The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books 2002) pp. 100-123
Sixty years prior to the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins departed on a life-changing journey with the Dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin Oakenshield. It is important to note that Bilbo had no interest in going on this journey and the whole experience was fairly thrust upon him, though it was ultimately his decision to go. As it is for many after their first truly transformative life experience, Bilbo, after the end of his journey “there and back again” to and from Erebor, long yearned for another adventure, and this is where we find him at the start of The Lord of the Rings.
The thrill of seeing the world outside his home was a craving that grew in Bilbo’s bones for the rest of his life. In one of my very favorite descriptions of what it feels like to have a yearning for something in your breast that eventually wears on your spirit, Bilbo tells Gandalf, “I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!… Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.” If ever there were a characterization of this profound restlessness that I could both see and feel in my heart as I write this after leaving my 9-5 desk job, it is this one. The reason it was important to note that Bilbo had no initial interest in an adventure sixty years ago is because of how typical that is for Hobbits
Hobbits, for as much as they enjoy a good time, prefer their fun to be in short and contained doses, never pushing their sensibilities beyond what is common and comfortable. Most are uncomfortable with the presence of the likes of Gandalf, some calling him “a nuisance and a disturber of the peace”. So, unsurprisingly, when Bilbo ventured off with Gandalf the first time, Bilbo came to have a similar reputation. Bilbo’s party is a good example of how Bilbo’s fondness for fun and adventure has gone beyond what is typical for a Hobbit.
Bilbo’s “little joke” when he announces his departure from the Shire by bidding all of his relatives and party guests farewell before slipping on his Ring and disappearing before there eyes, never to be seen by any of them again, is certainly a “disturber of the peace” moment that the rest of the Shire-folk are quite put off by. Tolkien writes, “It was generally agreed that the joke was in very bad taste, and more food and drink were needed to cure the guests of shock and annoyance.” Food and drink, of course, being the kind of fun and excitement they prefer – controlled, quantifiable fun.
After his disappearance from the party, Bilbo returns to his main objective: leaving the Ring to Frodo and departing for Rivendell. I’ve spoken with several people and read and heard numerous more discussing Bilbo’s relationship to the Ring and his irritable behavior when the time came to part with it, and quite a few of them believe that Bilbo’s hostility toward Gandalf due to the Ring’s control over him is a result of a lack of a certain purity of heart, a purity that makes Frodo the more suitable Ring-bearer which is why it has to go to him. I’m not personally a fan of this “purity of heart” point of view, firstly because I would argue that Bilbo is as pure of heart as any character in Middle-earth, and secondly because I don’t believe that purity of heart is the criteria for one to be able to bear the Ring of Power without using it for evil. If this were true, characters like Gandalf or Aragorn would have been just as suited to bearing the Ring as Frodo. And let us not forget two things: first – that Frodo, pure as he is, will eventually succumb to the power of the One Ring, and second – that Bilbo is the one and only Ring-bearer in the history of the Ring to part with it willingly.
The reason that I believe Frodo to be the one chosen to bear the Ring is not because of the purity of his heart, but because he has an openness to step out into the unknown world but no desire for any power or personal glory. Sam, Merry, Pippin – they have no desire for power or personal glory either, but also have no desire to see the world beyond the comfort and safety of home. Gandalf, Aragorn – they are pure of heart and willing to go wherever the journey may take them, but I believe both have a desire for power, even if only to wield it to counter the forces of evil in Middle-earth. This leaves Frodo – open to being called away from the comfort of home into the unknown, but with no desire for any personal power or glory.
Frodo’s willingness to be swept away into the unknown sends him on a journey that will take him through countless trials and dangers, many of which will leave him with permanent and irreparable scars and hurts that he will carry for the rest of his life. He will also meet people who teach him priceless and valuable things, and will share in the unbreakable bonds of friendship with a fellowship of companions that he would have never known in the Shire. And most importantly, he will change the course of history and be pivotal in defeating an evil that would have consumed the world in darkness.