Frodo decides to travel to Rivendell to see Bilbo. Frodo entrusts to Sam a history of the War, written in part by Bilbo. Frodo, Sam, and others set out. As they enter the Woody End, they meet Elrond and Galadriel, who now wear two of the Three Elven Rings. Riding slowly behind the two elves is Bilbo himself. Sam and Frodo accompany the travelers to the Great Sea. When they reach the gates of the Grey Havens, they find Gandalf waiting for them. Beyond him is a great white ship, ready to sail to the West across the sea.
Pippin and Merry appear, wishing to be present at Frodo’s departure. Frodo sadly bids farewell to his three friends and boards the ship. Gandalf entreats the three hobbits to enjoy each other’s friendship as they quietly return to the Shire. Sam enters his warm home, where he finds Rosie waiting. She puts their young daughter, Elanor, in his lap, and Sam draws a deep breath and says, “Well, I’m back.”
Although the final troubles of the Shire police state may seem out of place in the novel, they reinforce the ideas of corruption and temptation that Tolkien has frequently explored throughout the adventure. Ever since Pippin learned to control his curiosity after stealing the palantír from Gandalf, or since Frodo was torn between desire and duty when debating whether to put on the Ring or take it off, the ability to control one’s urges and to understand oneself deeply has been of paramount importance. In the crisis in the Shire, Tolkien explores the problem of corruption on a social rather than an individual level. The hobbits have likely assumed—and we along with them—that while they journeyed to Mordor on their mission, the homeland they left behind remained quiet, peaceful, and safe. This assumption proves to be untrue: the familiar is just as open to corruption and danger as the faraway and the exotic. We see that even the wholesome Hobbit race is subject to the same failings as any other race in Middle-earth. In this episode, Tolkien stresses the fragility of good and the effort and self-control required to maintain it.
Sam’s brief closing words neatly encapsulate the nature of the hobbits’ return to the Shire in the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The hobbits are not home; they are “back.” They have arrived at the place from which they started, but both the Shire and they themselves have changed drastically. When Gandalf leaves the hobbits to themselves—the first time the four of them have been alone together since they left the Old Forest early in The Fellowship of the Ring—they have only a vague feeling that they are now somewhat out of place back in the Shire. However, the Shire is indeed where they belong, and the new wisdom they have gained on the quest enables them to rebuild and restore order to their realm, just as they have restored order to Minas Tirith. The hobbits show that they have gained a set of skills from living with Men, Elves, and Dwarves. The hobbits speak with curt confidence to the Shirrifs and to Saruman’s stooges and betray a knowledge of military strategy in the Battle of Bywater. Sam has become more forthright, and Merry and Pippin are actually taller. Later, Frodo, in his encounter with Saruman, displays the grace and forgiveness he has learned from Gandalf, from Sam, and in dealing with Gollum.
The Shire, much like the rest of Middle-earth, experiences fruitful growth and renewal after the troubles are eradicated. Things gradually return to normal after the police state is disrupted, and Sam proceeds to live his life as if he had never left. Frodo’s sacrifice stands in clearer relief than before, as we suddenly understand that his adventure has been less about improving life than about preserving it. Just as Frodo struggles upon the deposit of the Ring into the Cracks of Doom, the hobbits struggle to understand the experience of a journey for which the goal has been merely to allow Middle-earth to remain the beautiful realm it has been for so long. Frodo explains to Sam, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” Frodo, for his part, has given up his normalcy and commonness by his contact with the Ring’s great power. In the end, he must join those whose lives are not common but mythic.
The company that boards the ship at the Grey Havens contains representatives of many of the races in Middle-earth. Those who board the ship, though different from each other, are now mythic heroes. According to Gandalf, the next age—the Fourth Age of Middle-earth—will be dominated by Men, led by Aragorn and Éomer. Tolkien uses the image of the sea as it is frequently employed in literature—to convey the notion of endless possibility, eternity, or obscurity. Just as the group on the ship sails away into the misty, indefinite horizon, so Tolkien attempts to imbue The Lord of the Rings with the qualities of long-lost, prehistoric lore.