When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Of all the realms and peoples of Middle-earth, Tolkien first introduces us to the Hobbits, the “Little Folk” – smaller than Dwarves and very adept at hiding from all the bigger and clumsier peoples.
It is clear that Hobbits had, in fact, lived quietly in Middle-earth for many long years before other folk became even aware of them. And the world being after all full of strange creatures beyond count, these little people seemed of very little importance. But in the days of Bilbo and Frodo his heir, they suddenly became, by no wish of their own, both important and renowned, and troubled the counsels of the Wise and the Great.
Tolkien takes great pains to make the Hobbits and the Shire feel home-like – obviously he based the land on the England of his youth, but he also made some less obvious linguistic choices. He chose to “translate” the Common Tongue as English, but he also rooted the unique words and names of the Hobbit’s dialect in ancient English such that they come across as natural and familiar to an English-speaking audience. The whole trilogy (plus The Hobbit) is framed as a translation of the stories from a certain ancient book that was written and preserved by the Hobbits, hence the Hobbits are our viewpoint characters. This is also how Tolkien determined when to leave parts out – there’s actually quite a lot that’s relegated to the Appendices, most notably the assault on Dol Guldur at the end and the entirety of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen; these are just parts of the story that the Hobbits didn’t know about until after “the end”.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’
Bilbo, the protagonist of The Hobbit, has taken up the mantle of the rich old eccentric – beloved by the young folk and his poorer neighbors, but merely tolerated by many in Hobbit society. Also, I know many people over fifty who love the idea that there still may be new adventures out there for them, that their life may only just be beginning. The most important thing that happened in those intervening sixty years, however, is that Bilbo adopted a new heir: Frodo Baggins, a cousin 78 years younger whose parents died in a boating accident when he was still a minor by Hobbit standards – a tween! Yes, Tolkien invented that word, although it here denotes the 20-33 age range (since 33 is the official age of adulthood among the Hobbits). And Bilbo and Frodo share the same birthday, September 22, which makes birthday parties that much more convenient. On Bilbo’s eleventy-first, therefore, Frodo also turns thirty-three, officially coming of age.
‘My lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters – meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.
‘Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.’
The Hobbits are generally quite sensible and down-to-earth, but of course that mentality tends to come with baggage like complacency, suspicion toward anything new or different, a reluctance to change, especially when life’s so comfortable already.
Our first hint that there might be more about this party than meets the eye is when Gandalf the Wizard shows up (along with some dwarves) to provide fireworks and help out with Bilbo’s “little joke”.
I have called you all together for a Purpose. Something in the way that [Bilbo] said this made an impression. There was almost silence, and one or two of the Tooks pricked up their ears.
Indeed, for Three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits. Tremendous outburst of approval.
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a complement.
Secondly, to celebrate my birthday. Cheers again. I should say: OUR birthday. for it is, of course, also the birthday of my heir and nephew, Frodo. He comes of age and into his inheritance today. […]
Thirdly and finally, he said, I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT. He spoke this last word so loudly and suddenly that everyone sat up who still could. I regret to announce that – though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too short a time to spend among you – this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!
He stepped down and vanished. There was a blinding flash of light, and the guests all blinked. When they opened their eyes Bilbo was nowhere to be seen.
Bilbo has a bit of a flare for theatrics, doesn’t he? Although the flash actually wasn’t his idea – Gandalf thought it better that the Hobbits should suspect him of spiriting Bilbo away than that anyone should catch wind of Bilbo’s real means of vanishment, an old magic ring he acquired in his travels…
‘It has now come to the final point. You have had your joke, and alarmed or offended most of your relations, and given the whole Shire something to talk about for nine days, or ninety-nine more likely. Are you going any further?’
‘Yes, I am. I feel I need a holiday, a very long holiday, as I have told you before. Probably a permanent holiday: I don’t expect I shall return. In fact, I don’t mean to, and I have made all the arrangements.
‘I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.’
While Bilbo’s desire to see the wonders of the outer world again are understandable, there’s obviously something more to his unrest. He’s over a hundred years old, after all, and even if Hobbits are a bit longer-lived than humans, that’s still pretty old to be having such wanderlust. I love how evocative that butter simile is! And then Bilbo suddenly becomes very hesitant to give up his old ring as he’d promised (and I’m sure that old ring couldn’t possibly be significant in a story called The Lord of the Rings).
‘You are always badgering me about my ring; but you have never bothered me about the other things I got on my journey.’
‘No, but I had to badger you,’ said Gandalf. ‘I wanted the truth. It was important. Magic rings are – well, magical; and they are rare and curious. I was professionally interested in your ring, you may say; and I still am. I should like to know where it is, if you go wandering again. Also I think you have had it quite long enough. You won’t need it any more, Bilbo, unless I am quite mistaken.’
Bilbo flushed, and there was an angry light in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard. ‘Why not?’ he cried. ‘And what business is it of yours anyway, to know what I do with my own things? It is my own. I found it. It came to me.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Gandalf. ‘But there is no need to get angry.’
‘If I am it is your fault,’ said Bilbo. ‘It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.’
Bilbo keeps repeating how the ring belongs to him, completely ignoring Gandalf’s assertion that he doesn’t need something to make himself invisible anymore. And we also get to one of the more creative retcons in literary history – Bilbo’s account of how he acquired the ring. But we’ll get into that next time. Now, we can ask why on Middle-earth Bilbo suddenly decided to call the ring his “precious”, just like Gollum did all the time in The Hobbit.
‘I don’t know what has come over you, Gandalf,’ he said. ‘You have never been like this before. What is it all about? It is mine isn’t it? I found it, and Gollum would have killed me, if I hadn’t kept it. I’m not a thief, whatever he said.’
‘I have never called you one,’ Gandalf answered. ‘And I am not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.’ He turned away, and the shadow passed. He seemed to dwindle again to an old grey man, bent and troubled.
After another full page of agreeing to give the ring to Frodo but still dancing around the point, Bilbo finally leaves it in an envelope on the mantlepiece and heads off in the company of some dwarves.
‘Take care! I don’t care. Don’t you worry about me! I am as happy now as I have ever been, and that is saying a great deal. But the time has come. I am being swept off my feet at last,’ he added, and then in a low voice, as if to himself, he sang softly in the dark:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Why yes, Tolkien really loves his songs and poetry. But at least he’s not bad at writing them.
‘I wish – I mean, I hoped until this evening that it was only a joke,’ said Frodo. ‘But I knew in my heart that he really meant to go. He always used to joke about serious things.’
That’s one aspect of Bilbo that I really missed in the movies – he’s a prankster! He literally left a bunch of joke gifts behind for Frodo to hand out to his friends and relations (along with a few sensible gifts). And Frodo also inherits the unfortunate duty of dealing with the Sackville-Bagginses, Bilbo’s one-time heirs whom he effectively disinherited by adopting Frodo and turned into vocal enemies. Naturally, they hate Frodo even more.
Gandalf stops to visit Frodo before he leaves town, offering him vague and ominous warnings about the ring.
‘Odd things may happen to people that have such treasures – if they use them. Let it be a warning to you to be very careful with it. It may have other powers than just making you vanish when you wish to.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Frodo.
‘Neither do I,’ answered the wizard. ‘I have merely begun to wonder about the ring. especially since last night. No need to worry. But if you take my advice you will use it very seldom, or not at all. At least I beg you not to use it in any way that will cause talk or rouse suspicion. I say again: keep it safe, and keep it secret!’
As much credit as Tolkien gets for his worldbuilding (and rightfully so!), he’s also really good at more mundane things like character development or suspense or sketching a little town and its inhabitants.
You also may have noticed the “I” in my chapter title -this is intended to denote “Book I.” It’s not Book 1 of 3, but 1 of 6, as each “part” (Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, and Return of the King) is divided into two books, although the books aren’t really that distinct here in Fellowship. Anyhow, Tolkien restarts the chapter count for each “Book”, so I need to mark that.
Until next time…