The Return of the King: Novel Summary: Book VI Chapter 8

The hobbits return to the Shire to discover that Lotho has become “the Chief” in an intimidating, oppressive government. Robin Smallburrow tells the hobbits, “If we all got angry together something might be done. But its these Men, Sam, the Chiefs Men. He sends them round everywhere, and if any of us small folk stand up for our rights, they drag him off to the Lockholes.” Lotho, however, is in turn subject to “old Sharkey,” an unknown outsider who has begun a program of mechanizing and industrializing the formerly rural, pastoral Shire. Resources are confiscated, allegedly to be redistributed, but in reality, no one has enough. One telling detail is that pipe-weed from the Southfarthing has been shipped out of the Shire for some time now. Ruffians rule-ruffians who remind Merry of men he saw serving Saruman at Isengard. The ruffians claim they are “waking up” the Shire and imposing much-needed law and order; in reality, however, they are destroying it. It falls to the hobbits to “wake up” their fellow countrymen-to “rouse” them as the Ents were roused when faced with impending disaster. Frodo is wary of this plan: he is still, of course, tired from the Quest-tired of war, tired of violence. He assists, but not by raising a sword against others, and he also insists that no hobbit kill another. Merry blows the horn of Rohan given to him, rallying opposition to the Chief and his thugs. At the Battle of Bywater, the ruffians are routed, and, sadly, some hobbits do lose their lives. The only obstacle to restoring true order to the Shire is Sharkey himself, who has set up residence at Bag End-Frodo and Bilbos old home. When the hobbits arrive there, they discover Sharkey to be none other than Saruman. Although many of the hobbits clamor for revenge, Frodo warns them, “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge; it will heal nothing.” He offers Saruman pity and mercy, which Saruman of course rejects. By now, he has committed himself so fully to the corrupting pursuit of power he can hardly do otherwise. The hobbits turn Saruman and Wormtongue out of Bag End-but Frodo tells Wormtongue he need not continue to follow Saruman. Wormtongue hesitates, as though he might be ready to accept the grace of a new beginning-but when Saruman mocks him, Wormtongue stabs the old wizard in the back before he himself is killed by hobbit archers.
This chapter presents the fulfillment of Sams vision in the Mirror of Galadriel (Book II, Chapter 7), but many readers (including Peter Jackson, director of the highly acclaimed film trilogy adaptation of 2001-03) have considered it “out of place” or “problematic.” This chapter is often viewed as an allegory of life in England after World War II, but Tom Shippey offers his analysis: “Rather than seeing [this chapter] just as an allegory of England in the aftermath of war. one might apply what is said there to a more general situation: of a society suffering not only from political misrule, but from a strange and generalized crisis of confidence” (Shippey, p. 219). And thus the hobbits successful efforts to restore that lost confidence is an accurate portrayal of a well-known social dynamic.
This chapter also includes one last glimpse of the dehumanizing, depersonalizing effects of evil: note how Lotho, in effect, “loses his name,” as did the Mouth of Sauron: he becomes the Chief or “the Boss,” because others call him that, not because he chooses the appellation for himself. Even Saruman does not choose “Sharkey” as a name for himself-it is bestowed (i.e., imposed) on him by others. The loss of name, again, is Tolkiens keen way of illustrating how evil destroys personality and identity. Yet this chapter also demonstrates how Tolkien keeps evil in proper perspective: Farmer Cotton, for example, does not quail before evils representative, but sees Sharkey as the bully that he is: “The biggest ruffian o the lot.” As Tolkiens colleague and friend C. S. Lewis said of the devil in his book The Screwtape Letters, evil must be taken neither too seriously nor not seriously enough. Again, clear perspective carries the day.