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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING BILBO
I sometimes feel that Bilbo Baggins is all too often overlooked and ignored in fics. We often see him in his role as Frodo’s guardian, but we seldom see him on his own, either before or during the Quest of Erebor (AKA the Adventure with the Dragon) or after he leaves the Shire. Yet without Bilbo, there would have been no Frodo, no Lord of the Rings at all.
We all take for granted the fact that The Hobbit came first, and is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, but we seldom take into account exactly what that means.
It was in 1937 that we begin to see, in JRRT’s correspondence with his publisher, the fact that he is being rather pushed to come up with a sequel to The Hobbit. At first, he has no clue what to write. He writes “All the same, I am a little perturbed. I cannot think of anything more to say about hobbits. Mr. Baggins seems to have exhibited so fully both the Took and the Baggins side of their nature. But I have only too much to say, and much already written, about the world into which the hobbit intruded.” (1)
Fortunately for us all, he soon found he *did* have much to say about hobbits, and shortly afterwards began the first draft of “A Long-Expected Party”. This first glimpse at Bilbo after his Adventure looks nothing at all like the one we are familiar with--no cousin Frodo in evidence, but Bingo Baggins, Bilbo’s son, instead. It took many changes, over and over and over, to arrive at what we now have. (2)
What is not so clear, is the depth of influence that Bilbo and his Adventure had upon the sequel. I’d like to explore that in depth, both “story-external“, as regards the development of the plot and the characters, and “story-internal” as regards the motivations and relationships of the characters.
Of course, there are the obvious characters and devices which the two stories have in common: Bilbo himself, Gandalf, Elrond, Gollum, the Ring, Eagles, Elves, Dwarves, goblins/Orcs, and so forth. But there are even more similarities to be found.
It is interesting to note that at least one Tolkien scholar found the plot structure of LotR and that of The Hobbit to be nearly identical. While some of Randel Helm’s observations in 1974 were invalidated by the subsequent publication of The Silmarillion, his notes on the plot structure similarities are striking.
Both stories start with a party. Both times, the parties are followed by a scene of explanation for a proposed adventure. Both hobbits must leave the Shire on a dangerous quest.
Both of them gain swords after facing peril. (Bilbo with the Trolls, Frodo with the Barrow-wights.) Both of them are guests of Elrond of Rivendell, who advises them on what needs to be done. They both spend some time there, resting and recovering. Next, both of them brave the Misty Mountains, where they pass under and through caverns, and have encounters with goblins/orcs. (It’s notable that Bilbo first encounters Gollum in the goblin caves, and it’s in Moria that Frodo first observes that Gollum is following the Company.) Underground, both groups are separated from one another. (Bilbo from the Dwarves; the rest of the Fellowship from Gandalf.) Both of them then rest in the places of friendly beings, Beorn and Galadriel respectively. Then both hobbits travel down a river, and go through desolated lands to reach the Enemy’s place.
Once there, they each must find a way to exploit their Enemy’s vulnerability: Smaug’s unprotected side, Sauron’s need for his Ring. Also, there is are great battles in both, and leaders in each are lost (Thorin in The Hobbit; Théoden and Denethor in LotR). When the Quest is accomplished, both of the heroes awaken after unconsciousness. After a long journey home, both Bilbo and Frodo find they have to exert themselves once more, to regain their homes.
And of course, at the end of LotR, both of them leave together to go to the same fate in the West. (3)
Once set on track, I noticed a few other similarities: The Eagles, for example, in The Hobbit save Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves after they leave the goblin caverns. And in LotR, they save Gandalf after his battle with the Balrog in Moria--and then, in both stories the Eagles play a key role at the end of the great battles. In both stories, it is someone other than the hero who ultimately disposes of the villain: Bard the Bowman dispatches Smaug, and it’s Gollum who actually destroys the Ring, and Sauron with it. Also, kingdoms are re-established after the victories: in The Hobbit, the Lonely Mountain and Dale; in LotR, Rohan and Gondor.
I’m quite sure a thorough examination will find even more.
Amazing, isn’t it? It’s as though The Hobbit is actually a blueprint for LotR!
This is my favorite thing to investigate: the factors that are taking place *inside* the story itself, the motives, characterizations and events that bring these things to pass. So many times, fanfic writers like to explore these various factors--it is what leads me to write fic as well.
People sometimes like to write AU stories in which the Ring does not exist, or in which Bilbo did not find it. What they tend to forget, in focusing on their own particular scenario, are the repercussions.
Within the story, Bilbo *has* to exist and have his Adventure, or Frodo will never have *his*. If Bilbo had not found the Ring, he would not have survived his own Quest, nor would it have been likely that he would have lived long enough to take Frodo as his Ward. In this sense, story-internally, the Ring conspired in Its own destruction. For by prolonging Bilbo’s life, It meant that he was able to raise up Frodo as his heir. Furthermore, by extending Frodo’s own youth (for he did not age after receiving the Ring on coming of age) it also meant that those companions who would stand by him most stalwartly would be enabled to grow up and become Frodo’s close friends. It is also unlikely that without the Conspiracy of Sam, Merry, Pippin and Fatty, Frodo would have been able to escape the Black Riders as he did.
Bilbo returned to the Shire with a different reputation; he was now an Adventurer. Not something that was respectable to most hobbits, and it was blamed on Gandalf, and on his Tookishness. But he lived happily alone in the Shire for another 48 years, until he took Frodo in. What occurred during that time period? It’s a good long time. He would have known Frodo’s parents, and Merry’s and Pippin’s as children. He was, according to Letter #214, also Head of the Baggins family, which gave him a certain standing.
Also, we have a good many story-internal hints of the way Bilbo raised Frodo: taking him on rambles about the Shire, teaching him Elven tongues and history, and there are hints that Bilbo took Frodo to meet Elves. We see that Bilbo is no longer a shy or timid hobbit, but that he rather revels in his own eccentricity, and seems to enjoy tweaking the noses of more “hide-bound” hobbits. This too must have been a factor in Frodo’s own less than conventional behavior. We also see the impact Bilbo has on the Shire: while he may not be “respectable” he is popular. Everyone wants to be at his Party, and though there is much gossip, it’s clear that the hobbits of his area are fond of him for his generosity and kindness.
Why did Bilbo take Frodo in after all that time? Story-internal, we are led to believe that Bilbo saw in Frodo perhaps a spark of himself. There was clearly a deep love between Bilbo and his young ward.
What would lead Bilbo to leave Frodo, whom he loved? He tells Gandalf he’s feeling “old” and “stretched”. We later realize, of course, that it’s the hold of the Ring on him, as it begins to awaken to the call of Its Master.
We are told much about Bilbo between the lines, if we only have the will to dig it out. He is fully as worthy of his own stories as are Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.
Or, actually, possible bunnies I would love to see written.
Before The Hobbit--why are there so few childhood stories for Bilbo? He was a tween during the Fell Winter, after all! And when was his last encounter with Gandalf, who by all accounts was a frequent visitor to Bilbo’s grandfather Gerontius? Why would Bilbo have *forgotten* the wizard?
Gap-fillers for The Hobbit-- what did Bilbo do during his first two stays in the Last Homely House? We are told that there were many pleasant things that “are soon told”, but not what they were. Did Bilbo explore Elrond’s library? Did he have encounters with Elladan and Elrohir? How about young Estel? (I have seen a few charming stories about that, but another would always be welcome.) What about stories set during his time in Thranduil’s fortress? (all that “endlessly burgling the same house over and over”? Surely he had a few close calls to getting caught!) How about the time immediately after the Battle of Five Armies and before the journey home? I’m sure there is nearly as much scope there as in Cormallen! What about his journey home with Gandalf? We are told there were some adventures then, though not what they were! And when he got home--just how did he go about stopping the auction and ousting the Sackville-Bagginses? And why them? According to the Family Trees, they were not of age at the time! Who was helping them declare Bilbo dead, and why?
After The Hobbit--how did he settle in at home, and what did he do with his time? What was his life like before he adopted Frodo? He was 51 when he returned from his Adventure, and he was 99 when he took Frodo in. What happened to him in the intervening 48 years?
After the Party--what was his journey like, as he left the Ring behind? Did he have “withdrawal” from It, or once it left his possession, was he free of It until It came into his reach once more? What happened when he returned to the Lonely Mountain? How did the Dwarves receive him? What led to his decision to retire to Rivendell?
As you can see, this is a fertile field for stories. Bilbo does not always have to be an appendage of another hobbit in order to have his story told!
(1) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien Letter #17, 15 October 1937, to Mr. Stanley Unwin
(2) The Return of the Shadow: The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part One , J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien
(3) Tolkien’s World Randel Helms 1974
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