“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”
Gandalf did not answer.--Frodo Baggins,
The Lord of the RingsThe Lord of the Rings
is about the journey of four hobbits that go “there and back again.” But Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry are not the same after their journey, nor is the Shire to which they return unchanged. Although the four hobbits are in many ways grown up, and evil in the Third Age is defeated, it’s hard to weigh the changes wrought by their “victory." For much has also been lost.There is no going home again
. I hesitate to write that phrase, so clichéd has it become. Yet it is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings
and is largely the point of the book, as demonstrated in the wonderful, penultimate chapter of the story, “The Scouring of the Shire.”
In their journey the hobbits have experienced a wider world outside of the insular boundaries of the Shire. Their travels take them through the magic realms of elves and into dark pits of evil. Their eyes are opened to lands and peoples they likely would never have seen were it not for the War of the Ring.
On their long road back to the Shire the hobbits’ mood is gay, and rightly so. Sauron is defeated. The roads, once perilous for the unwary traveler, will soon be open to peaceful commerce. The King has returned to his rightful place on the throne of Gondor. Order is being restored to the land.
But with order comes other evils. Mobilizing for war can unite a country, but the expediency of victory can wreak havoc on the simple and the familiar. Old woods and fields, once fallow and beautiful, are torn up and furrowed to make way for crops. Familiar paths are paved over and widened into grey highways, and lazy mills are converted into busy factories belching smoke and producing weapons of steel.
And people pay the price. Increased regulations and restrictions result in curfews and rationing where there was once freedom and plenty. World War II had its brownouts and blackouts to hinder Nazi bombing raids; in “The Scouring of the Shire” hobbits are forbidden from lighting candles and fires after hours.
The hobbits soon discover the ill changes wrought by the long arm of war, which reaches all the back from the battle-scarred eastern front to the (seemingly) untouched western lands. Where once there was an open, inviting road to the Shire, gates and ugly barracks and suspicious guards now bar their way. Though more food is being produced, there is less to go around in the Shire’s sinister new reality of social engineering. Hob, a border guard, tells the hobbits that, “We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these “gatherers” and “sharers,” I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.”
Once they pass through the gates the hobbits realize the full extent of the damage. The Shire itself is under siege. Trees are torn up, ancient homes and the old mill have been flattened, and ugly, modern, utilitarian structures have been raised in their place. And the Chief and his “Shiriffs” are in control.A maturity bred in conflict…
War is a complicated matter for Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings
. It breeds death and destruction and is the antithesis of mercy, which is so central to the story. Mechanization and loss of personal freedom are, as we’ve seen, its unfortunate by-products. But the stern trials and hard choices it forces on its participants can also bring out their best traits.
In “The Scouring of the Shire” its plain that war has made men out of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. They have grown from their experience, gaining strength and wisdom and surety of purpose. Without their experiences at Minas Tirith, could they have hoped to drive out Sharkey’s men? Not likely (as an aside, would Tolkien have ever written The Lord of the Rings
were it not for his life altering experiences in World War I? I’m not so sure of that, either.)
At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings
, Frodo and the hobbits looked to Gandalf for help and guidance, like young sons clinging to the wisdom of their father. This is in marked contrast to their behavior after the War of the Ring. In “Homeward Bound,” chapter 7 of The Return of the King, Gandalf tells the hobbits that he must leave, and it is now their responsibility and duty to clean up the evil that has taken root in the Shire. But the hobbits do not indulge self-pity or beg Gandalf for his help. As boys they left from the Shire; back from war, they are men: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 for any of you.
Gandalf’s faith proves justified. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin firmly and decisively restore order, as they raise the hobbits and defeat Sharkey’s men decisively at the Battle of Bywater. In “The Scouring of the Shire” they display leadership and bravery hardly to be believed of the same timid hobbits that left the Shire on their long journey less than a year previous.
This is a good thing.…and the terrible losses incurred by war
But “The Scouring of the Shire” is not a mere coda or a simple homecoming for heroes. If that was its only message, The Lord of the Rings
would be a much simpler (and lesser) book.
Balanced against the assuredness and strength of Merry and Pippin is Frodo, whose wisdom serves as the moral compass of the story. Whereas Pippin and Merry are larger and stronger, Frodo is paler and thinner, the result of great wounds suffered from “knife, and sting, and tooth, and a long burden.”
When Frodo returns to the Shire he looks upon it with eyes that are no longer the same. Even the familiar has become strange to him; when Merry remarks that the events of the War of the Ring feel “like a dream that has slowly faded,” Frodo experiences the opposite reaction.
“Not to me,” said Frodo. “To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”
Wounded soldiers return with traumas seen and unseen, and this is evident in Frodo, who bears wounds that are deep indeed. Some essential part of him has been left on a foreign field, and his wounds are too grave to allow him to enjoy the peace he has so dearly bought:I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
This is the great sadness of The Lord of the Rings
—there is home and hearth for some of the victors, but not all of them, and perhaps not even for most. When Frodo departs for the West it’s on a full ship: Gandalf, and Elrond, and Galadriel, and the main of Middle-Earth’s elves are sailing away, too. Magic has left the world. The great evil of the Third Age is defeated, but its void will be filled with other, more banal but equally sinister incarnations of evil. In the wake of the likes of the elves and of Gandalf (and yes, even Saruman and the Balrog and the orcs) comes the vagaries of men, and with them their propensity for both great good and unspeakable evil.The Lord of the Rings
ends on a beautiful but complicated note, joy and sadness together, and all tinged with melancholy, in a final line heavy with meaning:
“Well, I’m back,” says Sam.
And he is. Sam returns from the Gray Havens to yellow light and a fire and a meal waiting for him in Bag End. He has his Rosie and Eleanor, and a fulfilling life ahead of him. He will be mayor, and his name will be preserved in honor in the pages of the Red Book.
But all the same, his home at Bag End is a bit emptier. For it is bereft of Frodo, his best friend and master.
No more will Sam see Gandalf striding down the garden path on some great, mysterious errand. And never again will he catch a glimpse of the wonderful, grey shapes of elves flitting through the trees, nor hear their singing.
Was it worth it? Yes.
But is the victory and the end of the Third Age a cause for celebration, a black-and-white, simple happy ending as critics of The Lord of the Rings
like to charge? That answer should also be fairly clear.