The destruction of the Ring and Sauron's accompanying downfall strike many readers as the obvious endpoint for The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's text, however, continues for some one hundred pages and a half dozen chapters, following Frodo and his companions as they say goodbye to their friends and journey back to the Shire. The chapters culminate in the discovery that their beloved homeland has been ravaged in their absence, becoming a refuge for brigands and an ecological disaster. Far from an unnecessary sequel to the primary story, the Scouring of the Shire concludes the story of the hobbits themselves, demonstrating how they have grown spiritually, emotionally, and physically on their quest. Without the help of outsiders, they confront and overcome evil at home, banishing the last specter of Mordor from Middle-earth.
From the novel's outset, the Shire stands as an ideal country, characterized by green hills, sparkling rivers, and pleasant woodlands. The inhabitants of that community are farmers, tradesmen, and country gentry, all of whom indulge in the innocent pleasures of rustic life: good food, strong beer, and idle gossip, all amply represented at Bilbo's birthday party. This ideal image stays with the hobbits as they travel through strange and frightening distant lands. Treebeard wonders if the Entwives might have made their home in the Shire, and Longbottom Leaf proves a welcome comfort to Merry and Pippin after the sack of Isengard. Sam daydreams in Mordor of "the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater." Even when the Mirror of Galadriel shows "some devilry at work in the Shire," the threat to his homeland hardens rather than weakens Sam's resolve. In Mordor it is the same: The memory of the Shire urges Sam onward, and he sees that "the way back, if there is one, goes past the Mountain."
When they return home, however, the Shire hobbits discover their cherished ideal corrupted. A totalitarian state has replaced the carefree rural life, dominated by "the Rules" and suffering from "no beer and very little food." Journeying deeper into the Shire reveals a devastated countryside. Homes have been replaced by ugly row houses and barracks, trees have been wantonly felled, and the old mill has been replaced by "a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow." Frodo's own home, Bag End, lies abandoned and stinks of filth. Sam sums up the situation with his exclamation, "This is worse than Mordor! . . . It comes home to you, they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was ruined."
Mordor has come home; everything the hobbits have fought so hard for has been ruined. At first glance, Frodo and the others blame outside forces for the destruction. Evil men, brigands, and thieves have moved in while the protecting Rangers have gone to war. Sharkey, their leader, has urged them to "hack, burn and ruin" since his arrival. The hobbits soon learn that Sharkey is their old enemy Saruman, who has ravaged the Shire in revenge for his own losses.
The outsiders are not the only ones to blame, however. Like the evil of the Ring, the evil that besets the Shire works from within, feeding on the hobbits' own desires. Lotho Sackville-Baggins, hungry for power and prestige, brought the first Men into the Four Farthings to protect his growing property. "Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about," says Farmer Cotton. Although couched in rustic language, the description fits Sauron as well as Lotho. Other hobbits also accepted and even enjoyed the changes, regardless of the cost. Ted Sandyman, the greedy miller, loves the wasteful and polluting mechanisms of the new mill, "and he works there cleaning wheels for the Men, where his dad was the Miller and his own master." Worst of all, the hobbits have allowed this to happen; whether through inattention or cowardice, the most sensible and good hobbits went along with the changes until, "before we knew where we were," the beauty and joy of the Shire were gone.
The return of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin catalyzes the hobbits. The adventurers have grown on their journey, and they know the importance of defending their ideals against evil. They have fought and won the impossible battle against Sauron; a struggle against a real but abstract evil. Now they must fight evil again, this time at the very concrete level of their own homeland. On the journey home, Barliman Butterbur had been impressed by their military bearing, but "they themselves had become . . . used to warfare and riding in well-arrayed companies." Gandalf sums up the change: "You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high" — both literally and figuratively, because thanks to Treebeard's Ent-draught, Merry and Pippin have become the tallest hobbits on record.
The heroes' resolve inspires other hobbits, who overcome their fear and act together. The ruffians threaten to arrest a single hobbit, but "suddenly they were aware that Farmer Cotton was not all alone." Throughout the novel, isolation makes people vulnerable, but cooperation — whether it be on a large scale as when the Riders of Rohan aid Minas Tirith, or at the level of an individual, as when Sam carried Frodo up the slope of Mount Doom — leads to victory. For the hobbits, after they determine to act and decide to act together, the Scouring of the Shire can begin. The four heroes provide the expertise, while their country folk provide the support they need to succeed.
With determination and cooperation, the hobbits expel the invaders, destroy Saruman and his henchman Wormtongue, and eradicate the last vestige of Sauron's evil in Middle-earth. Then they apply the same energy to the restoration of their beloved homeland. "Now there were thousands of willing hands of all ages, from the small and nimble ones of the hobbit lads and lasses to the well-worn and horny ones of the gaffers and gammers." The result is not just an ideal restored, but surpassed: "a gleam of beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass on this Middle-earth." As with the novel as a whole, the ending of evil means little without the assurance of continuation, that the life and land, once saved, will be preserved and remembered.