Bilbo in Tolkien's Letters

compiled by Rogorn

Bilbo in Tolkien’s letters


I received a degree (Docteur en Lettres et Philosophie) at Liège (Belgium) – if only to record the fact that it astonished me to be welcomed in French as 'le createur de Monsieur Bilbo Baggins' and still more to be told in explanation of applause that I was a 'set book' ?????? Alas!

The Hobbit saga is presented as vera historia, at great pains (which have proved very effective). In that frame the question 'Are you a hobbit?' can only be answered 'No' or 'Yes', according to one's birth. Nobody is a 'hobbit' because he likes a quiet life and abundant food; still less because he has a latent desire for adventure. 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. The story and its sequel are not about 'types' or the cure of bourgeois smugness by wider experience, but about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals. I would say, if saying such things did not spoil what it tries to make explicit, 'by ordained individuals, inspired and guided by an Emissary to ends beyond their individual education and enlargement'. This is clear in The Lord of the Rings; but it is present, if veiled, in The Hobbit from the beginning, and is alluded to in Gandalf’s last words.

Bilbo's journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods, is based on my adventures in 1911: the annus mirabilis of sunshine in which there was virtually no rain between April and the end of October, except on the eve and morning of George V's coronation. (Adfuit Omen!) Our wanderings mainly on foot in a party of 12 are not now clear in sequence, but leave many vivid pictures as clear as yesterday (that is as clear as an old man's remoter memories become).


[Writing LOTR] 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, and I do not think I shall be able to move much outside it — unless it is finished (and perhaps published) — which has a releasing effect. I have done the best I could, since I had to have hobbits (whom I love), and must still have a glimpse of Bilbo for old times' sake. But I don't feel worried by the discovery that the ring was more serious than appeared; that is just the way of all easy ways out. Nor is it Bilbo's actions, I think, that need explanation. The weakness is Gollum, and his action in offering the ring as a present.

In the original version of Chapter 5 of The Hobbit, Gollum really does intend to give Bilbo the Ring when the hobbit wins the riddle-game, and is deeply apologetic when he finds that it is missing: 'I don't know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo's pardon. He kept on saying: "We are ssorry; we didn't mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only present, if it won the competition." He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation. 'Bilbo, who has the Ring in his pocket, persuades Gollum to lead him out of the underground passages, which Gollum does, and the two of them part company in a civil manner.


Men do go, and have in history gone on journeys and quests, without any intention of acting out allegories of life. It is not true of the past or the present to say that 'only the rich or those on vacation can take journeys'. Most men make some journeys. Whether long or short, with an errand or simply to go 'there and back again', is not of primary importance. As I tried to express it in Bilbo's Walking Song, even an afternoon-to-evening walk may have important effects. When Sam had got no further than the Woody End he had already had an 'eye-opener'. For if there is anything in a journey of any length, for me it is this: a deliverance from the plantlike state of helpless passive sufferer, an exercise however small of will, and mobility – and of curiosity, without which a rational mind becomes stultified. (Though of course all this is an afterthought, and misses the major point. To a story-teller a journey is a marvellous device. It provides a strong thread on which a multitude of things that he has in mind may be strung to make a new thing, various, unpredictable, and yet coherent. My chief reason for using this form was simply technical.)


Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to 'pass away': no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of 'Arda Unmarred', the Earth unspoiled by evil. Bilbo went too. No doubt as a completion of the plan due to Gandalf himself. Gandalf had a very great affection for Bilbo, from the hobbit's childhood onwards. His companionship was really necessary for Frodo's sake – it is difficult to imagine a hobbit, even one who had been through Frodo's experiences, being really happy even in an earthly paradise without a companion of his own kind, and Bilbo was the person that Frodo most loved. But he also needed and deserved the favour on his own account. He bore still the mark of the Ring that needed to be finally erased: a trace of pride and personal possessiveness. Of course he was old and confused in mind, but it was still a revelation of the 'black mark' when he said in Rivendell: 'What's become of my ring, Frodo, that you took away?'; and when he was reminded of what had happened, his immediate reply was: 'What a pity! I should have liked to see it again'. As for reward for his pan, it is difficult to feel that his life would be complete without an experience of 'pure Elvishness', and the opportunity of hearing the legends and histories in full the fragments of which had so delighted him.

As for Bilbo, it is probable that Frodo did not at first understand what Arwen meant by 'he will not again make any long journey save one'. At any rate he did not associate it with his own case. When Arwen spoke (in TA 3019) he was still young, not yet 51, and Bilbo 78 years older. But at Rivendell he came to understand things more clearly. The conversations he had there are not reported, but enough is revealed in Elrond's farewell. From the onset of the first sickness (Oct. 5, 3019) Frodo must have been thinking about 'sailing', though still resisting a final decision — to go with Bilbo, or to go at all. It was no doubt after his grievous illness in March 3020 that his mind was made up.


The giving of presents by the 'byrding' – leaving out of account the gifts to parents — being personal and a form of thanks, varied much more in form in different times and places, and according to the age and status of the 'byrding'. The master and mistress of a house or hole, in the Shire, would give gifts to all under their roof, or in their service, and usually also to near neighbours. And they might extend the list as they pleased, remembering any special favours in the past year. It was understood that the giving of presents was not fixed by rule, though the withholding of a usual gift (as e.g. to a child, a servant, or a next door neighbour) was taken as a rebuke and mark of severe displeasure. Juniors & Inmates (those having no house of their own) were under no such obligations as rested on householders; but they usually gave presents according to their means or affections. 'Not very expensive as a rule' – applied to all the gifts. Bilbo was in this as in other ways an exceptional person, and his Party was a riot of generosity even for a wealthy Hobbit. But one of the commonest birthday ceremonies was the giving of a 'party' – in the evening of the Day. All those invited were given presents by the host, and expected them, as part of the entertainment (if secondary to the fare provided). But they did not bring presents with them. Shire-folk would have thought that very improper. If the guests had not already given a gift (being one of those required to do so by kinship), it was too late. For other guests it was a thing 'not done' – it looked like paying for the party or matching the party-gift, and was most embarrassing. Sometimes, in the case of a very dear friend unable to come to a party (because of distance or other causes) a token invitation would be sent, with a present. In that case the present was always something to eat or drink, purporting to be a sample of the party-fare.

Laura Baggins (née Grubb) remained 'head' of the family of 'Baggins of Hobbiton', until she was 102. As she was 7 years younger than her husband (who died at the age of 93 in SY 1300), she held this position for 16 years, until SY 1316; and her son Bungo did not become 'head', until he was 70, ten years before he died at the early age of 80. Bilbo did not succeed, until the death of his Took mother. Belladonna, in 1334, when he was 44.
The Baggins headship then, owing to the strange events, fell into doubt. Otho Sackville-Baggins was heir to this title – quite apart from questions of property that would have arisen if his cousin Bilbo had died intestate; but after the legal fiasco of 1342 (when Bilbo returned alive after being 'presumed dead') no one dared to presume his death again. Otho died in 1412, his son Lotho was murdered in 1419, and his wife Lobelia died in 1420. When Master Samwise reported the 'departure over Sea' of Bilbo (and Frodo) in 1421, it was still held impossible to presume death; and when Master Samwise became Mayor in 1427, a rule was made that: 'if any inhabitant of the Shire shall pass over Sea in the presence of a reliable witness, with the expressed intention not to return, or in circumstances plainly implying such an intention, he or she shall be deemed to have relinquished all titles rights or properties previously held or occupied, and the heir or heirs thereof shall forthwith enter into possession of these titles, rights, or properties, as is directed by established custom, or by the will and disposition of the departed, as the case may require.' Presumably the title of 'head' then passed to the descendants of Ponto Baggins – probably Ponto II.

Customs differed in cases where the 'head' died leaving no son. In the Took-family, since the headship was also connected with the title and (originally military) office of Thain, descent was strictly through the male line. In other great families the headship might pass through a daughter of the deceased to his eldest grandson (irrespective of the daughter's age). This latter custom was usual in families of more recent origin, without ancient records or ancestral mansions. In such cases the heir (if he accepted the courtesy title) took the name of his mother's family – though he often retained that of his father's family also (placed second). This was the case with Otho Sackville-Baggins. For the nominal headship of the Sackvilles had come to him through his mother Camellia. It was his rather absurd ambition to achieve the rare distinction of being 'head' of two families (he would probably then have called himself Baggins-Sackville-Baggins) : a situation which will explain his exasperation with the adventures and disappearances of Bilbo, quite apart from any loss of property involved in the adoption of Frodo.
I believe it was a moot-point in Hobbit lore (which the ruling of Mayor Samwise prevented from being argued in this particular case) whether 'adoption' by a childless 'head' could affect the descent of the headship. It was agreed that the adoption of a member of a different family could not affect the headship, that being a matter of blood and kinship; but there was an opinion that adoption of a close relative of the same namE before he was of age entitled him to all privileges of a son. This opinion (held by Bilbo) was naturally contested by Otho.