The Scouring of the Shire

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"The Scouring of the Shire" is the penultimate chapter of the epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. The hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, return home to the Shire to find that it has been despoiled by ruffians and their leader "Sharkey", revealed to be the ex-wizard Saruman, and set things to rights.

Critics have considered the "Scouring of the Shire" the most important and most novelistic chapter in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien denied that the chapter was an allegory of the state of Britain during the aftermath of World War II, meaning that its interpretation was not rigidly constrained. Commentators and critics have however seen it as applicable to that period, with clear contemporary political references. These include a satire of socialism; echoes of Nazism; allusions to the shortages in postwar Britain; and a strand of environmentalism.

The idea of such a chapter was, as Tolkien stated, planned from the outset, as part of the overall formal structure of The Lord of the Rings. The book's central theme is going out on the physical quest to destroy the One Ring, to be balanced by a chapter on returning home on the moral quest to purify the Shire and to take responsibility for oneself. Paradoxically, however, the actual addition of Saruman to this part of the story, as the reason why the Shire should need to be scoured, came very late in Tolkien's composition; he considered other identities for the wicked Sharkey before settling on Saruman.

The chapter has been left out of all film adaptations of the novel, except as a brief flash-forward when Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Chapter summary[edit]

The hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, returning home to The Shire, come to the Brandywine Bridge, barred at both ends, late at night. They are taken in, after some convincing, by the hobbits who are guarding the bridge. They are shocked at the state of the Shire, with endless rules, ugly new buildings, and wanton destruction of trees and old buildings.[1]

Setting off on ponies for Hobbiton the next morning, the four hobbits are met by Shiriffs at Frogmorton and placed under 'arrest' for breaking several rules the night before. Unable to keep up with the ponies, the Shiriffs let the hobbits pass.[1]

Reaching the village of Bywater, Merry, Pippin and Sam use their swords, and their height,[a] to scare away a group of ruffians. The hobbits decide to 'raise the Shire'; Sam recruits Tom Cotton and his sons, who rouse the village of Bywater. Pippin rides to Tookland to rally his kin. A gang of twenty ruffians from Hobbiton try to take farmer Cotton prisoner; the leader of the gang is killed with arrows, and the other ruffians quickly surrender.[1]

The next morning the hobbits at Bywater learn that Thain Paladin II has raised Tookland and is pursuing ruffians who have fled south; that Pippin will return with all the hobbits his father could spare; and that a much larger group of ruffians is heading towards them. Pippin returns with one hundred Tooks before the ruffians arrive. Merry and Pippin lead the hobbits to victory in the brief Battle of Bywater. Frodo does not take part in the fighting.[1]

The hobbits learn that the "Chief" is not Lotho Sackville-Baggins as they expected, but Sharkey, the ex-wizard Saruman, who has taken up residence at Frodo's former home, Bag End, along with his servant Wormtongue. The hobbits allow the pair to leave the Shire unharmed, though Frodo offers Wormtongue the opportunity to stay. Saruman reveals that Wormtongue killed Lotho, provoking Wormtongue to cut Saruman's throat. Wormtongue is shot dead by hobbit archers. A column of mist arises from Saruman's corpse and is blown away in the wind.[1]


Formal structure[edit]

Formal structure of The Lord of the Rings: narrative arcs balancing the main text with The Scouring of the Shire[3]

The critic Bernhard Hirsch writes that "The Scouring of the Shire" has "provoked considerable critical debate", unlike the rest of the "homeward journey" in Book VI. Hirsch accepts Tolkien's statement in the Foreword to the Fellowship of the Ring that the formal structure of The Lord of the Rings, namely a journey outward for the quest, and a journey home, meant that the chapter, along with the other two chapters of the return journey, was "foreseen from the outset".[4] Another critic, Nicholas Birns, notes approvingly David Waito's argument that the chapter is as important morally as the Fellowship's main quest to destroy the One Ring, "but applies [the morals] to daily life".[3][5] The Tolkien critic Paul Kocher writes that Frodo, having thrown aside his weapons and armour on Mount Doom, chooses to fight "only on the moral plane" in The Shire.[6]

Birns goes further, arguing that the chapter has an important formal role in the overall composition of The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien had stated. In Birns's view, the chapter's main surprise is the appearance of Saruman, and it was indeed, Birns writes, his presence that made it necessary to scour the Shire. Evidence that Tolkien had planned something of the sort is found, Birns notes, in Frodo's vision of the future of the Shire in peril when he looks in the Mirror of Galadriel in Lothlorien, in chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring.[3]


An ancient pedigree:[3] Odysseus, returning home after long years of war, scours his home of the suitors of his wife Penelope, in Homer's tale. Greek Skyphos, 440 BC

Birns writes that the "Scouring" has an ancient pedigree, echoing Homer's Odyssey when, after long years away at war, Odysseus returns to his home island of Ithaca to scour it of Penelope's worthless suitors. This theme, of a last obstacle to the heroic homecoming, was paradoxically both long-planned (certainly back to the time of writing of the Lothlorien chapter) and, in the person of Saruman-as-Sharkey, "a very late entry".[3] In Sauron Defeated, earlier drafts of the chapter show that Tolkien had considered giving Frodo a far more energetic part in confronting Sharkey and the ruffians. These throw light on Tolkien's choice of who Sharkey actually was, whether the "boss" hobbit Lotho Sackville-Baggins, a human leader of the gang of ruffians, or Saruman. Tolkien had thus hesitated over how to implement the "Scouring", only arriving at the diminished and shrivelled Saruman as the solution after trying other options.[7] Birns argues that the effect is to bring the "consequentiality of abroad" (including Isengard, where Saruman was strong) back to the "parochialism of home", not only scouring the Shire but also strengthening it, with Merry and Pippin as "world citizens".[3]

The Tolkien critic Tom Shippey writes that the Shire is certainly where Middle-earth comes nearest to the 20th century, and that the people who had commented that the "Scouring of the Shire" was about Tolkien's contemporary England were not wholly wrong. Shippey suggests however that rather than seeing the chapter as an allegory of postwar England, it could be taken as an account of "a society suffering not only from political misrule, but from a strange and generalized crisis of confidence."[8] Shippey draws a parallel with a contemporary work, George Orwell's 1938 novel Coming Up for Air.[8]

Tolkien related the chapter to his childhood experiences at Sarehole as it was taken over by the industrial growth of Birmingham, and the old mill there fell into disrepair.[9]

Critics including Robert Plank have noted that Tolkien denied that the "Scouring of the Shire" reflected England in the late 1940s, claiming instead that the chapter echoed his youthful experience of seeing his home at Sarehole, then in rural Warwickshire, being taken over by the growing city of Birmingham in the early 1900s. Instead of a strict allegory with exact correspondences between the elements of the chapter and 20th century events and personages, Plank suggested that the chapter was "a realistic parable of reality".[10][11] Tolkien explained that in his childhood at the end of the 19th century:[9]

The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman.[9]

Birns and others note, too, that there is an echo in the chapter of the soldiers, including Tolkien, returning home from the trenches of the First World War, and meeting an unfair lack of appreciation of their contribution, as when Sam's father, Gaffer Gamgee, is more concerned with the damage to his potatoes than any "trapessing in foreign parts".[3][12]

Satire on mid-20th century politics[edit]

During Clement Attlee's time as Prime Minister (1945–1951), Britain was described by critics as a drab, bleak and bureaucratic place.[13]

The critic Jerome Donnelly suggests that the chapter is a satire, of a more serious kind than the knockabout "comedy of manners"[14] at the start of The Hobbit. Plank calls it a caricature of fascism.[15] Donnelly agrees with Tolkien that the "Scouring" is not an allegory, but proposes that Saruman's "Ruffians" echo the tyrannical behaviour of the Nazis, as do "the use of collaborators, threats, torture and killing of dissenters, and internment".[14]

Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt write that "conservatives and progressives alike" had seen the chapter as a "pointed critique of modern socialism", citing the scholar of politics Hal Colebatch's comment that the rule- and redistribution-heavy Saruman regime "owed much to the drabness, bleakness and bureaucratic regulation of postwar Britain under the Atlee Labour Government."[13][16][17][11] They note similarly Plank's identification of "parallels" between the Shire under Saruman and both the German Nazi Party under Hitler and Italian Fascism under Mussolini.[13] Plank discusses, for example, why the hobbits did not resist fascism, giving as reasons cowardice, lack of solidarity, and what he finds "the most interesting and the most melancholy": the shirriff-hobbit's statement "I am sorry, Mr. Merry, but we have orders."[15] Plank comments that this recalls statements from the Nuremberg trials.[15] He further compares Saruman with Mussolini, noting that they both came to "a miserable end".[18] Richards and Witt concede that the chapter has wider themes, including the ugliness of Saruman's "vengeful heart", the nastiness of (sub)urban development, the hobbits' love-inspired defence of their homeland, and the need not to just obey orders, but state that Tolkien's letters demonstrate his dislike of socialism, and that in the chapter Tolkien deftly satirizes "socialism's pose of moral superiority".[13]

The export of wagonloads of tobacco from the Shire suggested postwar England's "gone for export" explanation of shortages.[11]

Shippey comments that whatever Tolkien's protestations, readers back in the 1950s would have noticed some features of the Shire during the "Scouring" that "seem[ed] slightly out of place",[11] such as the fact that wagonloads of "pipeweed" (tobacco) are being taken away, seemingly at the wizard Saruman's orders, with no visible in-universe explanation. What, Shippey asks, was Saruman doing with so much tobacco: a wizard was hardly going to be trading it for profit, nor "issuing" it to his orcs in Isengard. Instead, Shippey suggests, it echoes Britain's shortages just after the Second World War, routinely explained at that time with "the words 'gone for export'".[11] Kocher adds that the devastation and people's responses in The Shire after the War would have been only too familiar to people in the 20th century.[19]

A novelistic chapter[edit]

Birns echoes Plank's comment that the chapter is "fundamentally different from the rest of the book"[20], and states that it is "the most novelistic episode in Tolkien's massive tale."[3] He cites Janet Brennan Croft's description of it as "that deceptively anti-climactic but all-important chapter".[3][21] Birns argues that it meets three aspects of Ian Watt's definition of the kind of novel read by the middle class,[b] dominant among the reading public: firstly, it shows multiple social classes interacting; secondly, it is in a domestic context, the homely Shire; thirdly, it favours the point of view of the "emerging and aspiring middle classes".[3] Birns concludes that "'The Scouring of the Shire' is where Tolkien's dark romance bends the most towards the realistic novel of domestic reintegration and redemption."[3] Plank writes that the distinctive feature of the "Scouring" is that unlike in the rest of the book, there are no miracles and the laws of nature work with "full and undisputed force".[22] Saruman, Plank notes, was once able to work magic, but in the chapter he works as a politician, without sorcery: the chapter is "realistic", not fantasy, except for the moment of Saruman's death.[22]

The medievalist Jane Chance Nitzsche notes the "domestic image" of the "Scouring" in the chapter's title, suggesting in her view a "rejuvenation" of the Shire. She describes the chapter's social cleansing of the Shire in similar terms, writing of washing and purifying it of "the reptilian monsters" Sharkey and Worm[tongue].[23]

Tolkien critics including John D. Rateliff and Jared Lobdell have compared the sudden shrivelling of Saruman's flesh from his skull at the moment of his death, with the instantaneous aging of Ayesha when she bathes in the fire of immortality in Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She.[24]


Shippey suggests that Tolkien wished he had Merry's magic horn to bring joy and cleansing to England.[25]

Shippey writes that there is a "streak of 'wish-fulfilment'" in the account, and that Tolkien would have liked "to hear the horns of Rohan blow, and watch the Black Breath of inertia dissolve"[25] from England. More specifically, Shippey applies this idea to the "Scouring of the Shire", noting that Merry returns from Rohan with a horn, brought by Eorl the Young from the dragon-hoard of Scatha the Worm from the North. The horn, he explains, is "a magic one, though only modestly so":[25] blowing it brings joy to his friends in arms, fear to his enemies, and in the chapter, it awakens the "revolution against sloth and shabbiness and Saruman-Sharkey"[25] and quickly gets The Shire purified. Shippey suggests that Tolkien wished to do the same, and notes that with his novels he at least succeeded in bringing joy.[25]


Critics have observed one more theme in the chapter: environmentalism. Burns calls it "as much conservationist as it is traditionalist", writing that it presents a strong pro-environmentalist argument in addition to its other themes.[3] Plank describes the chapter's emphasis on the "deterioration of the environment" "quite unusual for its time",[26] with the returning hobbits finding needless destruction of the old and beautiful, and its replacement by the new and ugly; pollution of air and water; neglect; "and above all, trees wantonly destroyed".[26]


The 1981 BBC The Lord of the Rings radio play has "The Scouring of the Shire" story included, during which the Shire homeland is taken over by ruffians. Like the events of the book, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin rally the Hobbits to fight against the ruffians. Ultimately, the Hobbits win The Battle of Bywater. The radio play includes the original showdown and ending in which Saruman dies by Wormtongue's knife and Wormtongue is killed by arrows in the Shire. It also tells about the murder of Lotho, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins gives Frodo and Sam back his home and money to help out the Hobbits. She later dies of old age. Then Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and the Hobbits clean up the Shire and restore it to normal. This is included in the last episode, The Grey Havens.[27]

The events of the Scouring of the Shire are retold in the Finnish miniseries Hobitit.[28]

In the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Wormtongue kills Saruman (stabbing him in the back, not slitting his throat) and is in turn killed by an arrow as in the chapter; however this takes place at Isengard instead of the Shire and it is Legolas who shoots Wormtongue.[29]

In an interview in 2015 George R.R. Martin called this section of the Lord of the Rings story brilliant, and said it was the tone he would be aiming for at the end of Game of Thrones.[30][31]


  1. ^ Pippin and Merry, having partaken of Treebeard's Ent-draught, have grown by inches, and indeed are now the tallest hobbits ever seen in the Shire.[2]
  2. ^ Birns cites Watt's 1957 The Rise of the Novel (University of California Press), page 48ff.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e Tolkien 1955.
  2. ^ Hardy, Gene (2013). "'This is worse than Mordor!': The Scouring of the Shire as Conclusion". Cliffs Notes on The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Birns 2012.
  4. ^ Hirsch 2014.
  5. ^ Waito 2010.
  6. ^ Kocher 1974, p. 108.
  7. ^ Fisher 2006, p. 593.
  8. ^ a b Shippey 2001, pp. 219-220.
  9. ^ a b c Tolkien 1966, p. 12.
  10. ^ Plank 1975, pp. 107- 115.
  11. ^ a b c d e Shippey 2001, pp. 166-168.
  12. ^ Jackson 2015, p. 303.
  13. ^ a b c d Richards & Witt 2014, p. 138.
  14. ^ a b Donnelly 2018.
  15. ^ a b c Plank 1975, p. 113.
  16. ^ Colebatch 1989.
  17. ^ Colebatch 2007.
  18. ^ Plank 1975, p. 112.
  19. ^ Kocher 1974, p. 107.
  20. ^ Plank 1975, p. 108.
  21. ^ Croft 2011.
  22. ^ a b Plank 1975, p. 109.
  23. ^ Nitzsche 1980, p. 125.
  24. ^ Hammond & Scull 2005, p. 664.
  25. ^ a b c d e Shippey 2005, pp. 198-199.
  26. ^ a b Plank 1975, pp. 114-115.
  27. ^ "The Lord of the Rings 1981 & 1982". Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  28. ^ Kajava, Jukka (29 March 1993). "Tolkienin taruista on tehty tv-sarja: Hobitien ilme syntyi jo Ryhmäteatterin Suomenlinnan tulkinnassa" [Tolkien's tales have been turned into a TV series: The Hobbits have been brought to life in the Ryhmäteatteri theatre]. Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish). (subscription required)
  29. ^ "The Return of the King". The One Ring. Retrieved 22 January 2020. Saruman dies after Wormtongue slashes his throat in the Shire at the end of the War of the Ring. Pro: If there is no time to fully depict the Scouring of the Shire as Tolkien wrote it in the third film, then this death Provides his character with a fitting end.
  30. ^ "Exclusive: George R.R. Martin Says 'Game of Thrones' Ending Will Be 'Bittersweet'". Observer. 11 August 2015. Retrieved 23 December 2019.
  31. ^ Tassi, Paul. "George R.R. Martin Aiming For A 'Lord of the Rings' Ending To 'Game of Thrones'". Forbes. Retrieved 23 December 2019.




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