One of the biggest features of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is their faithfulness to the books. Most of the main characters and scenes are included, and there are even some quotes taken straight from Tolkien’s work. However, there had to be some compromises made due to time constraints; even with The Return of the King clocking in at over three hours long, not everything could be fit in. As a result, there’s one big scene missing from the movie, the penultimate chapter titled The Scouring of the Shire. In it, the four hobbits return home to find the Shire has been invaded by Saruman’s men who’ve spoiled the countryside, chopping down trees and building ugly brick houses and a new, more industrial mill which pollutes the river.
Looking at the chapter, it could be seen as an anticlimax after the Battle of the Black Gate, the destruction of the Ring at Mount Doom, and Aragorn’s coronation, and it’s understandable why Jackson didn’t include it in his movie, where it might have seemed like an unnecessary prologue stuck on the end. But it’s still a hugely important scene, and it would have been nice to see it brought to life on screen.
One way it’s significant is because it shows that the War of the Ring spread to every part of Middle Earth, including the sleepy, complacent world of the hobbits, who imagined they could just let events in the wider world pass them by unchallenged. This clearly isn’t the case, and if it weren’t for Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin returning emboldened and experienced from their part in the war, the Shire might have remained under Saruman’s control indefinitely. It also comea as a terrible shock for the four hobbits to find that their home has been spoiled in such a way. After everything they’d been through, they were expecting to return to the peace and quiet of the Shire, only to find it’s been invaded in their absence, something even they clearly hadn’t expected.
A large part of The Lord of the Rings concerns Gandalf and Aragorn trying to rouse the larger kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor to fight back against Sauron’s forces. Many in the Shire thought they were either too small to get involved, or that the war was none of their concern, which turns out to be a big mistake. No matter how insignificant they imagined they were, they couldn’t avoid the effects of what was happening around them, and it’s interesting to note that the Shire was the last part of Middle Earth to be freed from evil forces. The occupation wasn’t all Saruman’s work, either, as there were several hobbits, particularly the Sackville-Bagginses, who wanted to try and profit from the modernisation of the Shire. When the four hobbits return, they’re also accosted by several hobbit Shiriffs who are meant to keep the peace, but are now helping the wizard’s men maintain order.
It was clearly important to Tolkien to acknowledge the devastating effect industrialisation has on the natural world. He was a lover of nature and disliked the effect of heavy industry on the landscape, and the Shire is seeing the effects of it, in the cheap, crude brick houses and polluting mill which replace the green pastures and woods, and the hobbit houses with their round doors, as Saruman transforms the area to mass produce goods for his own profit.
Another key element of the Scouring is that this is something the hobbits have to deal with on their own. Up until then, they’d only ever been drawn into bigger events by characters like Gandalf, and often thought of adventurous people as reckless and unnatural. The four hobbits only realize that something is wrong after they’ve left Gandalf behind and returned to the Shire on their own. It’s also the first time in the whole story that the hobbits are actually fighting for something which they know and love, rather than just being a part of events that are much bigger than them. The fight against Saruman’s men, known as the Battle of Bywater is the only battle to be fought entirely by hobbits, where Merry and Pippin lead the fighting, rather than being a member of another country’s army, as they were for Rohan and Gondor. It serves as a reminder of just how much the four of them have changed throughout their journeys, being much bolder than the hobbits who’ve been subjugated by Saruman’s thugs.
While Peter Jackson didn’t include the scene in the movie, he did include two references. The first was in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo gazes into Galadriel’s mirror and sees the Shire in flames and the hobbits being terrorized by large orc-like figures, though there’s no indication any of this really happened. The second reference is in Saruman’s death which appears in the extended edition of The Return of the King. Saruman is stabbed by Wormtongue, who is in turn killed by arrows, as he was in the Scouring of the Shire, though in this case shot by Legolas rather than the hobbit archers.
The whole scene might seem unnecessary, as it was cut without any adverse effect on the story, but it’s still hugely significant for the four main hobbits and contains several key ideas that Tolkien threaded throughout the book. And while it’s understandable why Peter Jackson chose not to include it, it’s still worth remembering it and its place in The Lord of the Rings.