The Hobbit Equation
Starting my reread, I questioned the workings of hobbits more deeply than before. I questioned what exactly the difference is between Bilbo (then later the four LOTR hobbits and to a lesser extent, Buckland) and the rest of the Shire that is so distasteful.
Here’s what I came up with.
Most hobbits: simplicity + ignorance
The distasteful exceptions: simplicity + knowledge
Ringbearers: knowledge - simplicity
Simplicity and ignorance is the rule of the Shire, at least near Hobbiton. You can see this in the culture, the dialogue, the narration, and the priorities. They value comfort and good food, party invitations and pipeweed. The entirety of the Shire gets caught up in Bilbo’s party. The post office is flooded and overwhelmed, food is essentially the central feature of any event and hobbit parents are willing to bend their rules if it means their children get a free meal. It’s only the Speech they dread.
Hobbits are simple. They want a simple speech. Before it even starts, the hobbits dread hearing Bilbo’s poetry, or his allusions “to the absurd adventures of his mysterious journey.” The hobbits don’t want knowledge of the outside world. They want to remain isolated for the sake of simplicity, but what they end up with is willful ignorance. They look down on Buckland, call its people strange, because they ride on boats like the outsiders and live unnaturally close to the Old Forest and the edge of the Shire. They live too near to danger, to knowledge that would change them. They don’t want to hear it, and they dismiss all who do as crazy and uncivilized. They blame Frodo’s parents for their own death because they tempted fate. They say Bilbo’s cracked and Frodo’s cracking. They make fun of Sam for learning from Bilbo and condemn Gandalf, an outsider, as a disturber of the peace.
It is with Bilbo’s Speech that this silent battle comes to the forefront. This has been simmering the entire time Bilbo has been back, and now it is boiling over. The battle is Bilbo’s knowledge and complexity versus the Shire’s willful ignorance and simplicity.
After Bilbo greets the different families, the book reads,
“Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today! ‘Hurray! Hurray! Many Happy Returns!’ they shouted, and they hammered joyously on the tables. Bilbo was doing splendidly. This was the sort of stuff they liked: short and obvious.”
But then the Speech starts to change. He says he has called them all here for a “Purpose,” with a capital P. This is when some of the Tooks begin to listen carefully. Because Bilbo is deviating from the norm. Something about how he says this implies something new. This is a sign of Bilbo’s Speech going off the rails, and a reference to the “Took-ish spirit” of Bilbo’s that leapt at the chance for adventure all those years before. The Tooks pick up on the change, and they are interested.
Bilbo then announces that he has Three Purposes, and each one is more unacceptable than the last. The First is well received at its beginning (flattery is easy to understand), but then it becomes too complex. The hobbits are confused and unsettled. Thrown off, and made to think.
“Indeed. for Three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits. Tremendous outburst of approval.
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a compliment.
Secondly, to celebrate my birthday. Cheers again.
Bilbo returns to the simple, and receives a positive response. They are easy to forgive this short complexity, because they don’t want to think too hard about it. They are ready to move on and are still happy to be filled with good food.
“I should say: OUR birthday. For it is, of course, also the birthday of my heir and nephew, Frodo. He comes of age and into his inheritance today. Some perfunctory clapping by the elders; and some loud shouts of ‘Frodo! Frodo! Jolly old Frodo,’ from the juniors. The Sackville-Bagginses scowled, and wondered what was meant by ‘coming into his inheritance’.
Now he alludes to what is about to happen. He is not only celebrating Frodo; he is setting up his imminent inheritance of Bag End, which of course is noticed by the Sackville-Bagginses. This is a transition from Bilbo to Frodo narratively as well. We followed Bilbo in The Hobbit, and now we will follow Frodo through The Lord of the Rings. We see that Frodo is liked by his peers, just as Bilbo once was. But the hobbits are more suspicious of Frodo because of his upbringing with the changed Bilbo. But Frodo still has his simplicity. He can balance well the simplicity of the Shire and the complexity of Bilbo. He knows how to mediate between them. Bilbo has shared his knowledge with Frodo, and Frodo does not yet have the Ring (something that will take away childlike simplicity). But the Ring is part of his inheritance, both literally and narratively. He is bound to the same fate, and the hobbits notice this as the years pass. (I’m getting ahead of myself; more about the Ring later). Frodo is still in love with the Shire, and the Shire accepts him, because he still has simplicity. He is popular: smart, adaptable, and open.
“Together we score one hundred and forty-four. Your numbers were chosen to fit this remarkable total: One Gross, if I may use the expression. No cheers. This was ridiculous. Many of his guests, and especially the Sackville-Bagginses, were insulted, feeling sure they had only been asked to fill the required number, like goods in a package. ‘One Gross, indeed! Vulgar expression.”
Here, some of Bilbo’s feelings come through. He has been isolated so long from hobbit society that he no longer sees them the same way. One Gross: an expression not meant for describing people (as stated earlier in the chapter). These hobbits, his relatives, are no longer his people. Except for Frodo. He and Frodo are now the only people he knows. He is setting them aside from the general populace. And it is this populace, these people present, that he wants to send a message to. And these hobbits are now both unsettled and angered, now even most of the Tooks. Bilbo, no longer caring what they think of him, is committing social suicide before he leaves just so he can finally challenge their way of life.
“It is also, if I maybe allowed to refer to ancient history, the anniversary of my arrival by barrel at Esgaroth on the Long Lake; though the fact that it was my birthday slipped my memory on that occasion. I was only fifty-one then, and birthdays did not seem so important. The banquet was very splendid, however, though I had a bad cold at the time, I remember, and could only say ‘thag you very buch’. I now repeat it more correctly: Thank you very much for coming to my little party. Obstinate silence. They all feared that a song or some poetry was now imminent; and they were getting bored. Why couldn’t he stop talking and let them drink to his health? But Bilbo did not sing or recite. He paused for a moment.
Thirdly and finally, he said, I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT. He spoke the last word so loudly and suddenly that everyone sat up who still could. I regret to announce that – though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too short a time to spend among you – this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW, GOODBYE!
He stepped down and vanished.
Bilbo has felt since his adventure that he has been keeping a secret: the secret of culture, history, the Ring, adventure. Knowledge that he has been trying to share for years, but the hobbits have been willingly blind and deaf to it. This creates an unhappy dichotomy – a tension that Bilbo releases in his Speech. He literally SHOUTS his differences at the hobbits, going through the list of what they think is unacceptable or what they don’t like. He has everything in this speech: complex words, references to adventure and foreign places, ‘One Gross.’ And when he does this, even though they’ve been insulted, they pass it off as just mad old Bilbo. Because that is easier than examining it. But there is unrest; the hobbits are upset that he made them think. For a brief moment, they are speechless. Frodo gives them a simple explanation they can accept, but for a while, they are still disturbed; even good food will not satisfy them. Bilbo has succeeded in briefly challenging their way of thinking. But then the hobbits blame Gandalf, an outsider, and decide that Bilbo must have fallen in a pool or river and died. A normal way of dying – his adventure cut short with a realistic end, as a warning to any who might also get such silly ideas. They want things to be simple as they always were, but Bilbo is on a different level; all of his knowledge, his complexity, made him an outcast. One side has to give.
Bilbo has lost both his simplicity and his ignorance, and thus cannot stay in the Shire. He no longer belongs. There is no place for him. Frodo, as the years pass after the party, also begins to lose this belonging, and often regrets not going with Bilbo. He knows things about the world, he knows that great and terrible things are out there. That knowledge becomes a burden in the Shire, where no one else knows or cares; just like the simplicity and ignorance of Sam, Merry, and Pippin are initially an obstacle for them in navigating the world outside. But Frodo is different. Wheras Sam, Merry, and Pippin have a hard time because they still belong to the Shire, Frodo has a hard time in the Shire because he’s starting not to belong. What is different about him, then, that Sam, who was also taught by Bilbo, does not share?
The Ring, the sinister part of Frodo’s inheritance. Part of Frodo’s dissatisfaction may also come from his personality, but the Ring is an instrument for the loss of simplicity. It creates dissatisfaction, the want for more. It twists who you are, and you lose your innocence. This is the thing that drove Gollum, another hobbit-like creature, away from his own people. The longer Frodo carries the Ring, the more he forgets about the simple things. As he gets closer to Mordor, and the Ring becomes stronger, we get this dialogue from Frodo: “I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass.” This is eerily similar to what Gollum experienced under the mountains, where the Ring had so long to corrupt him.
“And we wept, Precious, we wept to be so alone. And we only wish to catch fish so juicy sweet. And we forgot the taste of bread… the sound of trees… the softness of the wind.”
This quote is a close echo of Frodo’s (or rather, vice versa). The Ring works to separate you from comfort, to go against your nature. For the simple hobbits, this is good food, nature, and especially companionship. This is why Frodo would have failed without Sam and his loyalty. Sam not only reminded him of these simple things (with his yet intact simplicity); he refused to leave Frodo even when the Ring tried to drive Sam away.
Eventually, even Sam, who also bore the Ring however briefly, feels the need to leave the Shire and sail like Frodo and Bilbo did. Frodo and Sam are the only two that listened to Bilbo’s stories and poetry as children. They had that knowledge from early on, and the Ring took away their childlike simplicity.
Merry and Pippin are different. They retain their simplicity throughout the story and beyond. Their shared connection of simplicity with the Shire allows them to become excellent leaders with the knowledge and experience that they gained. This difference and growth is highlighted in the Scouring of the Shire, when the hobbits take charge and Merry blows the horn of Rohan in response to Sandyman. I’ll get into this when I get to the end of my reread.
Finally, we’ll look at the Grey Havens. This is where Merry and Pippin most show their difference from Frodo and Sam. After Frodo leaves, Sam is comtemplative, sorrowful, and silent (though he can still delight in his family). Merry and Pippin walk back to the Shire singing. They are still joyful, mature and yet childlike (as opposed to the childish ignorance of the Shire previously). They still have their simplicity and, after the Shire has been so rocked, can bring their knowledge to the changed Shire in a subtle way. Because it was by the hobbits’ ignorance that they were susceptible to Saruman.
Merry and Pippin have been built up by their adventures, they have grown (literally and figuratively) and give off an aura of competence but also an aura of joy. They adapted to the world beautifully. Frodo and Sam were torn down by their adventures, Frodo so much so that he can no longer find peace in Middle Earth, while Sam can still be rebuilt by his family and his own rebuilding of the Shire itself. By restoring the nature of the Shire, he restores a bit of that simplicity in himself, until his own time to sail.
To conclude (at last), the proper growth of a hobbit is from childish to childlike: something Frodo achieved before even leaving the Shire. He experienced negative growth with his loss of simplicity, and thus, like Bilbo, was no longer able to stay in the Shire. He did, however, go a bit more quietly than Bilbo, whose Speech was the manifestation of the dichotomy of ignorance vs. knowledge, and a measure of how the Shire needed to change. So this is the hobbit equation: simplicity and ignorance, or simplicity and knowledge. The Ring takes one away from their nature, and they become un-hobbitlike, like Gollum became un-hobbitlike. Theirs is a healing that can now only come from the peace of Valinor.
(This has gotten abhorrently long. I’ll continue building on this idea as I go through the books, along with my other thoughts and theories. Hope you enjoyed! )