Bilbo Baggins’s Little Joke

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-30

How might the Ring, the “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”, how might it have eventually taken possession of Bilbo had he kept it long enough?

I think that we get a clue that might help us answer this question in Bilbo’s “little joke”. The joke is first introduced to us in a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf. Gandalf urges Bilbo to stick to his “whole plan”, in other words to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo answers, “I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke.”

bilbo010510a

Gandalf plainly does not appreciate the joke and wonders who will laugh as he shakes his head. Bilbo’s reply gives us an insight into his character.

“We shall see,” he said.

In other words Bilbo does not much care who does or does not laugh as long as he enjoys himself. You see, Bilbo has a very high opinion of his own cleverness and a fairly low opinion of the cleverness of his fellow hobbits. One might argue that he has good reason for both opinions. Although his actual finding of the Ring was entirely fortuitous (except for the “meant to find it” that Gandalf will one day tell Frodo about!) his use of it thereafter until the end of his adventures as recounted in The Hobbit shows a high degree of intelligence, common sense and an ability to remain calm in a crisis. Even among his companions on the expedition to the Lonely Mountain the Ring chose the person best able to make use of it, excepting Gandalf, of course. And eventually Bilbo comes to realise this himself.

l3

I do not mean to be critical of him here. Self-awareness is praiseworthy and false modesty has little to recommend it. Bilbo’s growing self-confidence plays a vital role in the events of The Hobbit but there is little doubt that Bilbo becomes really quite pleased with himself.

Pleased, that is, until he realises that the Dwarves’ thirst for wealth is in danger of causing catastrophe among the Men of Esgaroth on the Long Lake, the Elves of the Woodland Realm and also the Dwarves themselves. At this point it is not so much Bilbo’s cleverness but his kindness that comes to the fore. At no point in the story does he wish to do harm to anyone, not even those who wish to hurt him, as can be seen in his sparing of Gollum.

But it is his cleverness and not his kindness that leads him to decide to use the Ring in order to make his disappearance from the Shire all the more dramatic. He wants to be talked about, to enjoy a certain notoriety and he wants to enjoy the effect that he makes. When Gandalf asks the question, who will enjoy your joke, the answer is, no-one, that is no-one except Bilbo himself and for Bilbo that is quite enough.

How would the Ring have insinuated itself into Bilbo’s heart? Surely by isolating him within his own self-satisfaction until there was room for no-one else. Once that had happened other people would either be fools or a threat. Even on the night of the party we see how Gandalf is a threat, one who might take the Ring from him, while he wants a holiday from everyone else. One wonders if he had taken the Ring with him whether he would ever have found a resting place. Later in Rivendell Bilbo will complain that he has been refused permission to go back to Hobbiton to get the Ring. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.” Bilbo may have been talking lightly but he was speaking a truth that went deeper than his words. He would have become a lonely figure “tottering about in the Wild” and eventually  he would have fallen into the hands of either the Enemy or of Gollum.

hobbit001

 

But Bilbo is saved from that fate both because there is a goodness that goes very deep down inside him and thanks to the help of a very good friend. But more on that next week.

 

Frodo Finishes The Red Book and Gives It to Sam

Sam does not know it yet but the finishing of the Red Book is the ending of Frodo’s work in Middle-earth and almost the end of his story within it too. At last the day comes when he passes it onto Sam.

“Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo!” Sam exclaimed. “Well, you have kept at it, I must say.”

“I have quite finished, Sam,” said Frodo. “The last pages are for you.”

And that is the way of it with stories. They are all bigger and certainly longer than our part within them. We enter them, play our part within them, and eventually leave them. Frodo displays his wisdom once again in leaving the empty pages. He knows that the story does not end with his departure from it. The self-obsessed Saruman could never have contemplated such a thing. His attempt to destroy the Shire was a  final and embittered expression of a belief that everything began and ended with him.

Frodo knows that wisdom is, at least in part, a knowing that we are smaller than the big story but his book, in itself a continuation of something that Bilbo began, displays another wisdom too. He displays it in the title that he chooses:

THE DOWNFALL OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS AND THE RETURN OF THE KING (as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.)

Frodo has seen the great events of his time in a way that no-one else can. It is the perspective of “the Little People”. When hobbits come to read his story they are meant to understand that in the eyes of the world they are small but they are meant to understand their greatness too. For whereas the other peoples of the story had a long-forged sense of destiny and a mythology that both preserved and celebrated that sense, the hobbits, the Little People, never have such a sense of themselves as in any way, great. They have no mythology, only family history. It is Gandalf, through his long friendship with them, who chooses Bilbo to accompany Thorin Oakenshield and his companions on the quest to the Lonely Mountain. And it is Gandalf’s hunch, that seems an absurdity to all but him but one that even he does not fully understand, that changes everything in the history of Middle-earth. It also convinces me, if I needed to be convinced, that great literature is a matter, not of invention, but of discovery. When Tolkien began to write The Hobbit his intention was to write a children’s story. He did, and wrote it successfully, but, as he put it himself when the matter that began as The Hobbit became The Lord of the Rings, “the tale grew in the telling”. The children’s story grew until it reshaped the mythology that Tolkien had been creating throughout most of his adult life.

How sad it is that certain adults, even literary ones, do not understand why it is necessary that the perspective of the child should re-form, even trans-form, that of the adult. When Bilbo first finds the Ring, by sheer “luck”, it is entirely necessary that he should regard it as a plaything. Not the burning gold upon the severed finger of the Dark Lord or the beautiful gold of the Birthday Present but a band of metal picked up by accident in utter darkness. Bilbo has nothing to see and admire but only an object picked up and squirrelled away until the moment when Bilbo absent mindedly wonders what he has in his pocket.

A certain author recently remarked angrily that he despised adults that he saw reading and enjoying Harry Potter. Poor man. Unless he learns to see and to have faith as a little child he will only be capable only of the endless and hopeless repeating cycle of existence that Sauron and all who are like him believe to be the only reality that there is. It is the moment that the children’s story, the “unexpected journey”, breaks into the adult tale of the doleful history of Middle-earth that Sauron’s Ring dominates and corrupts that something that truly new can happen. This is the story “as seen by the Little People” that Frodo writes and which he passes onto Sam.