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Friday, January 03, 2003


The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.

---Kipling, "Recessional"

This is my pitiful contribution to the Tolkien blog burst.

I have at least three copies of each book of the Lord of the Rings, and every one of them is in storage. I managed to read the last two chapters of the book in Barnes and Noble the other day, but much of this is done from memory. Some facts may be wrong.

Those of you who do not know (or remember) the story, and would like to be surprised in The Return of the King, should go away now. (Although it is unclear whether this chapter will be in the movie.)

After the great doings in The Return of the King---when Sauron is vanquished and Aragorn is crowned King in Gondor---Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to the Shire (detouring quite a bit on the way). When they arrive, they find it in disarray. Frodo's cousin Lotho Sackville-Baggins is "Boss" of the Shire, but he's only a puppet for the real power, a Man called Sharkey. Sharkey has many Men (and not a few hobbits) as henchmen, and these have terrorized the population of the Shire. In the end, our hobbit heroes lead a rebellion which drives Sharkey's men away.

Sharkey himself is revealed to be Saruman, and is accompanied by Grima Wormtongue. At the last, Wormtongue kills Saruman, and is killed in turn by the hobbits.

Now, why do I like this part so much? At one point, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin encounter some of Saruman's henchmen, and the henchest of them mouths off to Frodo:

"Swagger it, swagger it, my little cock-a-whoop."


This was too much for Pippin. His thoughts went back to the Field of Cormallen, and here was a squint-eyed rascal calling the Ring-bearer "little cock-a-whoop".

This scene---and a following one, where Rosie Cotton tells Sam, "If you've been looking after Mr. Frodo all this long time, why leave just when things are starting to look dangerous?"---makes me inexpressably sad.

Put yourself in the place of our four hobbit heroes. You have seen wonders no hobbit has ever seen. You are companions to the Kings of Men. You have spoken with Ents, slain orcs and Nazgul, and been gifted by the Lady of the Elves. If you are Frodo, you have carried the world's most powerful and dangerous object many, many long leagues while it weighed heavier and heavier on your soul. You have been revered and feted as the Ring-bearer throughout most of Middle Earth. You are, literally, a living legend.

And then at long last you return to your own dear home and you're---nothing. It's not just the ruffians, it's your own people. They've always thought you a bit odd, or flighty, and your long absence hasn't changed their minds any. They don't know where you've been, and might not believe you if you told them. Because hobbits are simple, practical folk who don't hold with gallivanting around foreign parts and wearing ironmongery.

I wonder why Tolkien put this chapter in? Many years ago I had a friend who was deeply into Tolkien. I told him that this was my favorite part of story, and he was irate. He said that the story should have ended with the crowning of the King, and thought "The Scouring of the Shire" was a deflating anti-climax.

Did Tolkien find it necessary that the Shire not be untouched by Shadow? Was it supposed to highlight the evil of Saruman, that he---thwarted in his larger ambitions---inflicted this last, silly, childish injury on the hobbits?

Or was its purpose to establish our hobbits as heroes among their own people? Perhaps otherwise, cast by their neighbors as silly juveniles, returned to put on airs, they---Merry and Pippin, anyway---might eventually have returned to Gondor. (An essential part of the hero's journey, according to Joseph Campbell, is to bring the knowledge he has won back to his people. Sometimes he has to fight to impart it to them.)

No doubt somewhere Christopher Tolkien or Humphrey Carpenter or someone else has the answer, but I've not read it.

For reasons of my own, I empathize with those who go away and come back Changed.