Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is renowned in the Shire, if not the object of a little superstition, owing to tales of his grand adventures and the occasional visit from elves, dwarves, or wizards. Further adding to the suspicion is the fact that ever since his return to the Shire with the Ring, which he won (stole?) from Sméagol, he seems to have not aged a day.
The Shire is buzzing with excitement as preparations are made for Bilbo’s “Eleventy-First” birthday party. And on the night of his party, he invites a select group of guests to a private dinner in which he gives an ominous speech. At the climactic moment of the speech, Bilbo slips his hand into his pocket, puts on his secret ring, and disappears in a flash of light.
Bilbo slips off back to Bag End, where he resumes preparations for a final departure from the Shire. Gandalf, a wizard and old friend of the Hobbit, comes to his house to bid him a final goodbye. Gandalf reminds Bilbo that he had promised to leave his Ring to his nephew and adopted heir, Frodo. Bilbo, however, suddenly reluctant to part with his ring, reacts in suspicion and anger toward the old wizard, and after a brief showdown, relents, slipping the ring into an envelope and setting it on the mantle. Then he makes his departure down the road, singing a song with his dwarf companions.
The Next day, Gandalf speaks with Frodo, asking what Frodo knows about the Ring. Gandalf, who has come to suspect that there is more to this Ring than meets the eye, leaves with haste to seek out the Ring’s origin, pleading with Frodo to keep the ring a secret.
On Framing the Story with Bilbo Rather Than Frodo
I originally found the pace of the opening chapter of Fellowship of the Ring to be quite slow and annoying. On second read, though, I was quite struck by the way Tolkien uses this chapter to frame the whole of the story.
If one were completely unfamiliar with the arc of the coming story, one might be forgiven for thinking that Bilbo was the primary protagonist of The Lord of the Rings. However, this is not the case, as will be seen beginning with Chapter 2.
Why then does Tolkien use almost the entirety of the chapter tightly focused on Bilbo’s point of view?
The answer, I think, is that this is a story that is so much larger than Frodo, Bilbo, or anyone else in Middle Earth. This is a story about The One Ring, and all hinges on the power of the Ring. It, and it alone, drives the events past, present, and future.
The Ring, which operated as basically a convenient plot device from time to time in “The Hobbit,” has now taken on a more sinister back story. Consider the primary suspicion between the Shirefolk and Bilbo. He hasn’t aged a day, and though it isn’t explictely in this moment clear that the Ring is behind his youthful appearance, readers should begin to clue into something here.
This is forshadowed beautifully by the Shirefolk:
“It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!”
So then, this chapter, while serving to orient the reader to the Shire, the life of hobbits, and give us a brief glimpse of one of our protagonist in the chapter’s final pages, really serves to introduce us to the Ring, which has cost Bilbo dearly (though he does not know it fully), and which will demand payment in the end.
On The Reason for Bilbo’s Party
Bilbo’s primary goal in this chapter is to leave the Shire. Well and good. Why then the spectacle of his party? Why his little “trick” on the party goers, using the ring to disappear from their view? Why not simply slip out in the night as he eventually does?
On first read, I assumed it was vanity. I think it’s clear that Bilbo is somewhat taken with the constant rumors of his estate. He is quite wealthy, has seen much of the world that not many, if any, other Hobbits have seen, and so has earned the right, in his mind, to act with a bit of magnanimity. I thought the party, then, was just an excuse to go out with a bang (quite literally). Give the Shirefolk something to remember him by.
But there is of course, a deeper reason.
Consider Bilbo’s words after the trick has been played on the guests:
“After all that’s what this party business was all about, really: to give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give [the ring] away at the same time. It hasn’t made it any easier in the end, but it would be a pity to waste all my preparations. It would quite spoil the joke.”
As you’ll recall, Bilbo found it terribly difficult to give his “precious” ring away. Such is the Ring’s power, as we’ll see, over it’s possessor.
The Ring has left Bilbo, for all his status, legend, wealth, at a lack of courage or moral resolve. The party, then, becomes what he thinks will be an impetus toward courage. It must be noted here that at a Hobbit’s birthday party, is the one throwing the party who gives away gifts, not the other way around. As well, Bilbo has left notes for what of his estate is to be given to whom once he has has gone. The whole affair is a means to “grease the wheel,” to loose his control of his earthy possessions, so he can somehow find the courage to give away the one thing he rather would keep for himself, The Ring.
His plan would have failed, had it not been for the endearing, if harsh, friendship of Gandalf the Grey, who in the end, prevails over Bilbo in convincing him to leave the ring after all.
So then, the party was not (only) an exercise in Bilbo’s vanity, but was meant as a stirring up of a courage which the Ring had stripped Bilbo of.
On Dwarf Toys
“There were toys the like of which they had never seen before, all beautiful and some obviously magical. Many of them had indeed been ordered a year before, and had come all the way from the Mountain and from Dale, and were of real dwarf-make.“
Here’s something that’s been keeping me up at night: What kind of toys do Dwarf children play with?
We know from “The Hobbit,” that the dwarf Bifur and his family were forced to work as toy makers when they were driven from their home in the Lonely Mountains by the dragon Smaug.
I assume then, that Bilbo contracted his old friend, Bifur, or perhaps his heirs, to build toys to give to the children at his birthday party.
But, like, what kind, man? That’s what I want to know. Alas, google hasn’t helped me a bit.
If anyone has any insight into this most important issue, please do leave a note.