I think I'm going to start each chapter post with a bare-bones "What Happens" section, just for reference. I'm not going to commit myself to structure beyond that; let's just see what happens.
(Besides taking me forever to compose, that is. Also, reminder: spoilers for anything Middle-Earth are fair game for these posts.)
What Happens: Bilbo has announced a party for his 111th birthday and Frodo's 33rd. Ham Gamgee ("the Gaffer") and various hobbits (including Sandyman the miller) discuss Baggins family history, and the rumors of Bilbo's wealth, in the local inn. Dwarves and Gandalf arrive for party setup.
The party is held on September 22nd; there is food, fireworks, and Bilbo's speech, in which he announces he is leaving and then vanishes by putting on his magic ring (camouflaged by a flash of light by Gandalf). Back at Bag End, Gandalf and Bilbo have an argument over the ring, and Bilbo (eventually, and with difficulty) leaves it in an envelope for Frodo.
The next day, many hobbits come to Bag End to find that Bilbo has left items for some; most useful, some insulting. Merry Brandybuck helps Frodo deal with treasure-hunters. Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins are nasty and disappointed that Bag End goes to Frodo, not them. Gandalf comes back after everyone's been kicked out: he has begun to wonder about the ring, and urges Frodo not to use the ring, especially not in a way that would draw attention. He then leaves.
Even before reading Le Guin's "Rhythmic Pattern" essay, I was really struck by the shifting notes of the opening, as marked with plus [+] and minus [-] signs:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
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 [+]. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. [+] There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing [-]; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
"It will have to be paid for," they said. "It isn't natural, and trouble will come of it!" [-]
I'm sure more reversals could be identified, but I'm most interested in the last paragraph. Of course it's factually true that Bilbo's youth is not natural, but I smell a broadly-applicable theme here on the very first page: "It will have to be paid for." I don't know how much this idea comes out of Tolkien's theology (my first reaction is "faith not works," but my knowledge of Catholicism is very limited), but wherever it comes from, it can be seen full-circle in the ending: "I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them." Or, in other words, someone has to pay for them.
* * * *
Overall, I think this chapter functions as a transition from Bilbo and The Hobbit, to Frodo and The Lord of the Rings. By the end, Bilbo has moved off-stage, his ring has come to Frodo, and we are very suspicious of that ring. Because it's a transition, I suspect it may be off-putting for those who haven't read The Hobbit and don't need it. It's certainly the right place to start the story, but I wonder if the chapter could have been done with more of a focus on Frodo from the start.
In what may be related, this is a very exterior chapter. The first hints that all's not well, Bilbo and Gandalf's conversation when Gandalf first arrives, is dialogue-only, except for Gandalf shaking his head. During Bilbo and Gandalf's argument about leaving the Ring, the omniscient narrator mentions posture and facial expressions, but that's all. Perhaps Tolkien didn't want us to spend too much time in Bilbo's head because he was leaving; perhaps the nearly camera-eye view increases suspense; perhaps it's hard to do evil-fueled paranoia in an interesting way; perhaps all three.
* * * *
The conversation at the inn is the first time on-screen characters talk. The Gaffer, a gardener, is the POV figure (with the occasional interior thought) and through him, we are led to dislike Sandyman. There's a hint at generational dispute when the Gaffer recounts his remarks to Sam: "Don't go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you'll land in trouble too big for you." I think this works in three different directions: obviously, it signals the Gaffer's perceptions about class; it relates, I think, to the passing of the generational torch above; and it's an example of the complacency and parochialism that's being set up throughout the chapter.
That conversation, for instance, is extremely small-town; Buckland is "away there," being on a river is "unnatural," and so forth. The party scene is also very comfortable and rich and happy, until Gandalf intentionally "startle[s] the hobbits exceedingly" with the dragon fireworks display. (I don't believe there was any known danger at the time, so I can't say that Gandalf was trying to remind the hobbits of the outside world; but it is very suggestive. And then in a reversal, Bilbo uses it as the signal for dinner.)
Gandalf's fireworks, we're told earlier, belonged to a "legendary past"; I think the whole sequence is a nice foreshadowing of the return of legends, good and bad.
* * * *
The party, Bilbo's departure, and the Ring:
The depiction of Bilbo's speech is also a good example of rhythmic patterns and reversals.
Another thing I never consciously noted [*], Bilbo's statement of why he held the party at all:
"After all that's what this party business was all about, really: to give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time. It hasn't made it any easier in the end, but it would be a pity to waste all my preparations. It would quite spoil the joke."
[*] Have I mentioned that a lot of these posts are going to be me admitting that I've overlooked stuff for years? Yeah.
More evidence of his character and resilience over the long term, not just when confronted by Gandalf.
When the Ring passes, Frodo is strongly tempted to use it when Lobelia corners him. Bilbo has in the past used the Ring to avoid the Sackville-Bagginses, we're told later. I want to find this significant, but I think it's nothing more than human (hobbit) nature.
I believe we get an explanation later from Gandalf on why he's only now starting to worry about the Ring; I seem to recall many people finding it somewhat unsatisfactory, but we'll get there in good time. At any rate, the chapter ends on an ominous, open-ended note:
Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he was carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.
* * * *
- Sam's stated to be the youngest child of the Gaffer. Somehow I never saw Sam as having siblings before.
- The firecrackers include "dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers." The first might be a manufacture designation, but I doubt the last two are; I wonder what they look like?
- Relatedly, 6:30 seems pretty early for fireworks to me. (The web tells me that in London on September 22, sunset is about at 7.)
- Loyalty and generosity are the acknowledged and valued virtues of Bilbo, as praised by the Gaffer and shown through his gifts to the poorer hobbits.
- I'd also forgotten the quiet humor of the narrator, such as the remark that Bilbo "gave away presents to all and sundry — the latter were those who went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate."
- At the party, "Master Everard Took and Miss Melilot Brandybuck got on a table and with bells in their hands began to dance the Springle-ring: a pretty dance, but rather vigorous." I keep reading that as "Spring-ringle"; I don't know if it's me or if Tolkien's naming powers failed him (I presume, based on skimming the first two pages of Google results, that this is a made-up dance).
Finally, a quick note on the movies, because Chad asked and others might be curious: so far they've only helped. I'm not good at imagining faces or voices, and I largely find that hearing Ian McKellen, for instance, is an improvement over the non-hearing that I usually get when reading. And I have no problem substituting my preferred reading of lines in my head—in fact I did so all through the movies anyway. But this isn't a series of posts about the movie adaptations generally, and I'd prefer that comments stay focused on the books.