What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.



14 thoughts on “What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

  1. Lotho Pimple is the character with the easiest applicability to our times. He was only looking for a tactical advantage, trying to win the next deal. Never a thought about long term consequences. Someone like that is easy prey for a strategic thinker, and strategic thinkers with good intentions toward their tools are rare creatures.

    • Totally with you on all you say here. And your last statement is spot on! “Strategic thinkers with good intentions toward their tools are rare creatures.” Fascinating that this is exactly what Saruman accuses Gandalf of being. I was in a discussion on this on my blog last week in which my interlocutor seemed to agree with this accusation. My own feeling was that Gandalf was like a father saying, “it’s time to grow up, son”. I would be interested to know your thoughts.

      • I agree with you, of course. This is yet another way JRRT is such a good writer: when he creates a character who’s deceptive, he gives them dialogue that is almost true. (Glaurung was just as good at it.) No denying it — when I’m done with a job, I put down my tools. The only deception is calling someone a tool when they’re actually a volunteer.

        For example, I hate schmoozing with clients and drumming up new business, so I use my boss for that. She is relieved not to have to do the scientific heavy lifting any more (though she was pretty good at it), so she uses me for that. Perhaps I am her tool. Perhaps she is mine. Or, just maybe, to us “tool” is a metaphor with limited applicability, but it’s a literal job description in the minds of some leaders.

      • That has got me thinking. Until a few years ago I was a trainer and educator in the Church of England but was made redundant in a cost cutting exercise. I was very angry when I was offered opportunities to be a volunteer doing work for which I had been paid. The police hereabouts also did this to experienced officers nearing retirement age eliciting similar anger. Later it struck me that I had always been willing in the past to do work for free, even regarding it as good for my spiritual health and so began to offer a certain amount of time each week as a gift. I cannot say though that I have ever been entirely relaxed about my choice.
        It is striking that Bilbo joins the dwarves on their venture to regain the treasure of Erebor on a profit sharing basis but eventually gives most of it up. It could be argued though, or so it seems to me, that his sudden reappearance in the Shire with even a small portion of the treasure is one one of the causes of a new attitude to wealth in the Shire and the rise of capitalists like Lotho Sackville-Baggins.
        WH Auden perceptively called factories places where people “are put to temporary use”. I used to think that this spirit was limited to the factory system. Naive fool that I was! Now I realise that the same fate of being used and then discarded awaits bishops and prime ministers too.
        Much to think about here. And, by the way, notwithstanding Saruman’s accusation, I don’t think that this is what Gandalf does to the hobbits.

  2. It only takes a pebble to start a landslide. This metaphor can be applied to the Shire both during Lotho/Sharky’s reign and to its reclamation.

    It doesn’t seem to take very much for chaos and disorder to descend upon the Shire and the long-established norms to be swept aside for the “new order” and laws.

    Yet, when the four hobbits return from their adventure, they need do very little to rouse the entire Shire to an organised and capable defense and to clear out the ruffians.

    Or to use a different metaphor, the kindling was there all along, and merely required a spark. The first spark was Lotho, and he metaphorically burned down all the comforts the hobbits knew. The second spark was Frodo et all, and they sparked the fire which burned down all the choking weeds infesting their gardens and thus (as is often the case with grass fires), encouraging new growth.

    • It is only in this reading of The Lord of the Rings that your perceptive comment on the two little sparks has struck me too. The first spark, the Lotho/Saruman one is a great warning to any society. The second spark, the Four Companions one, is a great source of hope. The first calls for constant vigilance and the second for a refusal to despair. I hope that I can sustain both qualities especially in these troubled times.
      Thank you for sharing this.

      • I heard something recently … within the last fortnight, though I can’t recall the source as yet … that said studies suggest that it only takes about 25% of the population to speak out for change (be it gay marriage, gun law reform, etc.) and that’s enough to move the rest of the population.

  3. In the beginning of the story, when Frodo and the others were pretty helpless, “the hunters before who all have fled or fallen” faltered “in the Shire.” There was a power to resist their supernatural strength there. I believe it’s Elrond who says something about there being such a power there (but it’s late and I can’t track it down right now). At the end of the story, when they are no longer helpless, the threat from Saruman and Wormtongue et al is merely “human” power, and the hobbits can resist it with courage and effort and someone who knows how to lead them.

    • As I read your thoughts here my mind (and heart too) turned to Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. As I live near a Pook’s Hill here in Worcestershire I often feel drawn to this story although it is set in Kipling’s beloved Sussex. Kipling retells English history in terms of what remains deep down in spite of the turmoil of change. So when the Normans invade and conquer in the 11th century they are the ones who are changed and become English. How that works in the context of the Americas I do not know. For me in England I am drawn back to the “Haunting” of That Hideous Strength and it gives me comfort in this turbulent times.

  4. Finally getting around to reading this. It got buried in my inbox. Keen insights about the Shire’s inhabitants which fits any race, any age. There are those who are cowed, those who never were or recovered from being and like Merry said, all they need is a match to rise up and defeat their invaders. I have great admiration for the British people during WWII and their endurance of so much tragedy and never giving up despite it all. Yes, some would have fallen into darkness if there was an invasion but others, many others, would rise up to fight, like the French Resistance and others did, who I admire greatly also.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • Thank you so much for finding my post, Anne Marie, and for taking the trouble to respond to it.
      Frodo is angry about the collaboraters in the Shire. The Shirrifs who enjoy bullying their fellow hobbits, the ones who “slink away” when most of their fellows join the resistance in Bywater. “I won’t forget what you have done,” Frodo says to the Shirrif who attempts to arrest him and his friends, “but I may forgive you.”
      I have long admired people who are prepared to stand up against their own tribe for the sake of what is right. The resistance against Hitler inside Germany is a fine example. Frodo has a strong sense of how important this is. He knows that it is the greatest gift that he can give his people. It is the reason why he left the Shire in the first place.
      God bless you Anne Marie 😊

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