An often overlooked sequence in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the ‘Scouring of the Shire.’ After the Ring is destroyed, Sauron is defeated, Aragorn claims his throne, and all the more epic plot points have been resolved, the hobbits return to the Shire only to find it in the grips of a petty but cruel tyranny. From the moment they try and cross the river to their homeland, they are hindered by a gaggle of novel & senseless rules enforced by their fellow hobbits. They see ugly new industrial construction taking root where trees had been torn down. And all these changes seemed to have been wrought without resistance by a contingent of Men (lead by Saruman) who had usurped control in their absence. For Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, reclaiming their homeland is the final battle of the War of the Ring.
It’s not too hard to see why so many neglect this episode. For one thing, it was skipped in the Peter Jackson film adaptations which, sadly, define the story for many. But even apart from that, it’s easy for a child or casual adult reader to consider it anticlimactic. These hobbits had just taken a hand in the fates of ancient nations, great men, and walking legends. How can expelling a relative handful of petty thugs from a rural backwater compare to such an adventure?
But in many respects, this is the hobbits’ truest test–the culmination of their time out in the world. Every orc slain, Balrog faced, or battle fought was merely preparation for them to do their more menial duty in their homeland. And this duty was borne not from destiny or from being the chosen one, but simply from being good citizens who knew better than their fellows. They don’t have a contingent of soldiers from Aragorn, a Wizard, or a Fellowship of legendary warriors to assist them in their task. All they have is the mettle they had already earned: unquestionable dignity and the courage to put their common sense into action.
And the fearless application of common sense really is their pathway to success. When they’re confronted by a long list of policies like refusing to open the gates after dark, no beer or pipe weed for commoners, the seizure of the food they produce for “fair distribution,” and the like, their response is to show open contempt–not only for the rules but also for the hobbits who chose to enforce them. When they’re arrested by their moral and physical inferiors, they go along only insofar as it serves their own ends. When they encounter the weak who recognize the evil but consent to it anyway, they share their character and strength through gentle rebuke. And only after they get the lay of the land and understand the nature & number of the oppressors do they thoughtfully consider their options and rally their countrymen to fight off the small number of thugs whom the Shire-folk had obeyed only because they didn’t know what else to do.
Their defiance of the new regime is rooted solely in what they recognize as good and decent for Shire folk. They do not ruminate on whether it’s ok to break the rules, whether they’re being impolite, or even whether their resistance is justified. They have no need of such introspection because they already know these things just as the vast majority of the other hobbits did as well. The difference is that the four who had set out for Rivendell were used to adversity whereas those who remained in the Shire were not. When they finally propose armed resistance, Merry expresses the reality of appealing to their countrymen well:
‘Raise the Shire!’ said Merry. ‘Now! Wake all our people! They hate all this, you can see: all of them except perhaps one or two rascals, and a few fools that want to be important, but don’t at all understand what is really going on. But Shire-folk have been so comfortable for so long they don’t know what to do. They just want a match, though, and they’ll go up in fire.’
This chapter strikes more of a chord with me now than when I read these books as a child because this is precisely where high fantasy intersects with reality. Tolkien’s fantastical tale of wizards, elves, orcs, and dark lords is compelling to ordinary humans because it expertly crystalizes universal virtues like hope and courage. We might not see Nazgul or magic rings in the real world, but the virtues are more real than anything we do see. To paraphrase Chesterton, while fairy tales don’t teach us that dragons are real, they do teach us that dragons can be slain. We take that knowledge–along with the virtues the story inspires–back with us into reality to face our own mundane battles. And as America now lies in the grips of a petty but cruel tyranny, the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ is more timely than ever.
In many respects, the Midwest is America’s Shire. We aren’t known for producing great works or art or having profound cultural influence. Our affairs are of little concern to our distant rulers just as their affairs are just stories on the evening news to us. To the coastal elites, we’re flyover country. And yet, the Midwest remains a wonderful place to live a good, simple, and virtuous life amidst farms and nature. Our treasure is the privilege of owning our own homes and raising families in communities of decent people.
But like the Shire, the world didn’t leave us alone forever. The wicked ideas of our elites were imported here and have taken root. We consume their media without much discernment. We foolishly entrust our young adults to them for four years of debauchery certified as education. And when the certified return–some educated, many corrupted–we entrust young and old alike to them through the schools and corporations they manage.
As a result, we are no longer hearing stories about the crazy things some Harvard professor teaches or about some weirdos living way off in California. Our own libraries and cafes have trans stripper story time for kids. Our own livelihoods are threatened by HR departments pushing DIE and vaccines. Our own schools have litterboxes in the bathroom to accommodate furries. Globohomo has had its way with us; and many are finally waking up to the grim reality that they’re here, they’re queer, and they’re coming for our children.
Also like the Shire, most of us have absolutely no idea what to do about it. We are used to being comfortable, and we don’t like to cause a fuss. In many respects, we don’t even know how to cause a fuss. Following the rules was just part of being neighborly back when we had normal rules, and so the advent of unjust & unnatural rules throws us for a loop. We need to be roused to action. We need confident men of good conscience to brazenly declare what we already know to be true–that the petty tyranny which has enclosed on us is truly evil. We need men of hope to remind us that it doesn’t have to be this way. We need men of strength and courage to openly defy the new Rules and resist the wicked however they must.
But where are we to find the steel that we’ve lost–the strength of character we see in characters like Tolkien’s hobbits? Great works of literature like Lord of the Rings inspire us to virtue, but they can’t really train us in it. Only real-life experience can do that. If we are to scour our own Shire, then embracing righteous conflict is the only way to acquire the necessary virtues.
These conflicts need not be epic showdowns between great powers. If our virtues are small, then we will simply need to start small. We can stand up to speak the truth at school board meetings. We can publicly and unabashedly call out evil when we see it in our community. We can proclaim God’s Word in our churches and in our homes. We can despise the sniveling weasels who would hold us back through their fear of what our tyrants do and do not allow. We can encourage those who know better but are fainthearted. We can fearlessly tell the truth and live as though righteousness were more important than “proper” manners.
It will be neither easy nor peaceful. Many will lose their jobs or their families for their commitment to the truth. Eventually, some will start to lose their freedom and then their lives. But every battle will make us stronger. Every defeat will make us tougher. Every victory will make us more hopeful. Every action taken by & for our people will make us more of a community. And then we use what we’ve learned to escalate to ever larger conflicts until every last tyrant is removed and every collaborator stands publicly ashamed of their cowardice. And it all starts with embracing the small and mundane opportunities to scoff at someone mindlessly saying “love is love,” to pull the plug on our televisions, to confidently rebuke a fool who tolerates depravity, or to stand up for someone being cancelled.
It’s clear from our circumstances that we are not the men we need to be. If we were, it never would have come to this. But that doesn’t mean we cannot become those men or that our sons cannot. By the grace of God, even pleasant and docile Midwesterners can learn to stand up in righteous fury for our children and our communities. May our Lord grant us that opportunity to scour our Shire and deliver us from the Spirit of the Age.