I am trying to understand the actions of Saruman in the Shire. I will refer to the chronology of Appendix B of the Return of the King. All dates are relative to the Third Age.

Frodo leaves Bag End on September 23rd of 3018. Isengard is conquered on the 3rd of March 3019. At this time Saruman already had some interactions with the Shire, since he was "dearly buying" pipe weed and so on. But when had he begun? Gandalf had been imprisoned in Orthanc in July 3018: at that point if I'm not mistaken (but surely you'll know better) Saruman understands that the One Ring was hidden in the Shire and accuses Gandalf of having kept the news for himself.

Treebeard lets Saruman and Gríma free and the Hobbits meet the two, apparently wandering without much intent, on August 28th 3019. Now "Saruman turns toward the Shire" and will arrive there on Bilbo's 129 birthday, 22 September 3019.

On October 28th they arrive in Bree and it is already a very deeply changed Shire, with terror enforced by the Shirrifs, felled trees, broken mills and so on. Saruman has been scourging the Shire. Then the revolution begins and all's well that ends well (ok, almost...).

Saruman is surely powerful enough, given time enough, to arrange such a plot. But without his staff only his "poisonous speech" is left, he is weakened (so much that he is vulnerable to Gríma, something which is really strange given that to kill Gandalf a Balrog was needed, and Saruman at his full power was surely more powerful than Gandalf the Grey): clearly the speech is enough to corrupt men and hobbits alike, if it had been able to persuade an Ent, but still it's not much.

So, aren't the timings a bit too short? If Saruman had not know with proper advance about the real importance of the Shire, how could he so quickly set up his webs of treason and corruption, and then in less than a month completely "change" the mood of the Shire itself?

It almost seems that Saruman had been plotting against the Shire for a long time. Have I missed/confused passages and dates?

UPDATE: see this discussion on meta.

  • 1
    He's spelled Gríma, not Grìma. Elvish languages use the acute accent for long vowels.
    – b_jonas
    Sep 6, 2012 at 13:37
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    Yes, you're right: on my keyboard it isn't readily available and I didn't notice the difference, sorry for the typo!
    – Francesco
    Sep 6, 2012 at 13:49
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    Regarding Saruman's power, I think we had a question about that. The Istari, when they came to Middle Earth, were bound into their physical forms. Saruman, without his magic, really wasn't much more than an old man. The same with Gandalf - what actually happened, as I understand it, was that his physical body would have been destroyed by the Balrog easily, but his inner essence as a Maia was brought forth, and as a Maia they did battle, and in the end he was given a new body. Saruman wouldn't be able to do that, since no one will give him a new one. Sep 11, 2012 at 5:17
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    @AvnerShahar-Kashtan yes I've read that question. The details are not precise enough to assess it, and the evidence is that Grima kills him: so we can say that he is weakened. For me, as for being "just an old man", I think that even without his staff Saruman is still dangerous (Gandalf notes that Treebeard could have erred). Gandalf is obviously much more than an old man, doing physical feats (horse riding, mainly) without any apparent fatigue. Thanks for the comment, in any case. One of the things that I like about the LotR is Tolkien's subtle treatment of magic :-)
    – Francesco
    Sep 11, 2012 at 5:26
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    Indeed, that's one of the primary reason that despite expectations, LotR isn't really primary inspiration for D&D and other roleplaying games - the magic in Tolkien's work isn't really of the wham-bam-fireball-ma'am variety. Sep 11, 2012 at 5:29

3 Answers 3


Saruman had been positioning himself in the Shire for quite some time, at least a couple of years and potentially as long as a decade or two. This is foreshadowed during the fall of Isengard in the Two Towers:

‘We understand it all perfectly now,’ said Gimli.

‘All except one thing,’ said Aragorn: ‘leaf from the Southfarthing in Isengard. The more I consider it, the more curious I find it. I have never been in Isengard, but I have journeyed in this land, and I know well the empty countries that lie between Rohan and the Shire. Neither goods nor folk have passed that way for many a long year, not openly. Saruman had secret dealings with someone in the Shire, I guess. Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Théoden’s. Was there a date on the barrels?’

‘Yes,’ said Pippin. ‘It was the 1417 crop, that is last year’s; no, the year before, of course, now: a good year.’

‘Ah well, whatever evil was afoot is over now, I hope; or else it is beyond our reach at present,’ said Aragorn. ‘Yet I think I shall mention it to Gandalf, small matter though it may seem among his great affairs.’

Saruman had had quite a long relationship with someone in the Shire, who supplied him with pipeweed.

We also have two dates which show Saruman becoming aware of the Shire having a special significance, from Appendix B:

2953 Last meeting of the White Council. They debate the Rings. Saruman feigns that he has discovered that the One Ring has passed down Anduin to the Sea. Saruman withdraws to Isengard, which he takes as his own, and fortifies it. Being jealous and afraid of Gandalf he sets spies to watch all his movements; and notes his interest in the Shire. He soon begins to keep agents in Bree and the Southfarthing.


c.3000 The shadow of Mordor lengthens. Saruman dares to use the palantír of Orthanc, but becomes ensnared by Sauron, who has the Ithil Stone. He becomes a traitor to the Council. His spies report that the Shire is being closely guarded by the Rangers.

Saruman has been aware of the Shire for about 60 years (and got reports from at least 17-18 years), and has been obtaining pipeweed from it for at least two. As a result you can conclude that Saruman did already have his webs of treason and corruption in the Shire well before the Hobbits even left the Shire. After all, they noted Big People (Men) causing trouble as they were leaving the Shire in the Fellowship of the Ring:

‘But what has one of the Big People got to do with us?’ said Pippin. ‘And what is he doing in this part of the world?’

‘There are some Men about,’ said Frodo. ‘Down in the Southfarthing they have had trouble with Big People, I believe. But I have never heard of anything like this rider. I wonder where he comes from.’

There's no explicit link between these Men and Saruman, but as you say, he would have had to have his heavies relatively close by and large in number to enforce his martial law. Not all of them would have come down from Bree.

  • But do you recall when Saruman found out about the One Ring in the Shire? Because otherwise it appears a bit pointless: why "planning a coup d'etat in the Shire" when you are still aiming for the first place in the Middle Earth (with your powerful host of monster which will conquer Rohan...)?
    – Francesco
    Sep 5, 2012 at 21:44
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    I don't think he was planning a coup d'etat nor taking over the Shire. It just so happened that he'd been rendered irrelevant in his current area of influence, but he still had an intact (hidden) sphere of influence in the Shire. Given the strength he had and the influence he had, he could quickly take over the previously peaceful Shire. That's all speculation though because his plans wouldn't have otherwise involved being removed from Orthanc.
    – dlanod
    Sep 6, 2012 at 3:24
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    I agree with @dlanod - I think his taking over the Shire was at its foundation an attempt to rebuild his power sphere. The fact that it doubled as revenge against the hobbits was probably just the icing on the cake, so to speak.
    – Omegacron
    Feb 19, 2014 at 18:14
  • Do not forget after the ring was tossed, Frodo came home to the Shire to find Saruman causing trouble. Yet, without any magical talent set the blade, Frodo convinces Saruman to leave before he is gutting with Sting.
    – Virusboy
    Jan 26, 2015 at 22:54

You are forgetting Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Lotho had been buying up a lot of the Shire, presumably using, in part, funds from sales to Saruman. He then started to throw his weight about, seeking to be a power in The Shire.

So Saruman is taking over an existing operation, rather than creating one from scratch

  • 1
    Good point. After the battle with the thugs, Frodo et al go to Bag End still supposing that they are doing to deal with Lotho. Then they find out that he has already been dealt with... Feb 4, 2023 at 21:14

At the back of his mind for a while no doubt. He was dependent on The Shire for his secret use of pipe-weed. I guess he also accepted the local consensus it was of better quality than Bree-produce. The head of the Order of Wizards must have the best! ;)

  • 1
    Well, we should assume he was by that time addicted, for he sees his own addiction in Gandalf, "Love of the halflings leaf has clouded your mind!" :D
    – Adam Davis
    Jan 28, 2015 at 13:53

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