What Tolkien Thought of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins

September 22 was the birthday of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. In honor of these two famousest of Hobbits, I thought it would be appropriate to gather some of Tolkien’s thoughts on these characters.

On What Made Bilbo Unique

Bilbo was in [gift giving] as in other ways an exceptional person, and his Party was a riot of generosity even for a wealthy Hobbit. (Letters, 292)

Bilbo was specially selected by the authority and insight of Gandalf as abnormal: he had a good share of hobbit virtues: shrewd sense, generosity, patience and fortitude, and also a strong “spark” yet unkindled. The story and its sequel are not about “types” or the cure of bourgeois smugness by wider experience, but about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals. (Letters, 365)

What Bilbo Looked Like

I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of “fairy” rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and “elvish”; hair short and curling (brown). the feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf). (Letters, 35)

Frodo as Bilbo’s Heir

Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will prob[ably] end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S[am] will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns. (Letters, 105)

Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror–broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. (Letters, 186)

Frodo’s Failure

The Quest was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of humble Frodo’s development to the “noble”, his sanctification. Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned. He “apostatized”–and I have had one savage letter, crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor, not honoured. Believe me, it was not until I read this that I had myself any idea how “topical” such a situation might appear…
But at this point the “salvation” of the world and Frodo’s own “Salvation” is achieve by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end. To “pity” him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end–but by a “grace”, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one could have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his “forgiveness”, he saved himself, and relieved of his burden. He was very justly accorded the highest honors–since it is clear that he & Sam never concealed the precise course of events. (Letters, 233-4)

If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of macimum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved–by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury…
No, Frodo “failed”. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however “good”; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us. (Letters, 251-2)

But, for one thing, it became at last quite clear that Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole “theory” of true nobility and heroism that is presented.
Frodo indeed “failed” as a hero…I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum–impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honor; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.
We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s effort or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached…
Frodo undertook his quest out of love–to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. his real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a more failure than the breaking of his body would have been–say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed under a falling rock.
That appears to have been the judgement of Gandalf and Aragorn and of all who learned the full story of his journey. Certainly nothing would be concealed by Frodo! (Letters, 325-7)

On Frodo’s and Bilbo’s Fate

Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him–if that could be done, before he died. he would eventually have to “pass away”: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his in littleness and in greatness, spent still in time amid the natural beauty of “Arda Unmarred”, the Earth unspoiled by evil.
Bilbo went too. No doubt as a completion of the plan due to Gandalf himself. Gandalf had a very great affection for Bilbo, from the hobbit’s childhood onwards. His companionship was really necessary for Frodo’s sake–it is difficult to imagine a hobbit, even one who had been through Frodo’s experiences, being really happy even in an earthly paradise without a companion of his own kind, and Bilbo was the person that Frodo most loved. But he also needed and deserved the favour on his own account. he bore still the mark of the Ring that needed to be finally erased: a trace of pride and personal possessiveness. Of course he was old and confused in mind, but it was still a revelation of the “black mark” when he said in Rivendell “What’s become of my ring, Frodo, that you took away?”; and when he was reminded of what had happened, his immediate reply was: “What a pity! I should have liked to see it again”. As for reward for his part, it is difficult to feel that his life would be complete without an experience of “pure Elvishness”, and the opportunity of hearing the legends and histories in full the fragments of which had so delighted him. (Letters, 328-9)

Photo Credit: Stefania Bonacasa

  2 comments for “What Tolkien Thought of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins

  1. September 28, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    That Frodo is doomed to heroic failure, and that the path he treads can at best (without some external intervention) lead only to martyrdom, is actually signposted more clearly in the films, I think, where we are constantly reminded of the corrupting allure of the Ring, so that the viewer is invited to wonder “How is he ever going to throw it into the fire, then?” Sam, by contrast, is able to succeed in the part that he plays, which is to carry Frodo (literally, in the end) to Mount Doom, sustained by little more than his solid and earthy hobbit-virtues. The clearest illustration of this is where Sam shakes off the temptation of the Ring at the very edge of Mordor; a sequence that is regrettably absent from the films. That is why I regard Sam as a more interesting character than Frodo.

    • Emily
      October 2, 2014 at 10:06 am

      Sam definitely has more depth and growth than Frodo does. I am fascinated by the tragedy that Frodo endures, though. I think it’s fair to say that, by the time everything was over, Frodo was actually disappointed that he didn’t suffer martyrdom (that is, death).

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