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
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.