Category Archives: Hobbit

Bilbo’s Property

The Hobbit was published September 1937 and in the week leading to the following Christmas Tolkien bowed to polite yet firm requests from his publisher and began a sequel. He sat down and wrote five manuscript pages to which a title was added ‘A long-expected party.’ I have said before that The Lord of the Rings may be read as a commentary on The Hobbit and the early drafts especially. This first draft chapter provides a nice distillation and mirror of the original story.

Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his twentieth birthday. It is two decades since he returned from his adventure. At a magnificent birthday party, in which the Shire (still lower case) begins to come into being, he announces he is leaving again and also that he is going to get married. In the flummaxation that follows Bilbo disappears (the ring is in his hand as he gives his after-dinner speech). The story then switches to Bag-end and an absent host. Bilbo’s property has been arranged and labelled as gifts to various friends and relations and the Sackville-Bagginses finally get their hands on Bilbo’s luxrurious hobbit hole.

So, observe the various correspondences. The Hobbit was a story of there and back again. This first chapter – which announces that the new story will be about Bilbo’s heir but does not name him – is all about Bilbo: here and gone again. An unexpected party had flummoxed Bilbo, but now he organizes a party to flummox all the other hobbits. Bilbo’s earlier adventure is referred to by the other hobbits as his “mysterious vanishment,” and the new adventure begins with his second and final vanishment (a more effective vanishment as he now owns a magic ring of vanishment). After he has vanished a second time the ending of the original story is mirrored, but instead of an auction of his property Bilbo now directs its passage to new owners. Finally, note how the idea of a birthday party points to some as yet unrealised idea about transfer of the magic ring to an heir: the magic ring began as Gollum’s birthday present, and the idea of its passage to another is associated with Bilbo’s birthday.

Because an heir is not named – indeed, at this point Bilbo has only just announced marriage and so a descendant is not yet even a twinkle in his eye – so there is no suggestion that the magic ring is to be included in the transfer of Bilbo’s property to others. Nevertheless, I believe that sufficient factors point to an idea already in the author’s mind that the magic ring will be central to the new story, and so must pass to a new hero. This first draft chapter is setting up the conditions for a transfer of ownership. As seen, the chapter clearly mirrors the bookends of the original story – opening party and auction of property at the end – and the central theme of a birthday party points to some (just what is hard to say) idea of a subsequent chapter that mirrors the riddle game in some way and sees a Baggins family heirloom passed on.

The mirror of the riddle game was never written because, just after he had got to Bilbo’s second vanishing in a second draft of the chapter, Tolkien wrote some notes on the story that was brewing in which the Necromancer is named as the origin of the magic ring. This changed the nature of the inheritance, with the magic ring suddenly a burden and a threat and not something you would wish to leave to your heirs.

Subsequent posts will explore the new property of the magic ring. But I want to highlight here how this first draft chapter of the sequel helps us better read the original. My last post gave one item of the index of the original hobbit story:

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

In my reading of the 1937 story of Bilbo Baggins, property is a key word. The draft chapter of the sequel confirms its importance and reminds me that the entry above takes no account of the auction and needs to be supplemented:

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring, some treasure (much spent in regaining auctioned property)

property, auctioned: most inherited property left in Bag-End

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

The additions are worth making if only because they bring to light Tolkien’s vision of the original story as all about Bilbo’s properties: in going there and coming back again Bilbo acquires a magic ring that reveals his inner properties, the name of a legendary burglar, some wealth, and comes home to find his original property passing into the hands of others.

The Hobbit (1937)

My philological index of The Lord of the Rings identifies a hidden index within a conventional index of names of Middle-earth. This ghost index is the index of the original story of The Hobbit. Key elements of the ghost index are given here. This post explains a small part of the ghost index.

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

The ‘magic’ of the original story involves a word play on property and a magic ring that takes its meaning from a linguistic theory of naming.

From the start of the story we are introduced to the idea of visible and invisible properties. We see Bag-End – a property Bilbo inherited from his parents, and we are told that Bilbo’s visible properties (character, qualities) were inherited from his father. But we are also told that he likely inherited from his mother ‘a queer Took quality’ – something initially invisible yet ‘in him’ (Gandalf) waiting for a chance ‘to come out’ (narrator).

When Gandalf first talks with Bilbo he sees the hobbit with his wizard’s eye, discerns his invisible property, and therefore selects him as the burglar on the adventure. The dwarves on first seeing Bilbo doubt the wizard’s word. But when Bilbo emerges from the goblin tunnels with a magic ring hidden in his pocket the dwarves immediately recognize him as ‘a first-class burglar’ – really, they now see that he has ‘in him’ what it takes to play the role of burglar assigned him in the story.

The magic ring is an acquired property (won from Gollum in the riddle game). The magic ring has two properties:

  1. The magic ring is named (and shown) in the story as a ring that renders the body invisible.
  2. The magic ring is unnamed but revealed by the story as a ring that renders invisible properties (inner qualities) visible – allowing the dwarves to see Bilbo with a wizard’s eye.

The ghost index thus points at the source of all the queerness that came out when Tolkien began to compose a sequel to The Hobbit. 

I suggest that the primary property of the magic ring is that which is unnamed and only shown in the story – a ring of visibility, revealing hidden qualities. The named magic ring of invisibility is merely a surface inversion of its real properties.

But this real property of the magic ring is not a standard fairy element (as Tolkien will later dub the magic ring). Rather, it is the imagination within a story of an instrument of philology, a picture of the key to naming as established within a linguistic theory of the index name. For the magic ring is simply an instrument that makes visible the hidden properties of a thing or person on which a name may be hung.

Looking ahead to what I have called the extended ghost index – the sequel in its first year of composition – we see immediately how the real property of the magic ring was to make a new story by way of the new idea (hit upon very soon after commencing composition) that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer:

The magic ring’s invisible property of making visible the hidden properties of a person is a first step to stealing their soul.

Magic ring

Consider this apparent paradox in the story of Bilbo Baggins. In the first chapter, a wizard scratches a “queer sign” on his front door that the next day tells thirteen dwarves this is the home of the burglar they are looking for. On seeing Bilbo, the dwarves are skeptical, and it takes Gandalf’s authority to convince them to take his word on the matter. After he has vanished in the goblin tunnels and then reappeared, however, the dwarves see that the wizard had spoken true, for they now recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar” (Hobbit 99).

Now, between entering inadvertently and exiting the goblin tunnels Bilbo found (and in the original story, won) a magic ring of invisibility. Such a ring is a distinctive tool of the trade of a fairy-story burglar, and as such a material equivalent of the queer sign scratched on Bilbo’s front door (Hobbit 16).

Yet the magic ring remains a secret in Bilbo’s pocket until Mirkwood. So, the dwarves do not change their attitude to Gandalf’s naming of Bilbo a burglar because they are now shown a golden thing that backs up his queer sign, but simply because they now see in this hobbit what a wizard’s eye had discerned from the first.

In the original story (for the riddle game was revised in the second edition and the spirit of Sauron entered where it never was before) this paradox is underscored by the strange way the magic ring becomes Bilbo the hobbit’s (essential) property. When he encounters Gollum, the monster’s lost ring is in the pocket of the hobbit. But Gollum proposes a riddle competition and names his stake his “present,” by which he means the “birthday present” he does not know he has already lost. When Bilbo asks what is in his pocket, and Gollum fails to guess, Bilbo therefore wins the magic ring (although he does not know it).  Hence, burglary is one thing Bilbo does not do before the dwarves recognize him as a burglar.

The paradox points to the dual functions of the magic ring in the story. On the one hand, its named attribute: (bodily) invisibility; on the other, an attribute never named only shown: the magic ring makes a hobbit more recognizably himself.

The magic ring’s unnamed property turns on a special relationship between ring and hobbit. To begin with, the invisibility it bestows simply amplifies the ordinary vanishing magic that, in the first pages of the story, the narrator had told us is possessed by all hobbits (Hobbit 12). But as soon as it is in his pocket, Bilbo comes into a peculiar kind of luck such that he unintentionally finds the right words – not only asking the question that wins the riddle game but also by chance hitting on the answers to two of Gollum’s dark and difficult riddles. The luck Bilbo picks up with the ring is of that valuable kind that allows you to be yourself and get away with it.

Note that the magic ring does not itself give a hobbit the name of a burglar. Both his essential qualities – vanishing and luck – are no doubt prerequisites of a successful burglar, but they do not make Bilbo a burglar. What the dwarves recognize is not an essential burglarious quality in the hobbit, but rather that he has it in him to play the role of burglar that Gandalf at the start of the story assigns to him.

We see here in full the theory of names in relation to titles and stories latent in the 1932 etymological note on Nodens. The theory answers the question: What is the name of the nameless?

The answer: a story-title hung on a hidden quality revealed by the story.

Recall that Gandalf has a hat, the dwarves hoods, but Bilbo runs out of Bag-End bareheaded. We may say that the magic ring reveals an invisible peg discovered in Bilbo’s character on which the dwarves hang the hat that Gandalf gave them. The magic ring is a sort of fairy-story microscope, the function of which is to provide what we might title story-vision, revealing to us the essential quality of the nameless on which any attribution of a title must rest. The magic ring, in other words, shows in an instant what it would take those of us who are not wizards most of a story to see.

This theory was turned inside out when Tolkien began on a sequel some five years after completing it – a strange revolution of a name.

Bilbo’s titles

Having gone down the secret passagway and found Smaug asleep, Bilbo Baggins goes back again, and this time has a conversation with the dragon.

Asked his name and origin by Smaug, Bilbo avoids a direct answer and gives rather a string of titles culled from the adventure we have read: “Barrel-rider,” “Ringwinner,” and “Luckwearer,” for example, and: “I come out of a bag, but no bag went over me”  (Bag-End and the trolls).

The theory of names, titles, and stories extracted from The Name ‘Nodens‘ suggest that anyone of these titles might serve as a story-name for this hobbit. Indeed, in the sequel, and after the story of the riddle game had changed, Bilbo becomes the Ring-finder. A story may generate many potential titles compatible with a revealed inner quality, but it takes a new story to hang a new title.

The title hung on the hobbit in this story is burglar. The name is scratched on Bilbo’s front door as a “queer sign” at the beginning of the story by Gandalf the wizard. The next day, at his unexpected party, Gloin speaks this queer sign aloud: burglar.

But in this opening of the story, Bilbo never sees the wizard’s queer sign and the dwarves, on seeing Bilbo, doubt Gandalf’s word.

Bilbo’s first adventure sees him trying to live up to the wizard’s expectations and picking the pocket of a troll. The purse is the mischief and squeaks: Ere, ‘oo are you? When the question is repeated by the purse’s owner, now holding Bilbo by his feet, he replies: a burrahobbit. At this point in his story, Bilbo is an incoherent and by no means credible burglar.

After his escape alone from the goblin tunnels, the dwarves immediately recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar.” The riddle at the center of the story is: what has happened to allow the dwarves to now see Bilbo as a wizard did on first meeting him? This riddle is solved in the next post on the magic ring. The question answered in the remainder of this post is why, of all the range of titles that Bilbo’s story has generated, is burglar the one that matters?

Step back to the day after his unexpected party when Bilbo, at the wizard’s urging, signs the contract left for him by the dwarves.  Bilbo takes it on the chin when, many moons and adventures later, and standing on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain, the ludicrous terms of this contract come into view. For the contract is what all the dwarves have in mind when Thorin puts out his hand to thank Bilbo for going down a secret passageway alone. A reward awaits of one fourteenth share of the immense treasure at the other end. But the treasure is guarded by a terrible thief, Smaug the dragon.

Now, if hobbit burglary means stealing treasure from under the nose of a live dragon, the sum of Bilbo’s efforts amounts to one cup. This one cup, however, is ancient English gold. Old English words, written over a thousand years ago, tell of a dragon dwelling in a steep stone-barrow on the high heath, watching over his hoard. At the foot of the barrow is a secret passageway. In the restored text of a badly damaged page of Beowulf, we read what happens next in The Hobbit:

                                  Þaér on innan gíong
Nið[ð]a náthwylc,   (forþ né)h gefe(al)g
haéðnum horde,    hond (wǽge nam),
(síd,) since fáh;    né hé þæt syððan (bemáð),
Þ(éah) ð(e hé) slaépende    besyre(d wur)de
þéofes cræfte.

Beowulf, lines 2214-2219 (Klaeber 83). Tolkien’s translation (Beowulf T&C 77):

Therein went some
nameless man, creeping in nigh
to the pagan treasure; his hand seized
a goblet deep, bright with gems. This the dragon did not after in silence bear,
albeit he had been cheated in his sleep
by thief’s cunning.

Both the Anglo-Saxon and the twentieth-century author proceed to draw the wrath and rage of a dragon burgled by a þéof náthwylces, a nameless thief.

The Old English dragon is Beowulf’s bane, a monster who is slain by but also kills the good old king. Tolkien’s story, however, is rather an exercise in northern fantasy than northern realism: the dragon is slain by a hero who lives, and the dwarves reclaim their ancient treasure.

We now understand better the trick of imagining Bilbo Baggins as a British aborigine. The hobbit’s native identity matters not a whit to the story, but allows Tolkien to make a crafty identification from the start. Hobbits are a nameless people, and so the expression hobbit burglar provides a modern translation of the Old English þéof náthwylces.

Just as the stories of Nodens passed from ancient Germanic stories to Roman Britain, so Tolkien imagines an even more ancient story of a hobbit thief passing over the seas in the other direction, eventually brought back to the British Isles and made use of by the author of Beowulf.


In the house of Tom Bomadil, Frodo the hobbit asks his host: Who are you, master? In the first draft of the story, penned in the autumn of 1938, the reply is: I am an Aborigine (Shadow 117, 121).

A principle behind all these pages: I read story ideas found in The Lord of the Rings as a commentary on The Hobbit; the earlier the passage in the sequel the more direct the engagement with the original. Such readings bring into view two sides of the same riddle and point at underlying ideas.

Tom Bombadil was an aborigine because Tolkien wished to clarify what this term meant once he had decided that hobbits, as a matter of fact, were not aborigines. In the original hobbit story they are, as also is Gollum, although this quality is rather hinted at than named.

The hobbits’ native identity is discovered by reading the first page or so of The Hobbit together with a lecture of 1900 by Oxford’s first professor of Celtic, John Rhys. The first pages describe Bilbo’s home in the side of a hill and hobbits as a people who were once prosperous but are now rare and tend to magically disappear in the face of intruding big folk. In his lecture, Rhys extracted  a historical kernel from Welsh folk traditions of the “little people.”

Behind these fairy stories, Rhys argued, were memories of encounters by early Celtic speakers with the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. These people must once have been spread over much of Britain, but the series of prehistorical and historical intrusions from the east had driven them into the wild hills on the peripheries of the mainland. These natives, Rhys told his audience, had been a non-Indo-European, matriarchal folk, “a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition, much given to magic and wizardry, and living underground.” In Scotland, he reported, could still be seen some of their “underground — or partially underground — habitations.” Rhys seems to have in mind Skara Brae, never visited but read about and envisaged by this Oxford professor much as a later one pictured a hobbit hole. These original habitations, he explained, “appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention.”

But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature, like our Welsh fairies. (Rhys 1900, 896, 887-8)

Also, hobbits. And also Gollum, who is painted in the original version of the riddle game as an aborigine who has survived the intrusion of goblins but lost all contact with friends and relatives and now lives in the permanent darkness of his hole in the ground.

Now, Rhys and Tolkien were both philologists (and Tolkien probably attended Rhys’ lectures as an undergraduate). But their philological conclusions about Britain’s aboriginal population were different. Rhys wanted to picture this population in relation to the first Celtic speakers to arrive because he thought the aboriginal language might explain the distinct linguistic development of that branch of Celtic. Consequently, he dedicated significant labour to identifying traces of this aboriginal tongue old Celtic formulas.

Tolkien talks of the aborigines in his 1955 lecture ‘English and Welsh.’ He suggests that the subsequent waves of intruders interbred with these natives and that their blood flows strongly in the modern population of the British Isles. But he insists that  their language has entirely disappeared, leaving no traces we can detect in place or any other names (M&C 170-71).

(Tolkien had by then made significant use of one word that was claimed as aboriginal – ond for ‘stone.’ Ond is the original name of Gondor, city of stone. But this was to draw on the idea of an aboriginal tongue, not to accept that the word really was of that vanished language.)

So, why did a philologist who believed that philology could not reach the aboriginal peoples of the British Isles tell a magical story about one of these people, who in another hole in the ground met a monsterous version of himself?

Because a philologist is interested in the general phenomenon of naming, and must therefore confront the problem of the nameless.

The nameless appears to us a lawless realm, strangely illicit, even threatening. The nameless is profoundly challenging, for our apparently innate reaction to discerning a nameless presence is to attempt to negate it by naming it. People give names to thing and people who already have names, but somewhere down the etymological line the nameless awaits. A philologist interested in naming must face a nameless beginning.

The Hobbit begins with a nice trick. The story will illustrate the theory of naming already set out in The Name ‘Nodens.’ Bilbo Baggins will play a role like Nodens, albeit in his own story. Bilbo Baggins has a proper name. But his essential quality is that he is a hobbit – he is one of a now nameless people. Rather than march into a state of virgin namelessness, as might a modern atomic physicist, the nameless realm we enter was not always so but has been reclaimed by the nameless through our forgetting. This is to tame the nameless at the start.

An aborigine means, for Tolkien, someone who gave names to things, including himself, but whose own name is beyond our reach.

We are still a long way from Tom Bombadil’s aboriginal identity. To arrive at this holy grail we must pass through the story of how Bilbo Baggins earned the name of the burglar and the revolution of the magic ring as it became the One Ring…