When the four hobbits reach the Brandywine Bridge, they find a barred gate. They call for someone to let them in. A group of hobbits approaches the gate on the other side and seems scared of the four travelers, not recognizing them at first through their battle garb. Even when they greet the travelers as friends, however, they still won’t let them through the gate, saying that they’re following the orders of the Chief at Bag End. Frodo asks him if the Chief is Lotho, his unpopular relative, and the hobbits confirm this. Merry and Pippin climb the gate and have the gatekeeper unlock it, threatening him with their swords. Frodo and Sam pass through after them.
It's clear as soon as the four hobbits reach the Shire that things have fundamentally changed in the place they knew as their home. The hobbits in the Shire seem to be under the rule of the Chief rather than following the common hobbit sense that would allow them to open the gate to their friends—indeed, the very presence of the gate suggests the Shire has become a place of fear and control rather than peaceful freedom.
Merry asks for the group to be put up at the guardhouse, but Hob, one of the hobbits from the gate, says it’s no longer allowed to take guests in and share extra food. Pippin, exhausted, says they’ll eat the food they’re carrying, and Hob lets them in reluctantly. On the walls of the house there are lists of rules, which Pippin tears down. Hob tells them the only people allowed pipe-weed these days are Lotho’s ruffians, and that the rest has been taken away out of the Shire. Sam tells everyone to calm down and rest until the morning.
The new rules set by the Chief seem completely at odds with the ways of life of hobbits, who are accustomed to sharing their food, acting hospitably, and enjoying homely pleasures. Despite his time spent far from the Shire, Pippin holds fast to these integral hobbit traits with a stubbornness that leads him to tear down the signs.
In the morning, the four hobbits set out towards Hobbiton in a hurry. There seem to be fires lit everywhere, sending up clouds of smoke. The hobbits approach an inn where they plan to stay, but they’re met by a band of guards who list the many rules they’ve broken in the past day. Sam insults the guards further. The guards tell the travelers they’re taking them to the Chief’s men. Frodo laughs, saying that he’ll go where he wants. He happens to be going to Bag End anyway, which the Chief is occupying. The head guard tells Frodo not to forget that he’s arrested him.
Sam and Frodo aren’t easily cowed by the hobbit guards’ warnings, showing both that they are unaccustomed to being treated poorly in their own home, and that they’ve grown bolder and braver over the course of their journey—the idea of the Chief doesn’t bring them much fear. The guards’ authority is hollow and laughable because it suits the Shire so little.
Sam recognizes one of the guards and takes him aside. He tells the guard—Robin Smallburrow—that he should have more sense than to follow the Chief’s orders. Robin replies that the guards aren’t allowed to leave the Chief’s service. When Sam gets angry, Robin suggests that if more of the hobbits joined together in their anger, they could do something about the Chief and his rules. The four hobbits stay that night in the miserable guardhouse and set off again with a small band of guards in the morning. Though the guards believe Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin to be their prisoners, the four hobbits make the guards walk in front of them as they ride, talking and laughing. After a while, the guards give up: the pace is too quick for their legs and they’re hungry.
Robin and Sam’s conversation reveals that the hobbits who are following the Chief aren’t doing so out of great feelings of loyalty or devotion, but because they haven’t had the right opportunity to stand up as an organized group. This bears some similarity to the armies of orcs in Mordor, which suggests that, like the orcs, the hobbits who serve the Chief will easily scatter and declare other loyalties when the opportunity presents itself.
As the four hobbits journey on, they begin to see the damage done to the Shire. Some of the houses they knew have been burnt down and some streets are deserted. They look for someone to let them in on what’s been happening. A group of ruffians walks into the road to block their path and tells the hobbits they’re not allowed to go any further. At the ruffians’ taunting, Pippin unsheathes his sword and threatens them as a messenger of the king. The ruffians flee. Frodo says they may have come back too late to save Lotho, which confuses Pippin—surely they should destroy Lotho, not save him? Frodo explains that Lotho has been used as a puppet by the ruffians and is essentially a prisoner in Bag End.
Though the hobbits have mostly disregarded the Chief and treated his rules as jokes, the destruction he and his ruffians have caused to the Shire causes them real pain. This seems to spur Pippin on, and he uses his newfound armor to assume the status of a warrior. This is a sign that his travels have changed him—he’s no longer just a hobbit from the Shire, but a Knight of Gondor, too, and when that second status benefits him, he’ll call on its advantages.
When Pippin suggests that this will end in fighting, Frodo emphasizes that no hobbit is to be killed. Hobbits have never killed anyone on purpose in the Shire and they shouldn’t start now. In any case, the four of them are in danger and have no place to hide. Merry urges the others to gather all the people they can at once: they’re going to fight tonight. Sam goes to the Cottons’ farm to gather his friends. While there, he makes sure the farmer’s wife and daughter are safe. Rosie, the daughter, is the girl Sam thought of whenever he remembered home. Now she tells Sam to hurry back to help Frodo, but she runs back out to add that he looks “fine.”
Despite his extreme experiences in the darkest place in Middle-earth, Frodo is stubbornly gentle. His refusal to accept that anyone should be killed displays his true nature as a gentle and peace-loving hobbit—it’s just a coincidence that he was called on to undertake the impossible quest to destroy the Ring. But it also shows that he’s learned the value of mercy through his experience with Gollum, and he values the power he has to keep a life from ending unnecessarily.
When Sam returns, he finds more than a hundred hobbits have gathered with weapons. They’ve lit a fire, partly because it breaks one of the Chief’s rules. When the guards come to see what’s happening, most of them join the group of rebel hobbits. Frodo tries to assess how many ruffians they’ll have to take on and how deadly their weapons are. Pippin learns that it was in fact his own father, and not the ruffians, who cast the first shot. He rides off to his part of the Shire to gather a band of his relatives.
Though the hobbits are seriously prepared to fight, their fire-lighting behavior suggests they’re also feeling a little cheeky and not fully appreciating the danger that might await them in the form of the Chief and his ruffians. Pippin’s father having shot the first arrow suggests that there are some hobbits in the Shire with the courage to fight on their own—just not that many of them.
Frodo repeats that he doesn’t wish anyone to die. Merry tells him he has a plan. Some hobbits arrive from Hobbiton to say that the ruffians are coming and more will arrive from elsewhere. Merry lays his plan. The hobbits stand aside to let the ruffians pass, but follow after them quietly. Farmer Cotton stands ahead, challenging the men, and soon the other hobbits swarm them with weapons. Merry tells the men to lay down their weapons, but the leader decides to fight. He falls quickly, shot with arrows, and the other men surrender.
Merry’s strategy proves that his time spent among the Rohirrim in battle provided him with some knowledge of battle strategy. His strategy, in fact, is quite similar to that of the Rohirrim at Minas Tirith, surrounding the enemy and then stealthily following from behind. He’s willing to show mercy, but also unafraid to demonstrate the strength of his army.
The hobbits take the men and tie them up. Farmer Cotton says he knew that the hobbits could rise up, but that they needed to be marshalled by a leader: it’s good that Merry came back. Merry says there’s much more to do before they have a victory. The next thing to do will be to call on the Chief in the morning. Farmer Cotton tells Sam that his father’s house was burnt down; he’s been moved to a newly built house and, while he’s not exactly happy, he’s safe. Sam asks to see him, worried that the Chief will order something terrible be done to him in the night.
It appears that the four hobbits arrived home at a vital moment, and it’s their particular strengths that are able to muster the Shire’s army. This might suggest that the Shire needed some of its inhabitants to go abroad and see the world in order to see and be driven to protect the Shire’s especially precious qualities. Now that the four hobbits have seen places of utter ruin, their desire to protect their bucolic home has flourished.
That night, Frodo and Merry go with Farmer Cotton back to his farm, where he tells them what happened in the Shire since they left. As soon as Frodo left, Lotho—who the Cottons call Pimple—began to get greedier, buying more and more property, though his funding was never explained. He sold and sent off most of the Shire’s produce including pipe-weed, which caused restlessness when the winter came and the Shire was left without. Then the ruffians arrived and started to cut down trees and build whatever they liked. The mayor tried to get to Bag End to complain, but he was taken and locked up before he could get there. Farmer Cotton says that Sharkey’s arrival was the worst development of the whole thing so far.
Though the Chief has had the hobbits of the Shire under his control for some time, it’s clear that his command is far from fearsome. Many of the hobbits still call him Pimple, the irreverent name they used for him before he became the Chief. However, it seems that the man called Sharkey is the true source of many hobbits’ fear. The mayor’s attempt to protect Hobbiton is a sign that he showed surprising courage, given that the role of mayor in Hobbiton is usually defined by attending parties and presiding over celebrations.
Merry asks who Sharkey is. Cotton says he’s the most wicked of all the ruffians and orders the rest of them only to burn and ruin what’s around them. There hasn’t been silence or peace since Sharkey arrived. The burning and destruction have begun to pollute the Brandywine River. Cotton suggests that Sharkey, not Lotho, is really in power. Sam arrives at the farmhouse with his father, who accuses Frodo of having caused the demise of the Shire by selling Bag-End before leaving. Frodo says he’ll do his best to make up for it.
Sharkey’s taste for destruction and pollution echoes what the hobbits saw in Mordor and on the battlefield at Minas Tirith, which makes it an ominous sign for the Shire. Sam’s father’s attitude is a reminder of most hobbits’ lack of perspective and awareness of the wider world—he can’t understand why Frodo would leave the Shire and has no clue about the danger of his journey, or what it was all for.
The next morning, a messenger arrives to say that Pippin’s father has rallied the whole of their county. But Merry comes with worse news—a band of around a hundred ruffians is on the way, and they’re lighting fires as they go. Farmer Cotton says they should hide and prepare to shoot at the men, but the Tooks arrive in time to help, and Merry corrals them into formation: he has a battle plan. The men march towards the farm, but in front of and behind them, hobbits push carts to block the way. Merry calls out to challenge them, and fighting breaks out. Eventually, all of the ruffians are killed or captured, and 19 hobbits are dead, too.
The ruffians cause more destruction in a moment of heightened defiance and stress, displaying that their core nature is to destroy, not to protect, even in the place they’ve claimed as their home. The scale of the hobbits’ fatalities, though small compared to the battles the four hobbits have taken part in, is monumental for the peaceful Shire. This demonstrates how profoundly the war and its fallout have affected the Shire, even though most of the hobbits are unaware of what’s gone on abroad.
Merry and Pippin will later be remembered as the brave captains of this battle, while Frodo’s main effort was to make sure the hobbits didn’t kill any more men than necessary. Eventually, it’s time to deal with the Chief. Frodo heads to Bag End with Merry, Pippin, Sam, and two dozen other hobbits. They pass rows of ugly new houses and the new, huge mill belching steam. Every tree has been cut down. Sam cries to see the Party Tree lying dead in a field. At Merry’s signal, a company of hobbits march across the bridge. More hobbits emerge from all the houses and the new, ugly lean-tos and follow the leaders up the road to Bag End.
Each of the four hobbits’ part in the battle was integral to their success and the limited destruction caused. But even in their victory, the hobbits grieve what they’ve lost. The felling of the Party Tree in particular is a symbol that the war had profound effects even in the furthest, quietest reaches of Middle-earth, and that hatred spreads with shocking speed. The temporary and distasteful nature of the ruffians’ houses highlights that they’re driven by sheer speed and productivity and not by any love for beauty.
The garden of Bag End is full of huts and sheds placed so densely that they cut off all light to the hobbit hole’s windows. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin go inside to find the house stinking and cluttered. They search for Lotho but can’t find him. Sam feels that the state of Bag End is worse than Mordor, because it’s their home that’s been ruined. Frodo explains that it’s Saruman’s work, and Lotho has been tricked by Saruman into doing his bidding. At that moment, Saruman appears, and Frodo realizes that this is the Sharkey the men were talking about. Saruman gloats in his destruction. Frodo orders him to leave, while the other hobbits urge Frodo to kill him.
The level of the ruffians’ disregard for beauty shows clearly through their clutter and the fact that they’ve blocked out the precious light from Bag End’s windows. That’s a sign not only of their lack of care but of their short-sightedness, not spending time ensuring their lodgings are habitable. Frodo’s refusal to kill Saruman highlights his complete lack of bitterness, or perhaps just his willpower not to act from a place of vengeance, having learned that mercy is a wiser and more effective tool.
Frodo again tells Saruman to leave. As Saruman turns to go, he tries to stab Frodo, but his knife hits the mithril-mail and breaks. Sam leaps forward and draws his sword on Saruman, but Frodo begs him not to hurt him: Saruman used to be a noble wizard, and though he has become wicked, there might still be hope for him to change. Saruman hates the fact that he is now at Frodo’s mercy and leaves, saying that Frodo will have neither health nor long life. Saruman’s servant, Wormtongue, follows him. Frodo tells Wormtongue he doesn’t have to go with Saruman, and Wormtongue almost stays behind. Saruman laughs, claiming that Wormtongue murdered Lotho. Wormtongue replies that it was on Saruman’s order. He grows angry and cuts Saruman’s throat, at which he is shot dead by hobbit arrows.
Saruman would rather take his chances in the wild than be humbled by Frodo’s mercy, proving that the arrogance and pride that led to his downfall are integral characteristics. Though, similar to Denethor, Saruman foresees a factual outcome—Frodo’s short life—he’s unable to interpret this in any way other than tragedy. Ultimately, Saruman’s tendency to control and oppress others leads to his servant’s anger-fueled attack and his own end.
A cloud of grey mist gathers around Saruman’s body and rises above the hill before blowing away with the wind. Frodo looks at Saruman’s body to see its skin age and decay suddenly. He covers it with a cloak. Merry hopes that this is the very end of the war. Sam expects that cleaning up after all this will take a long time.
The imagery of Saruman’s death echoes that of Sauron’s, implying that because Saruman, like Sauron, was driven by greed and destruction, his effect will be ephemeral and will have no lasting power over the free world.