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The Scouring of the Shire

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Good Literary Analysis

In this good literary analysis, a high school senior reveals major themes by contrasting two descriptions of the same setting, one at the beginning and the other at the end of The Lord of the Rings.

Title: The Scouring of the Shire

Level: Grade 11, Grade 12

Mode: Response to Literature

Form: Literary Analysis

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The Scouring of the Shire

Student Model

The Scouring of the Shire

Many fans of Tolkien's works wish he had left out "The Scouring of the Shire," the chapter that describes the return of the Hobbits to homes overrun by evil invaders. Indeed, when Peter Jackson created his much-hailed film trilogy, he left out the episode, showing it only in the Mirror of Galadriel. However, Tolkien himself defended this episode as "an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset. . . ." (Fellowship 7). But why would the plot require the destruction of this green and peaceful corner of Middle-earth—the place Frodo and friends so sought to save? Tolkien's descriptions of the Shire before the War of the Ring and after it reveal major themes of his epic and touch on the personal sacrifice of its characters.

At the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, the Shire has the aura of a romanticized rural England prior to the Industrial Revolution. Its chief inhabitants, Hobbits, "love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside" (Fellowship 10). In the prologue to Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes the Hobbit migration that eventually brought them across the Brandywine River to what would become their millennial home: "The land was rich and kindly, and though it had long been deserted when they entered it, it had been well tilled, and there the king had once had many farms, cornlands, vineyards, and woods" (Fellowship 14). The Shire in general and Hobbiton in particular became well known for underground dwellings: "All Hobbits had originally lived in holes in the ground, or so they believed, and in such dwellings they still felt most at home; but in the course of time they had been obliged to adopt other forms of abode . . . there were now many houses of wood, brick, or stone" (Fellowship 15). It is a peaceful land of good, tilled earth, inhabited by a clever, quiet people more interested in gardens, crafts, eating, drinking, and smoking than in the wars and power struggles of the outer world.

Because of the coming of the Black Riders, Frodo and his friends must flee this green place, and their adventure takes them through shades of silver, yellow, and brown to the oppressive gray of Mordor. Along the way, Frodo's initial errand to help Gandalf becomes a mission to save the world—and the Shire most of all. When Frodo and his friend return to the Shire, though, it has been ravaged.

At the Brandywine Bridge, they begin to glimpse a Shire like none in millennia: "At either end of the Bridge there was a great spiked gate; and on the further side of the river they could see that some new houses had been built; two-storeyed with narrow straight-sided windows, bare and dimly lit, all very gloomy and un-Shirelike" (Return 277). Human ruffians driven northward by the War of the Ring had wrested control of the Shire from the Hobbits. The leader of the ruffians, Sharky, had conscripted corruptible Hobbits to suppress the others and had even taken up residence in Frodo's former home, Bag End. The whole land has suffered: "Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water's edge were rank with weeds. . . . And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick . . . pouring out black smoke" (Return 283). Tolkien himself said that this transformation was partly a remembrance of how, "the country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten" (Fellowship 8).

But the transformation goes deeper than that. It mirrors the destruction of Isengard, when the wizard Saruman tore down the forest to forge machines of war. Treebeard the Ent is beside himself when describing this destruction: "It is the orc-work, the wanton hewing—rarum—without even the bad excuse of feeding the fires, that has so angered us; and the treachery of a neighbour, who should have helped us. Wizards ought to know better: they do know better. There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men bad enough for such treachery. Down with Saruman!" (Two 89). Tolkien witnessed such destruction first-hand, serving in the trenches at the Battle of Somme, the deadliest conflict in British history. As Joseph Loconte states in "How Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front," the Great War "was only half-done, but already its industrial carnage had no parallel in European history." Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien argues stridently for a green growing world of peace in opposition to a gray world of war. The former is an idyllic, pre-industrial landscape, while the latter is a polluted place of metal and machines, greed and tyranny.


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