WHENEVER autumn arrives, when the leaves turn red and orange, and there’s a new chill in the air, I feel it’s a time for new challenges. I’m sure there’s a strong connection with the fact that in the UK, the new academic year begins in autumn – our childhood routines live on in our subconscious.
But despite these transitions, it doesn’t have the same sense of renewal and newness as the Spring, because you know you’re inching towards the end of the year – the natural world starts winding down, animals are busy preparing for the harshness of winter; there’s a flurry of activity that has a sense of purpose and seriousness. There’s also something of the unknown about autumn – especially once the clocks go back. The shorter days and cold, dark evenings inspired people in the past to stay indoors and fill the time with tales by a burning fire. (Well actually I don’t know about that last bit, but I hope they had a fire, to keep warm, no central heating in those days. I digress).
Tolkien perfectly captures the mystery and restlessness of this season in the following passage:
[Frodo] found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: ‘Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day.’ …’
So, just as Bilbo yearned to see mountains again, and Frodo ventured out into the wilderness, I’m returning to the Lord of the Rings, to reacquaint and reflect, and no doubt discover things I never knew I missed.
All well in The Shire
The chapter begins almost exactly where it left off in The Hobbit. Having witnessed events of great portent, battles and deaths, all taking place in a distant land full of perils, we are brought back to the comforts of the Shire – it is not altogether straightforward, for Bilbo returns to find his home and all its contents are on sale, with rumours of his death. But though not the ideal happy ending, the sale of Bag End is a mere nuisance for Bilbo, the comic triviality of the event made all too apparent by the dispute over a set of silver spoons. In the Shire, Bilbo’s greatest nemesis are the Sackville-Bagginses, hardly a mortal threat.
And so in the LOTR we return to Bilbo, and indeed the opening passages of the reluctant sequel return to the subject of Bag End’s ownership. It’s all very safe and untroubling – Bilbo seems to have worked things out perfectly, has sorted out an heir and the Sackville-Bagginses are foiled.
The focus then seamlessly shifts to Bilbo’s upcoming ‘eleventy-first’ birthday, which it seems is the most pressing concern for all in Hobbiton, and the major topic of conversation. (..Side-note, I love the way the first of many linguistic inventions nonchalantly strolls into the very first line of the book – brilliant). We meet the locals in the inn, with their rustic country accents, captivated by family histories and debating the oddities of Bilbo and his nephew. The day of the party arrives, and we are treated to descriptions of Gandalf’s fireworks and the little gifts distributed among the guests. No detail is left out. It’s all very endearing and cosy. However, the concerns and interests of these Shire-folk are so parochial, with so little at stake it seems, one might read the chapter wondering why they should care about any of this?
But therein lies the paradox – it is through this detail of apparent nothingness that we precisely come to care. Not yet perhaps, but we shall. That their ‘intense anxiety’ is reserved for issues as grave as the weather, is a reflection of the innocence of the Shire, and the artless simplicity of the inhabitants – qualities to be cherished and protected in an otherwise complicated world.
These are a people who are content with who they are; as the Gaffer says: “Elves and Dragons! Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you…” we can read ‘cabbages and potatoes’ as metaphors for honesty, graft and non-pretentiousness – though it might also reflect an unwillingness to change, and a lack of ambition, it is refreshing when compared to the veneers and material competition that is often celebrated in popular and professional cultures today.
The Party itself sounds like a lot of simple fun – there isn’t too much expectation on the part of the guests: they turn up, eat, receive gifts, are treated to fireworks, eat, and they don’t have to worry about having to make ‘new friends’ as they pretty much all know each other somehow or other. It’s all rather relaxed, my kind of party I think.
‘Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar’
In The Hobbit, there was an interesting and ambiguous line right at the start, in which we are told:
‘He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.’
It is in this chapter of LOTR that we get to see that prediction realised. Bilbo is considered odd – he has weird friends, goes on adventures, doesn’t seem to age and is associated with fantastical tales and rumours. He is wealthy; he was always well-to-do as we know, but the treasures he returned with made him even richer. Crucially, though, he is generous and never stingy with his wealth. He may be from Hobbiton’s equivalent of the gentry, but he is kind and not too noble to befriend those of a lower social class – he shows respect for their knowledge and skills (always consulting the Gaffer ‘in the matter or roots’), shows his gratitude for their friendship by giving them inside knowledge of his preparations for the party, and leaving a generous assortment of gifts for them after he has left.
It would seem that Bilbo shows loyalty to a few people close to him, and in turn inspires loyalty among them – from the Gaffer, to Sam, Gandalf and of course Frodo. He might be considered strange by the Shire-folk, but those that know him well are really very fond of him.
I like the little details we already have about Bilbo, that show us that he cares about his attire – I always remember his waistcoat with its gold buttons from The Hobbit. He is quite the eccentric, entirely comfortable to draw attention to himself – he must be to organise such a splendid party to celebrate his birthday, but also to plan that disappearing act under the pavilion. But at the same time I don’t think he really cares what people think of him – he doesn’t care that people will talk about him for days on end questioning his sanity, he finds it funny in fact, and he doesn’t care that noone will get the chance to say goodbye to him properly (though he has said his collective good-bye to all of them).
His adventure 60 years ago clearly changed him – back then he worried about reputations and being considered respectable, not so now. The journey there and back again really brought out his Tookish side, and rather than mellowing with age it seems the Tookish side has grown even stronger over the years. I was reflecting on his decision to leave Bag End and Hobbiton forever; it is more than a retirement, he is leaving practically everything behind, travelling with next to nothing save a few possessions on his back – a courageous move.
I also find it significant that he has treasured for so long little artefacts from his earlier adventure, and has deliberately chosen to take them with him on this next one – Sting, the old cloak and hood, weather-stained but precious: it shows quite a sensitive, nostalgic side to Bilbo, though one might not have guessed he has that side to him. For everything he says and does is usually lighthearted. Even the reason he gives for bringing Frodo to stay with him at Bag End is couched in convenience: it’s so they can celebrate their birthdays together, he says; it saves any sentimental explanation, and masks a depth and compassion at the heart of his character. It is this unwillingness to reveal his deeper nature that might cause people to underestimate him – there are several occasions when this happens, in The Hobbit and even in the LOTR. It is no coincidence that those with the keenest insight, such as Gandalf, also have the most respect for the apparently whimsical older Baggins. How often do we see this in real life, where people might be dismissive of a person, not appreciating their real worth?
Well, Tolkien does see Bilbo’s worth; he evidently likes the hobbit and is kind to him. No sooner has the tale begun, then Bilbo’s part in it ends – quite a risk for the author, since many of his readers would have picked up the LOTR hoping to hear more about the old hobbit. But given the future turn of events, that’s surely the best thing that could happen to him. He gets to leave of his own accord, in exactly the manner he wished, giving up all his burdens and worries voluntarily, to live a life of peace. We won’t worry about him, indeed he tells us not to, for he is as happy now as he’s ever been. And as such, that has always been my abiding image of Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End.
Drawing (top) – of course inspired by the following passage 🙂 :
“At the end of the second week in September a cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”
The entrance of the mysterious man always makes me smile – I remember the first time I read LOTR how excited I was that my favourite wizard would be joining the story.
I decided to experiment with brown ink (Winsor & Newton) using a traditional nib (the nibs and holder are Gillott, I opted for a thick nib); the colour is ok, less harsh than black, which is what I wanted since I was looking for a nostalgic feel. I might try and mix black with the brown next time. The nib and holder takes a little getting used to – I haven’t used them for a while. But the spontaneity of inks – dipping the nib, and accepting the risk of unpredictable spills and blots – adds something unique that makes it enjoyable. The horse is a little on the small side! so it is now officially a pony.
This drawing is for the nephew, whose favourite character is Gandalf, and who cannot wait to start reading LOTR…
You can read part 2 here .