Tolkien Week: In Praise of Bilbo and the Shire


Happy Hobbit Day!!  Today, in celebration of International Hobbit Day, I am posting an article I wrote previously through The One forums on Bilbo and the Shire.  There is much that can be said about any of the hobbits and much more can be said on their familial relationships (which is another article on which I am currently working), but Bilbo comes from a special place; the Shire.  The Shire has many similarities to the England Tolkien once called home.  Although he disliked allegory and it would be wrong to point out blatant symbolism between the Shire and England prior to industrialization, but Tolkien allows us to apply lessons from the Shire in the modern world.

The first three pages of the story, up to the point where readers meet Gandalf, explain a great deal about Bilbo’s personal life. The narrator does not go into great detail about his personality but we are told what hobbits are which was no doubt a great relief to the author who had no clue what they were! Tolkien begins by telling his readers about Bilbo’s family and in a sense, we meet Bilbo’s parents, Belladonna Took and Bungo Baggins. We have already discussed how the internal battle within Bilbo was between the Took and Baggins sides of his family. The narrator tells us that, although the Tooks enjoyed adventures from time to time, they were wealthy enough that it did not matter what sort of trouble in which they may have found themselves. According to legend, or at the very least according to the gossip of the neighbors, someone in the Took family had taken a “fairy wife” (H2). The term “fairy” was used very frequently by Tolkien in his early writings and it was simply a synonym for “elf,” which he uses much more frequently later.[1] The narrator quickly disputes the claim and says it is “absurd”, but nevertheless that side of Bilbo’s family has been associated with an adventurous, less than respectable nature. The Baggins side, however, “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected” and the locals considered them respectable and predictable. We are told that Bilbo “looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father” (H3). Although he looked like the Baggins side of the family, the narrator points out that something Tookish was inside him dying to come out. The lucky readers are privileged to watch both sides become at peace with one another throughout Bilbo’s journey.

Now that we have discovered some information about Bilbo’s family tree, it is also vital to understand the environment in which the hobbit resides. The Shire is a very unique place and it has a sacred place in Bilbo’s heart throughout the entire journey to the Lonely Mountain.   Tolkien, in a letter to Deborah Webster written in 1958, confesses, “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food.”[2] Incidentally, in many interviews, Peter Jackson also admitted to being a hobbit. He hardly ever wears shoes, unless he has to, and he even said in the fifth production video for An Unexpected Journey that he wished he could retire to his Shire set. The events in the book are mostly from the view of hobbits; be it Bilbo, Frodo, or Merry and Pippin, and the films capitalize on this. The set of the Shire is just as Tolkien described and since this is where both stories begin, it is essential that we understand what makes the Shire so special to both author and director.

Arthur W. Hunt III, a Professor at the University of Tennessee, wrote an article in 2009 titled “Back to the Shire: From English Village to Global Village and Back Again.” The purpose of his writing was to persuade a greater audience that the Shire in Tolkien’s stories represents something greater than a fictitious setting for a fantasy piece of literature. “The Shire represents permanence, a sense of place, and harmony with nature,” he argued.[3] Tolkien uses explicit detail to describe the desolation of waste in the North which causes Bilbo to wish he was back at home, and again in Mordor as Frodo and Sam make their way to Mount Doom. These vivid descriptions sharply contrast the beauty of Bag End and are foreshadowing what will happen to Middle-earth if evil is victorious. Tolkien had a love for simple things and nature, as do the hobbits of the Shire and as did the English people in general before the age of industrialization. America too experienced an age of simplicity when the Puritans arrived and settled in New England. Hunt believes that the “early colonial towns were actually transplants of medieval-like villages.”[4] He goes even further to argue that the subtext of Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga is “obviously about the violation of the earth”[5] and, in fact, the end of the later trilogy proves this assessment correct when Frodo and his friends return to find their home in shambles and are forced to rebuild their lives. The folk of the Shire live in harmony with one another, for the most part, and enjoy the simple things in life such as gardening and smoking. Hunt’s article reinforces Tolkien’s personal desire to return to a life unaffected by a rapidly growing technological society.

Throughout the adventure in The Hobbit, we see glimpses of the Shire in Bilbo’s thoughts conveyed through the narrator. It is what gives him strength in the story. Although Gandalf orchestrated the trip and Thorin is the king of his thirteen companions, it is Bilbo who shows true courage and leadership. He quickly evolves from being a tag-along body to the savior of the group on multiple occasions. We begin to see this in Mirkwood as Bilbo slinks through the Elvenking’s halls stealing food to stay alive, and eventually organizing the escape plan which takes the company to Lake-town via barrels down the river.

We should be able to know what the Shire means to Bilbo throughout his journey. We have been told by the narrator that Bilbo often thought of his hobbit hole and of bacon and quiet. He suffers from homesickness, a feeling familiar to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time away from the place in which they live. It is when Bilbo’s sees the Hill for the first time in a year and he breaks into poetry, the first heartfelt bit of poetry he utters the entire journey. The first stanza speaks of his adventure and his travels, but the second stanza is exclusively about the place he calls home:

Roads go ever ever on

Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

Turn at last to home afar

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

And trees and hills they long have known (H302).

This stanza also refers to Bilbo himself, although indirectly. Bilbo’s homecoming is a “complex emotional experience.”[6] After a year of wishing he was home in front of his warm hearth, drinking tea, smoking his pipe, and eating good food, he is now home and unsure how to approach it. The voice with which he uses in his poem is distant and impersonal, almost as if he is singing a song that later generations would sing of his adventures. Although he is looking upon his longed-for home, he is still remembering his travels and the unpleasantness of some of his experiences.

Earlier we talked about how Tolkien likes to bookend his stories. Comparing the “unexpected” and “long-expected” parties of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, respectively, Tolkien begins both of his sagas with hobbits and parties. In the same way he ends his hobbits’ adventures with unrestful homecomings. Granted, Bilbo’s return is much less devastating than what Frodo and his companions return to, but nonetheless, Bilbo finds his home being turned upside down by an auction. His family members and neighbors, after a year of not hearing from him, assumed he was dead and had taken it upon themselves to disperse his personal belongings. We should not be surprised at all, or disappointed for that matter, by the fact that Bilbo’s first and greatest annoyance is not that his things are being removed from his home, but that people entering his house are “not even wiping their feet on the mat” (H303). After all that he has been through and after all that he has witnessed, upon coming home he is still perturbed by small things such as having an unclean hobbit hole. In a way, Bilbo has not changed at all.

On the other hand, Bilbo has changed a great deal. Despite the fact that he was no longer considered “respectable,” and in fact even his own family had distanced themselves and their children from him, we are told that Bilbo did not care: “He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (H304). Now Bilbo is appreciating his simple life more than ever. He has no regrets and Tolkien makes a point to capitalize the event of the first chapter because it was a life-altering moment in Bilbo’s longevity. The narrator mentions that Bilbo hung his sword over the mantelpiece and he displayed the coat of mail given to him by Thorin. We are also told that the hobbit followed the lead of Dain, the new King under the Mountain, in giving presents to his family and wisely spending his treasure for the good of others. In Chapter One, we discover that both the Took and Baggins side of his family are wealthy so Bilbo grew up wonting for nothing and even now, as the wealthiest hobbit in Bag End, he continues to spend his money thriftily and selflessly.

Bilbo in The Hobbit is extremely important to fans of Tolkien literature, especially the saga of Middle-earth, and to viewers of Jackson’s film adaptations. This is where the audience is introduced to hobbits, and indeed the author himself learned about hobbits through Bilbo’s character. Another central theme of this book, one that appeals specifically to the young audience Tolkien was targeting, is that little people can achieve big things. This idea sets up readers to expect great things from Frodo when they meet him in The Lord of the Rings. It is also not just something which runs in the Took/Baggins family. Throughout the sequel (if one would dare call it that), Sam, Pippin, and Merry also achieve greatness and it is all possible through the original adventure experienced by the legendary Bilbo Baggins.

[1]Olsen, pg. 22.

[2]‘Letters,’ pg.288.

[3]Hunt, pg. 217.

[4]Hunt, pg. 212.

[5]Hunt, pg. 214.

[6]Olsen, pg. 300.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s