Thomas Wolfe once said you can’t go home again. Our Hobbity heroes learn it the hard way, for nothing says “welcome home” to four weary veterans quite like a large spiked gate. When they demand entrance, the gatekeeper is scared out of his mind, now answering to the Chief at Bag End. Under his orders, the entire area now has a dusk to dawn curfew. Merry and Pippin climb the gate, and once the party sets out for Hobbiton, it isn’t long before they encounter a large group of Shirriffs (Shire-sheriffs!) who inform them they’re under arrest. Of course, it’s hard to fell a Dark Lord and then take such things as Shirriffs as serious business, so our Hobbits laugh and leave them behind.
It isn’t long before they learn that none of these new ruffians answer to Lotho, as was originally suspected. Rather, they answer to a new boss named Sharkey. When more Men in Sharkey’s employ threaten Frodo, the other three draw swords, instantly revealing how worthless the Men are. They run off, come back later, and then surrender after a brief fight.
Farmer Cotton explains that Lotho began purchasing farmland shortly after the Hobbits left, causing a food shortage. A gang of Men took over the town from there.
A band of nearly a hundred Men approaches Hobbiton the next morning, Pippin arrives with relatives, and battle ensues. Seventy of the Men die in what is to be commemorated as the Battle of Bywater.
The other three Hobbits lead a group to Frodo’s home in Bag End to deal with the new Chief. The town’s condition is surprise enough, but Sharkey turns out to be Saruman. He holds the gate and pronounces a curse upon the Shire if any should harm him. Frodo denies Saruman’s power, but then he forbids them to kill the wizard. Saruman passes, drawing a knife and stabbing Frodo. Frodo’s armor protects him, and Frodo again orders mercy for Saruman, allowing him to leave. This angers the wizard. Saruman reveals that Lotho was killed in his sleep by Wormtongue, who in turn cries out that it was under Saruman’s orders. Saruman kicks at his servant and orders him to follow, but Wormtongue snaps, stabs his master, cutting his throat, then attempts to flee. He is felled by three Hobbit arrows. In one of the best foreshadowing of Hammer Horror films ever, a gray mist rises from Saruman’s crumbling body and blows away. That Christopher Lee played both Dracula and Saruman on screen now feels like the completion of some kind of geek prophecy.
And speaking of prophecy, this entire chapter hearkens back to when Galadriel first showed this vision to Sam in her mirror. As a Star Wars fan, I’m constantly reminded that prophecies in the great myths have a way of being true from a certain point of view. What is in play may not be averted from coming to pass, but it may be diverted to play out in a way that still fulfills it, but in a way perhaps no one could foresee.
It’s easy to perhaps forgive Peter Jackson on some level for not wanting to use this ending for his films. But from the literary perspective, this is what always had to be. In addition to showing us how far our heroes have grown from their quest, it hits close to home with the author. When Tolkien went off to serve in the Great War, he left a country green and bountiful, not unlike our Hobbits. After his time on battlefields that most definitely inspired Mordor, it’s not difficult to imagine how upsetting it would be for him to return home and find things blackened and spoiled by industrialization. It’s disheartening to ask yourself what you were fighting to preserve if you come back and find it no longer preserved. It’s part of what lends to this bittersweet reality, both on the page and in real life. Having lived in the country for a lot of years and having transitioned to city life, I understand this on some level. I’m always grateful I don’t have that same level of experience that Tolkien had. It’s enough for me to empathize via our Hobbits.
To come back home after all that back there, to save the world only to find you still have to fight to retake your home… it’s really no wonder our heroes have had enough and refuse to take any guff off these posers. It’s immensely satisfying to see them inspire their people to swift justice. And there’s a catharsis to it. In finally seeing Saruman’s demise, it truly feels as if the war is finally over and a new age is dawning for Middle-Earth. Now the drama can come to a proper close.