Features, Tolkien 101

Tolkien 101: Bilbo Baggins

06.02.09 | Kunochan | 2 Comments

Originally posted on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 6/2/09.

Ian Holm as Bilbo BagginsTolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.

If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.

Bilbo Baggins is the title character of 1937’s The Hobbit, Tolkien’s first published novel that takes place in Middle Earth. The story is told from Bilbo’s perspective; in fact, although this is not indicated in the novel itself, it was Tolkien’s intention that Bilbo himself was the author of The Hobbit and the story’s narrator, with Tolkien himself only acting as the “translator” of an ancient document.

Bilbo is a member of a diminutive race called hobbits, halflings, or by the Elves periannath. Hobbits are a faintly magical people, related to and sharing descent from Men. They have established a simple, pastoral society in a quasi-nation called The Shire, which is located in what was once the Mannish nation of Arnor.

Bilbo is a wealthy and prominent hobbit from a good family of gentry, who desires nothing more than a peaceful and quiet life. He lives in a home called Bag End, most probably the nicest hobbit hole, or smial, in the area. He is very conservative, and in the beginning a bit small-minded and provincial.

But Bilbo is descended from several hobbits who, in defiance of Shire custom, showed an interest in the outside world and had “adventures.” This is the stated reason the wizard Gandalf chooses Bilbo to join an adventure to reclaim Dwarven treasure from a deadly dragon. (It is revealed in writings published after Tolkien’s death that Gandalf’s motives were in fact more complicated.)

In the course of his adventure Bilbo matures immensely, and comes to have a great appreciation for the world beyond The Shire, especially for the Elves. But his journey also teaches him to love his home in The Shire even more.

Having returned to The Shire (and taking possession of Bag End back from scheming relatives), Bilbo is something of a social pariah due to his association with Gandalf and his supposed habit of disappearing suddenly, and reappearing after a long absence laden with gold (this only happens the one time).

But Bilbo does not care – he spends most of the rest of his days writing about his adventures, studying and translating Elven histories, and befriending a number of young hobbits unafraid to be seen associating with “Mad Baggins.”

The only thing troubling Bilbo’s mind is his magic Ring, a keepsake he acquired in his travels. Ashamed of how he came into possession of the Ring (he stole it), Bilbo initially lies to Gandalf and others about how he got it, which is disturbingly out-of-character for the honest hobbit. It is Gandalf’s concern over Bilbo’s well being that leads to the events in the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings.

Bilbo’s “real name” in Tolkien’s invented Mannish language of Westron (also the tongue spoken by hobbits) is Bilba Labingi. “Bilbo Baggins” is an English translation; “Baggins” evokes English “bag,” or it may be a reference to “bagging,” Northern English slang for eating between meals (one of Bilbo’s favorite activities).

You can read more about Bilbo Baggins at The Encyclopedia of Arda, The Thain’s Book, or Wikipedia.

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