Perennial Scouring – The Major Flaw in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King
I finally got around to seeing Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. I knew, of course, that Tolkien’s book could never really be translated into the genre of film, and I had been warned about the changes and some of the omissions. So, I found it to be a pretty good movie, though leaning a little too heavily on the special effects for my taste.
That is, I thought it was good until I was pulled up short by the great, gaping bloody wound where Mr. Jackson had clumsily excised the “The Scouring of the Shire.” Lopping off parts for the sake of the constraints of film is one thing, but this violence was too much.
“The Scouring of the Shire” is the penultimate chapter of the book and is, arguably, one of the most important chapters. This is the chapter, remember, in which the hobbits finally get back home. They get back to their beloved and supposedly inviolable Shire only to find that the great evil they have been battling in Mordor has spread and seeped even into their homeland and homes. The hobbits are forced to realize that as long as they live in Middle Earth, they will have to battle evil everywhere and always. They’ve only been granted a respite: Sauron will return.
But not in the movie.
After the ring is destroyed and after the big victory, the hobbits are acclaimed, they return home, then Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the elves sail off into the West, and Sam goes home to Rosie and his baby hobbit. A nice tidy movie ending, but far from what Tolkien intended. We are left with the impression that evil has been overcome, and from here on everyone will live happily ever after. But that’s not the way it is in the book, and that’s not the way it is in life.
In the book, after seeing the work wrought by Saruman in the Shire – the perfidy of fellow hobbits, the felling of trees, nascent industrialism, and just sheer ugliness – Sam says, “This is worse than Mordor . . . 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.” To which Frodo replies (I like to think with a sigh): “Yes, this is Mordor . . . Just one of its works.” And so it is.
Now, one of the reasons I got so worked up over this is that The Lord of the Rings is a great Catholic book. And because Catholicism is the only fully realist religion, this book, even though fantasy, is a great work of realism. We get to see how things really are through the vehicle of fantasy.
Without “The Scouring of the Shire,” though, the movie edges nearer to the kind of purely escapist fantasy that Tolkien didn’t write and against which he often argued. The movie is good entertainment, but not the thoroughly Catholic work that Tolkien wrote. For Tolkien has the little guys doing the Big Things, he emphasizes the particular, he shows us the importance of simple pleasures, and he reminds us that the fight against the works of Mordor goes on and on, even at home. Very much like real Catholic life.
A good parallel might be The Transfiguration on the Mount, where St. Peter was a little like Peter Jackson. If St. Peter had had his way, they would have built some tabernacles for Moses and Elijah and remained on the mountain top. But, no, they had to come back down into the mess. And the first thing they encountered when they got back to the “multitude” was the father with his possessed son whom Jesus healed. Mr. Jackson, if he were making a movie about the life of Christ, would probably cut right from the Transfiguration to the Resurrection. That way, everything would be neater and grander, but not real and true.
Sam Gamgee, who is really the main character in the book, resembles St. Therese of Lisieux, for his is a little way too. All the small, seemingly inconsequential things that he does out of selfless loyalty to Frodo contribute more to the success of the quest than the actions of the great. He simply chooses to do his duty, no matter how difficult or hopeless or unacknowledged, and then he goes home to scour the Shire. Sam aspires to nothing grander than healing his homeland and the simple animal immortality of children. The very last lines go like this: “And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”
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