“The test of an adventure is that when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself, ‘Oh, now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.’ And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.” – Thornton Wilder
When I first saw Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, I remember growing restless as the movie dragged on. I sensed others in the theater were similarly bored. Somewhere after the downfall of Sauron and around the time of Aragorn’s wedding, I thought, “My God. They’re only 3/4ths of the way through the book! They’ve still got to cover all of the stuff that happens after the hobbits get back to the Shire. I love Tolkien but there’s no way I can make it through all of this.” Fortunately for moviegoers, Jackson cut out the last fourth of the book and skipped right to the farewell at the Grey Havens. Fortunate for moviegoers but unfortunate for the spirit and message of Tolkien’s great work.
For those unfamiliar with the books, when the four hobbits return to the Shire, they do not find their home untouched as the movie portrays. Instead, they find trees uprooted, farms burned, and their fellow hobbits practically enslaved by Saruman, Wormtongue, and their band of ruffians. Merry, Pippin, and Sam (Frodo plays only a minor role) mobilize the hobbits to chase off the intruders and take back their homeland. Once Saruman surrenders, he is killed by Wormtongue who is, in turn, killed by a hobbit. Sam uses his gift from Lady Galadriel to begin the rebuilding and regrowing of the Shire. These events are called “The Scouring of the Shire.”
I do understand why Jackson left this out of his retelling of Lord of the Rings. During the Battle of the Black Gate, huge armies of men and elves triumph over even huger armies of orcs and trolls, the tower of Sauron comes crashing down as the earth shakes, and the eagles swoop down to rescue Sam and Frodo. The scale of these events translates well to the large screen. A little CGI and an epic score is all you need to really feel the magnitude and importance of large battles. After such a climactic event, how could a Hollywood director turn his attention to a tiny battle (more of a scuffle, really) in the backwoods of middle-earth?
Although I understand WHY Jackson made this choice, I think the absence of this little battle and its consequences drastically alters Tolkien’s message in several ways. For one thing, in the destruction brought down on the Shire, Tolkien shows that war impacts everything and everyone. After the death of Saruman, Frodo remarks, “The very last stroke. But to think that it should fall here, at the very door of Bag End! Among all my hopes and fears at least I never expected that.” But such is the nature of evil. Despite the belief expressed by many hobbits (Sam’s Gaffer comes to mind) that trouble only comes to those who go looking for it, Tolkien portrays evil, quite rightly, as something that infects all of creation. It is not just the evil lord in a distant land we must guard against. This is true even for (and perhaps especially for) beautiful places and innocent people. Tolkien didn’t live to see all of the horrors of the 20th century but he seemed to foresee how our modern machines could exacerbate and spread the evils of war.
Against these overwhelming thoughts, Tolkien tells us that the answer is not to struggle alone against all of the forces of evil but to simply be faithful in the small matters set before us. He shows this in many ways throughout Lord of the Rings, especially in the actions of the four small hobbits. This stewardship of the small comes through clearly in the aftermath of the battle of the Shire. Sam Gamgee can’t do much to chase down the orcs and trolls who still prowl Middle-earth. He can’t even set everything right in his home of the Shire. But he CAN use his gifts to help in the rebuilding. He uses the soil given to him by the Lady Galadriel to replant the hewn down trees he once loved. From his faithfulness grows some of the most impressive lanes and orchards west of the Misty Mountains. Because of his stewardship, Sam’s home flourishes.
Home, specifically the Shire as the home of the hobbits, is an important idea for Tolkien. In both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, quiet and content hobbits leave home on fantastic adventures and explore the large and dangerous world around them. Despite Tolkien’s foundational role in the modern fantasy genre, he very much followed the tradition of the fantasy adventure with a hero embarking on an epic journey. But, unlike many who came before and after him, Tolkien always kept one eye fixed on home. His Hobbit heroes don’t seek a new kingdom or a place to conquer. Instead, they always intend to return home to the Shire. In fact, both Bilbo and Frodo (and Frodo’s companions) always express a deep longing for home. In Peter Jackson’s adaptations, this longing often comes across as gluttony or rather obvious statements of dissatisfaction with the current circumstances. Parched and starving in the poisonous land of Mordor, OF COURSE Sam and Frodo would rather be back home in the Shire.
But there’s more to Tolkien’s focus on home than hungry and uncomfortable Hobbits who would rather face a full larder than an army of orcs. Tolkien uses the Shire and its little inhabitants as a way to portray his ideal for a life well lived. The Shire isn’t just a romanization of the English countryside. Instead, the hobbits live out Tolkien’s idea that, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” The hobbits’ love of gardens, ale, and a quiet smoke is not rooted in epicureanism or subtle vice. Instead, these loves reflect an appreciation for the goodness of creation and a desire to live in harmony with nature and neighbor.
Peter Jackson’s decision to portray the hobbits of the Shire as silly bumpkins who escape evil through luck and idiocy does violence to Tolkien’s vision. Not just his vision of peace but also his vision of evil. For Tolkien, evil is not restricted to Mordor or its foul smelling servants. The threat of evil extends even to our doorstep. One way Tolkien suggests we can resist evil is to simply take joy in the pleasures at hand. Not through drunken revelry or gluttony. But through hard, satisfying work. Good friends. Good food and drink. And a good song or book.