There and Back Again… Again: The Hobbit Reread

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”

Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter reread of The Hobbit. You can find past posts at the reread index, or you can catch up with our previous reread of The Lord of the Rings. As always, the discussion will contain spoilers for everything Tolkien wrote about Middle-earth (that is: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and various posthumous tidbits); if you haven’t read the book before and would like to remain unspoiled, I recommend reading along with Mark Reads first.

This week, we conclude the reread with the book’s final chapter, “The Last Stage.”

 

What Happens

Bilbo and Gandalf return to Rivendell, where Gandalf tells the story of their adventure and Bilbo learns that Gandalf had helped drive the Necromancer out of Mirkwood. They stay only a week because Bilbo is eager to go home. On the last portion of the journey, he and Gandalf find and split the trolls’ gold. Just as Bilbo sees his own home in the distance, he recites the first instance of the “roads go ever on” poem, to Gandalf’s surprise.

Bilbo comes home to find that he is presumed dead and that his possessions are being auctioned off. No-one has actually moved into his home yet (though his Sackville-Baggins cousins never forgive him for the missed opportunity), but he suffers much inconvenience. He also discovers that he has lost his reputation, but he does not particularly mind: he writes poetry, visits the elves, makes friends among his young Took nephews and nieces, and “remained very happy to the end of his days, and those were extraordinarily long.”

The book ends with a visit from Gandalf and Balin “some years afterwards,” while Bilbo is writing his memoirs. His visitors tell him that all is now well, prosperous, and friendly under and around the Mountain. Unfortunately, earlier the Master of Lake-town stole much of the gold Bard gave the town and then died of starvation in the Waste. But the new Master is wise and the Lake-town’s current prosperity causes Bilbo to remark that “the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” Gandalf tells him that he should not be surprised that events had a wide effect, instead of being “just for your sole benefit.” Bilbo laughingly says that he is glad to be, in Gandalf’s words, “only quite a little fellow in a wide world.”

 

Comments

Though there are foreshadowings of The Lord of the Rings here, this is unquestionably a far happier ending. No, home isn’t the way Bilbo left it and he doesn’t fit in any more, but except for the inconveniences of having to be declared alive and trying to get his stuff back, he doesn’t actually care. The only potentially-bitter note is the bad end of the old Master, and even that has no hint of regret at the depths of his fall, the way that Saruman’s end does.

Another small way that this chapter ties into LotR is Gandalf’s speech to Bilbo at the very end:

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

This speech feels a bit out of place to me, especially considering how often Bilbo is described to be very lucky. But the narrator isn’t omniscient (for instance, he doesn’t know Gandalf’s thoughts); perhaps, then, there’s no contradiction between Gandalf’s statement and the descriptions in the rest of the book.

It may also feel out of place because it so strongly connects with the idea of weak supernatural good that we discussed in the LotR reread, that positive influences through magic are often subtle and appear as perhaps nothing more than chance. It’s not something that I remember encountering in The Hobbit before, so the sudden connection made me sit up.

I also note that Bilbo has no regrets about no longer being a mover and shaker, as it were, that he has acquired no taste for political agency. This is not a criticism, it is entirely in-character for him, but I noticed it because the idea of what happens to people who’ve been on adventures when they come home is one that interests me (i.e., could you go back to being a schoolkid after being a King or Queen in Narnia?; see also Jo Walton’s short story “Relentlessly Mundane”).

Back to the beginning of the chapter, now. The Rivendell elves’ song welcoming Bilbo and Gandalf back demonstrates the differences between the elves here and in Mirkwood:

The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?

I had forgotten that Chapter 8 sets out the taxonomy of elf-tribes, so this kind of difference had already been hinted at, but now I’m imagining Elrond being disapproving at the Elvenking over the whole escapade, which I find mildly amusing.

There is essentially no useful information about the Necromancer in this chapter. All it says is that “Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.” I don’t remember feeling that I’d been cheated out of a story when I read this bit as a kid; what about you all? Also, Elrond does not think the Necromancer will be banished “in this age of the world, or for many after.” If at the time this was written, Tolkien had already decided that Elrond was fostering the heirs of Elendil (and that the Necromancer was Sauron), this would be a bit of foreshadowing about how Elrond sees the long fight. Of course, all that story is stuck in an appendix in LotR, so it probably won’t help the reader much (yes, I’m still finding that a mystifying choice by Tolkien).

Bilbo’s renouncement of greed has stuck: he tries to give all the troll gold to Gandalf. Gandalf insists that they share—saying that “You may find you have more needs than you expect”; does he have an idea about the legal troubles awaiting Bilbo or is he just being very careful? And though Bilbo acquiesces, it still reads like a small but significant character development moment. As does his “mopp[ing] his face with a red silk handkerchief” that he borrowed from Elrond: at the start of the story, he ran out of Bag End without any handkerchiefs; as he went down into the Mountain for the first time, the narrator made a point of saying that “He had not had a pocket-handkerchief for ages”; and now he has one again, showing that he’s truly coming back home.

I’m afraid that I’m going to have to leave analysis of the “Roads go ever ever on” to those with any poetry sense, as all I can find to say about it is that it’s a signposted demonstration of how Bilbo’s changed. On another language note, I liked that the firm conducting the auction of his possessions is “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes”; whether those were lawyers or auctioneers or what, Tolkien obviously had no high opinion of them.

Appendix B to LotR puts Balin and Gandalf’s visit in 2949, eight years after the main events of the book. Balin enters Moria a whopping forty years later, which probably explains why Tolkien aged him down from being “very old-looking” in chapter 1, to being seventeen years younger than Thorin in the family tree in Appendix A of LotR. (He’s still a very respectable 226 when he goes to Moria, which I think is getting to be elderly for dwarves, judging by the rest of that family tree.) There’s no hint that any of this is coming, of course, because that would be entirely out of keeping with the tone of this ending. (And now I want to reread the Moria section of Fellowship. “He is dead then. I feared it was so.”)

Enough small notes. What do I think about the book as a whole, at the end of this reread?

Well, I haven’t discovered that I like it better, or even nearly as well as, The Lord of the Rings. But I didn’t expect to, so this doesn’t distress me. In terms of its relationship to LotR, I enjoyed finding some of the same themes and plot elements, like different species needing to work together or pieces of the Battle of Five Armies, as well as things like the occasional bit of beautiful landscape description or the careful setting-up of a big plot element like the death of Smaug.

Some things didn’t hold up as well to scrutiny, particularly the baffling conduct of the dwarves at points and the sheer number of times in which Bilbo is lucky. But I liked Bilbo and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug, and the fall of Thorin still resonates strongly with me on some fundamental level.

And I was delighted to learn more about the cultural contexts and mythologies that informed the book, and its textual history, and all the other information and reactions that you all were kind enough to share with me in comments. On the whole I do think I like this book better now, which is certainly the preferred outcome, and it’s partly because of your thoughtful and enthusiastic discussions. Thank you very much.

So my last questions to you all, for now: what did you think of the ending, and how does the whole book look to you now? I will keep an eye on comments here and in the older posts, and I imagine I’ll see you all again in December to discuss the next movie. I look forward to it.


Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.

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