I suspect that Lotho Sackville-Baggins was well aware of the name by which he was known in the Shire although doubtless few, if any, would dare use it to his face. I rather think that he came to hold his resentment about the name close to himself as a kind of possession, one that he would nourish and that he would use in order to find energy to fuel his main project, “to own everything himself” as Farmer Cotton puts it. It takes a lot of energy to suppress the true self. To gain the whole world, as the gospels put it, it is necessary to lose one’s own soul first.
Resentment was a part of the spiritual atmosphere in which Lotho grew up. His parents devoted over seventy-five years of their lives resenting the way that Bilbo Baggins had returned unexpectedly to Bag End from his travels and claimed possession of it once more. Lotho inherited the resentment and the belief that self-worth is intimately associated with possession. His father, Otho, was already a successful businessman growing and selling pipeweed in the South Farthing of the Shire, a business that Lotho inherited, but Lotho had a stroke of luck that transformed his fortunes.
When Saruman first became aware of Gandalf’s liking for smoking pipeweed he sneered at it. But as with every aspect of his relationship with Gandalf his attempt to show himself the superior was merely an affectation. Saruman knew that Cirdan of the Grey Havens had chosen Gandalf above himself to receive the Elven Ring of Fire and that Galadriel had wanted Gandalf to be the head of the White Council over Saruman and he resented this.
Readers will have noted already the central role that the word, resentment, plays in this sad story, but, as René Girard shows in his mimetic theory, resentment is closely related to envy and to imitation. Saruman desired not only to possess what he perceived Gandalf to possess but he desired to be like Gandalf. He wanted to be admired as he believed Gandalf to be admired and so he began to smoke pipeweed. Of course pipeweed was never the reason that Gandalf was admired but mimetic desire has a way of playing tricks on us. We attach ourselves to certain behaviours as part of the bigger project of becoming the person we admire. In this case it was the smoking of pipeweed.
Saruman became Lotho’s biggest customer and the source of his growing wealth. In an economy based primarily on barter, like the Shire’s, in which money had not played a significant contribution up till then the sudden arrival of money changed things rapidly. Lotho began to buy up more and more property, “mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations.” In other words he became a monopolistic capitalist.
It is necessary here to recognise that in every purchase that Lotho made in this stage of his career two parties were required. Someone had to be a willing seller as well as a willing buyer. There were plenty of hobbits for whom money appeared as a better option that the hard work required to make a decent living out of a farm or a mill or an inn or malt-house.
Eventually Lotho’s desire to grow his business empire inevitably led to resentment and he brought in Saruman’s men as enforcers. Now purchase between willing parties was no longer necessary and Lotho could simply seize what he desired but the forces that he had unleashed in the Shire were to prove too great for him to be able to control.é When Saruman was driven out of Isengard he turned his attention and his anger to the Shire. The Shire and its inhabitants had been the cause, as Saruman perceived it, of his downfall, and once he had arrived in the Shire himself he had no more need of a middle-man. Lotho who had played that role and believed it to be essential was now to discover that he was simply a tool to be disposed of when of no further use. Frodo was aware quite early in his arrival in the Shire of Lotho’s fate and that he would need to be rescued from the very forces that he had unleashed.
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.