From the outset, I just want to say a couple of things before I dive into this final chapter of The Hobbit.
The first is that it’s Professor Tolkien’s birthday, so it’s auspicious that we come to the end of the first stage of our journey through Middle-Earth today. And as we know that every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, it’s equally auspicious for me that today begins the next phase: The Lord of the Rings. More on that at the end of this.
The second is that although many have dropped off from active participation in the group, I know that we’ve still carried on in our appreciation of Middle-Earth. Whether you’re a part of our Silmarillion Blues quest or not, I’m glad you’ve come along on this journey with me to really explore Tolkien’s world. I hope to see more people come along for The Lord of the Rings, but I understand however things work out. It is a massive tome, and life gets in the way sometimes. Regardless, thank you all for your involvement, at whatever level you’ve engaged at.
So without further adieu, let’s put the finishing touches on The Hobbit.
When we were first introduced to Rivendell, it was the boundary between the safe and the wild, between the civilized and the dangerous. It’s the transition point between the mundane and the legendary, and that transition goes both ways. The elves once more sing, and their song is reflective of the one they sang in their introduction. Even so, it feels far less silly to me in spite of the “tra-la-la-lallies.” It speaks of the impermanence of things in the world. Even though Tolkien could not know what he would write in The Lord of the Rings, it seems a rather somber thought that immortals such as elves would have, and yet, what remains when even they are gone? The answer, of course, is the song. That’s an incredible thought to me as, according to The Silmarillion, Middle-Earth began with song. Of course the elves would know the power of music and use it to speak of the withering of such legendary things. It reminds me of another great epic that was spelled out in song:
Sing, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.
Again, Tolkien could not know what he would write, but it makes me wonder how much of these ideas he had rolling around in his head. The citadel of Gondor always reminds me of the citadel of Troy. According to legend, the survivors of Troy set out in exile and their descendants eventually became the very people who would settle the British Isles. As the story of Middle-Earth is the legend of the British people according to Tolkien’s personal beliefs of how it “should have been,” there’s a kind of lop-sided symmetry here in my mind. The great city never falls, the great people survive the end of all things, and all of it lives on in song. Of course the elves know what power that is. Of course they do. And through that power, they beckon Bilbo to ignore the world’s problems and to stay with them. Rivendell is everything that the Desolation of the dragon is not: joy and complete rest. The song would suggest that the elves’ isolation makes them uninterested in the affairs of the world, all evidence to the contrary both here and in other works. But perhaps it is that they’ve seen so much that makes them appreciate the truly important things such as nature. Separation and rest has made them in tune with the world, and they suggest that Bilbo might benefit likewise.
Their second song is a joke, and it’s taken in stride. After Bilbo falls asleep, a group of elves sings a “lullaby” under his window, waking him up rather harshly. The song is there primarily, I think, to remind us of how merry the elves are by nature. For all that they’ve seen, for as much death as they’ve witnessed, they endure precisely because they can still laugh. That’s such a simple and profound idea.
After a week, Bilbo sets out towards home. His uncertainty is spelled out for us, first by his comment that his first taste of home is the wind and rain in his face, and then by his own song that he crafts on the spot. It’s a song of his journey, of where he’s been, but he’s not a part of it. It’s completely impersonal, as though he feels as separated from it as he does his home. As an aside, this song is also the original version of a song that will evolve and appear in The Lord of the Rings. It says much that he’s singing at all, for that was never a part of who he was when his adventure began. And again, the enduring power of the song… It has to be an idea that Tolkien thought about at length. At any rate, Gandalf confirms that Bilbo has indeed changed and acknowledges this uncertainty.
Way back in the story, Bilbo reached a point where he was determined to go forward rather than to look back, and at this point he had a dream. Perhaps now we might understand it to be a premonition. In the dream he wandered through his home, looking for something, but not knowing what it looked like, and not finding it. Was it an acknowledgement that he would find something out on the road, that perhaps if he’d stayed as he wished, he’d forever wonder what it was he would not find?
Or was he looking for his lost belongings, sold at auction only hours before his return?
In his absence, Bilbo has been declared missing, presumed dead, and dragon-sickness has claimed the Shire. Some claim to be happy to see him when clearly they are not, and especially the Sackville-Bagginses seem to resort to thievery. The narrator says that it takes Bilbo years to completely put this fiasco behind him. Even so, the one thing he feared losing most way back in chapter one — his reputation — is the one thing that’s ultimately missing. He has been declared a friend to elves, dwarves, men, and even a wizard, but to his own people, he is no longer trusted or worthy of such. It’s a reminder that the Shire is no idyllic paradise. If the dragon-sickness can reach there, perhaps so too can war. But this isn’t a theme that’s expanded upon until the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings. His people are small-minded (pun intended?), and he finds he no longer cares about what they think about him, which is precisely where we’ll begin the next adventure. He is a hobbit completely unlike his fellow hobbits. A sword hangs with his clock above the mantle, a mail shirt hangs in the hall, and sometimes he goes forth on walks as far as Rivendell just because he can, perhaps composing songs as he goes. If anything, his life post-adventure is filled with wonder and joy as befitting a life truly lived.
The Desolation of Smaug has been healed. Birds, flowers, trees… abundance in general has returned to the lands of Middle-Earth. Friendship between the races has been built.
The final scene in the book has Bilbo sitting with Gandalf and Balin, a perfect bookend to the unexpected party of chapter one. During this scene, we learn from Gandalf what he and the narrator have been suggesting all along, that what we’ve called luck is the hand of a higher authority, suggesting that Bilbo was not the hero of his own story, but rather the catalyst of a much larger reckoning. He was but one instrument in a greater orchestra, and as a result he has learned wisdom and humility.
Repeating this idea, his memoir again reminds me (as if I needed such a reminder) that Bilbo’s adventure is only a link in a much greater chain of Middle-Earth history. Tolkien didn’t know it at the time, but once it became known to him, the One Ring would become the necessary link in a chain that would begin in the mists of legend and unfold in the decades following. Sadly, that greater adventure overshadows this one and brings with it a tragic resonance to Bilbo’s character. But here, at the end of this, for one brief and shining moment, Bilbo gets his happily ending. As the elves would point out, even this is fleeting, but that doesn’t make it any less special. It’s the perfect end to a perfectly crafted story. And like Bilbo, we are swept up from here into a much larger story, made more grand by the idea that the book we are reading is an artifact of legend, written by the hobbit’s own hand… the music that has survived his time through the ages, down into our own.
* * * * *
Over the past 19 weeks, I’ve explored The Hobbit about as in-depth as I’ve explored any book, giving Middle-Earth the same kind of thoughtful treatment that I’ve given to any of my favorite stories, regardless of medium. As much as I can argue the genius of the Star Wars prequels or talk about the politics or character arcs of any other of my truly favorite tales, Middle-Earth has always stood before me like this vast and impenetrable monolith, not unlike the Argonath. I’ve read Tolkien’s books repeatedly in my life, and I always find enjoyment in them. But over repeated exposure and through other media or performances, I begin to unlock doors that always seemed closed to me. That I’ve seen so much in The Hobbit with a little help from Professor Corey Olsen and the thoughts of fellow Tolkien enthusiasts says so much. It gives me endless amounts of joy and reverence for what lies ahead knowing that what I think I know isn’t nearly so much as what I will discover.
Next week begins coverage of The Lord of the Rings, which I will begin reading today. To this day I consider this book to be a masterwork of unparalleled worldbuilding, the alpha and omega of the entire fantasy genre that all others are written either to emulate or to be distanced from it as entirely as possible, but alwaysin relation to it. I’m excited beyond words to give this, my absolute favorite book, the same level of dedication that I did with The Hobbit. The understanding and appreciation that I gained here will last a lifetime as I’ve come to see The Hobbit as a masterwork in its own right as opposed to simply an underdeveloped prelude to a larger world with some half-baked poetry in it. I have well and truly learned to see this differently. Some things are simply worth slowly down and savoring. It’s been incredible to share this journey.
This is only the beginning.
The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can…
For those who want to jump in, next week we’ll discuss the prologue to The Lord of the Rings: “Concerning hobbits, and other matters.” Break out those fancy leatherbound editions or well-worn paperbacks and read along. The fun begins… NOW.