The Scouring Of The Shire

Saruman's rigid arrogance ultimately made him pathetic. Sound familiar?

One of my favorite parts of The Lord Of The Rings (the books, not the movies) comes at the very end, when the hobbits return home after the world historical events of the other three books. It’s a mundane interlude after sieges, battles, the destruction of the One Ring, and the downfall of two powerful enemies, but it fits well within Tolkien’s view of good and evil, which is the not-very-subtle theme of the trilogy.

After his dual failure to capture the Ring and conquer Rohan, Saruman — a former wannabe Dark Lord, one of the ancient, pseudo-angelic wizards — comes down in the world, “bigly” as someone might say. He sets himself up as a crime lord in the Shire, relying on his minions to keep his rule of terror running smoothly, while they generally loot and despoil the hobbit community.

Why do this? Saruman might have been supremely arrogant, thinking he might set himself up as an alternative to Sauron, or at least an ally on par with him, but he was also incredibly petty, harboring grudges against everyone who did not deliver the respect he thought he deserved. Being undermined by hobbits consumed him to the point where he was willing to descend in the villain hierarchy from aspiring Dark Lord to small-time crime boss. Quickly after the return of Frodo and company, the hobbits rebel against Saruman and his henchmen, kicking them out in what Tolkien evocatively calls “the scouring of the Shire.” (Eventually, one of Saruman’s minions murders him, a truly inglorious end for someone who once sough supreme power.)

Not everyone loves this part of the trilogy, but I do. It’s a fitting coda to a series that started by looking at the literal “little people” as important. In the middle of the trilogy, Tolkien makes it clear that, in his view, evil often starts with the belief that no one else’s beliefs in how we should order our shared world are valid, which is what drives both Sauron and Saruman to lunge for supreme power. There are other paths to corruption, such as Smeagol/Gollum’s greed, but the arrogance of people like Saruman comes with a great deal of counter-productive grudge-bearing and vindictiveness. Let no slight or opposition go unpunished is the natural corollary of the axiom, No one is deserving of rulership other than me. That’s the logic that drives Saruman to accept huge downward mobility, just to get back at those pesky halflings.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

I’ve had Tolkien on my mind because I’ve been reading the excellent series of blog posts by Bret Devereaux, a medieval historian, in which he applies medieval and military historical insights to an analysis of the Lord of the Rings movies and books. (It’s a great series. Do yourself a favor and read them, if you have even the slightest interest, even if not in Tolkien, then the historical topics.)

In the middle of reading those posts, Donald Trump published his 46-minute director’s cut video, perpetuating his conspiracy theories (and his fund-raising campaign). He emerged from his post-election funk swinging, refusing to give an inch to truth, decency, or the preservation of democratic institutions. Both the funk and the pugnacity seem sad now, and many have commented on how pathetic he looks, outside his circle of supporters. You could call what he’s doing a schtick that has grown old, but his sad, destructive campaign of self-absorption, venom, and self-promotion is more than just a strategy. It is his essence. Just as Saruman’s arrogance defined him, so does Trump’s. And it is just as self-defeating.

What happens to Trump, after January 20? His new media career depends on whomever he’s able to enlist as his minions. During his term in the White House, he recruited an increasingly incompetent circle of aides. While he might get someone competent to set himself up in his new media incarnation, the same dynamic of dumbing down his staff is likely to operate. There probably won’t be an institution as durable as NBC, which propped up his previous (and lucrative) media career.

On the other hand, Trump has raised $495 million, which is no small feat. That speaks to strong incentives for people to support him, as long as the flow of money continues. That depends, not only on Trump’s facility at keeping the attention of millions of supporters, but also sustaining their ire. Both traditional media, such as Fox and OANN, and social media have shown that it’s possible to create a bubble of perpetual outrage. But it’s anyone’s guess how well, and for how long, Trump will thrive within that bubble.

The key factor is Trump, who is genuinely his own worst enemy. In Saruman-like fashion, he can’t help but get distracted by his own arrogance and vindictiveness. While his implosion isn’t a sure thing — again, much depends on the henchpeople around him — it is a severe weakness. And as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, with his attacks on Republican Senate candidates and state officials in Georgia, he is happy to show how little he thinks of everyone around him, to the point of destroying his own allies’ political fortunes. That must factor at least a tiny bit into the calculations of would-be goons.

Even if Trump himself implodes conveniently (and don’t count on that happening), Trumpism is here to stay. As Sam said at the end of the scouring of the Shire,

‘I shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess,’ said Sam gloomily. ‘And that’ll take a lot of time and work.’

[Many thanks to commenters who pointed out my grievous error. I thought Sharkey was Saruman’s chief minion, but that was my memory playing tricks on me. “Sharkey” was Saruman’s nom de crime while terrorizing the Shire. I’ll do a better job of checking before posting.]

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2020 Election, Society, Uncategorized, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.


  1. Michael Cain says:

    There has always been a huge difference between American and British writers with where they end the grand adventure. Americans stop at the triumph — for example, Star Wars. The Brits are much more inclined to say what happens when the adventurers have to go home. Tolkien had the scouring of the Shire and a number of major characters disappearing into the West. Even Harry Potter did it — the teenagers grow up, get married, have kids.

    I suspect this reflects national character in some way, but leave it to more insightful people to remark on that.

  2. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Cain: And completely off topic, but when I posted that comment, the software automatically reloaded the page so that the edit clock started and comment formatting buttons were drawn properly. Cool!

  3. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Cain: Spoke too soon. It didn’t reload the page after I submitted the second comment. Have I mentioned lately how much I dislike how badly WordPress plugins tend to interact with one another?

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    My daughter makes the case that Saruman is, in fact, the actual primary villain of LotR (we’re thinking more of the novel). Sauron never has actual lines. The Ring gives a couple of people impressions a few times, but they aren’t in quotation marks. The Witch King is scary, but is a sub-boss, who shows up in a few critical scenes. We understand that he is a minion, if a very powerful one, because of his acceptance of one of the Seven.

    Which makes it entirely appropriate then, that the novel ends with confronting him and defeating him, and also appropriate that it is the hobbits that do it. Saruman had wealth and position because of the place granted him by the Valar and the other Istari (wizards). When it becomes clear that he has broken faith, he is stripped of that place (Isengard is invaded and flooded by the Ents) and his staff is broken by Gandalf. So, he must combat the hobbits with only his native skills, which are still considerable.

    Also, while there is a top-level organization of Good and Evil, for sure, there are many, many characters making choices and taking paths which are quite nuanced and gray. Tolkiens context was the Great War, and he knew what side of that he was on. But there’s still a lot of, um, wiggle room. Which is one reason I like LotR so much…it’s so much more than Good v. Evil. It engages with the question of just how one should fight evil.

  5. David S. says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I’d argue there isn’t a primary villain, just as there really isn’t a primary protagonist. And in fact, I’d argue it’s a fairly common fault in the fantasy genre to have a designated hero and villain. Heroes and villains, sure: Lotho, Grima, Denethor, Saruman, Sauron are all villains of many kinds, and that’s sorta the point. Sometimes evil is cosmic, sometimes it’s petty, and sometimes it slides up and down like a lava lamp.

  6. KM says:

    Another interesting comparison to modern times is the Lincoln Project and Lobelia. She’s thoroughly petty and unpleasant relative of the heroes, one know for ineffectually stealing silver spoons and lusting after the property of her relatives-by-marriage. She’s all about money and status, insulting everyone and thinking she’s naturally above everyone else and should be in charge of Bag End. However, once Saruman and Sharkey show up to ruin what she thinks is hers (destroying Bag End), she viciously and uncharacteristically physically attacks them and ends up on the side of good. She doesn’t do it for decency’s sake but out of self-interest – her son had been in league with Saruman and they benefited greatly until Saurman’s petty vengeance start affecting them directly. She’s cheered by the masses afterwards for her “defiance” and is pleased to finally be popular.

    The Lincoln Project is full of GOP folks who are cool with what Trump does but hate the man himself. They made money off his antics for years but suddenly near the end of his term, they appear to oppose him for what harm he has caused them. Only when the risk was to themselves and their way of life did they speak up; they are angry he’s damaging what they deem valuable when things like kids in cages prompted silence. But hey, they lashed out at the greater evil and helped achieve victory so huzzah for the latecomer! You’re one of us for now, even if you really haven’t changed much.

  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, I feel a bit inclined to point out that the story begins and ends with Frodo Baggins, and he accomplishes the very clearly marked most important task of the story, even if he struggles to do it. (I love that struggle!).

    But one could also argue that Frodo is merely the point-of-view character and not the main hero, since whatever he did wasn’t really heroic enough. That tension is, to my mind, explicit, and part of Tolkien’s overall plan and strategy of singing of the unsung, noticing the overlooked, and praising the (seemingly) mundane. Athelas is “a weed”. Mithril is not very attractive to look at. Aragorn is a bit shady-looking (or he’s supposed to be).

    Anyway, though, I’d rather just let these ideas sit side-by-side as friends, rather than have them duke it out.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have two ways of wrapping book series: 1) The Hollywood ending, (GONE, FRONT LINES) and 2) The screw your happy ending, deal with this, (ANIMORPHS, BZRK, MONSTER). The first is emotionally satisfying, the second is more interesting and challenging and leads to people writing mean reviews. But that can change over time. Everyone hated the ANIMORPHS ending in 2000, but now those readers are grown and they like the ending.

    Most people read books for the emotions they deliver, not the ideas. But the emotions tend to fade faster than the ideas.

    Tolkien was right to include the Scouring of the Shire because from page one it had to come back to the Shire, there was no escaping it if Tolkien’s larger point was to be made. LOTR is an encomium to ordinary Englishmen, er, Hobbits. The true hero of LOTR is Sam, the humble gardener who displayed virtues of loyalty while accepting the structures of class. It’s a version of the Noble Savage myth: if only big important citified people would leave humble, forelock-tugging common folk alone, everything would be fine. After all, we like the king, right, and he’s, well, he’s the king! Because!

  9. Kathy says:

    Have we learned nothing about the Grand Cheeto? he has the best Sharkeys. Many people say that.

    He might do better in some form of visual media. He took a political job when he knew nothing about politics and policy, and was not interested in learning anything. but he has some actual media experience.

  10. Kingdaddy says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Have you read Michael Moorcock’s essay, “Epic Pooh”?

  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Michael, I’ve noticed that if you are the first post the page reloads and you get edit functions, but after that you play reload roulette. If you wait more than a few seconds to manually reload, you get the HTML functions but not the ability to edit.

  12. DRE says:

    I hate to nit-pick but Sharkey was Saruman, not a henchman.

  13. DRE says:

    @DRE: Sharkey had lackeys that he humiliated. He lost all his power except the power of his voice to mislead and sway those who didn’t resist. The Trump analogy is even better this way.

  14. JohnSF says:

    @David S.:
    Well, there was a primary villain, but he got shuffled terminally off-stage at the end of the Silmarillion
    In a sense, all of the LOTR is about the tragic aftermath of the War of the Powers “…an account … of its end and passing away…”.

  15. CSK says:

    I think you’re being a little unfair to the Lincoln Project. I don’t know about all of its members, but certainly Rick Wilson and Tom Nichols have been vehemently opposed to Trump since 2015,

  16. DrDaveT says:

    He sets himself up as a crime lord in the Shire, relying on his chief goon Sharkey to keep his rule of terror running smoothly, while they generally loot and despoil the hobbit community.

    Somebody has to be the pedantic nerd here, so I’ll save you all the bother.

    Saruman and Sharkey are the same person; “Sharkey” is how Saruman hears what his orcs call him, and what he goes by in the Shire. His puppet is Lotho Sackville-Baggins; his henchmen are Bill Ferny and Tom Sandyman and that ilk. His “chief goon” (to the extent that there is one) is perhaps Grima Wormtongue.

    “No doubt, no doubt, but you did not, and so I am able to welcome you home.” There standing at the door was Saruman himself, looking well-fed and well-pleased; his eyes gleamed with malice and amusement.

    A sudden light broke on Frodo. “Sharkey!” he cried.

    Saruman laughed. “So you have heard the name, have you? All my people used to call me that in Isengard, I believe. A sign of affection, possibly.* But evidently you did not expect to see me here.”

    * It was probably Orkish in origin: sharkū, “old man”.

    …but yes, point well-taken. Tolkien and Lewis and the other Inklings made a recurrent theme of the ultimate pettiness and banality of evil.

  17. Michael Cain says:

    @Sleeping Dog:@David S.:

    just as there really isn’t a primary protagonist.

    Gandalf, apparently skulking around the edges, but always there when things are critical, manipulating the other players into position, etc. I don’t know if anyone has written the (probably very large) piece of fanfic that tells the whole story from Gandalf’s perspective from well before the Hobbit starts. But I’d like to have one.

    Ditto for Harry Potter from Dumbledore’s perspective, since it turns out that Harry’s just an important tool and the real action is Dumbledore v. Voldemort played out over decades.

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The true hero of LOTR is Sam, the humble gardener who displayed virtues of loyalty while accepting the structures of class.

    I have to disagree a bit here. In Tolkien’s mind, the primary hero (there are several) is Aragorn. He’s the one who worked for 100 years in obscurity to make it all possible. He’s the one who gets everyone where they need to be. He’s the one who is nobler and abler and better than anyone else; who can wrestle mind to mind with Sauron and win, who keeps going when others would despair; who can make the necessary hard decisions (such as to take the Paths of the Dead). Who can win the hand of the Fairest by performing Three Impossible Deeds; and then accept mortality without regret.

    …and all of this stuck in Peter Jackson’s craw so hard that he had to rewrite the character from scratch. No fawning over stinkin’ aristocrats in his movies, no sir, unless they are ashamed to be aristocrats.

  19. Kingdaddy says:

    @DRE: Not a nitpick. Appreciate the correction. I should have checked before posting.

  20. JohnSF says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    @Michael Reynolds:
    In one sense, the story ends with Ham Gamgee, the first character with spoken lines, and end with his son Sam: “Well, I’m back.”

    And Sam may have accepted “the structures of class.”
    But he ends up inheriting Bag End, being elected Mayor of the Shire (aka Hobbit President) seven times, and having his daughter found the line of the Wardens of Westmarch.
    Not bad going for a working class kid. 🙂

    I always thought, though, that the real end of LOTR was the “Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” which was the only part of the appendices that Tolkien insisted be included in the shortened version.
    Knowing that Aragorn will soon die, but herself not yet feeling aged, Arwen reflects on the hard reality of the mortal life she chose:

    “I must indeed abide the Doom of Men whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Elves say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

    And her own death after, in the fading remnants of Lorien.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    Incidentally, if you’re really interested in Tolkien literary criticism, the unmatched master-work is still Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth.

  22. Kingdaddy says:

    Fixed the Sharkey mix-up. Thanks for pointing it out.

  23. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Thing is, Gandalf and the wizards were explicitly forbidden from opposing Sauron by force or becoming “leaders.
    That seems to be the basis of Saruman’s fall: he despaired of the power of others to resist with the destruction of Arnor, the decrepitude of Gondor, and the passivity of the elves, and decide to take on the job himself.

    But for that he need a fortress, and armies, and factories, and palantir, and rings, and the One Ring, and hey, maybe Sauron wasn’t that mistaken about the need to rule, and maybe you could make a deal…

  24. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Cain:

    If you’ve not read the Silmarillion, do so. It is dry and not really a story, but it gives a background and context for the world that LoR exists in.

    All this LoR talk, on both threads. Maybe I should pick the books up again it’s only been about 50 years.

  25. Michael Cain says:

    @JohnSF: That just makes it more impressive.

  26. JohnSF says:

    LOTR is sort of the story of the triumph of Aragorn, but seen from off to one side, in terms of the pseudo-historical victory.

    But Aragorn seems replaceable in the one key thing, the destruction of the Ring.
    Someone else could have filled in the role getting Frodo to Rivendell; and after Moria he is almost passive until he turns west into Rohan.

    Also IIRC Tolkien in later letters and notes argued that without Frodo and Sam, Aragorn would have failed utterly even if he had “won”. That Aragorn, unlike Frodo, would have been able to use the Ring, and in the end, and disastrously, unable not to use it.

  27. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Maybe, from a certain point of view.
    But essentially the role of Gandalf was to have faith, inspire others to have faith, and to wait.
    He’s spent the best part of two thousand years waiting.
    And watching the ruination of the Kingdoms in Exile.

    No wonder Saruman got fed up and decided to do something…

  28. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Much was made that the first Rocky film ends with the protagonist losing the fight.

    Also, I think many people regard The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars film, because of the ambiguous ending. Our heroes haven’t lost, but they suffered a big defeat. And many dislike Return of the Jedi because it undoes that ending (and the Ewoks).

    Me, I like Empire fine, but I find the plot rather plodding and drawn out. Come on, Han and Leia and Chewbacca spend one third of the movie escaping the Empire, the other third of the movie escaping the Empire, and the last third of the movie escaping the Empire but lose Han to the bounty hunter.

  29. JohnSF says:

    Also, the acting seems better, and I think somebody less tin eared was doing the script.

    Imperial officer: “Why did you have to riddle the cantina with blaster bolts? Now no-one will co-operate willingly!”
    Stormtrooper: *plays recording of cantina band*
    Imperial officer: “OK. Fair enough. They deserved it.”

  30. Michael Cain says:


    He’s spent the best part of two thousand years waiting.

    But once we get to The Hobbit he’s clearly not. Unless we’re supposed to believe that he hooked up Bilbo and the dwarves just to jerk them around :^)

  31. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    But even then he’s waited for some 170 odd years (“Now, let’s not be hasty” advises Treebeard…)

    And given dragons have been flapping and burning and gnashing around the north for 200 years before that, why not rock up to Erebor with a copy of “How to Dragon-Proof your Mountain for Dummies” when Thror takes up residence?
    (“But,” Treebeard continued, ” The elves do say, there is such a thing as being an idle-ass wizard.”)

  32. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    And then, Bilbo finds “a” ring.
    “…a Great Ring, as plainly it was…clear from the first.”
    So, 20 Great Rings, minus 3 (elves) minus 9 (wraiths) = 7+1 = a one in eight chance it’s the One Ring.
    And for another 77 years … he waits.
    “Gandalf, old friend…”
    “Yes, Saruman?”
    “Some people have hinted you might be a teensy bit slow on the uptake at times.”
    “Oh, really? I can’t imagine why.”

  33. Michael Cain says:


    (“But,” Treebeard continued, ” The elves do say, there is such a thing as being an idle-ass wizard.”)

    I can buy — and certainly would in a major literary undertaking — that Gandalf has spent a thousand years part-time on the belief that the One Ring wasn’t destroyed. And having likely found it, being blocked by oaths (or whatever) from going in and simply taking it from Smeagol. Then the whole pick and use a Hobbit, and construct a convoluted means to put him in the right place is a reasonable risk. And, IMO, an interesting story to tell. Plus several months of, “Oh, f*ck, what have they gotten themselves into this time?” and juggling enough pieces. Skating along the edge of what he’s promised not to do.

    But I’m a crappy amateur writer, and I understand the Tolkien estate is rather aggressive about people using the characters.

  34. David S. says:

    @Michael Cain: Gandalf is absolutely the hero-figure of the Third Age, and Sauron his villain, but the thing is… LotR isn’t the Third Age: it’s a couple of months at the end of it. A very hectic and important couple of months, but Gandalf was fencing with Sauron for a good two thousand years before Frodo left the Shire. There’s a recent, superb YouTube video on everything Gandalf did (the video also gets into why Gandalf waited). LotR is the last, final, knockdown fight between them, but it’s not Gandalf’s story. You can barely even call it Gandalf’s victory: of the two, he’s merely left standing, and then he leaves.

    I kinda agree with @Michael Reynolds that Sam best embodies Tolkien’s own personal ideals on what makes a good life well lived. But despite that, I don’t think Sam was really a protagonist in the sense of being someone who drives the plot or someone who embodies a thematic position. No one really does that besides Eru Iluvatar… which is kinda the point. And once you’re on that level, then even Sauron and Melkor are just piddly upstarts.

  35. dazedandconfused says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    I’m convinced Tolkien was channeling his PTSD from being in the trenches of WWI. The 1000 yard stare is a manifestation of an endless contemplation:

    The Ring of Power is strident nationalism. Corrupts all who have the power to wield it.

  36. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    I believe Sam represents the common Tommy, whom Tolkien lived with in the trenches of WWI. Probably the first time in his life he had to mix with the lower class. He knew who really won that war. He also knew they would be under credited in the history in his book he made Sam the true hero.

  37. HarvardLaw92 says:


    I’ll agree that LoTR is essentially WW1 replayed on a fantasy stage. In that lens, I’ve always wondered whether he intended for the Ring of Power to reflect the interconnected / familial nature of European monarchy as it existed heading into WW1.

  38. de stijl says:

    Lucas is an extraordinarily shitty writer of dialogue.

    Laughably, ludicrously so.

  39. dazedandconfused says:


    I don’t think it likely. IMO he is addressing power as just power. The power to get people to go to war. Politically his world is still worshipful of Kings and the in-bred bunch of clowns was a model painful to contemplate at best so I doubt it was on his mind. The lower rings were handed out to organize individual groups to make them easier to subvert under the One Ring of nationalism, in effect ending those kingdoms. I would think him a monarchist…but for The Shire having no King, or any government at all.

    Trivia: There’s an old clip out there somewhere that has JRR answering the question of how it all started. In it he says he sat down to write some poetry one day and hammered out “Upon a hill there lived a Hobbit”.
    He said he leaned back in his chair quite pleased with himself. His thought was “This will do. Nice bounce to that! Only one problem. What’s a Hobbit?

  40. JohnSF says:

    Looks to me like he was a monarchist, but from the “minimal” rather than the “absolute” POV.
    A “minarchist monarchist” LOL.

    I seem to recall him writing something along the lines of truly monarchic government could not do much harm because said monarch simply could not do very much at all, without a wider “government”.

    Tolkien never really worked out the social details of the countries of LOTR, political or economic He was a philologist, not a historian, and it shows 🙂

    The Shire does have a government, but it’s largely in abeyance.
    The Thain holds a hereditary position similar to the Steward in Gondor but with no need for a war leader or law-giver in centuries, it is inactive.
    “…master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms”
    The Shire-moot I suspect Tolkien thought of as having “law making” power; but again out of use because the Shire was a static society, with no need of novel law.

    The sole elected official is the Mayor, who again has virtually nothing to do as such.
    But is also Postmaster and Chief-Sherrif, which things are about as much active government as the Shire has.
    It is interesting what gets passed by without attention by Tolkien: any sort of courts, taxes (how were the sherrifs paid?) etc etc.
    Also burials and graves.
    Also coinage.
    Also landholdings etc.
    The land system seems distributist: but then how do the “leading” families sustain themselves?
    I think these sorts of things simply did not engage his interest very much.

  41. Michael Foulke says:

    @JohnSF: I would like to humbly submit The Sons of Feanor as the Primary Villain(s) of Tolkien’s Mythology….

  42. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Foulke:
    Feanor and his sons were a surly crew, at times, certainly.
    OTOH Maglor did end up acting as foster father to Elrond, so…