In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment takes a look at the story of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, connoisseur of silver spoons and wielder of umbrellas.
Ah, Lobelia. When I first decided to write about the matriarch of the Sackville-Bagginses, I knew there wasn’t going to be much information to work with (turns out there was only a little more than I thought). She only makes a few appearances in The Lord of the Rings, and in most of these she and her family are presented in a fairly unpleasant light. To many, she comes off as snobbish, snide, and generally rude. It’s impossible to deny that she has a predilection for silver spoons and is…well, a bit of a kleptomaniac.
But Lobelia is one of only a few Hobbit women who are given more than a momentary glance in Middle-earth, and a compelling character in her own right. And what’s more, her narrative arc illustrates beautifully some of the more important lessons The Lord of the Rings has to teach, as she becomes an unlikely hero to those who had consistently refused to give her a chance.
Just as interesting is the fact that she is also one of only a few of Middle-earth’s inhabitants who had a real-word counterpart! In 1955, Tolkien wrote to Rayner Unwin criticizing W.H. Auden’s radio talk about The Lord of the Rings. In the letter, he claims that Auden was poor at reading poetry and that he shouldn’t have made The Lord of the Rings “a test of literary taste.” He then says that he is consumed with writing responses to critics of the broadcast, and that “One elderly lady—in part the model for ‘Lobelia’ indeed, though she does not suspect it—would I think certainly have set about Auden (and others) had they been in range of her umbrella” (Letters 229). It isn’t clear to me who this elderly woman was (not least because the whole of the letter remains unpublished), but I like to think that Tolkien’s caricature of her is gentler and fonder than we might immediately suppose, and am glad for this reason that she is allowed her moment of heroism that enshrines her among the greats in Hobbiton.
The earliest version of Lobelia actually appears in the very first draft of the very first chapter of The Lord of the Rings. There, a character named “Amalda Sackville-Baggins” is given a case of silver spoons “as a present” (The Return of the Shadow, hereafter RS, 16). She is “the wife of Bilbo’s cousin, the one he had discovered years ago on his return measuring his dining-room (you may remember his suspicions about disappearing spoons: anyway neither he nor Amalda had forgotten)” (RS 16). She was, Tolkien also notes, the only Sackville-Baggins who received a labeled gift, except that “there was a notice in the hall saying that Mr Bilbo Baggins made over the desirable property or dwelling-hole known as Bag-end Underhill together with all lands thereto belonging or annexed to Sago Sackville-Baggins and his wife Amalda for them to have hold possess occupy or otherwise dispose of at their pleasure and discretion as from September 22nd next” (RS 16). (Bilbo’s birthday was originally on the 20th of September.)
Curiously, the idea that Bilbo (or Frodo, as the case may be) gave his beloved Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, free of charge, persisted until later revisions that occurred sometime after the fourth major version of “A Long-Expected Party” (RS 222).
So, here in the earliest stages we have a proto-Lobelia character doing a couple of important things: first, establishing a necessary link between this new book and the wildly popular Hobbit; second, highlighting Bilbo’s sense of humor, which turns out to be simultaneously forgiving and ironic; and third, through her receipt of Bag End as a gift, signaling the fact that Bilbo does not intend to return from his adventure this time.
Lobelia becomes “Lobelia Sackville-Baggins” only after a bit of tinkering with names: Tolkien tried out Amalda, Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Griselda, and Grimalda before finally settling on Lobelia (RS 18, 36).
The conflict between Bilbo and the Sackville-Bagginses, which is arguably the most important aspect of Lobelia’s character in the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings, intensifies with each draft. This is especially true as Tolkien began to put more and more years between the action of his new story and that of The Hobbit.
First, he simply wrote that Bilbo did not remain on “calling-terms” with the Sackville-Bagginses after his unexpected return dashed the latter’s hopes of claiming Bag End. Later, Tolkien added that “The coldness between the Bagginses of Bag End and the Sackville-Bagginses” had gone on for “some seventy-five years and more” (RS 31). In the third version of “The Long-Expected Party,” the conflict between the two families becomes part of Bilbo’s inheritance: in that draft, Bilbo is married and Bingo [Frodo] is his son; Bingo is the one who gives presents, and it is said that he “inherited the belief” in Lobelia’s theft from his father (RS 33).
With each subsequent draft, the quarrels between the two families increasingly find expression in a multitude of small but hurtful ways. In one, Frodo “shut the door behind [Lobelia] with a grimace.” In the later version of that same scene, Lobelia, in a rage, attempts to insult Frodo by calling him “more than half a Brandybuck” (RS 241). In so doing, she reveals both her own classism and her horror at being connected with Frodo even in name.
It’s also more than hinted that Lobelia and Otho started a nasty rumor, claiming more or less that Gandalf and Frodo had offed Bilbo in order to get at the inheritance (RS 243). Years later, when Frodo remains at Bag End an extra day, worried by Gandalf’s unexplained absence, the Sackville-Bagginses “threaten to turn him out” (RS 273). Gaffer Gamgee mourns the change in ownership as “change for the worst,” though he couldn’t have imagined how much worse things would actually get (The Treason of Isengard 32). While in Mordor, Sam similarly complains that Lobelia and Cosimo (the earlier name for Lotho) have probably let Bag End go to shambles in his absence, and even prophesies that “there’ll be trouble if we ever get back” (Sauron Defeated, hereafter SD, 32).
In other words, as the story progressed, Tolkien found the feud between the Bagginses of Bag End and the Sackville-Bagginses increasingly important to the story he was telling. And while their disagreements do seem petty when placed alongside the greater troubles the main characters will have to face, it becomes an important symbol of how both Frodo and Lobelia are changed by their trials. Tolkien clearly understood that while the dangers of the world are great and far-reaching, arguments between families can be just as vicious and long-lasting. They leave their own kind of mark.
Just as Lobelia and her family become consistently pettier and more grasping as Tolkien revised the early chapters, so her story in particular becomes more forgiving as the larger tale developed.
As Tolkien worked on what became “The Field of Cormallen,” he wrote an outline imagining the end of the story. In it, the hobbits return to “drive out Cosimo [Lotho] Sackville-Baggins” from Bag End. They also find that Lobelia had died sometime while they were gone, suddenly, and of a “fit” during what might have been a quarrel or a fury (Tolkien’s handwriting is unreadable on that last word, and I have given Christopher Tolkien’s best guesses, bless him; SD 52). Thus, in this early vision of the story’s end, the Sackville-Bagginses are evicted from a house that they ostensibly fairly bought, and Lobelia herself is given no redemption arc. Instead, she dies confirming everyone’s ill opinion of her, and it is not said that anyone is particularly sorry for it.
I must confess that I don’t like this ending, though in a very human (or hobbit) sense it is rather satisfying. After all, isn’t this a story about villains finally getting their comeuppance? Lobelia gets what she deserved, in this version, and Bag End just isn’t Bag End without a Baggins inside (or a Gamgee, it turns out). But of course, to appreciate Lobelia’s potential death-by-rage is to miss the whole point of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf’s stern reminder—to “not be too eager to deal out death in judgement”—rings in my ears. This isn’t the proper ending to Lobelia’s story.
By the time he got around to actually writing a draft of the closing portion of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had apparently come to the same conclusion. So Lobelia’s fate is revised: she was incarcerated, not dead. But even here the story of her arrest is cut short: the Gaffer only says that she “did stand up to them proper, there’s no denying. Ordered them out of the house, and so they took her” (SD 85). The Gaffer also comments that he’s “less sorry for her than [he is] for some.” Tom Cotton takes this speech later (SD 98), and from there the story is expanded to its form in the published Lord of the Rings.
It is in the published version that Lobelia’s heroism and spirit finally get to shine, and we’re giving the full story of her strident resistance to Sharkey’s ruffians, umbrella and all. Here, Tom also points out that she had no qualms in going after “the leader, near twice her size” (LotR 1013). “Hobbits really are amazing creatures,” we chuckle with Gandalf. Who’d have thought it of tetchy Lobelia? As Gildor once put it, “Courage is found in unlikely places” (LotR 84).
The important point here seems to be that while Lobelia, like many of us, is petty, greedy, and sometimes vindictive, she will stand up against people harming her home and the people in it. She knows when to drop minor grudges for the battles worth fighting for—and when she does, she goes all in.
Tolkien also pointed out that, like many people, the Sackville-Bagginses were simply in over their heads (arguably not a hard thing for Hobbits). In a text called “The Hunt for the Ring,” he writes that the Sackville-Bagginses were amongst those taken in by Saruman’s lies specifically because they owned pipe-weed plantations and consistently supplied the wizard’s tobacco stores (Unfinished Tales 363). His patronage had made them relatively wealthy. They simply didn’t suspect him of treachery—and they weren’t alone. Even the Wise made mistakes in that area. It’s not that Lobelia and her family can’t or shouldn’t be blamed or held responsible for their part in bringing Saruman and his tyranny to the Shire. To Lobelia’s credit, though, she chose to act the moment she saw clearly, and while her actions weren’t as effective or wise as they could have been, they were still courageous, and she had the grit to see it through.
We come now to the crowning moment of Lobelia’s story: her release from the Lockholes. After sitting completely alone in prison for the better part of six months, the elderly hobbit is finally freed. She totters out, worn down and tired, but still on her own two feet, and ready to swing that trusty umbrella at the next brigand who dares threaten her home. Best of all, “she had such a welcome, and there was such clapping and cheering when she appeared […], that she was quite touched, and drove away in tears. She had never in her life been popular before” (LotR 1021). I’ve thought about that last phrase quite a bit as I’ve worked on this post. I suspect there’s quite a few of us out there who can sympathize. I keep imagining little-girl Lobelia: playing alone, eating alone, holding onto those few people who actually cared for her with an iron grip because she was too afraid to let them go. Learning to steal so she could have things to call her own. Constantly lonely and never belonging anywhere.
It’s all in my imagination, of course, but thinking of her that way makes me wonder if part of her antagonism towards Bilbo was her misguided way of trying to establish some kind of ongoing relationship in a community that actively disliked her. Now imagine, if you please, what a beautiful, heartbreaking gift that applause was to her as she hobbled out of her “dark and narrow cell” (LotR 1021). She had become a hero.
As I come to a close, I can’t help but wish Lobelia got a happier ending. Lotho’s murder “crushed” her (LotR 1021); she “never got over the news” and “said that it was not his fault; he was led astray by that wicked Sharkey and never meant any harm” (SD 110). She died less than a year later, old and tired.
But she also learned something through her lifelong struggles. Her legacy proves that. First, she returns Bag End to Frodo as a gift. Then, upon her death, “Frodo was surprised and much moved: she had left all that remained of her money and Lotho’s for him to use in helping hobbits made homeless by the troubles. So that feud was ended” (LotR 1021). There’s something beautifully poetic and just in it: the girl who never belonged found a way to bring people home.
I titled this post “Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, an Unexpected Hero,” before I starting writing it, with more than a little skepticism. I questioned starting the new year off with such a minor and (honestly) irritable character as Lobelia. As generally happens with these articles, however, I have found myself far more moved and thankful than I expected to be. Exploring her story has convinced me that she is, in fact, just the sort of hero that we most need, however unexpected.
Lobelia’s story illustrates how desperately we all need to set aside our petty faults and feuds, to look beyond our prejudices and selfish, self-serving impulses. Her story reminds us to reach out to the lonely and to have grace for even the most irritating people in our lives, both because they might be hurting, and because they are absolutely capable of more courage, strength, and love than anyone imagines. Most importantly, though, her story teaches that the world would be a better place if more of us stood up to violence, injustice, and aggression and worked with whatever talents and tools we happened to have in hand to restore peace.
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who is surprised (and yet, somehow not surprised—this is Tolkien, after all) to find herself inspired to greater good by Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!