Sunday, February 28, 2016

Importance of Birthdays?

I've often wondered why Professor Tolkien chose to have Bilbo and Frodo's birthday as the starting point for The Fellowship of the Ring.

Indeed, the first thing we hear about in the whole of The Lord of the Rings is that:

"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."

Why would the professor choose to start his masterpiece with such a seemingly unimportant statement?

Upon closer consideration, I thought maybe it was because it is an effective way of introducing the characters, primarily Bilbo and Frodo, but also their friends like Merry and Pippin.  For instance, this statement not only grabs the readers' attention (ooh, a party of special magnificence!) but also provides a good segue way into the next paragraph:

"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."

At the party, we are able to learn some hobbit customs: their love for eating, the fact they give away presents on their birthdays instead of receiving them, their love for parties and (short) speeches.  We meet not only the birthday boys, but also their friends, Merry and Pippin, and other characters who become important later on, like the Sackville-Baggins, who play a part in the Scouring of the Shire later on in The Return of the King.
christmas, xmas, birthday

I think there is something else, something more important associated with birthdays in Middle-earth though.  Other mentions of birthdays include:

-Smeagol insists the Ring is his "birthday present"
-Bilbo's landing in Lake Town after the barrel ride in The Hobbit
-Frodo's departure from the Shire
-Frodo's stabbing on Weathertop

The first in the above list is what I found the most interesting.  Smeagol, the antithesis of Frodo, steals the Ring and murders his friend insisting the Ring is his.  This is a stark contrast between not only Bilbo, who willfully gives up the Ring on his birthday just before he leaves for Rivendell, but also because the hobbits of the Shire give away presents on their birthdays instead of murdering friends and taking them for their own.

When Bilbo arrives in Lake Town in The Hobbit, he has been through so much, managed to rescue the dwarves multiple time, and has officially become a seasoned adventurer, a sort of coming of age for him which is mirrored also in Frodo's coming of age at 33 at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Frodo leaves the Shire for Rivendell after a sparse birthday supper in The Fellowship of the Ring, another sort of coming of age--one of acceptance of the task before him and an act of self-sacrifice which again contrasts Smeagol's murder.

Frodo is also stabbed by the witch king on his birthday which scars him for life (literally and figuratively) and it is another turning point for him--he has finally begun to understand what he is up against and he will never be the same.

So I think the general theme is that birthdays are turning points--will you do something self sacrificial like Frodo or Bilbo, or will you murder your best friend like Smeagol?  


  1. Hmmm.... I never thought about that before but that's really insightful. Personally I plan to do something a little nicer than murder my best friend on my birthday. ;)