FOTR: Bk 1, Ch 1
"You will keep an eye on Frodo, won't you?" "Yes, I will - two eyes - as often as I can spare them."After The Hobbit was published in 1937, the good folks at Allen and Unwin were so thrilled with the book's success that they contacted J.R.R. Tolkien and asked if he had any more tales of Middle-Earth. Tolkien of course was pleased that they asked and he sent over some manuscripts which he had been working on since as far back as 1916. The material chronicled ancient tales of men and elves and included stories from the earlier ages of Middle-Earth. This was the stuff that would later, in part, be published as The Silmarillion after Tolkien's death.
The publishers, however, weren't really interested in these fanciful writings and, since they were set on another volume to market to children, they told Tolkien in no uncertain terms that they had a fever - and the only prescription was more hobbit. Alas, the Oxford don was disappointed but nevertheless he set down to write what he intended to be a sequel to The Hobbit. The one-thousand page epic that would become The Lord of the Rings was not Tolkien's intention at the start.
As such, he decided to pick up with Bilbo Baggins in the Shire some fifty some-odd years down the road and have him embark on another adventure. For various reasons, he chose to change the protagonist to Bilbo's son, Bingo Baggins. Then later he felt that the eccentric old hobbit should remain a bachelor and he made Bingo a second cousin once removed. In fact, for some time the character we all know as Frodo Baggins was called Bingo Bolger-Baggins. Thankfully, Tolkien eventually dropped the Bolger in the surname and changed the first name to Frodo. Personally, I think Bingo sounds a bit too comical for a main character. Although it's not nearly as unfortunate as the name of Bilbo's father, which was Bungo. (I can hear the snickering out there)
The title of the first chapter, "A Long Expected Party", is of course a play on Chapter One of The Hobbit, which is "An Unexpected Party". The book itself was certainly "long-expected" by both its publishers and its readers. The party, to celebrate both Bilbo's and Frodo's birthday - September 22nd - is the talk of the Shire and the anticipation of its inhabitants mirrors the reader's excitement about beginning the story (mine anyway). Interesting to note that Tolkien specifically designates the 22nd as a Thursday. This year (being 2005 at the time this post was originally published) you'll notice that September 22nd is also on a Thursday. Just a little something I noticed as I was reading. But this doesn't mean a whole heck of lot as the Shire calendar doesn't sync up with our own - all months have thirty days (totaling 360 days), with the remaining five scattered throughout the year as special holidays. Because of the differences in the two calendars, September 22nd on the Shire calendar would equate to September 14th for ours. (for more explanation, see my commentary regarding Appendix D, Shire Calendar). Something else to note is that September 22nd is often the date of the autumnal Equinox.
Anyway, the chapter gives an explanation of Frodo's origins and how he came to become Bilbo's heir (to the outrage of the Sackville-Bagginses). We also get to see just how provincial the hobbits in the Shire are as they even consider the Brandybucks of Buckland on the Eastern outskirts to be odd. The subject of Bilbo's seeming "well preserved" at 111 years old is a topic of much curiosity among his relatives and neighbors. This is, of course, due to the effects of his possession of the Ring.
Because hobbits generally have a longer life expectancy than modern man enjoys, I think readers tend to overlook just how much of an oddity Bilbo is with his youthful look. Even in the film, Ian Holm's appearance has no real point of comparison because we don't know the ages of anyone else. So allow me to make note of a point of comparison. Samwise Gamgee's father, Hamfast (aka "the Gaffer") is portrayed in both the book and the film as being pretty darn old, to the point where Sam handles most of the actual gardening of Bag End, under his father's tutelage. In our minds however, Bilbo seems younger than Sam's father.
But actually, Bilbo is older than the old Gaffer. In his conversation at the Green Dragon, Hamfast Gamgee recounts the day Bilbo returned from his adventure at the Lonely Mountain of Erebor.
"I saw Mr. Bilbo when he came back, a matter of sixty years ago, when I was a lad. I'd not long come prentice to old Holman."
Now according to Tolkien, the standard "coming of age" into adulthood for hobbits is 33. So assuming that this would be about the time that Ham Gamgee - as "a lad" - began assisting old Holman in tending the gardens of Bag End, that would make the old Gaffer about 18 years younger than Bilbo (who was 51 at that time). So the next time you read the book or better yet watch the film, notice how much older Hamfast Gamgee is presented as compared to Bilbo and you can get a better of idea of how profound Bilbo's agelessness would seem to everyone else.
This part of the book is very close to Peter Jackson's film "The Fellowship of the Ring" (FOTR), but it is important to note one particular change that would make first time readers scratch their heads. Bilbo pulls his "little joke" on the crowd at the end of his speech and Gandalf conjures a great flash of light to distract the audience from the fact that Bilbo seems to vanish into thin air. The fact is, Gandalf is in on the routine. He knows in advance of Bilbo's plan and does what he can to help it along. It kind of begs the question, "If Gandalf knows about the Ring why doesn't he just spirit Bilbo off to Rivendell right then and there?". Well, Gandalf knows it is a magic ring but he doesn't know that it is the One Ring of Sauron. He dragged the real story of the finding of the Ring and its power to make the wearer invisible out of Bilbo years ago (Frodo knows the story as well).
But as wise and experienced as the wizard is, he doesn't yet know enough of the history of the Ring to recognize it. This is why he will initially defer to Saruman, as his superior, in such matters. But he knows something is fishy about it. So when he leaves again, he spends seventeen years investigating it. In the film, this time frame is compressed into weeks, understandably. When Gandalf finally returns to the Shire to tell Frodo he must take the Ring to Rivendell, Frodo is 50 years old - exactly the same age as Bilbo was when Gandalf showed up at Bag End with thirteen dwarves in The Hobbit. Bilbo also notes in his speech that September 22nd is the same date that he arrived in the lake town of Esgaroth on that adventure. Tolkien is big into anniversaries. We'll see more of this down the road, especially at the end of The Return of the King.
Another theme Tolkien highlights is free will. When Bilbo decides he doesn't want to part with the Ring, Gandalf presses him. But while he could certainly take the Ring from Bilbo by force, Tolkien is careful to subtly convey to the reader that it must be given up willingly. Like any addiction, Bilbo first has to recognize he has a problem. So this scene is very much like an "intervention" for someone who has a drug or alcohol addiction. Gandalf says "I'm not trying to rob you, but to help you." Bilbo does finally give up the ring. And I would argue that while the amount of power the Ring has over the ringbearer is tied to many factors, one of the most significant factors is the individual himself. I'll go into more about this down the road.
I sometimes wonder if it was Tolkien's intention to imply that there was some influence from the Ring that made Bilbo so desire to leave the Shire at a time when Sauron's strength was reaching its zenith. Was the Ring trying to answer the call of its Master? Bilbo was quite content to live out his days in Bag End before his adventure to the Lonely Mountain. Certainly, his experiences tapped into his Tookish side and spurred his going out and about over the years - a behavior that was very un-hobbitlike. But it seems like this is the first time that Bilbo had a yearning to see mountains again, and even cross over them for a return trip to visit the Men and Dwarves of Dale.
Bilbo does leave but he also leaves the Ring behind. Within a year or so, he will once again return to being a homebody when he settles in at Rivendell where he would live out the rest of his days. Without the Ring, his wanderlust seems to subside. Even more curious is that at the end of the chapter, Frodo - who had no real desire to leave home before - begins to feel the itch himself. He tells Gandalf: "I love the Shire. But I begin to wish, somehow, that I had gone to" [my emphasis]. Is this the Ring beginning to do its work on Frodo now that he possesses it? It's an interesting matter of debate.
One of my favorite quotes in this chapter is one that Bilbo includes in his speech:
"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."
You have to really think about that one.
One thing that I hadn't noticed before is that the group of hobbits that listened to the speech was a select group chosen to dine in the area under the tent marked by the party tree. The one hundred forty-four guest ("one gross") count was only a portion of the total number who attended the party. This group was comprised mostly of relatives and close friends. I had always assumed that this was the complete guest list. But a more attentive reading shows that pretty much the whole Shire was invited to the party and that this group was only a small part. I can't believe I never caught that before.
The account of the fireworks dragon is one that is so much like the scene in the film that as you read it you can visualize it courtesy of Peter Jackson. Although the circumstances of setting it off is different, the effect is pretty-much the same:
"Out flew a red-golden dragon - not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion."At the point where Frodo is giving gifts that Bilbo had left behind, one of these gifts caught my attention:
"Old Rory Brandybuck, in return for much hospitality, got a dozen bottle of Old Winyards: a strong red wine from the southfarthing and now quite mature, as it had been laid down by Bilbo's father."
I find this interesting that Tolkien includes wine-growing and wine-making as typical in the Shire. Many have surmised that the author modeled this beautiful place after his home in England. And while this is probably true to some extent, the presence of home-grown wine is incongruous to this comparison. Frankly, the British Isles are not a good location for viticulture because of the climate. And the fact that this is describes as a "strong red wine" that takes many years to mature indicates that the yield from Old Winyards is a wine that is full-bodied and high in tannin (which is what gives you that puckery, velvety feel inside your mouth after you drink it).
That being the case, the grapes in question would have to be thick-skinned and require a long, hot growing season. Such conditions only really exist well between the 30th and 50th parallels in either hemisphere. The idea that Britain, located on the outlying area around and to the North of the 30th parallel in the Northern hemisphere, could be - or could have ever been - a location for producing a "strong red wine" is very improbable.
So why include this aspect of Shire agriculture if it isn't typically found in Britain? Well, the Shire may be modeled on England but I think Tolkien intended to create a world in which the Hobbits had no need to import anything. In other words, the Shire should be self-sufficient to retain its insular culture. And since Tolkien no doubt appreciated a good glass of wine (Britain is one of the largest importers of wine in the world), he probably wanted to add one more special thing that was indigenous to this land.
One final observation on the tradition of hobbits giving presents to their guests on their own birthdays. Tolkien describes the practical aspect of this tradition:
"Not, of course, that the birthday presents were always new; there were one or two old mathom of forgotten uses that circulated all around the district."
It looks like it may have been hobbits who started the concept of "re-gifting".