Our return to the Shire is filled with expectation and exultation. September 22nd approaches, the 111th birthday of one Bilbo Baggins, and the 33rd birthday of his favorite nephew (and heir), Frodo Baggins.
Coming fresh from reading The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring starts on a very familiar note. The Shire is a small, familiar, community; the type of community where everyone knows everybody else's business. We get a fanciful and happy setting, one where someone going on an unexpected journey sixty years ago is still one of the most outrageous things gossiped about.
"Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return."
Like the rumors of his death, the rumors of Bilbo's wealth were greatly exaggerated. Though our Mr. Baggins is certainly well off, it has been clearly stated that Bilbo came back from his adventure with the two small chests rather than enough riches to fill his halls like a dragon's hoard.. Bilbo has a reputation for being incredibly generous, with both gifts and money, and the amount he spends on his last birthday sounds staggering. I'm wondering if he had some sort of business interests with the dwarfs, or if the economy of Hobbiton is incredibly limited. On the other hand, he was a reasonably well off hobbit beforehand, and I believe gems generally have a very high value per weight as compared to gold.
The hobbits overall remind me of the archetype of old timers with black socks pulled up to their knees while wearing socks and shorts, complaining from their porches about "kids these days" and the shenanigans of their neighbors. They talk about things being unnatural and queer... things like sailing boats on a large river, or the potential harm coming from someone learning their letters. By and large, gossip and griping seems to be the regional pastime, along with eating, a mostly harmless activity. Though one thing they did get right, though not any way they could have imagined, is their speculation about Bilbo's extended youth. "It will have to be paid for," they said. "It isn't natural, and trouble will come of it!"
"If that's being queer, then we could do with a bith more queerness in these parts. There's some not far away that wouldn't offer a pint of beer to a friend, if they lived in a hole with golden walls. But they do things proper at Bag End. Our Sam says that everyone's going to be invited to the party, and there's going to be presents, mark you, presents for all - this very month as is."
Thanks, Gaffer. Even as harmless and ineffective as the community gossip may be, it's only right that someone stands up for Mr. Bilbo. After all, the only thing Bilbo did wrong is to have an adventure and remain friends with folks from beyond the Shire. It must be the Tookish side of the family.
Some of the gossipy and codgerness of the Shire likely comes from the close-knit and extended nature of both the community and its families. Obviously our story focuses most on the family lines tied to Bilbo and Frodo, but the Birthday Party clearly gives representation to whole hobbit clans. I thought it was of particular interest that Frodo is related to Bilbo from both sides of the family, though through graduations that avoid that whole messy inbreeding issue.
We're introduced to Gandalf as part of rumor and as one of the many "odd" visitors coming through Bag-End.
"...and the old man was Gandalf the Wizard, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it."
In The Hobbit, Bilbo clearly has little idea of who Gandalf is, beyond association of the name with memories of grand fireworks. Gandalf's long association with hobbits may be something of a conceit where he enjoys passing as little more than a simple conjurer, at least until he decides to stir things up a little bit. Undoubtedly, part of his long association is part of his wizardly accumulation of knowledge and worldly lore, especially as the hobbits largely sidestep notice in Middle Earth. It is however clear that among the hobbits, his presentation as little more than an old man is deliberate, unlike when he spends time among the other races where folks associate the name Gandalf with power.
Everyone knows Bilbo is up to something. The gossiping busy-bodies about the Shire, his family, his friends. Only Bilbo and Gandalf know the full scope of his plans.
The party itself is more like a faire than a party, with tents and pavilions. There are open air kitchens and a tent on scale to envelop a huge tree. The party itself is a full day affair, filled with entertainments, and of course, lots of food. This is a hobbit party after all, and as we all know, hobbits are serious about their enjoyment of and revelry in food. I do love the idea of giving presents on one's birthday. Of course, I'm utter shit at presents most of the time, but I could totally manage some sort of fun little party favor present for all guests. Or I'd just give people books (like I don't do that most of the time already).
Bilbo's dinner speech has always been one of my favorite moments in the story. It's both irreverent and serious.
"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."
Otherwise of importance here is the acknowledgement of Frodo coming of age, and into his inheritance, and Bilbo saying "goodbye" to the Shire for the final time. This time he won't be coming back, but declaring him dead won't matter. Poor Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Bagginses. Color the general hobbit populace less than amused at the whole mad spectacle (ie. anything that may put them off their appetite). Of course, regardless of the rudeness of Mr. Baggin's little joke, what really matters to the locals is that he didn't make off with the food as well.
I don't think I picked up on Tolkien's love of numerology in earlier reads, but numbers clearly play an important role. The Hobbit largely starts out with Bilbo fulfilling the role as the 14th member of the party, an "auspicious number." Here in the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Rings we learn about the importance of Bilbo's age (111), Frodo's age (33), and the number of guests invited to the "small" family dinner at Bilbo's birthday party (12 dozen, or the sum of Bilbo's & Frodo's ages).
Those in on the joke aren't exactly of placid mindset either. To Frodo the Ring is more of a magical trinket than an item of great power, but he really likes his uncle. Gandalf knows something is off about the ring, but not quite what, and it's not until Bilbo starts revealing that he feels "all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread." or that he starts freaking out about leaving the ring behind and calling it "precious" that he realizes quite how significant the ring may be. Then Bilbo is off on the road with some dwarfs, singing a song that is very similar to what he sings on returning to the Shire all those years ago. Now the Ring is in Frodo's custody, with Gandalf warning against it's use.
Gossip really is a mainstay of hobbit life, and for all that Frodo has long been established as Bilbo's heir, and the further public announcement that Frodo has now come into his inheritance, curious treasure hunters come knocking. Who knows how a rumor of a free estate sale was started, but the rumor spread and Frodo has his hands full trying to keep interfering neighbors from doing damage. I love the presents that Bilbo has selected for his neighbors and relations, particularly the bookshelf. There is quite a bit of sass in the selections and dedications.
But eventually things are settled down and straightened out, thanks in part to the help of good friends and relations like Merry Brandybuck. Then Gandalf shows up for a final warning to protect the ring and to not use it, then he's off, leaving Frodo to settle into his new life and to start feeling the tug of an adventure of his own.
The film introduces us to Frodo immediately, without the preamble focusing on Bilbo's odd status in the Shire. While the story will grow to encompass multiple threads, at it's center we are presented with Frodo, who is framed as "rather eager and curious for a Hobbit," wanting to know everything that is occurring in the world at large. A rather un-hobbitish attribute if you don't mind me saying. We also meet Gandalf, with the ever famous "A wizard is never late... nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to," and laughter.
We get nearly a word-for-word translation of Bilbo's revelation about feeling "stretched thin," pulled in before the party, and I think this fits well here. I'm glad they kept it, as this stands to me as an important line. We also get clear references and tributes to The Hobbit, perhaps part of the initial hope that they'd get to make that film at some point in addition to giving us context to Bilbo's desire to see the mountains again.
The party itself isn't the full day affair of the text, but is still a respectable affair with fantastic catering. While it's Bilbo's party, it serves to provide a snapshot of hobbits and to establish relationships of our four future Fellowship hobbits. Samwise Gamgee may be an employee/apprentice to an employee of Bilbo, but the relationship between Sam and Frodo is clearly one of childhood friends rather than employee and employer (or apprentices in each role). Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took are solidly cast as both a team and as troublemakers.
The speech itself is not limited to a particular "small" gathering of a gross of hobbits and is slightly shortened. It's a solid speech that didn't need tinkering to come off strong, so it works well (and they kept my favorite line). What strikes me as interesting is the level of surprise displayed by both Frodo and Gandalf. The following scolding delivered by Gandalf back in Bag-End I'd say supports the idea that he didn't know the ring was going to be used.
The Ring itself also gets established as perhaps not just a notable artifact, but as a character in its own right. The behaviors of Bilbo and the Ring stays very true to the book, with Bilbo's sudden un-hobbitlike paranoia and possessiveness concerning the ring. Throughout The Hobbit there are references to the Ring having a mind of its own. Now, early on in The Fellowship of the Ring Jackson gives us shots framed by the Ring's point of view. It's hard to really convey the idea of an object having a mind of it's own, but combined with music and lighting this visual framing really gives us the feeling of malevolent thought from an object. This brings our viewing section to an end as Frodo enters as the master of Bag-End for the first time, and is warned with deep feeling to keep the ring secret and safe, and to never use it, while Gandalf disappears into the night in pursuit of answers.
Overall, the film opens very true to the book, with pieces moved around here and there. We get reference to "the long expected party," and Gandalf's reputation as a troublemaker. Other details, like the early treat of firework for the hobbit children, are not true to the text, but enrich the setting detail. I think the casting of Ian Holm and Ian McKellen was inspired, to the point that I had trouble imagining anyone else as Bilbo when I heard about the casting of The Hobbit. There is fantastic interplay between the two of them.