Enter Bilbo Baggins
BILBO BAGGINS born:TA2890 passed into the West:FA29
Son of Bungo Baggins and Belladonna Took
|The Beginning |
One summer afternoon in 1930, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien was marking exam papers. He said later… “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning.”
That moment was the embryo that was to become Bilbo Baggins, the first hobbit to be created by Professor Tolkien. When Houghton Mifflin publishers asked for pictures of Bilbo Baggins, Tolkien instead gave a description from which pictures could be drawn:
Tolkien wrote: “I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of ‘fairy’ rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face: ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish’; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf). Actual size – say about three feet or three feet six inches…. Since leathery soles, and well-brushed furry feet are a feature of essential hobbitness, he ought really to appear unbooted…” (Letter 27)
It appears that Ian Holm, who played Bilbo in the New Line Cinema production, fitted the description to a tee, as he also read the part of Frodo in the BBC Radio 4 production of Lord of the Rings.
To understand Bilbo, one has to understand a bit about hobbits. “Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race…. They are entirely without non-human powers, but are represented as being more in touch with ‘nature’ (the soil and other living things, plants and animals), and abnormally, for humans, free from ambition or greed of wealth. They are made small … mostly to show up … the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’” (from a note to letter 131).
Hobbits like the simple things in life, and they like a quiet life. Bilbo was ‘talked about’ in the Shire because he was not content to stay within its social bounds, and after his big adventure was never quite regarded as’ respectable’ again amongst ordinary hobbit folk. Other descriptions Tolkien used for hobbits, in various letters, include: comic, amusing, unimaginative, vulgar and slow to change. He also said he was fond of hobbits, though could also find them irritating, and that ‘hobbit talk’ amused him privately more than their adventures (this, he admitted, he had to curtail for the sake of published works).
|Purpose of Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings |
Until the publication of The Hobbit, which had been a story written to amuse his son, Tolkien’s writings on Middle Earth had been of high heroic tales such as those in the posthumously published Silmarillion – tales of Elves, Men and Dwarves, of Dark Powers, heroism and betrayal, and of what Galadriel calls ‘the long defeat’. Veiled references to The Necromancer and Gondolin added depth and a mysterious darkness to the story, but even as he wrote, Tolkien had no idea that the Ring acquired by Bilbo had any connection with the Dark Lord Sauron, or even that he was the Necromancer of The Hobbit (see letter 163 to W H Auden).
Why then was The Hobbit so successful, and its sequel such a masterpiece?
Tolkien himself wrote, again in his letter to Milton Waldman, “But as the earliest Tales are seen through Elvish eyes, as it were, this last great Tale, coming down from myth and legend to the earth, is seen mainly through the eyes of Hobbits: it thus becomes in fact anthropocentric. But through Hobbits, not Men so-called, because the last Tale is to exemplify most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in ‘world politics’ of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil). A moral of the whole is the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”
So, although Hobbits entered Middle Earth by the back door of a story written for children, expanded into a grand sequel through pressure from public and publisher alike, they serve the above purpose of balancing the noble with the vulgar, which had been the perceived lacking ingredient in the Silmarillion.
In a letter (No 31) to C A Furth of Allen & Unwin, Tolkien writes: “Mr (CS) Lewis says hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations. For a last: my mind on the ‘story’ side is really preoccupied with the ‘pure’ fairy stories or mythologies of the Silmarillion, into which even Mr Baggins got dragged against my original will”
So Mr Baggins entered Middle Earth proper by popular request, not because the Professor wanted him there. Yet he freely admits in his letter to Milton Waldman “I did not know as I began it (The Hobbit) that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth and merging into ‘history’. As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view – and the last tale blends them.”
|Bilbo's Retrospective beginning |
(From the Unfinished Tales)
“The Quest of Erebor” must have been such a relief to Tolkien fans when Unfinished Tales was first published; who, having read the professor’s work from the beginning , never knew the reason for Gandalf’s choice of Bilbo Baggins, or why he was getting involved in the adventure at all. This was all cleared up when he wrote:
“You may think that Rivendell was out of his (Sauron’s) reach, but I did not think so. The state of things in the North was very bad. The Kingdom under the Mountain and the strong Men of Dale were no more. To resist any force that Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountains and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. Often I said to myself: “I must find some means of dealing with Smaug. But a direct stroke against Dol Guldur is needed still more. We must disturb Sauron’s plans. I must make the Council see that.”
Gandalf was thinking these thoughts as he happened upon Thorin Oakenshield near Bree, and leaned of the latter’s plans to retake the Kingdom under the Mountain from Smaug the Dragon. Thorin wanted to go to war, which Gandalf saw no hope in. He needed to think, and the Shire was the place to do it. Gandalf continues…
“Somehow I had been attracted by Bilbo long before, as a child, and a young hobbit: he had not quite come of age when I had last seen him. He had stayed in my mind ever since with his eagerness and his bright eyes, and his love of tales, and his questions about the wilde world outside the shire. As soon as I entered theShire I heard news of him. He was getting talked about, it seemed. Both his parents ahd dies early for Shire-folk, at about eighty; and he had never married. He was already growing a bit queer, they said, and went off for days by himself. He could be seen talking to strangers, even Dwarves.
“’Even Dwarves!’ Suddenly in my mind these three tings came together: the great Dragon with his lust, and his keen hearing and scent; the sturdy heavy-booted Dwarves with their old burning grudge; and the quick, soft-footed Hobbit…”
Gandalf had decided to impose a Hobbit on the Dwarves adventure, but how did he decide on Bilbo?
|How would you select any one Hobbit for such a purpose?’ said Gandalf. ‘I had no time to sort them all out; but I knew the Shire very well by that time … So naturally thinking over the Hobbits that I knew, I said to myself: “I want a dash of the Took and I want a good foundation of the stolider sort, a Baggins perhaps.” That pointed at once to Bilbo. And I had known him once very well, almost up to his coming of age, better than he knew me. I liked him then. And now I found that he was “unattached” – to jump on again, for of course I did not know all this until I went back to the Shire. I learned that he had never married. … I guessed that he wanted to remain “unattached” for some reason deep down which he did not understand himself – or would not acknowledge, for it alarmed him. He wanted, all the same, to be free to go when the chance came, or he had made up his courage. I remembered how he used to pester me with questions when he was a youngster about the Hobbits that had occasionally “gone off”, as they said in the Shire. There were at least two of his uncles on the Took side that had done so.’|
|Unfinished Tales - The Quest of Erebor|
Once the Dwarves had arrived at Bag End, Gandalf was alarmed, for the reality of Bilbo Baggins did not match the rumour – or so it seemed; the hobbit had settled into quiet middle age. Thorin had nothing but contempt for him, even thinking that Gandalf was having a joke at his expense (UT Quest for Erebor). It took all Gandalf’s skill in persuasion, and Thror’s map, to get Thorin to agree to take Bilbo along. Even then, Bilbo only set off on the adventure thanks to the “nudge out of the door” that Gandalf gave him.
1. A PEOPLE PLEASER
Bilbo found it difficult to say ‘no’. As a consequence, when Gandalf tells Bilbo he is sending him on an adventure, Bilbo declines, but invites Gandalf to tea ‘next Wednesday’ – he doesn’t know why, but it was probably just a way of getting out of, or postponing an alarming situation.
This inability to say ‘no’ meant that he found himself entertaining a burrowful of Dwarves before Gandalf turned up, and ultimately rendered him unable to refuse Gandalf’s hurrying tactics the next morning, which had Bilbo running towards the Green Dragon without so much as a pocket handkerchief.
2. HOSPITABLE AND GENEROUS
In spite of the invasion of Dwarves upon Bag End, Bilbo offers sustenance and accommodation to his guests, even when his heart was not entirely in it.
When Bag End is invaded a second time by the Sackville-Bagginses, Bilbo chooses to buy back the furnishings he is fond of instead of forcing reimbursement from Otho and Lobelia.
Later on he adopts his orphaned cousin/nephew Frodo. And at his long-expected birthday party, he gives each guest a new gift of high quality, and not the mathom, or bric-a-brac that was usually recycled at birthdays. Even after his ‘disappearance’ he bequeathed various gifts to various hobbits – even Lobelia Sackville Baggins!
When Frodo and Bilbo meet up again at Rivendell, Bilbo gives Frodo the two most valuable mementoes (sentimental and monetary) of his adventure to Erebor; Sting and his corselet of Mithril rings. When Gandalf revealed in Moria that the corselet was worth more than the value of the Shire, Frodo was in no doubt that Bilbo was aware of the fact.
Bilbo himself acknowledged that he had more than his fair share of luck. Indeed, if he had less, then his quest could have failed at any number of points:
3.1 He avoided being immediately eaten by Trolls by the ‘timely’ blundering of the Dwarves; and the quest itself was saved by the timely return of Gandalf. Luck continued in the form of the finding of the Troll hoard, including Glamdring, Orcrist and Sting.
3.2 ‘Luckily’, Bilbo woke in the mountain cave and gave the alarm in time for Gandalf to avoid capture, which led to their subsequent release.
3.3 Luck seemed to fail Bilbo when he fell off Dwalin’s back and became lost in the dark Orc tunnels. However, Gollum’s ill-luck in losing his ring became Bilbo’s good fortune in finding it, and avoiding being killed and eaten by Gollum. It was also lucky that Gollum accepted Bilbo’s unintentional remark about his pocket as a riddle. He was even fortunate in stumbling when Gollum gave chase. Not knowing Bilbo was invisible, Gollum would probably have stumbled into him and caught him. Bilbo’s glowing sword edge would have betrayed him to Gollum, but again luck was on his side and he landed on the flat blade.
3.4 Providence was on hand again when the activities of the Goblins and Wargs attracted the attention of the Eagles, who rescued the company from the treetops.
3.5 Bilbo was lucky to notice that he was under attack by spiders in time to avoid being caught.
3.6 His luck held out in the Elvenking’s halls. Avoiding capture with the aid of the Ring, he could not have rescued the Dwarves if the series of incidents at the water gate had not left it unguarded long enough for Bilbo to release the Dwarves and pack them into barrels. More good fortune followed when the Elves, eager to get back to the feast, decided not to check the over-heavy barrels, and again later when the Raft-Elves?, maybe aware of the Lake Master’s impending feast, made the same decision.
3.7 It was lucky for Bilbo that Smaug was asleep on his first descent to the Dragon’s lair. His luck held out later when he avoided being incinerated after annoying Smaug on his second descent.
3.8 Luckily for everyone, the thrush, the only creature who could convey a message to Bard in time, overheard Bilbo telling the Dwarves about the Dragon’s weak spot.
3.9 Bilbo was not caught as he descended to Bard’s camp with the Arkenstone. If he had been, and was found to have the Arkenstone, it may have cost him his life before Gandalf could intercede.
3.10 Bilbo was lucky not to be killed by the boulder that dented his helm as he alerted others to that other stroke of providence – the arrival of the eagles.
3.11 Finally, Bilbo arrived back at Bag End in time to save it from being taken over by the Sackville-Bagginses.
4. A BIT OF TOOK AND A BIT OF BAGGINS
The following quote shows that Bilbo was not your average hobbit…
“Hobbits were a breed of which the chief physical mark was their stature; and the chief characteristic of their temper was the almost total eradication of any dormant ‘spark’, only about one per mil had any trace of it. Bilbo was specially selected by the authority and insight of Gandalf as abnormal: he had a good share of hobbit virtues: shrewd sense, generosity, patience and fortitude, and also a strong ‘spark’ yet unkindled.” (Letter 281 to Rayner Unwin)
It was the balance between Bilbo’s Tookish and Bagginsish character traits that made Gandalf choose him. I believe Gandalf accompanied the quest initially in order to keep an eye on Bilbo while the two sides of his character came into symphony, but there came a time when his own pressing agenda took precedence, and he felt that Bilbo would come into his own when forced by necessity:
In his letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien wrote: “In [The Hobbit], hobbitry and the hobbit situation are not explained, but taken for granted….. Only in one point do ‘world-politics’ act as part of the mechanism of the story. Gandalf the Wizard is called away on high business … and so leaves the Hobbit without help or advice in the midst of his ‘adventure’, forcing him to stand on his own legs, and become in his mode heroic. …. This is a study of simple ordinary man, neither artistic nor noble and heroic (but not without the undeveloped seeds of these things) against a high setting.”
And so the commonplace meets the heroic, and viewed from point of view of the littleness of Bilbo, the high adventure is seen in its full glory.
4.1 THE TOOKISH SIDE
This aspect of Bilbo’s character, so apparent to Gandalf when he knew the young Bilbo, was well buried by the time the quest began. Only when eavesdropping on the Dwarves doubts as to his usefulness did the first glimmer of Tookishness emerge; Bilbo re-entered the room insisting that he could do the job Gandalf had given him. It reappeared when he awoke to find the Dwarves gone, feeling a twinge of regret. Gandalf arrived just in time to capitalise on this, sending Bilbo ‘Took’ dashing down the road to join the Dwarves in time to set off from the Green Dragon.
From then on, the Tookish side seemed to grow, as by the time Bilbo was sent to check out the light in the forest that turned out to be a Troll encampment, he became foolishly adventurous and instead of sneaking away and advising they take a wide berth, he chose instead to prove his burglary skills and pick one of the Trolls’ pockets – almost wrecking the quest at its outset.
Following his adventure, a sixty year sojourn in the Shire never really cured Bilbo of his Tookishness, and he couldn’t resist the little disappearing prank at his eleventy-first birthday party, the telling of which almost cost the Fellowship their lives at the Prancing Pony, but for the timely arrival of Strider.
The Took in Bilbo also proved itself useful, especially when it was balanced by the Baggins pragmatism:
4.2 THE CAUTIOUS, BAGGINS SIDE
Bilbo Baggins was living up to his name by the time Gandalf arrived at his door in the year 2941 of the Third Age. He had become totally respectable and wanted no adventures, thank you very much! As the enormity of the quest was revealed in the dark evening of the following Wednesday, Bilbo fell off his stool and had to be carried off to recover. He was immobilised by the trauma of being viewed as a potential meal by a Troll, and it was Bilbo’s very Bagginsy ‘shriek’ of terror, not any bravery or desire to alert, that alerted Gandalf to the Goblin attack in the mountainside cave. Many times during the quest, Bilbo wished himself back in his cosy Hobbit Hole - the Tookish side never took over completely!
- 1) He leapt over Gollum to reach safety.
- 2) He put on his ring and crawled past the Goblins to squeeze through the closing door.
- 3) He fought the spiders, using himself as a decoy when rescuing the Dwarves.
- 4) He entered the Elvenking’s Halls to rescue the Dwarves
- 5) He worked out a daring escape plan using empty barrels, leaping into the icy stream after them
- 6) He climbed down the wall to take the Arkenstone to Bard
- 7) His cry “the Eagles are coming” brought new heart to the allies in the Battle of the Five Armies.
5. BILBO’S BRAVERY
Bilbo’s bravery was nowhere more evident than in his willingness to go where the Dwarves feared to tread an to risk everything for the sake of peace. It was more than just Tookish bravado, because the desire to be home and at peace again was always there. Having set out on the adventure, Bilbo’s courage came from sheer necessity as being usually the only possible solution to a crisis, other than abandoning his companions.
6. POETRY AND SONG AND LORE
"The Road goes ever on and on; Down fromt he door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with weary feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say."
- 1) He investigated the Troll fire
- 2) He freed the Dwarves from the spiders
- 3) He freed the Dwarves from the Elven Kingdom
- 4) He entered the Dragon’s lair
- 5) He entered the Dragon’s lair a second time
- 6) He entered the Dragon’s lair a third time
- 7) He went to Bard’s camp to trade the Arkenstone for peace
- 8) He returned to honour his promise to Bombur to relieve him
- 9) He owned up to Thorin.
Bilbo loved poetry and songs, and made up a few of his own; his Walking Song probably being the most famous, which warns of the dangers of leaving your front door. He also had an enormous appetite for the stories of old, and recorded all he cold. His skill at riddling saved his neck and acquired him the One Ring when he met Gollum.
He also loved maps, with their promise of adventure, amusing Elrond with his excitement over the moon letters, and remembering the rhyme on Thror’s map at a crucial moment on Durin’s Day, noticing signs portended on the map which all the Dwarves had not thought to look for.
Bilbo’s thirst for knowledge of all things Elvish led to him learning the Elvish tongue and letters and teaching them to Frodo. Sam too benefited from schooling from Bilbo, showing the old hobbit to be patient and generous with his time.
Bilbo’s songs and all the others he had collected later went down as hobbit lore in the Red Book, together with the stories of his and Frodo’s adventures (Return of the King).
7. BILBO WAS GENEROUS
Bilbo’s hospitality was shown by his ability to feed and accommodate a company of Dwarves and a Wizard, which he did without outwardly complaining. His generosity in not keeping the Troll gold was not unusual for a Hobbit (though admittedly untested in most of that race), and had no desire to own more than he could carry home of the Smaug treasure.
However, his generosity was well tested when he found the Sackville-Bagginses auctioning off his belongings; instead of insisting that they reimburse those who had already paid and left with his furnishings, Bilbo instead bought them back where necessary.
At his eleventy first birthday party, Bilbo provided Expensive gifts for all his guests – that is, everyone he knew. Contrary to normal Hobbit practice of giving cheap nick-nacks, Bilbo gave new, individually crafted gifts on his final birthday in Hobbiton.
After he had left, Frodo was left with the task of handing out further bequests from Bilbo’s possessions. In this round of gifts, Bilbo still found it within him to give yet another gift to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (Bilbo’s heir was Otho Sackville-Baggins, until he adopted Frodo.)
When Frodo visited Bilbo at Rivendell, having set out on his own quest, Bilbo gave him his sword, Sting (Sting was forged by Elven smith Telchar in Gondolin, and gave off a blue light when Orcs were near. It could pierce though armour or hide that would break or repel any other sword.) He also gave him the corselet of mithril rings that Thorin had given to him at Erebor. As they passed through the Mithril Mines of Moria, Gandalf told the fellowship that Bilbo’s corselet was worth more than the value of the Shire. Frodo said nothing, but he felt that Bilbo had certainly been aware of the value of the gift.
|Bilbo in the eyes of others |
Bilbo had the disadvantage, among Elves, Dwarves and Men, of being half their height. He may have stayed among hobbits for the rest of his days if Gandalf had not seen more in him than he saw in himself. Dwarves, in particular, despised hobbits as nonentities. Men had no dealings with them – thanks in large part to the Rangers keeping the Shire safe from intrusion.
In Lake Town Bilbo was celebrated as a companion of the Mountain King, and later, at the stand-off at Dale, both Bard and the Elvenking were astonished at Bilbo’s bravery and generosity in bringing them the Arkenstone, and even more astonished when he insisted on returning to the Dwarves, having promised to wake Bombur.
Beorn, who entertained few guests, welcomed Gandalf and Bilbo to his home on their return from Erebor.
By the time the Fellowship arrived at Rivendell, Respect and admiration for Bilbo went without question, as was seen when Boromir smirked at Bilbo’s offer to take the One Ring to the end of its journey.
Bilbo’s standing in the eyes of the Elves, and even the Valar, was proved when he was afforded passage to the Blessed Realm with Frodo after the destruction of the Ring.
Bilbo enjoyed his ring. As far as he was concerned it was a magic ring with the entirely beneficial effect of rendering him invisible. He enjoyed his privacy, and could avoid any encounters by simply slipping it on - very useful when the Sackville-Bagginses were about!
Bilbo was not aware of the Ring’s true nature, though he may have suspected it of having something to do with his longevity. It cannot be overstressed that he showed remarkable strength of character when he finally walked away from Bag End without it, indulging his Tookish nature again, and setting off once more with Dwarves.
However, though the Ring was no longer attached to Bilbo, Bilbo was still ‘attached’ to the Ring. The Orcish apparition he became when he caught a glimpse of it at Rivendell may have been the first clue Elrond had that he would need a stronger cure than Rivendell could offer, especially if his own ring lost its power.
Even after the One Ring was destroyed it still had a hold on Bilbo: “What’s become of my Ring, Frodo, that you took away?… What a pity! I should have liked to see it again”. He needed to go across the sea to be healed from his dark longing, and would pass his final days in the bliss of listening to Elven stories in their complete form, in the company of his beloved Frodo.
It seems that no Hobbits had any outward expression of religious practice or were aware of the pantheon that existed to the West. They knew that the Elves were leaving Middle Earth, but apparently gave little thought to where they were going. Bilbo’s love of Elves made him different in this respect, and his quick mind will have learned more in his first brief sojourns at Rivendell. We know this, because his knowledge was passed on to Frodo, who then knew that Gildor Inglorion’s party were High Elves because they spoke the name of Elbereth.
Tolkien admitted that Bilbo was an expression of himself, and that the Shire reflected those lifestyles and values that were beginning to disappear when Tolkien was young and whose passing he regretted. In this, I believe the story struck a chord with many readers.
Readers of the first published book set in Middle Earth were introduced first and foremost to the Hobbit Bilbo. There was no option of reading Lord of the Rings at the same time, and there were no reviews to whet the appetite for the sequel – it didn’t exist. The story was told from Bilbo’s point of view and only gave the briefest glimpses of the rich history on which it sat. It was an instant and overwhelming success and everyone wanted to know more about Hobbits. Rarely has a children’s book – especially a first - attracted such attention.
I believe that Bilbo’s heroism was of the sort that we would like to believe of ourselves, given the same situations; knowing our own fears but overcoming them in the face of dire need. No wonder the world clamoured for a sequel.
|The End? |
And so we find that Tolkien’s life work, which began with heavenly beings, Elves, Dwarves and Men, is drawn to a close with a race of creatures who did not feature in the lists at all – Hobbits! As Bilbo passes into the utmost West, so passes the Third Age – the last Age of magic and wonder and Elvenkings. There was nothing more to write. Tolkien tried – a sequel to LotR was requested – but there was nothing in the Fourth Age that could sustain the pen of JRR Tolkien; the Elves and Istari had gone, and so had the Hobbit whose sudden appearance on a blank sheet of paper all those years before, heralded the beginning of the end of the tales of Middle Earth.
|Annotations and Comments |
What a wonderful essay, thank you very much, Janet! --Walter
Douglas Anderson, in his The Annotated Hobbit, provides a wealth of background information and actual as well as probable inspirations for Tolkien's The Hobbit. One possible source of inspiration, not mentioned in The Annotated Hobbit, might be the legend of the Mordiford Dragon, where at least one version exists in which the dragon slayer is a criminal who drifts down the river - hidden in a barrel - to the place where the dragon uses to come to and drink. There the criminal shoots the dragon in ambush with an arrow through a hole in the barrel...