I happened to be reading the final three chapters of The Lord of the Rings this week as supporters of an incompetent president attempted an insurrection in America. I am going through the book with a middle school student, and did not want to burden them with these thoughts, so instead I thought I would inflict them upon you. My apologies!
As an avid Tolkien reader and researcher, sometimes I can’t help but reflect on the ways that my reading and real-world events sometimes intersect. This is especially true when I am in the process of rereading one of his primary works.
I know that white supremacists and white nationalists have used Tolkien to support their ideals and bolster their racist sense of identity. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s work is open to that interpretation in many respects. Thankfully, it is also open to interpretations that run counter to those beliefs.
If we use Tolkien’s biography, it is fairly easy to say that he would not agree with open fascism or Nazism. For this, we have his letters to revert to. I am not interested in Tolkien’s actual opinions today, so much as with the ways that his text can be interpreted by readers.
Recently, many have chosen to talk about Tolkien’s themes of hope and courage during this tough time. The Tolkien Society announced that “hope and courage” is their theme for Tolkien Reading Day this year, the Athrabeth podcast recently released an episode focusing on Nienna and the themes of “Endurance and Hope”, and Polygon released an article by Susana Polo talking about how Tolkien’s text is a source for hope.
I want to propose a different lens through which to look at the text today. Tolkien does not simply give us hope for a better future or strength to endure hardship. Instead, the text can be read as a call to action, a challenge to us as readers to not sit idly by. I find no better place for this theme than in the final chapters I was reading this week.
During the Scouring of the Shire, Sam claims that the ruination he sees is like Mordor. To this, Frodo responds:
‘Yes, this is Mordor,’ said Frodo. ‘Just one of its works. Saruman was doing its work all the time, even when he thought he was working for himself. And the same with those that Saruman tricked, like Lotho.’RK, VI, viii (p.1018 in 50th ed.)
Here, I am led to the realization that the way Lotho grasps for power, enabled by corrupt and amoral external influences, has the exact same kind of impact as the more global problems that Fellowship’s quest was undertaken to defeat. This message places the, arguably, more mundane conflict in the Shire alongside the more noteworthy happenings in the text by showing their shared cause: an overreaching for power, an entitlement that is unwarranted, and a greed that is unsatisfied. These are the same motivators for Sauron, for Saruman, and for Lotho.
Furthermore, it illustrates that the consequences of this impulse are evil and damaging, no matter where they occur. The devastation of the party tree, the way that the field is barren of grass, and the quarry taking up Bagshot Row are haunting, if dim, reflections of the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor, or the areas where trees have been ripped out and uprooted around Orthanc.
Some have incorrectly argued that Sauron represents a kind of creeping pluralism. That is utterly incorrect from this vantage point. When we realize that Saruman and Lotho have become miniature Saurons, it becomes clear that this pride, this sense of identity that elevates oneself over someone else, is what really leads to the evil that they commit. It is clear that the text acts as a condemnation of these kinds of beliefs.
This perspective is compounded when I consider that many of the heroes of the story: Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, all demonstrate humility and right action as their central characteristics.
So what do our heroes do with this knowledge?
They do what Gandalf suggests they “have been trained for” (RK, VI,vii [p.996 in 50th]). Gandalf’s framing is that the hobbits’ excursion into the larger world was really a means by which they could grow as individuals. It was a way for them to grow in maturity and knowledge so that they could handle this specific moment in the Shire. In a sense, Gandalf re-frames the narrative so that the Scouring of the Shire is the climax.
Pippin, Merry, Sam, and Frodo start a rebellion and confront the ruffians. they try to end the occupation as peacefully as possible. In fact, they are able to manage their task with far fewer deaths than they expected. There was the killing of a ruffian boss in one skirmish, the killing of Wormtongue (who himself killed Saruman), and then one battle where many ruffians were killed because they refused to surrender.
Then they set about trying to undo the damage that Lotho, Saruman, and the ruffians caused. They disbanded the regiments that had been installed around the Shire, reduced the number of Shirrifs to their normal duties, and set about rebuilding the land and infrastructure that had been ruined.
So what lessons can the reader take from this?
Honestly, many different interpretations are possible, but here is how I read this chapter.
Tolkien challenges us to not be inactive when hardship comes. Not even when it is in our own land. It is the inaction of the hobbits in the Shire that allows the ruffians to have their way. This is underscored by both Farmer Cotton and by Robin Smallborrow.
Tolkien illustrates how those who take action against a totalitarian regime at home will likely suffer consequences, but that they will be celebrated for their efforts. The prime example of this is the raising of Lobelia in the esteem of the Shire hobbits. Additional evidence is the way that Pippin and Merry become heroes for their part in organizing the hobbits.
After the ruffians are removed from the Shire, steps are taken to ensure that this kind of thing will not happen again. Frodo helps to decentralize the power in the Shire, and eventually Sam, one of the most down to earth hobbits in the whole story, is made the mayor.
To conclude, I think that Tolkien’s text forces us to confront a statement that Gandalf makes Frodo at the very beginning of LotR. When Frodo laments that he has to live in such a dreadful time, Gandalf states,
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them toFR, I, ii (p.51 in 50th ed.)
decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given, us.’
Tolkien’s text demonstrates that we have to do something more than hope and endure. Readers are called to action against the kind of self-aggrandizement that leads to dictators. If we are to live through awful times, we must oppose the actions that make them awful. To do otherwise would be to ensure that future generations will have to deal with the problems that we allowed to persist.
Obviously, this is a quickly-written and cursory overview. But I find it is an okay introduction to one of the key themes that I read in the text. I am very open to discussing this further and I welcome your comments. Does this perspective make sense to you? Is it one that you have read from the text before?