From unexpected to long-expected
One of my favourite things about reading The Fellowship of the Ring is seeing the connections and references to The Hobbit. This opening chapter reminds readers of the altogether unexpected party that swept Bilbo Baggins up into a very inconvenient adventure to reclaim some long-forgotten gold. We re-enter Middle-earth in a different time, but the place (and the food) is comfortably familiar; it’s Bilbo’s 111th birthday, after all.
Long-expected the party may be, but there are more than a few surprises.
The transition from children’s faerie tale—although it was never just for children—to fantasy epic is possible because of the mythic quality of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It’s believable both stories took place in the same and they were simply prepared for different audiences. We see this with historic myths like the tales of King Arthur. Start with Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and then move on to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King before circling back around.
This perspective on stories, their value and their weight, manifests itself both within the story and without through Tolkien’s efforts to create a founding myth for England. He created Middle-earth to be to England what the Eddas and Sagas were to the peoples of Scandinavia.
If there’s one thing I’m noticing on this read-through it’s how invested and preoccupied the characters are with stories, both their telling and their making.
The virtues of hobbits
We start to see the joyful simplicity of life in the Shire in this chapter, though it isn’t a perfect existence as evidenced by troublesome relations like the Sackville-Bagginses. We see that Bilbo’s wealth isn’t resented, at least not by those with sense, because Bilbo is free with it, especially towards the needy.
In the Prologue: Concerning Hobbits I remarked on hobbits’ love of good, simple things. The first act of The Fellowship of the Ring establishes these truths about hobbits but we won’t truly see the worth—or the power—of until the final chapters of the saga. Also, be prepared for a lot of Samwise Gamgee.
In his conversation with Hobbiton’s miller, Gaffer Gamgee comments on how Bilbo taught Sam “his letters,” opening up the world of reading and writing to the young Samwise. This isn’t the first time readers will be reminded of the humble station of Sam Gamgee, or of his love of the stories his new learning opened up. It’s safe to assume Sam is pleased to know his letters, but his father the gaffer is unsure whether it’ll be for good or ill:
“‘Elves and dragons!’ I says to him. ‘Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you.’”
The gift of story doesn’t always require letters but its helped along a great deal by them. The quote above is a wonderful bit of foreshadowing for Samwise’s later musings on the tales that really matter.
The virtue of generosity is on full display as the long-expected party gets underway. Bilbo is carting in delicacies and workers from beyond the borders of the Shire but just when grumblings about buying local would be expected he does just that. Wealth doesn’t necessarily need to be accompanied by avarice. The businesses of Hobbiton and the surrounding townships are recipients of a second layer of generosity as Bilbo’s seeks to set a merry feast before his guests by buying out the stores and stocks of every baker, butcher, and grocer in town.
There is some pomp to the whole affair, seeing how both Bilbo’s and Frodo’s important birthdays happen to fall on the same date, but the whole thing reminds me more of raucous potluck dinner than a fancy dinner party. I’ll take a bit of joyous excess over gourmand scarcity any day; and so it seems would hobbits. Good, simple food and drink in abundance over exclusive rarities is also the approach applied to the guest list: practically the whole Shire is invited (or shows up anyhow).
I see a special magnificence in how the party is meant to go on for everyone even as the closest relations gather for a special dinner in the pavilion. Why not just invite the 144 guests to the feast in the pavilion? Why deck out an entire field for celebration and feed a small sea of hungry hobbits? Because sometimes the communal is preferable to the personal; it’s almost always wider, larger, and more inclusive. The whole Shire will be talking about it for years because they were invited to participate in it.
The passing of the Ring
Now we come to the point where tension around Bilbo’s mysterious ring begins to grow. It’s becoming clear the ring isn’t just a useful trinket Bilbo picked up during his travels: it exerts a will.
The Ring reveals its character obliquely at first, when Bilbo’s comes to the point of passing it on. We see a very different Bilbo from the one returned from the Lonely Mountain at the end of The Hobbit. He isn’t only unlike himself, but also rather like Gollum, who serves here and elsewhere as a measuring stick for the Ring’s corrupting influence.
On display in Bag End, after Bilbo’s joke at the party, is the fascinating interplay between the wills of the ring and ring-bearer. Bilbo willfully sets the plan in motion and agrees with Gandalf that the ring should be left to Frodo. But the ring works its will as well, bringing justifications to Bilbo’s mind; which the hobbit seizes. Gandalf is able to appeal to the struggling Bilbo not with reason or coercion, but with friendship and trust. “Trust me as you once did,” says the wizard, although he is pressed to reveal a glimpse of his power in the process—a reminder that this wizard commands more than fireworks.
Bilbo is finally able to give up the ring freely and feels lighter for it. His eager feet hop the hedge and carry him away from the rule of his magic ring, though they can’t bear him to place wholly free from it. Even so, Bilbo is more free now than he has been.
The rings passes to Frodo, for good or ill. Revelations from the dark past and a menacing present await him—and the reader—in Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past.