a Thomas Kincade painting. In the official annals of Middle Earth found in Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien records this remarkable line:

"November 3 (3019, Shire Reckoning 1419). Battle of Bywater, and Passing of Saruman. End of the War of the Ring."

Think of that. The destruction of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron was not the end of the "War of the Ring?" Not to Tolkien's way of thinking. The wounds must heal (and forever leave scars, as Frodo would find) and the destruction must be repaired. The "works of Mordor," to use Frodo's phrase, must be dealt with, along with the servants of Mordor; in the immediate case, that means Saruman.

Tolkien calls it "scouring." It is an unfolding process, implicit in Sam's wonderful way of putting it in his question to Gandalf: "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" Sadness must be made untrue, and that is not done by just wishing it or emoting, as Merry chidingly reminds Frodo: "'But if there are many of these ruffians,' said Merry, 'it will certainly mean fighting. You won't rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo.'" Scouring is needed. Detergent must be applied, even into hard-to-reach places like the Shire. There may be King in faraway Gondor, but his rule must be felt.

[Pippin] cast back his cloak, flashed out his sword, and the silver and sable of Gondor gleamed on him as he rode forward. 'I am a messenger of the King,' he said. 'You are speaking to the King's friend, and one of the most renowned in all the lands of the West. You are a ruffian and fool. Down on your knees in the road and ask pardon, or I will set this troll's bane in you!'

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Tolkien knew this from personal experience, of course, having served in the dreary and miserable trenches of World War One. That explains his hatred of barren wastelands (Mordor), heavy machinery (Isengard), and black smoke. But I think it's more than the story of his experience. Behind it lies the bigger story, the one he famously called the "true myth": the grand narrative of creation and redemption culminating in Jesus of Nazareth.

It is no accident that the Fellowship's journey from Rivendell begins on Christmas Day, the dawn of December 25th. Neither is it incidental that when Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee at long last struggle up the slopes of Mount Doom to destroy Sauron by way of the One Ring, it is March 25th, the traditional ecclesiastical date of Good Friday.

Tolkien's story is framed by the liturgical calendar, and so the Shire's scouring is not superfluous. After all, in the "true myth," Easter victory did not instantly transform the world. The enthronement of the King of kings and Lord of lords had to be announced by his messengers to those kings and lords in distant places, "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

"The King's Messengers will ride up the Greenway now, not bullies from Isengard." --Frodo Baggins

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The Scouring of the Shire is one of my favorite chapters. In an obvious sense, it is a simple coming of age story. The meek and terrified hobbits, now fully matured and steeled by their adventures, return home and exercise wisdom and leadership without the direct aid of Gandalf the White or Aragorn, son of Arathorn. It is also the story of Saruman's end; fittingly, by the vengeful blade of his pitiful, abused servant Wormtongue. Black is black, evil is evil, and spreads the same tyranny, black smoke, and misery wherever it goes, even into the pastures and woodlands of the Shire.

But most of all it is a reminder that Mordor has stained everything. Nothing is exempt, not even our most cherished places. "It comes home to you," Sam remarks, "because it is home." Evil corrupted even the most idyllic corner of Middle Earth. The victory is won, but we "shan't call it the end till we've cleared up the mess." The world must be scoured, cleaned, mended, and healed. As great as were the crumbling of Barad-dur, the sacking of Isengard by the Ents, the shriek of the Witch-King of Arnor under the blade of Eowyn of Rohan, there remains the small but no less important matter of Bagshot Row and Old Gaffer's ruined taters.

Tolkien got it right. Christmas and Easter together do not spell "the end." There is much work to do. Our own homes, relationships, vocations, thoughts, desires, inclinations, hearts must be scoured and healed by the good news of a new King. Gandalf says, "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so shall the rightful king be known.

"Hark!" The herald angels sing: Glory to the newborn King!"

Post-Election Thoughts

Along with the entire watching world, I was astounded at the results of the U.S. Presidential election. Just astounded. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that Donald Trump could be elected President of the United States. From the general reaction around the world, it seems I was not alone.

So, congratulations to him. And his campaign staff.

Some people seem to want "apologies" from people like me (and, in a few cases, me in particular). This takes the form of wanting admissions of wrong, invitations to "eat crow," and that sort of thing. So, here goes: Sure. Absolutely. I was wrong when I said, variously, that Donald Trump would get crushed in a general election or that he was the only Republican candidate who would lose to Hillary Clinton. I will take all the abuse the Trumpers want to dump on me in that regard. Gladly. Gloat away.

Now, I was not saying what I was saying because I am just hard-headed and oblivious to facts. Just last week on our podcast I said very clearly the race had tightened and he had a fighting chance. I still did not believe the electoral map favored him, but he was making it tight. Now we know that, as of Election Day, Donald Trump's own campaign polling had him 30 Electoral College votes shy of winning. Simply put, if I was wrong about his electoral chances, every single pundit in the world outside of rabid sycophants like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter were wrong about his chances. So apologizing for being wrong about this is no singular burden.

Here's something, though. Some Trumpers seem to mean by "apology" an admission that I was wrong about more than Donald Trump's election chances. No dice, there. On Monday morning, Donald Trump was intellectually, morally, and temperamentally unfit for the office of President. On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump was intellectually, morally, and temperamentally unfit for the office of President. If people want me to apologize for saying that Donald Trump is a fool (in the biblical sense), he has to prove me wrong first, given that he spent his first 70 years of life proving me right. Winning an election doesn't make somebody fit for the office; it simply proves that given the right circumstances, even fools can win elections.

Still others seemed to expect that #NeverTrump people like me would be disappointed by the results. This blows my mind. In know in certain fever swamps, people think #NeverTrumpers secretly wanted Hillary Clinton to be President. That is, well, fevered. I'll put it this way: in a year that promised zero good outcomes, we probably got the best possible outcome, short of Evan McMullin giving the House of Representatives the option of doing the right thing. My opposition to Trump, from Day One, was to a very large extent based on the desire to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House. I mean, you could look it up. Far from being disappointed, I am absolutely elated that Hillary Clinton will now forever be known as "private citizen." Relying on Donald Trump to get that job done has a lot of downsides, which we'll discuss, but make no mistake: I'm over the moon that the Clintons may now retire from public "service," or whatever you call leveraging political access for piles of cold, hard cash.

I must also say I'm enjoying the admittedly self-indulgent vanity of watching the complete freakish meltdown of the entire left-leaning establishment in this country. Watching people on the "right side of History" struggle for words when history smacks them upside the head is a pretty satisfying conclusion to a pretty horrible year.

What Just Happened?
Human beings want easy explanations for complex events. And so I could offer some: Hillary Clinton was just a dismal candidate (and, oh, she was!); the GOP is now dominated by xenophobic nationalists; evangelicals sold their souls in large numbers, an outbreak of anti-establishmentarianism, that sort of thing.

But there isn't just "one" explanation. There are a myriad of stories, each insufficient on its own, that together coalesced into this outcome. There are elements of truth to all these "simple" explanations. Is it true that Donald Trump got a lot of support from racists and blood-and-soil nationalists? Yes. He attracted that kind of support with his campaign rhetoric. But is that sufficient to explain his victory? Not at all.

What just happened is a perfect political storm involving a lot of overlapping constituencies and themes. The white supremacist voted for Donald Trump, and the evangelical soccer mom voted for Donald Trump. Apart from both being Homo sapien (I guess), the box they checked on Tuesday is the only thing they have in common. This election will be much more difficult to sort out what it all "means." In years past, exit polling would break down a voting bloc's priorities and concerns, and one could glean what the electorate as a whole was trying to accomplish by voting as they did. That is, what the "mandate" is. This year polls are absolutely worthless, and it seems obvious that Trump's voters did as they did for wildly different reasons.

The difficulty of sorting this out is of particular concern because the Republican Party needs to figure out just how big an internal civil war they are having between movement conservatives and the "alt-Right" populist crowd. The trouble is, it's going to be difficult to tell. The alt-Right did not get Donald Trump elected. Millions of other people did that, for reasons having nothing to do with xenophobia or bigotry. But the alt-Right will claim they got Donald Trump elected, and thus a mandate for their cause. Frankly, to a large degree it will be up to Donald Trump to sort this out. Which sort of scares me.

Here are some major elements of what I think happened. In large part we saw a delayed reaction to the Obama era that many of us expected in 2012. The country is finally fed up with skyrocketing health care premiums (and being told it's working just fine, and that it's for "the greater good"); the smug condescension of progressive elites telling them what pronouns they can use and that boys can use girl's restrooms; being treated as bigots and homophobes and uneducated, unsophisticated bumpkins.

Charles Krauthammer once said that politics in America is played between the 40-yard lines. The Democrats under Barack Obama have been playing for the 20 and the 10, not just in terms of public policy, but culturally. The nation is full of bitter people "clinging to their guns and their religion," remember? If those people weren't bitter before (and they weren't), they were on Tuesday. All of which is to say, I'm not convinced that most people were primarily interested in electing Donald Trump. They were interested in clobbering the ruling class of the last eight years. This can be seen in the fact that in many battleground states, Republican Senate candidates outperformed Donald Trump. The down-ballot races were helping him, not the other way around.

An important element of this mix, of course, is the plight of the white working class. Much has been made of this woefully ignored portion of the electorate, what Charles Murray called "Fishtown" in his insightful book, Coming Apart. The nation as a whole rejected the Obama era, but Fishtown delivered the rust belt for Donald Trump. Pennsylvania? Ohio? Michigan? Wisconsin? An amazing run.

Let's put a dash of evangelicals into the dish. What were they up to? Sure, some of them were wild cheerleaders of Donald Trump, but it is actually ridiculous to suggest that most of them were. Many years ago Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a book entitled, Blinded By Might. Its thesis was that the Religious Right loved political power more than they loved Jesus. This year, it was true with respect to a lot of so-called "leaders" (the early adopters, "God's man for America" crowd). But the average, everyday, run-of-the-mill evangelical was not blinded by might; they were blinded by fright. The political left is oblivious to how Christians viewed Hillary Clinton as an existential threat to their freedoms. The only vehicle left to Christians was an unrepentant adulterer and braggart named Donald J. Trump. Stranger things have, actually, never happened.

So here's the recipe so far: a natural course correction in the form of a delayed reaction to the Obama era (and, since Obama played for the 20-yard line, the swing back promises to be equally drastic); the white working class finally exerting electoral muscle; evangelicals sufficiently terrified of Hillary Clinton. The left is shrieking hysterically about racism and xenophobia and hatred for one simple reason: they define racism and xenophobia and hatred as any deviation from their vision for the country. It's comforting for these snowflakes huddled in their safe spaces, but boy, talk about cheap and simplistic explanations.

A motley political coalition emerged on Tuesday. The question is: what in the world is Donald Trump going to do now?

What Is Donald Trump Going To Do?
The short answer:
Nobody has the foggiest notion.

The longer answer:
Nobody has the foggiest notion. No, seriously. Donald J. Trump is exactly what Barack Obama was in 2008: a giant projection screen for people to lay their hopes and dreams on. There are people expecting a mass rounding up of Mexicans to send them back over the border. Blue-collar workers are expecting the manufacturing plant to open up next Spring. Millions of people are now expecting America to "be great" again, each with wildly different expectations of what "great" means. Who knows what "great" means?

I do know there are going to be a lot of really disappointed people. Like Ann Coulter when 11 million people don't get deported.

Donald Trump has caught the tiger by the tail. He now IS the "establishment." Here's what I'm hoping. Not expecting. Hoping.

Now that the ego has been satisfied to the brim (I know: that's a pretty wild hope), he needs to put the adults in charge in every aspect of the administration. It's very ironic that after all of this bluster, he is completely at the mercy of the "establishment," i.e., people who actually know things about government.

Leave the legislative agenda directly in the hands of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Sign whatever those gentlemen put on his desk. This will drive the alt-Right people crazy, but contrary to their fevered imaginations, very good men are in charge of the House and Senate.

On economic policy, put Larry Kudlow in charge and let him pick the entire team. I mean, Larry deserves a lot of love from Donald, doesn't he?

On judicial appointments, obtain a list of jurists from, oh, say, the Heritage Foundation and use it. ONLY it. I mean, he actually promised that part.

The same with Foggy Bottom, Langley, and the Pentagon. Put adults in charge. And this is very important: Donald Trump needs to not be the impetuous, vindictive child he's so eagerly tried to be. This is not a time for settling scores or blacklisting good people because they "didn't say nice things about me." This is serious business that requires serious people. Regardless of whether they supported or said nice things about Donald Trump.

We're at that moment where, in movies about con-men, the protagonist is actually put on the spot to perform the duties he's bragged he can do. Think DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can, when suddenly he's got to come up with a medical diagnosis while pretending to be a doctor. Trump is, as Marco Rubio once accurately called him, a con-man. He's pretended to be a great statesman capable of "alone" making America great again. I think he can actually pull this off if his sole role is to delegate the job to able and competent men and women, while continuing to pretend (as his ego will demand) that it is he making all the brilliant moves.

I know I'm calling for Donald Trump to be a figurehead leader, an empty suit. I happen to believe that's what he is, so let's play to his strengths. (You can see that I'm obviously not looking for a job in the Trump Administration.)

If Donald Trump doesn't do this, if instead he governs as wildly and erratically as he has campaigned, then the 2018 midterms will be a bloodbath and he'll lose the House and Senate. Then he'd have a very boring job, and he'd be longing to star in another season of The Apprentice.

For the sake of the country, and for his own sake, Donald J. Trump suddenly needs to grow up. I hope and pray he does.