The final stroke of the War of the Ring falls in the Shire itself…

The first sign that something’s amiss comes when they reach the Brandywine and find a new iron gate, plus some dreary and decidedly un-Shirelike buildings.

‘Who’s that? Be off! You can’t come in. Can’t you read the notice: No admittance between sundown and sunrise?’

‘Of course we can’t read the notice in the dark,’ Sam shouted back. ‘And if hobbits of the Shire are to be kept out in the wet on a night like this, I’ll tear down your notice when I find it.’

It rapidly becomes evident that there’s more going on than a mere influx of ruffians.  A group of hobbits congregates by the gate, but they seem to be afraid to actually do anything, specifically anything against “the Rules” – by orders of “the Chief” at Bag End.

When it becomes clear they won’t unlock the gate, Merry and Pippin climb over it, attracting the attention of the “Big Man”.

‘Bill Ferny,’ said Merry, ‘if you don’t open that gate in ten seconds, you’ll regret it. I shall set steel to you, if you don’t obey. And when you have opened the gates you will go through them and never return. You are a ruffian and a highway-robber.’

Bill Ferny flinched and shuffled to the gate and unlocked it. […] As he passed the ponies one of them let fly with his heels and just caught him as he ran. He went off with a yelp into the night and was never heard of again.

‘Neat work, Bill,’ said Sam, meaning the pony.

‘So much for your Big Man,’ said Merry. ‘We’ll see the Chief later.’

While it quickly becomes evident that the thuggish enforcers of the new regime aren’t used to resistance, let alone armed combatants, the hobbits themselves are still bound by fear to abide by the new rules, because it undoubtedly began with a handful of sensible-sounding rules, and by the time it had gotten out of hand there seemed to be nothing they could do about it.  And that’s where the Travelers come in, to wake them up and make them see that they’re strong.

They continue their journey the next day when they meet a band of hobbit-Shirriffs blocking the road in the next town.

‘What’s all this?’ said Frodo, feeling inclined to laugh.

‘This is what it is, Mr. Baggins,’ said the leader of the Shirriffs, a two-feather hobbit: ‘You’re arrested for Gate-breaking, and Tearing up of Rules, and Assaulting Gate-keepers, and Trespassing, and Sleeping in Shire-buildings without Leave, and Bribing Guards with Food.’

[…]

‘I can add some more, if you’d like it,’ said Sam. ‘Calling your Chief Names, Wishing to punch his Pimply Face, and Thinking you Shirriffs look a lot of Tom-fools.’

‘There now, Mister, that’ll do. It’s the Chief’s orders that you’re to come along quiet. We’re going to take you to Bywater and hand you over to the Chief’s Men; and when he deals with your case you can have your say. But if you don’t want to stay in the Lockholes any longer than you need, I should cut the say short, if I was you.’

To the discomfiture of the Shirriffs Frodo and his companions all roared with laughter. ‘Don’t be absurd!’ said Frodo. ‘I am going where I please, and in my own time. I happen to be going to Bag End on business, but if you insist on going too, well that is your affair.’

‘Very well, Mr. Baggins,’ said the leader, pushing the barrier aside. ‘But don’t forget I’ve arrested you.’

‘I won’t,’ said Frodo. ‘Never. But I may forgive you.’

The picture begins to come clearer as Sam talks to an old acquaintance in the Shirriff corps.  The Chief “doesn’t hold with beer”, so the inns were shut down, and then he “didn’t hold with” people moving around the Shire, so now they have to check in at Shirriff-houses if they must travel.  Then they started recruiting more Shirriffs, and the Shirriffs aren’t allowed to quit.  This is also where the discontent begins to show, and the reason no one’s stood up to them: Whenever a hobbit rebels, the Chief’s Men arrest them and throw them in the “Lockholes” to rot.

It was rather a comic cavalcade that left the village, though the few folk that came out to stare at the ‘get-up’ of the travellers did not seem quite sure whether laughing was allowed. A dozen Shirriffs had been told off as escort to the ‘prisoners’; but Merry made them march in front, while Frodo and his friends rode behind. Merry, Pippin, and Sam sat at their ease laughing and talking and singing, while the Shirriffs stumped along trying to look stern and important. Frodo, however, was silent and looked rather sad and thoughtful.

The hobbits are still under the assumption that Lotho Sackville-Baggins is behind all of the ruinous changes in the past year, but Frodo at least can see that there’s more to it by now.  While Lotho may have been ambitious, it’s hard to imagine any hobbit would condone locking others up or beating them – it seems they didn’t even have a prison before.

The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.

Sam is understandably worried about his Gaffer, but the others prevent him from doing anything rash – Merry suggests finding out how things stand first.  Then they run into a band of decidedly orcish-looking men in the middle of town…

‘This country wants waking up and setting to rights,’ said the ruffian, ‘and Sharkey’s going to do it; and make it hard, if you drive him to it. You need a bigger Boss. And you’ll get one before the year is out, if there’s any more trouble. Then you’ll learn a thing or two, you little rat-folk.’

[…]

‘Yes, I see,’ said Frodo. ‘For one thing, I see that you are behind the times and the news here. Much has happened since you left the South. Your day is over, and all other ruffians’. The Dark Tower has fallen, and there is a King in Gondor. And Isengard has been destroyed, and your precious master is a beggar in the wilderness. I passed him on the road. The King’s messengers will ride up the Greenway now, not bullies from Isengard.’

The man stared at him and smiled. ‘A beggar in the wilderness!’ he mocked. ‘Oh, is he indeed? Swagger it, swagger it, my little cock-a-whoop. But that won’t stop us living in this fat little country where you have lazed long enough. And,’ – he snapped his fingers in Frodo’s face – ‘King’s messengers! That for them! When I see one, I’ll take notice, perhaps.’

This was too much for Pippin. His thoughts went back to the Field of Cormallen, and here was a squint-eyed rascal calling the Ring-bearer ‘little cock-a-whoop’. He cast back his cloak, flashed out his sword, and the silver and sable of Gondor gleamed on him as he rode forward.

‘I am a messenger of the King,’ he said. ‘You are speaking to the King’s friend, and one of the most renowned in all the lands of the West. You are a ruffian and a fool. Down on your knees in the road and ask pardon, or I will set this troll’s bane in you!’

The sword glinted in the westering sun. Merry and Sam drew their swords also and rode up to support Pippin; but Frodo did not move. The ruffians gave back. Scaring Breeland peasants, and bullying bewildered hobbits, had been their work. Fearless hobbits with bright swords and grim faces were a great surprise. And there was a note in the voices of these newcomers that they had not heard before. It chilled them with fear.

They are all precious (Frodo not the least).

That scares the ruffians away, but there are clearly more of them about.  That conversation all but confirms to Frodo that Lotho isn’t in charge anymore, and he’s probably a prisoner in his own home (at best).  He’s determined to help Lotho if he can, but he also wants to avoid fighting if at all possible.  The others aren’t so optimistic.

‘But if there are many of these ruffians,’ said Merry, ‘it will certainly mean fighting. You won’t rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo.’

While Merry obviously has a point, Frodo has a role to play, too, even if it may seem like an “inactive” role.  He understands that a revolution wouldn’t fix things if it came at the cost of the “soul” of the Shire – that if the hobbits took violent retribution on their oppressors, they could never truly win back the place they had fought to protect.

‘It’s no good “getting under cover”. That is just what people have been doing, and just what these ruffians like. They will simply come down on us in force, corner us, and then drive us out, or burn us in. No, we have got to do something at once.’

‘Do what?’ said Pippin.

‘Raise the Shire!’ said Merry. ‘Now! Wake all our people! They hate all this, you can see: all except perhaps one or two rascals, and a few fools who 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 that they don’t know what to do. They just want a match, though, and they’ll go up in fire.’

So Sam runs off to see Mr. Cotton (allegedly because he’s one of the “chief people” in Bywater, but mostly to check in on Rosie), and Merry sounds the horn-call of Buckland on the Horn of Rohan, summoning the hobbits to rebel.

‘Well, be off with you!’ said Rosie. ‘If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?’

This was too much for Sam. It needed a week’s answer, or none. He turned away and mounted his pony. But as he started off, Rosie ran down the steps.

‘I think you look fine, Sam,’ she said. ‘Go on now! But take care of yourself, and come back as soon as you have settled the ruffians!’

Well over a hundred armed hobbits respond to Merry’s call, and they start a bonfire for their meeting since it’s against the rules.  Mr. Cotton gives them a better idea of what they’re up against.  Evidently the ruffians hadn’t started trying to kill anyone until relatively recently, when the Tooks refused to submit to Lotho’s rule and decided to shoot any of his Men they caught trespassing in Tuckborough.  They subsequently blocked off the region, so Pippin takes a band to break through and lead the Tooks back to their HQ in Bywater.

It’s interesting to see how the four of them have changed after their journey.  Merry is a much more confident leader, not to mention that he clearly has a head for tactics.  Pippin is mostly just bolder, willing to take initiative instead of waiting for other people to do the important things.  Sam seems the most like his old self – most concerned with helping and protecting the things that are dear to him; if there’s any significant change, it might be that he’s more forward about how he feels.  Frodo’s change is the most obvious – he’s come to realize the responsibility that comes with power, especially the power of life and death.

‘Who are you, and what d’you think you’re doing?’ said the ruffian-leader.

Farmer Cotton looked at him slowly. ‘I was just going to ask you that,’ he said. ‘This isn’t your country, and you’re not wanted.’

‘Well, you’re wanted anyhow,’ said the leader. ‘We want you. Take him lads! Lockholes for him, and give him something to keep him quiet!’

The Men took one step forward and stopped short. There rose a roar of voices all around them, and suddenly they were aware that Farmer Cotton was not all alone. They were surrounded. In the dark on the edge of the firelight stood a ring of hobbits that had crept up out of the shadows. There was nearly two hundred of them, all holding some weapon.

Merry stepped forward. ‘We have met before,’ he said to the leader, ‘and I warned you not to come back here. I warn you again: you are standing in the light and covered by archers. If you lay a finger on this farmer, or on anyone else, you will be shot at once. Lay down any weapons that you have!’

The leader looked around. He was trapped. But he was not scared, not now with a score of his fellows to back him. He knew too little of hobbits to understand his peril. Foolishly he decided to fight.

He’s not able to land a single blow before he’s stuck with four arrows, and with their leader dead the others surrender without a fuss.

‘Seems too easy after all, don’t it?’ said Cotton. ‘I said we could master them. But we needed a call. You came back in the nick o’ time, Mr. Merry.’

‘There’s more to be done still,’ said Merry. ‘If you’re right in your reckoning, we haven’t dealt with tithe of them yet. But it’s dark now. I think the next stroke must wait until morning. Then we must call on the Chief.’

With the first band of ruffians out of the way, Sam is anxious to see his Gaffer and make sure he’s all right.  Meanwhile, Farmer Cotton finally explains what happened in a little more detail.  It turned out that Lotho had already purchased quite a bit of property before he moved into Bag End, including some leaf-plantations whose product he had been exporting down south…

Things came to a head when he starting shipping off a lot of necessities, and local supplies began to run short.  That appears to be when the Men were ordered in (whether that was Lotho’s idea or Saruman’s is unclear, but almost beside the point).  The ruffians first started felling trees and tearing down places to replace with the ugly sheds and houses, and then they started plundering and vandalizing.  That at least was not according to Lotho’s wishes, as initially he actually tried to pay people for the damages, but it quickly got out of hand from there.  They even locked up his own mother, Lobelia, who is a sufficiently sassy grandma and threatened the ruffians with an umbrella.  You don’t want to mess with that woman.

The next day, what appears to be the rest of the ruffians show up, but not before the Tooks, and they’re well-prepared for the attack.

At last it was all over. Nearly seventy of the ruffians lay dead on the field, and a dozen were prisoners. Nineteen hobbits were killed, and some thirty were wounded. The dead ruffians were laden on waggons and hauled off to an old sand-pit nearby and there buried: in the Battle Pit, as it was afterwards called. The fallen hobbits were laid together in a grave on the hill-side, where later a great stone was set up with a garden about it. So ended the Battle of Bywater, 1419, the last battle fought in the Shire, and the only battle since the Greenfields, 1147, away up in the Northfarthing. In consequence, though it happily cost very few lives, it has a chapter to itself in the Red Book, and the names of all those who took part were made into a Roll, and learned by heart by Shire-historians. The very considerable rise in the fame and fortune of the Cottons dates from this time; but at the top of the Roll in all accounts stand the names of Captains Meriadoc and Peregrin.

Frodo had been in the battle, but he had not drawn sword, and his chief part had been to prevent the hobbits in their wrath at their losses, from slaying those of their enemies who threw down their weapons.

With that, all that’s left is to confront the “Chief” at Bag End – and face whatever else they find there.

As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what he saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.

‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears.

A laugh put an end to them. There was a surly hobbit lounging over the low wall of the mill-yard. He was grimy-faced and black-handed. ‘Don’t ‘ee like it, Sam?’ he sneered. ‘But you was always soft. I thought you’d gone off in one o’ them ships you used to prattle about, sailing, sailing. What d’you want to come back for? We’ve work to do in the Shire now.’

Ted Sandyman has always been a bully, and a little power is all he needed to “upgrade” his mill and start polluting the land and water about it.  Cotton actually pointed out that it didn’t make sense for him to build a “more efficient” mill when there was just the same amount of grain to grind, but that’s assuming the end-goal is productivity

When they finally reach Bag End, it seems to be empty and disused.

‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.’

‘Yes, this is Mordor,’ said Frodo. ‘Just one of its works. Saruman was doing its work all the time, even when he thought he was working for himself. And the same with those that Saruman tricked, like Lotho.’

Merry looked around in dismay and disgust. ‘Let’s get out!’ he said. ‘If I had known all the mischief he had caused, I should have stuffed my pouch down Saruman’s throat.’

‘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.

This is one thing that I have to admire about Tolkien: He takes all of the threads to their logical conclusions (if sometimes only in the Appendices).  On the one hand, it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for leaving this out, since it would’ve added at least a good half-hour to an already overlong movie, but on the other hand, it helps all those other “endings” make sense.  That’s why the destruction of the Ring occurs in the first act of Book IV – it’s only the beginning of the end.

‘You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people, so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours. […] “Well,” thought I, “if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson. One ill turn deserves another.” It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me more time and more Men. Still, I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.’

‘Well, if that is what you find pleasure in,’ said Frodo, ‘I pity you. It will be a pleasure of memory only, I fear. Go at once and never return!’

It’s almost shocking how spiteful and childish Saruman’s language is here – and again we come to the question of what evil is. It’s thoughtless vengeance and violence, which in turn can breed more of the same.  Saruman’s aim isn’t victory, and he doesn’t care that he’s serving Mordor more than his own self-interest now.  All he wants is to cause as much pain as possible against the people who hurt him (and are within striking distance).  Sometimes literally – he tries to stab Frodo in the back as he passes him, but of course he’s protected by the mail-shirt.

‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! Well, I go and I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell.’

Frodo now has the wisdom and authority to say that this is what he wants, where for most of the story he would say this would be what Gandalf wants.  He even reaches out to Wormtongue, who’s still lingering in Saruman’s company, but Saruman won’t let him escape so easily.

‘But did I hear someone ask where poor Lotho is hiding? You know, don’t you, Worm? Will you tell them?’

Wormtongue cowered down and whimpered: ‘No, no!’

‘Then I will,’ said Saruman. ‘Worm killed your Chief, poor little fellow, your nice little Boss. Didn’t you, Worm? Stabbed him in his sleep, I believe. Buried him, I hope; though Worm has been very hungry lately. No, Worm is not really nice. You had better leave him to me.’

A look of wild hatred came into Wormtongue’s red eyes. ‘You told me to; you made me do it,’ he hissed.

And that’s the last straw for Wormtongue – he turns on Saruman and cuts his throat, then gets shot by several hobbit archers.

To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.

It’s reminiscent of the passing of Númenor, or of Sauron, just much smaller and even a little pathetic.

‘And that’s the end of that,’ said Sam. ‘A nasty end, and I wish I needn’t have seen it; but it’s a good riddance.’

‘And the very last end of the War, I hope,’ said Merry.

‘I hope so,’ said Frodo and sighed. ‘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 I never expected that.’

This was no adventure there and back again – Frodo came back without a treasure, and with many scars, even if they did teach him wisdom.

Next time: The end of all things…

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