Contemplating Mathoms and Possession

Tolkien begins The Lord of the Rings in a very particular way. The “Long Expected Party” serves two purposes: to reference the “Unexpected Party” of The Hobbit and to establish one of the central themes of the novel.

The first chapter of The Hobbit functions as an introduction on many levels. Readers are presented with the figure of Bilbo and the staid, comfortable life of hobbits, seemingly an inauspicious start to an adventure novel. Bilbo is also subjected to a long series of introductions, both literally and figuratively. This chapter marks the beginning of his transformation, one which is largely completed by “The Long Expected Party.”

The first chapter of The Lord of the Rings describes the combined birthday celebrations of Bilbo and Frodo. The primary purpose of this party, as Bilbo finally admits to Gandalf, is to “give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give [the Ring] away at the same time” (LotR 34). The shadow of the Ring lies over the entire chapter and should color all preceding festivities. But this brings up the rather curious nature of Hobbit birthday customs: in place of receiving gifts, they give them.

Hobbits give presents to their guests on their birthday; usually items of little worth and often simply mathoms. Tolkien defines mathoms as items for which a hobbit “[has] no…use for, but [is] unwilling to throw away” (LotR 5). Mathoms accumulate quickly, as “in Hobbiton and Bywater every day… [is] somebody’s birthday…so every hobbit… [has] a fair chance of at least one present…a week” (LotR 27). More often than not, these gifts simply end up gathering dust or in Michel Delving (the mathom house). Another common use for mathoms is re-gifting, often making the full circuit of the Shire. This act must be the customary practice as Bilbo is particularly noteworthy for keeping “those that he received” (LotR 37).

In the case of this particular party, however, the gifts are exceedingly good, from Dale and the Mountain. They are exquisite, intricate, possibly even magical; and definitely something to be treasured. So extraordinary are these gifts that there are even some guests who pass through the line multiple times so as to receive more than one.

Bilbo’s gifts stem from a true spirit of generosity and giving of oneself. He even admits that he has spent the last of his reward from the Quest for Erebor in order to give so lavishly. Celebrating the Christmas season, this message is particularly poignant. In this hobbit tradition, the true nature of generosity and a proper disposition towards possessions is shown. Granted there are those who return, grasping for more, but generally the practice shows a desire to share joy and love rather than material goods.

There is much more to be seen under the surface, however, and is even explicitly shown in the hobbits. Possession has a dual nature, both positive and negative. It is this dual nature which Tolkien explores as the central theme of The Lord of the Rings.

The dual nature of the word possession is immediately recognizable. According the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word is defined as “the act of having or taking into control…something owned…domination by something” ( The term originates from Latin roots meaning “occupancy…to have in one’s control,” meanings which take on a much more sinister meaning in the modern usage ( In his capacity as both linguist and philologist, Tolkien definitely was aware of this word’s apparent duplicity.

There is a danger in possession. Eventually one always has to ask, who possesses whom? This is one of the root themes of Tolkien’s work, not only in The Lord of the Rings, but throughout the entire Lengendarium.

“The Long Expected Party” is a study in the nature of possession. The reader is shown the generous, fun, and rather care-free attitude of the hobbits towards gifts. At the same time, they’re shown the dark (though certainly not as dark as these matters will become) underbelly with both the ‘returning customers’ at the gate and the establishment of Michel Delving (hoarding). Possession of another kind is evident even in the gorging at the day long feast.

All of this acts as the prelude to the climax of the chapter: Bilbo’s struggle to relinquish the Ring. The Ring is shown to be both the precious possession and the ultimate possessor. It has the power to change the personality and even affect the actions of the possessed. Bilbo’s anger and unwitting struggles to place the Ring’s envelope on the mantel are proof of this. He may attribute these actions to himself, but these are the clues which totally unnerve Gandalf, and set him on the course towards discovering the true nature of Bilbo’s ring.

This is one of the most important themes of the book, if not the most critical to its fullest understanding. In the dual nature of this singular word, the reader is constantly confronted by one question: is the Ring acting on the world? Is it a passive bystander? Or is it subtly twisting the actions, desires, and passions of those around it to achieve its own ends?