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?


A long expected post…

My dear [readers, followers, commenters, fellow Tolkienites, scholars, movie mavens, canon mavens and adventurers in the perilous realm].

[Today I have reached my one hundred and eleventh post: Wandering Paths is eleventy-one today]!

I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am. I shall not keep you long. I have called you all together for a Purpose. Indeed, for Three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one [posts] is too [few to explore the perilous realm]…[with] such excellent and admirable [readers].

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Secondly, to celebrate [this milestone in the history of Wandering Paths].

…Thirdly and finally, I wish to make an announcement. I [am pleased] to announce that – though, as I said, eleventy-one [posts] is far too [few] to spend among you – this is [not the end]. [You’re stuck with me]. I am [not] going [anywhere].  (LotR 29-30)

Thank you all for your continued readership and support. Your presence is what keeps Wandering Paths alive. I began the blog to share the applicability I’ve found in Tolkien’s work in hopes of inspiring others to a greater appreciation of his work. In particular, I’d like to thank the members of the Grey Havens Group, who have graciously accepted me into the fold and given much fodder for new posts.

I’ve been looking forward to creating this toast; here’s to eleventy-one posts and to eleventy-one more. Thanks for joining me in the journey!


P.S. I’ve done a little house-keeping, so now all post links are up to date for my Reading The Hobbit Series. I have also added a new page devoted specifically to reviews. Take a peak and catch up on anything you’ve missed.

Bilbo and the Hold of the Ring

How strong is the Ring’s hold?  This question doesn’t have a clear answer, and it appears Tolkien worked on this very issue continuously throughout the writing of Lord of the Rings. 

At times the Ring appears to be a sentient entity, capable of thought and planning.  In the Hobbit, and later explained in Lord of the Rings, the Ring apparently chooses  to leave Gollum.  Somehow the Ring is able to sense the renewed rise of Sauron in the outside world and see that the only way to become reunited is to leave Gollum and the caves.  But can this really be true?  If this were so, wouldn’t the Ring have chosen anyone other than Bilbo?  So the Ring’s power has set limits.  This moment could even be interpreted as a moment of Eucatastrophe.  By chance, Bilbo is knocked down the right tunnel and happens to place his hand directly on the Ring.  Also by chance he figures out the workings of the Ring to escape Gollum.  Now this second element could be the first touch of the Ring on Bilbo to ensure its own escape from Gollum and as a consequence also saving Bilbo.

However, the reader can still question the foresight and sentience of the Ring.  In leaving Gollum, it sets up a whole chain of events which would have led to its recovery.  Gollum, following Bilbo, eventually finds out his true name and where he comes from: Bilbo Baggins from the Shire.  In time he finds himself drawn to Mordor, where he is captured and questioned.  The Nazgul have returned to power and soon leave Minas Morgul to abduct Bilbo and retrieve the Ring.  All this is set in motion solely by the Ring’s “choice” to leave Gollum.  Is this just fate?  Or, by some contrivance, is the Ring actually able to orchestrate these events?  One has to remember that Sauron poured much of his own power and essence into the Ring.  It isn’t that much of stretch to assume that the Ring, as a consequence, has its own agenda or is in some manner still controlled by Sauron.

And yet this plan is foiled.  How?  By the will of single Hobbit.

Bilbo is not a central figure in the Lord of the Rings.  Yet, while always off stage, he is one of the truest heroes in the tale.  Unlike Borromir, unlike Frodo, unlike Gollum, only he and Sam are able to escape the Ring’s hold.  If he could not, if he had kept the Ring, if he had succumbed, the quest would have failed before it began.  Sauron would have returned.

It is obvious upon reading “The Long Expected Party” that the Ring has a true and strong hold on Bilbo.  It is an obvious struggle for him to relinquish it to Frodo.  The whole purpose of the party and giving away so many and so lavish gifts was solely to make the giving of the Ring easier.  This fails.

After Bilbo’s “joke,” Bilbo returns to Bag End, places the Ring in envelope and then puts it back in his pocket.  No more is  said.  It appears to be an automatic, reflexive action.  When asked about the Ring, at first Bilbo is confused by this act, then rationalizes it.  The Ring should be mine, he thinks.  Yet when we think about this action, it truly seems to be foreign; as if an outside force, without Bilbo’s awareness, molds his actions to its needs.  Then, being confronted with this action, Bilbo makes it his own and proclaims his right to the Ring.  Is this outburst his own true feelings against Gandalf, or a manifestation of the Ring’s hold?  I would claim both.  Remember the Ring of the drafts: the Ring gains power over Bilbo as a memento of his travels.  He is now set on leaving the Shire and reliving those adventures.  Why would he leave his most precious heirloom behind?

Consider Bilbo, he has none of the knowledge or superstition of Gandalf to make him fear the Ring.  He is confused by Gandalf’s focus on it.  This confusion grows into anger and jealousy.  While this is a reasonable reaction, it is logical to see the Ring’s effect here as well, amplifying his feelings.  It is also possible that this jealousy increases the power of the Ring’s hold on Bilbo.

Yet out of Bilbo’s trust for Gandalf, and his unflappable innocence and humor, Bilbo holds true to his original decision.  He takes out the envelope and makes to put it on the mantel.  The motion is jerky and forced, as if made against some will.  He cannot complete the gesture, dropping the envelope on the floor.  Gandalf immediately scoops it up and places it on the mantel.  This sets off a moment of extreme anger in Bilbo, possibly the last vestiges of the Ring’s direct hold.  Then, almost as suddenly, Bilbo returns to his carefree, happy state the reader remembers from the end of the Hobbit.  He is free.  While the Ring still has some hold over him, Bilbo will never be ruled by it again. 

It almost never mentioned, but in this Bilbo becomes one of the most important figures in the Lord of the Rings.  He is, in fact, a hero.