Bilbo and Music and Memory: Baggins in Elvenland

Kate Neville

Well-Known Member
I apologize for starting a fourth thread on Bilbo's song, but I want to acknowledge what has already been said by others while also looking at the song and the scene from the point of view of character development. I used to think that Bilbo had learned all about the danger of the Ring while in Rivendell -- before Frodo left the Shire -- but I have come to think that while he intellectually knew that the Ring was made by an evil power and so dangerous to possess, it was not until he actually saw its effect in the eyes of Frodo in the Hall of Fire that he fully realized, in his heart and soul as well as in his mind, what it meant to be The Ringbearer. And so I see this entire scene to be a valedictory event: he had already given Frodo the Ring, and in giving him Sting and the mithril coat, Bilbo was finally and fully letting go of his past.

I was particularly taken by the fact that his song is in 'Elvish' meter and that the first imagery is expressed in present perfect -- the 'perfect' past tense for Elves, for whom the past is both ever-present and ever-passing away. This is why I agree with Rachel (with whom I often agree) and others that this song must have been composed shortly after the Council of Elrond, where Bilbo made his offer to "finish what he started" even while fearing that the burden would fall on Frodo. To me, the tense-change in the song represents Bilbo's moving from an Elvish view of the past, acquired while living in Rivendell, to one more in line with his true nature as a hobbit and a mortal. I call this poem Bilbo's valedictory oration, for to me it shows a character who has come to terms with his past and with his present and is now willing to leave the future in the hands of others.

I applaud TThurston's choice of 'Auld Lang Syne' as a melody for Bilbo's song not only because it fits its rhythm, but because the original lyrics of the Burns poem are also about appreciating memories of the past while looking to the future alongside friends and family.

As a last note, I'd like to add that the use of Elvish meter calls out for us to consider this poem next to the other great valedictory song in The Fellowship of the Ring: Galadriel's Namárië. While they differ in language and in substance, I think each serves a similar purpose in the character arcs of The Hobbit and The Lady of Lorien, coming for each of them after an experience of renunciation. . . . But we can discuss that in December 2031.

Kate Neville

Well-Known Member
A few last thoughts.

I love the exceptionally close reading of the choices Tolkien makes in his writing -- a particularly appropriate approach for an author for whom words are an unending source of joy and inspiration.

However, I think it is equally important to consider why Tolkien chooses to write a particular scene in a particular way. I combine the Uta Hagen method of scene study with wisdom from Verlyn Flieger when reading Tolkien's letters (to whom is the letter addressed and when?). Bilbo, and Frodo, have probably come directly from breakfast, and I imagine that Bilbo made sure that Sam was occupied with looking for all those things that Frodo had forgotten to pack. They are in Bilbo's room, a place that probably started as a guestroom but is now his room, his 'home away from home.' Bilbo has brought Frodo not simply to say a private farewell, but specifically to give him his sword, Sting, and his mithril coat.

How does the poem fit into the scene? To me, a poem in a prose story is like a song in a musical -- it occurs when mere words cannot fully express the emotional state of the speaker/singer. Bilbo needs to let Frodo know not to worry about him: he has his memories, yes, but he is not living in the past and has accepted that the Road is going on without him. And when Bilbo says that he listens for returning feet, he is telling Frodo that he has estel -- which I think of as hope+faith -- that they will see each other again. In a sense, the poem is the third gift (and again I see a structural parallel to Galadriel's farewell song, coming as it does after her gift-giving scene).

I wonder whether Bilbo had been feeling guilty that he hadn't left the sword & coat with Frodo originally -- he does say that he thinks the coat would have turned the knives of the Black Riders, and it ends up saving him more than once: in Moria, and in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, when fighting over the coat left almost no one for Sam to fight. And of course, Sam also uses Sting (an elven blade made in Gondolin) and Galadriel's phial to defeat Shelob and free Frodo from the Tower. Useful gifts, indeed.

As to when Bilbo composed the poem, I am going to agree with Flammifer. I think it was begun in the days after the Council, but I also think the ending, particularly the last stanza, was composed on the spot. I am moved to consider the ending of The Hobbit, when Bilbo recites the Road poem for the first time. Might be interesting to compare those two poems as well.

Rachel Port

Well-Known Member
Lovely Kate. I differ in a few ways. I see the scene as full of the unspoken - unspoken emotions, and the unspoken thought of the gift Bilbo did leave behind when he left Bag End (and it was a gift, the reason, Bilbo points out to Gandalf, for the party and all the other gift giving). I am not sure Bilbo brought Sting and the mithril coat because he might need them. It seems natural that, when leaving home for good a person would take his most valued possessions. I think he imagined journeys, but not that kind of danger. But I feel the Ring behind everything said and unsaid. With that lies the fear they both feel but will not say. Frodo slips once, but Bilbo maintains his lightness of tone. I do think Bilbo feels guilt among other things, but not for the items he took with him, but for the item he didn't.

I think they both have imagined this scene many times over the past two months. Bilbo would reflect on his life, and the fate of the world. He has been among the elves long enough to gain a new perspective on time and his life within a larger context. The fear that the footsteps won't come brings with it the thought that if the quest fails, those future springs might not come either. But he puts those fears aside in this poem. It was while imagining this scene, I think, that Bilbo wrote this poem. I don't know if he intended to sing it to Frodo, but his doing so came naturally. I think it was all written before this day in anticipation of this day. And I agree, it becomes another gift to Frodo.