It's up to us to protect what little of the Shire is left in this world.
The last time I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it became clear just how deeply the work, as Tolkien admitted, was deeply Catholic. But those who are looking for a religious book will be disappointed. The Catholicism is embedded in Tolkien’s classic at a deep level. It is in the depth of detail that Tolkien’s Catholic imagination shines through.
In the chapter in The Return of the King on the houses of Healing, there was so much there that sounded like the sacrament of confession. There was also so much richness to be mined from the horror and inner conflict of Gollum—who is, of course, a shadow of Frodo and a picture of what he would become if he gave in to the power of the Ring.
The Scouring of the Shire is the final chapter of the trilogy. The hobbits return home after their great quest and they find their beloved shire has been turned upside down by a kind of social revolution.
The chapter illustrates Tolkien’s assent to Catholic social teaching. The Shire, in its innocence, shows us the perfection of Catholic social teaching in which the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are working perfectly. The hobbits care for one another and respect the property of one another. They take pride in their families, their crafts and their work. Each one to his own gifts and reaping the just rewards of a job well done for its own sake. In the simple agrarian community they brew beer, run inns, farm, raise animals, marry, enjoy the land and enjoy one another.
But when the hobbits return they find both a capitalistic and a socialistic nightmare. Sharkey and his men tear down groves and houses and build a new mill for profit. They rape and pillage the land, siphoning off the best goods and resources and enslaving the people. Thus the destructive greed of rampant and unrestrained capitalism. Tolkien is wise, though to show the socialism that also destroys the Shire. Old Gaffer is forced out of his house and put into new, low-grade, government-built housing. He’s not “allowed” to move in with Farmer Cotton and his family. No one is “allowed” to do anything. Fuel and food is rationed and the best crops and goods have been “gathered” for “sharing” which means the overlords get everything.
Tolkien also implies the pointless puritanical tyranny of the socialist-capitalist regime in the shire. Pipe weed is banned and beer is first not approved of then banned. The inns are closed and celebrations and unauthorized gatherings are not allowed. The tyranny grows as they build “lockholes” for the miscreants and more and more of the hobbits are drafted in to be “shiriffs.” The fools and the rogues volunteer and think themselves important and enjoy bullying others. The rest do so in order to have a job and not to resist.
Finally, the returning hobbits are told why this has happened. It happened gradually and the hobbits were too comfortable in the Shire. They lost their courage and no one had the will or the guts to stand up to the growing tyranny until it was too late.
I expect the Tolkien experts will say he was commenting on postwar Britain, and the destruction of the middle England that he knew and loved, but the principles apply: protect what little of the Shire is left in this world, and watch out for Sharkey…