Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
Scouring the Shire
The Road goes ever on and on (III: 329)
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
For Tolkien, escapism had purpose. We have already seen how escape can bring both healing and recovery: the escapist breathes the air anew, reawakening his reason and restoring will and vigor to life. But remember that the Escape of the Prisoner is not the Flight of the Deserterthose who go beyond the bounds of reality are obligated to come back and break the walls of the prison they have outgrown. The escapist becomes a great patriot, by applying the memory of heroic deeds in real life, he creates miniature legends in his doings that demonstrate the difference between escape and delusion.
Hence the adventures of the hobbits, who have left their quiet, homey village to journey through realms of faërie and fell danger, cannot end with the destruction of the Ring and the acclaim of great men. They must return to the Shire and show that what they have learned in their great escape can be of use to hobbits in the course of plain living. They must accomplish this without the help of magicians or heroes, as they are told by Gandalf, when he takes leave of them for the last time, before slipping away into the Old Forest:
"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." (III: 340)
Even in Middle-earth there is a boundary between fantasy and reality that should not be confused, and the time has come to settle with reality. The penultimate chapter of the epic, "The Scouring of the Shire," details the hobbits' homecoming to a Shire which is no longer the idyllic land that they knew, or perhaps accepted blithely without recognizing in it the seeds of ruin. The Shire has fallen victim to the designs of a wealthy hobbit, Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who quietly accumulated real estate for years before clamping down on the properties he controlled, foreclosing on mortgages and tearing down old buildings in favor of new, cheap, ugly tenement houses. When other hobbits protested, Lotho hired foreign men to come and protect his interests. These thugs found it easy to bully the hobbits, and before long they had taken over the Shire, proclaiming martial law, with Lotho as their nominal Chief. Industrialization continued apace, with the cutting of trees and fouling of the river, perhaps capriciously. The few initial protesters were thrown into prison, and the others cower behind their doors, their anger smoldering under a blanket of fear.
The four returning hobbits have learned the lessons of their journey well, however, and they explode onto the scene, boldly announcing the reasons for their displeasure with the new regime. Their courage and plain speech win them the admiration of those who have grudgingly kept their peace, and many flock to their standard. The returning hobbits do not waver at the threat of arrest, but instead address their accusers by name, forcing them to publicly excuse their conduct, throwing the burden of justification on to those who uphold the status quo. Soon the whole Shire is roused, and they find their collective strength surprisingly to be much greater than that of their oppression. After a brief battle that kills nineteen hobbits and many more "ruffians," the old order is restored.
The energy the returning hobbits have kindled does not dissipate, but is harnessed by Sam and Merry and Pippin for the effort to restore the Shire to its original beauty. As Tolkien recounts their successes, he assures us that the hobbits will be well remembered in the history of the Shire, not for their exploits in the war against Sauron, but for their deeds at home, planting new trees and repairing old farms. In the end these everyday deeds are more important than quests or journeys.
Tolkien took the heroism and glory of old epics and myths and managed to create from it a new epic for the modern day, celebrating normal men, showcasing the stuff of legend in a new light, and showing its relevance to his own age. He did do in the hope that the spirit of heroism, as he saw it, would be reborn in the modern day.
Perhaps the best summation of this is given by Aragorn, in his response to a man who doubts that fairy-tale creatures such as hobbits could exist in the modern day, and scoffs "Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?" The response:
"A man may do both," said Aragorn. "For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time." (II: 45)
Tolkien urges us to find the makings of legend in our own lives, and to live them with force and moral dignity. By doing so, we heal the psychic wounds inflicted by our modernity, and begin redeeming the degraded age.