It has often been said that in writing fiction it is important to hook your reader in with a memorable first line. Just consider a few for a moment: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “Call Me Ishmael.” “The Name is Huck Finn. You don’t know me without you have read a book by Mr. Mark Twain called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” However no single sentence in his history of fantasy literature, at least not since Charles Dickens informed us that Marley was dead to begin with in the first line of A Christmas Carol, has truly captured the imagination then Tolkien’s “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.”
The funny thing about that first line is that it was born in the most unusual of places. JRR Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University in England. Now, as most professors can probably attest one of the most mundane tasks in their job is the grading of papers and exams. This was the case for Tolkien and as he was grading an exam he wrote in a blank page in the exam booklet, that famous line. Most would have left it at that, but Tolkien was curious.
Now, just what was, and is a Hobbit? This question has been asked by many people over the years. Once, when I was at The Minnesota Renaissance Festival they happened to have a life size Hobbit hole. As my mother and I walked in, we heard a little child ask her mother, what was a Hobbit. The girl’s mother wasn’t sure, and my mother, who is a longtime fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (so much so that she considered naming my sister “Galadriel”) explained it based on Tolkien’s own mythology that a Hobbit was a Halfling.
The mother latched on to it and erroneously explained to the child that Halfling meant that a Hobbit was half elf, half human. Not only is that not true, the elves in Middle-earth are nothing like Hobbits and in fact, Elves are some what taller then humans. Tolkien understood this and gave an excellent description of these creatures.
He writes that,
“I suppose Hobbits need some description nowadays… they are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards…They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours ….wear no shoes, because their feet grow naturally leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads…”
Tolkien further notes in the prologue to the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring that,
“It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than Elves or even the dwarves. Of old they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion and liked and disliked much of the same things as Men did. But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered.”
A further description in his letter to an editor indicate that,
“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).
It is no wonder then, that so many can be confused as to what a Hobbit is. They are as I said above, not Elves, dwarves or human. Nor are they gnomes, leprechauns, or any other sort of pre-existing fantasy creature. They simply are “Hobbits”, or at least that is what they like to call themselves . To other races they are called “half-lings”, or “Shire folk” , or even “little people.” Tolkien also notes in the appendices of The Return of the King that the word Hobbit means “hole-dweller”.
In the Extended Edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring, as Bilbo is writing his book, he describes his own race in a fond, but tongue-in-cheek manner:
“Hobbits have been living and farming in the four Farthings of the Shire for many hundreds of years. Quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk — Middle-earth being, after all, full of strange creatures beyond count. Hobbits must seem of little importance, being neither renowned as great warriors, nor counted among the very wise…In fact, it has been remarked by some that the Hobbit’s only real passion is for food….A rather unfair observation, as we have also developed a keen interest in the brewing of ales, and the smoking of pipe-weed. But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow…And yes, no doubt, to others our ways seem quaint. But today, of all days, it is brought home to me, it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”
The dwarf Gimli, in the Two towers, tells the human Éomer that two of the Hobbits, Merry and Pippin would look like children in his sight because of their small stature and a very youthful appearance and nature. They are a somewhat jolly folk, partial to eating several meals a day. When it is someone’s birthday, the birthday person actually gives gifts to many of the guests, and the Hobbits love a good party. They enjoy a simple life with no frills, and most of all they are distrustful of strangers and odd things, and delight in comfort.
This is shown in the book The Hobbit as Tolkien tells the readers that the conditions that The Hobbit lives in,
“Not a nasty, dirty wet hold, with ends of worms and an oozy smell, or a dry , bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or eat : It was a Hobbit hole, and that means comfort.”
Based on Tolkien’s description it’s more like a nice country cottage and less like say, Yoda’s hut on the planet Dagobah in the Star Wars films. Numerous artists, and even the films, both animated and live action, have realized the hole and even the Shire as a peaceful, idyllic country side. In fact it would be an apt comparison to say that the Shire looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting.
Actor Sean Astin who played the Hobbit Samwise “Sam” Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings said,
“Hobbits are an earth-loving people, and there’s something magical that should be celebrated about that. They are the essence of all that’s beautiful and poetic about the human form, just as the Orcs represent all that is ugly and bestial about the human form. Hobbits have a kind of heroism, strength and size that’s the opposite of their diminutive size.”
By their very nature and description Hobbits are the everymen of Middle-earth. There is nothing very special about them, and they don’t seem to really be the hero type, and it’s not a matter of reluctance. They just aren’t the kind that others would look at and consider heroic. Perhaps much of this came from Tolkien’s experience in war-time. Tolkien fought in World War I and would have known first hand that the men fighting in wars weren’t the John Rambo types we think of now a days. They were very ordinary folk who were caught up in this larger than life conflict. Soldiers were, and are, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends and next door neighbors.
It is also through the lens of these everyman characters that we witness the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The Hobbits are the audience surrogates and in a way they are the ones we relate to the most. It is unlikely that most of us may be the true king of a long forgotten kingdom or a powerful wizard or have to choose between forsaking immortality for love. However, we may find ourselves weary from heavy burdens we carry like Frodo. We may find ourselves the best friend, carrying and supporting others through trials, like Sam. But moreover, we may find ourselves the Bilbo Baggins, the character caught up in something that molds us and shapes us into being the people we are destined to become.
Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware note that,
“Of all the peoples of Middle-earth, none enjoyed life’s comforts more than the Hobbits. They slept longer, ate more frequently, and parties more merrily than others.-a race better suited to friendly chats than deadly perils. … the pursuit of happy ease. Not glorious adventure. That was the stuff of warrior dwarves…and rugged Rangers… not simple Hobbits…But the quest… showed everyone that even the smallest, least likely person was made for more than comfort and safety.”
No Hobbit loved the simple life more than the hero of this classic tale, Mr. Bilbo Baggins of the Shire. Tolkien notes in the narration that Bilbo actually came from a rather peculiar in the Hobbit linage. His mother’s side, the Tooks, were known for odd behavior, where as the Baggins family, or at least as Bilbo’s nephew Frodo notes in the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, “We Bagginses were very well thought of… Never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.”
That is until the Wizard Gandalf came by and asked Bilbo if he would like to go an on “adventure”. Gandalf had felt that the Tookish nature of Bilbo would make him willing to do new things, but the Baggins nature would keep him level headed. Further, Bilbo had always loved things like runes, letters , maps, writing, and riddles. He is also a great cook, something that is going to be needed on a quest like this. Also, the smell of a Hobbit would be unfamiliar to the dragon, so he could easily sneak past him. More over, as Gandalf explains to Frodo in “The Quest for Erebor” in Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales,
“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 wide world outside of the Shire.”
Bilbo was also bachelor, which meant he had no attachments to the Shire like a wife and kids. There were also rumors about him, even before the adventure, that he was somewhat “cracked” in the head. He was even seen talking to outsiders like dwarves! However, Gandalf was quite dismayed to find that Bilbo had grown just a tad bit compliant and seemed to become fat and lazy. As such Gandalf believed that this adventure would be very good and profitable for Bilbo in more ways then one. Bilbo refused in a matter akin to trying to get rid of a door-to-door sales man.
In fact his exact words were: “Good morning!…We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.”
Since Bilbo did at least have a kind heart he invited Gandalf to come to tea the next day when the wizard expressed his offense and displeasure at Bilbo’s response. Unknown to Bilbo that once he was inside, Gandalf had other plans in mind. Using his staff to etch a strange rune on the door way, Gandalf departed and Bilbo hoped it would be the end of it. That would not to be the case. The next day at the appointed time, Bilbo was in for a surprise. Not only did Gandalf come to tea, but so did thirteen dwarves.
Gandalf had told them that Bilbo is an expert burglar and will help them. Bilbo, not knowing what has come over him agrees to go on the quest, and gets more than he bargained for. They had not even fully begun their adventures together when they were captured by trolls and nearly eaten. Before long he finds himself doing a whole host of things that a comfortable and sensible Hobbit like Bilbo not would have done.
Then during this quest Bilbo would recover something far more important than the Arkenstone and the treasure of the dwarves. He would find the One Ring of Power, though he did not know it at the time. Through use of the Ring, which Bilbo discovered could make him invisible, he managed to sneak out of the cave, and thereby allowed him to enhance his own natural stealthiness as a Hobbit by becoming completely invisible ( which is great fun at parties when he has to deal with annoying relatives). Bilbo returned to the company just as Thorin was complaining about Bilbo to Gandalf. To the dwarves, Bilbo was nothing more than luggage, but Gandalf insisted that.
“I brought him, and I don’t bring things that are of no use. Either you help me to look for him, or I go and leave you here to get out of the mess as best you can yourselves. If we can only find him again, you will thank me before all is over.”
Indeed, Bilbo does prove useful. He saves the Dwarves from giant spiders, helps them escape from the dungeons of King Thranduril of the woodland elves, and sneaks into the cavern where the dragon is guarding the treasure, where chief among them is the beloved Arkenstone. He is also quite good with a sling shot, and learns to handle his dagger. As actor Ian Holm, who played the older Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings, said,
“Bilbo is a character to whom things seem to happen. But once put to his mettle, once put to the test, he comes up trumps.”
By the time a huge battle breaks, Bilbo is not the Hobbit he was when he set out. Many fans have complained that it is a fatal flaw in the book. After all, shouldn’t the hero, like Bilbo not only retrieve the treasure but save the day and slay the dragon? Isn’t that why we love our heroes or why we go on quests?
At the same time, perhaps that is not always the case. Consider if you will, the Indiana Jones series, which, at least in terms of the first entry, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is considered to be the greatest adventure movie of all time. In all four movies, Indiana Jones never keeps the artifact. The Sankara Stones are returned to the tribe, the Ark of the Covenant is taken into a government warehouse (Area 51), the Holy Grail falls down a chasm, and the Crystal Skull is reunited with it’s alien body and returns to space.
Indy, like Bilbo looks like a failure. Yet at the same time, as one watches that series, we see that Indiana Jones gains something more. He gains knowledge, wisdom, and a greater sense of the world. He is reunited with a lost lover, Marion Ravenwood, is reconciled with his father, and meets his son. He finds, in the end, his family.
That’s how it is for Bilbo Baggins too. Martin Freeman, who is playing Mr. Baggins in the film version of The Hobbit has said that,
“He is completely changed by the end of the book, as if the world he lives in, Middle-earth, has slapped him round the face and woken him up…if you’d ask me how Bilbo’s character changes, I’d say through experience. He doesn’t suddenly become brave; it is only experience that tells him he is able to stand his ground and does not have to be quite so scared. Bilbo has come back from his adventure as a 3D person where he may have been a bit 2D before!”
Further, scholar Devin Brown notes that :
“At the start of the story, Bilbo is at risk of becoming..inordinately fond of his little hoard of dishes, plates, and his pocket handkerchiefs. He is also in danger of becoming too attached to his life of self-governed solitude where he lives alone under the hill, touching no one and letting no one touch him. If Bilbo goes on a journey to save part of Middle-earth, in doing so he himself is saved from the prison-house of a lesser life…”
Too often in life we place importance on something if it has some use or if something material is gained from it. College and an education are only important if you can get a job from it. A relationship is only important if it leads to a marriage. Children are only useful because of the tax write-off. A job is only worth doing if you make a mountain of cash.
Certainly, money is important, in fact we can’t fully live with out money to buy the things we need like food, clothing or shelter. So is marriage. But if those things are the sum total of a person’s life, then that is a meaningless existence. What if all you gained is knowledge or wisdom? What if all you got was a much bigger perspective on life? What if you grew and changed as a person? Isn’t that good enough.
This is the case for Bilbo. To some he might not seem to change much. As the dwarf Thorin tells him,
“I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friend ship from you…there is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Indeed those are the things that define Bilbo. The journey doesn’t give him those traits, but rather as many of the Apollo astronauts observed, going on their adventure didn’t change them, it only brought out the things that were already there. In fact upon hearing the song of the dwarves that first time during that unexpected party, Tolkien notes that something inside him woke up.
While he does not grow in stature, and some of the essentials of his nature are still intact he is no longer the Hobbit he was when he first left The Shire. He composes songs, and is often deep in thought. Scholar Colin Duriez notes that,
“Bilbo’s reputation is tarnished forever when he is suddenly caught up in the quest for dragons’ treasure. He finds this more congenial than he thought. A new world is opened to him as in later years he becomes somewhat of a scholar, translating and retelling tales from the days of old.”
In fact Bilbo goes on to preserve much of the lore of Middle-earth, from it’s first age all the way down to his own adventure. Later Frodo continues the work for him, completing the story of The Lord of the Rings, the tale that concludes the Third Age of Middle-Earth, and thereby the history of that world. By the time of Bilbo’s 111th birthday, he longs to go to the mountains and see the elves again. In the novel of Lord of the Rings:The Fellowship of the Ring, he actually volunteers himself to go to Mordor as he was the one to find the One Ring. He figures, he started this business, he must end it, a far cry from the Hobbit who was afraid to miss a meal because of an adventure. His stories in turn would inspire a younger group of Hobbits, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins and Frodo’s friends, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, on their own quest in Lord of the Rings. By the end of his days when the last ships of the elves are leaving Middle-earth a very old Bilbo willingly climbs aboard saying, “I think I’m ready for another adventure.”
And so too are we as we begin to take the Unexpected Journey with Bilbo Baggins in the first installment of The Hobbit! In theaters this winter.
And here’s a music video about Bilbo! Sung by science fiction icon and music legend Leonard Nimoy!
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( Film) Jackson, Peter ( Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition 2001 New Line Cinema
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(Film) Jackson, Peter. (Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003 New Line Cinema.
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Tolkien, JRR The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
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This blog is not authorized, endorsed, approved or prepared by any persons involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author and do not in any way reflect the views or ownership of the JRR Tolkien Estate, the Saul Zaentz Company, Houghton Mifflin Books, Del-Ray, Warner Brothers Studios, AOL-Time-Warner Inc., New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson or any other persons or parties involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films and books.
Poster of Bilbo from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.