- After the “end of all things”:The Long Return Home to the Shire
“When the days of rejoicing were over at last the Companions thought of returning to their own homes” (RK, VI, vi, 252)—with this opening sentence of Book VI, chapter vi, the sustained climax of The Lord of the Rings is brought to an end. Tolkien’s quest-romance culminates in the destruction of the One Ring and the downfall of Sauron, the celebration at the field of Cormallen, the happy union of Éowyn and Faramir, and the coronation and wedding of Aragorn. After this series of events, it is time for the last stage of the travelers’ journey: the long road home to the Shire. Frodo’s announcement of the “end of all things” (RK, VI, iii, 225) on Mount Doom, which he made in the face of imminent death, is put into perspective by this final part of the text. While the destruction of the Ring is clearly the pivotal event in the liberation and the rise of the kingdoms of Men, the waning of the Elvish realms, and the “transition from the enchanted Third Age to the disenchanted Fourth Age” (Hiley 66), its seeming finality is relativized by the concluding chapters that turn away from the vast scope and the mythic dimension of the eucatastrophe towards more personal, domestic, and quotidian issues.
On the story level, the return to the point of departure after the (physical) voyage to a remote destination is an integral component of Frodo’s quest and was “foreseen from the outset” in Tolkien’s composition process (FR, Foreword, 7). It consists of a series of farewell scenes along the homeward journey, stays in Rivendell and in Bree, and the return to an alienated Shire under the oppressive rule of Saruman and his henchmen. However, except for the arrival in the Shire and its ensuing “scouring,” which has provoked considerable critical debate, the homeward journey itself has not been extensively discussed in Tolkien scholarship. At a first glance, these chapters may even appear to have merely a retarding effect. Why is there a need for so “many partings,” as the title of chapter vi says? What is the use of the Bree-episode in chapter vii, which seems to be squeezed in between the homeward journey and the “Scouring of the Shire” (chapter viii)? Contrary to Plank’s statement that this final conflict with Saruman is “a separate and independent episode, a unit that pretty much stands by itself” (105), I approach the three chapters of the homeward journey collectively as a coherent and interdependent narrative unit in which the return unfolds and progresses toward its conclusion. This reading [End Page 77] aims at an in-depth exploration of Tolkien’s narrative techniques and strategies employed in this part of the text, analyses the events during the homeward journey and upon the arrival in the Shire in the context of (and in response to) the preceding outward journey, and interprets the return as an integral transition between the two disparate but essentially complementary thematic fields: “quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves,’ and sheer beauty” on the one hand, and “breathing, eating, working, begetting” on the other (Letters 161).
The delimitation of this return-sequence is straightforward. Its beginning is easily identified with the above-quoted opening paragraph. It does not, however, extend until the end of the text: the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings, “The Grey Havens,” must be excluded for several reasons. First of all, it is formally set apart from the return to the Shire; it opens with the reestablishment of the quotidian life of the hobbits and is hence not a part of the quest but rather of the frame wherein the quest is embedded. Furthermore, with the keepers of the Elven-rings embarking on the voyage into the West, the chapter also refers back to the “Silmarillion” tradition and thereby functions as a grand epilogue to the whole legendarium. The object of this paper is then precisely that part of the text which protracts this final act of closure (i.e., Book VI, chapters vi to viii).