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.
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!'
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
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!"