Being that “Bilbo’s Last Song” is a one-off, this post will act as both part of the Silmarillion Blues quest and as a self-contained book review.
By and large, this is considered to be the unofficial postscript to The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s final entry in the Red Book of Westmarch, which he sings at the Grey Havens in preparation to leave Middle-Earth forever.
The poem was written as a gift from Tolkien to his secretary Joy Hill in 1966, published posthumously in 1973. It has been recorded a handful of times as a musical piece. It was meant to feature in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson was unable to secure the rights to it. Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” is written to have a similar emotional weight to it. Likewise, the extended credits sequence features a Howard Shore composition called “Bilbo’s Song,” which is translated to Sindarin from Tolkien’s original poem, and carries a similarity to both of these other pieces.
The hardcover edition features illustrations by Pauline Baynes, whom Tolkien considered to be his favorite artist. It was published in 1990, with new editions in 2002 and 2012. Each set of illustrations comes in pairs. The first depicts a scene from The Lord of the Rings, while the companion illustration depicts a scene from The Hobbit. The idea is that Bilbo recalls his life in conjunction with the verses he writes, and those verses conjure resonating ideas from both stories, creating a kind of symmetry.
You can find the full text (without illustrations) of “Bilbo’s Last Song” right here. Personally, I’m happy to have the hardcover for the illustrations as well. More than just beautiful artwork, they offer a bittersweet impact all their own, especially after living with these epic stories in this weekly Tolkien quest. No disrespect to Professor Tolkien, but while the poem is nice and all, I think the art really does the heavy lifting for this particular presentation. The song by itself doesn’t stand; it requires the knowledge of The Lord of the Rings to make an impact. We must engage with what we know know — and with how we feel — as Bilbo does. Tolkien’s mastery was language, and while Middle-Earth was born in words, art has a way of transcending language to speak to something higher and deeper in all of us. Combine that with a sense of nostalgia that Tolkien conveys through Bilbo’s song, and the marriage of music and art become something… more.