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.