This is part fourteen of a series on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Previous installments are indexed chronologically here with a few extras and the bibliography. Yep. You read that correctly. Part 14!
I’m focusing on the relationships between the One Ring and the other characters, with reference to The Hobbit and The Silmarillion as needed. Because the construction of Tolkien’s narrators is so complex, I’m reading the books as historical documents first, and as a fictional narrative second. I have two goals.
- To establish that it is valid to read the Ring is an independent character rather than merely an appendage of Sauron; and
- To examine how various characters interact with the Ring and the consequences of those interactions with an eye to developing a better understanding of the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.
Isildur connects the narrative of LOTR to the events of the First Age chronicled in The Silmarillion. Gollum makes the story work. Without Gollum to drive the personal conflicts that are actually depicted on the page, LOTR would be a brilliant piece of constructed history, but it would not be a well-developed novel.
Bilbo is not central to the plot of LOTR, but he is as significant a historical figure as Isildur and Gollum. He brings the Ring back into the light of day after two-and-a-half millenia of darkness and is profoundly changed by its influence. Isildur and Gollum tell us much about the nature of evil in Middle Earth, but Bilbo is the touchstone for Tolkien’s concept of good.
Bilbo is born in the Shire in TA2890. His adventure to the Lonely Mountain with Thorin and Company takes place over the course of about a year in 2941-42, and he returns to the Shire with the Ring in the same year Sauron returns secretly to Mordor. He leaves the Ring to Frodo and departs the Shire for Rivendell in 3001, where he lives for the next two decades before sailing into the West with Frodo and the three keepers of the elven rings in September, 3021, at the age of 131. (1)
Here is a timeline of important events of the late Third Age to help you place Bilbo’s life in the larger historical context. By the time Bilbo is born, Osgiliath has been left to decay and Mordor unguarded for twelve centuries. The Nazgul have held Minas Morgul for almost 1000 years, and Sauron has been in Mirkwood for nearly 2000.
Of the characters who possess the Ring for an appreciable amount of time, Bilbo is corrupted the least, and he is the only one who gives it up willingly. I think there are three reasons for this.
- He he has a good heart to begin with. There is no question about this. It’s clear from he very beginning of the Hobbit, and it begins with the hospitality he shows the Dwarves in “An Unexpected Party.” (2)
- He doesn’t use the Ring often, given the length of time he possesses it. This is interesting, because it suggests that he’s just less susceptible to its temptations than the other ringbearers.
- Once he returns from his journey with the dwarves, he uses it only for innocuous reasons – mostly to hide from unpleasant relatives. He does not use it even once to gain peoples’ secrets on purpose, or to make himself more powerful. It’s a last resort for getting out of jams.
As a stand-alone text, The Hobbit reads as a simple, episodic adventure story with both comic and tragic elements. But when you look at it in the context of the Tolkien’s larger work and start to ask questions about how the Ring changes Bilbo’s life, there’s quite a lot to talk about. I almost revisited “Riddles in the Dark” for the next post, but I think I’ve said everything I have to say about that one. (3)
Since I am trying to understand Bilbo now, rather than Gollum, I am looking at the journey through Mirkwood. Do stay tuned! (4)
* The Headline is taken from this quote:
For Thorin had taken heart again hearing how the hobbit had rescued his companions from the spiders, and was determined once more not to ransom himself . . . until in fact the remarkable Mr. Invisible Baggins . . . had altogether failed to think of something clever.
I will return to this passage before we are done. It is from “Spiders and Flies,” in The Hobbit, p. 171.
1. All the historical information in this post is from “The Tale of Years,” Appendix B in Return of the King, pp. 363-378.
2. Chapter 1 in The Hobbit, pp 15-39.
3. “Riddles in the Dark” is Chapter 4 in The Hobbit, pp. 76-95.
4. You real nerds want to go and read “Flies and Spiders,” Chapter 8 in my version, pp. 140-166. Like, now.
My plan for this is to do as I did last year and have a Tolkien post every week while this series is active, so on weeks when I don’t have an installment ready — which will surely happen, given my level of commitment to this thing — I’ll do a roundup of posts from the usual suspects and/or interesting items from Middle Earth News.
Bonus post idea for some enterprising blogger: The Hobbit has many characteristics of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. It would be interesting to look at the text to see how well it fits into Campbell’s scheme and where it deviates. I will never get around to doing this. So feel free to borrow the idea and drop us the link if you do.