And so, the end. “The Last Stage” rounds off the story in concise fashion, as Bilbo undertakes the second half of his journey home, and Tolkien draws his narrative to a close. The conclusion of The Hobbit seems positively tiny compared to the behemoth of an extended epilogue The Lord Of The Rings gets, and this chapter will maintain a cozy, down-to-earth happy feel in every other sentence.
The chapter opens with the arrival of Bilbo and Gandalf, and gives the narrator one of his last chances for verbal fun: “…where stood the Last (or the First) Homely House.” The mood is relaxed, as things always seem to be in Imladris, and in keeping with the established elvish mystique, a certain sameness is evident: “Bilbo heard the elves still singing in the trees, as if they had not stopped since he left“. Dragons may fall, Kingdoms may be re-claimed, gold may be secured, but the elves are always going to be here. Or so it seems. The long defeat that will be central to the treatment of the race in The Lord Of The Rings is a while off yet.
The elves of Rivendell sum up this feeling in a song similar to that which Bilbo heard in “A Short Rest“. It’s an interesting piece that bears some going into. They start by rejoicing over the death of Smaug with child-like glee:
“The dragon is withered,
His bones are now crumbled;
His armour is shivered,
His splendour is humbled!”
Before giving voice to the reality that, for all the drama, they are still here and things haven’t really changed all that much:
“Though sword shall be rusted,
And throne and crown perish
With strength that men trusted
And wealth that they cherish,
Here grass is still growing,
And leaves are yet swinging,
The white water flowing,
And elves are yet singing”
They then turn their song into a rejection of wealth, noting the dwarven kind very directly, in favor of the free bounties of nature, in a section that you would imagine speaks very well to Bilbo:
“The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure;
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?”
They close with a warm-hearted greeting and welcome to Bilbo and Gandalf:
“O! Whither so laden,
So sad and so dreary?
Here elf and elf-maiden
Now welcome the weary…”
The most meat in the chapter comes from the next section, where Gandalf gives an outline of his missing time between the conclusion of “Queer Lodgings” and his sudden re-appearance in “A Thief In The Night“. Why Bilbo is only hearing this now, after spending months on the road with just Gandalf and Beorn for company, is not elaborated upon, but anyway, it isn’t all that long a recitation.
What Gandalf does outline is tantalising in its own right, a brief summation of what seems like a quest to match what Bilbo has been through:
“It appeared 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.
“Ere long now,” Gandalf was saying, “the Forest will grow somewhat more wholesome. The North will be freed from that horror for many long years, I hope.”
It will be for The Lord Of The Rings to flesh all of this out, wherein Tolkien will do a little bit of ret-conning. The “great council of the white wizards” will become the “White Council“, and it won’t be a wizard-only affair. Still, you kind of wish you could have seen what is described a bit more up-front: a team of super-powered magic users going up against the universe’s latest personification of evil? Yes please. As stated before, the Necromancer seemed primed to be one of The Hobbit’s main antagonists, but as it is he remains a distant mysterious figure, a “whisper of a nameless fear“.
But alas, that is not this journey, though Tolkien does indulge himself when he engages in something that comes close to sequel set-up, as Gandalf considers the fate of the Necromancer with Elrond:
“Yet I wish he were banished from the world!”
“It would be well indeed,” said Elrond; “but I fear that will not come about in this age of the world, or for many after.”
Elrond happens to be wrong, but he’s not the only person who feels Sauron isn’t the kind of threat to be ended forever just yet.
Even Bilbo, longing for home, can’t keep up with all of the story-telling: “When the tale of their journeyings was told, there were other tales, and yet more tales, tales of long ago, and tales of new things, and tales of no time at all, till Bilbo’s head fell forward on his chest…“. He awakens to another song from the elves, this one with a very optimistic, almost victorious tinge, delighting in the natural beauty around Rivendell:
“Dance all ye joyful, now dance all together!
Soft is the grass, and let foot be like feather!
The river is silver, the shadows are fleeting;
Merry is May-time, and merry our meeting”
This section of the text emphasizes more the power of Rivendell as a place for rest and healing, something that may not become clearly apparent until later stories, when Bilbo winds up there as a permanent resident. Bilbo hasn’t undergone Frodo’s hurts of course, but there are some parallels. It would be a hard soul that could face the darkness of the goblin caves or the horror of the spider colony, or the sheer terror of Smaug’s insidious presence, and not be affected, and that’s before we talk about the carnage of the final battle before the gates of Erebor. The stress of such things finds salve in Imladris: “A little sleep does a great cure in the house of Elrond…Weariness fell from him soon in that house…“. Of course, Tolkien can’t help himself here either, indulging in some humour with the elves:
“Well, Merry People!” said Bilbo looking out. “What time by the moon is this? Your lullaby would waken a drunken goblin! Yet I thank you.”
“And your snores would waken a stone dragon — yet we thank you,” they answered with laughter.”
Of course this is not where Bilbo is destined to be, not yet. Heading on the last section of the journey, and having treated Elrond as he had Thranduil, “…giving him such small gifst as he would accept…“, Bilbo and Gandalf turn for the Shire. In so doing they very literally leave behind the lands of faerie and myth, and face into a harder reality:
“Even as they left the valley the sky darkened in the West before them, and wind and rain came up to meet them.”
Bilbo and Gandalf turn almost maudlin in this moment, perhaps with a tinge of regret that their own story is coming to an end:
“…our back is to legends and we are coming home. I suppose this is the first taste of it.”
“There is a long road yet,” said Gandalf.
“But it is the last road,” said Bilbo.”
Jeez, it’s all a bit depressing. The next section of the chapter amounts to a re-tread of the paths travelled in “Roast Mutton” and “A Short Rest”, including the Ford of Bruinen and the area where they encountered the trolls. There’s a strange pensiveness in the air here – “This was much as it had been before, except that the company was smaller, and more silent…” – but there are also “no trolls” as the author straightforwardly notes. The buried gold from the troll horde is uncovered here, which Bilbo generously agrees to split with Gandalf (the wizard, perhaps, having an inkling for what’s to come in Hobbiton). Bilbo is perhaps influenced by the tale of Gandalf’s exploits against the Necromancer when he says “I daresay you can find a use for it“. Gandalf may be influenced by the same when he replies “Indeed I can!“. The only ones not pleased by this arrangement of mutual respect are the poor ponies who have to carry it all (though Bilbo and Gandalf do them the favour of walking most of the distance). The Hobbit lacks The Lord Of The Rings‘ respect for pack animals – No Bill here, and no Sam to moon over him – but we can forgive this perhaps, a sacrifice to keep the tone light-hearted.
We really are coming to the end of the line, or maybe we should say the circle, as Bilbo is noted as having the use of that singular beacon of civilised society: a pocket-handkerchief. But if the point of this chapter is to bring Bilbo and then the reader back into the real countryside surrounds of the Shire, there is still change evident, even in the handkerchief, a lordly “red silk” affair that Bilbo was granted by the elves.
That sense of sameness mixed with change is showcased vividly by the legendarium’s first look at one of its – perhaps the most – famous tunes, “The Road Goes Over On“, though it isn’t quite the edition we will become more familiar with. It serves as a sort-of recap of the things Bilbo has seen or done, and we can well imagine it being sung partly as a lament for adventures past:
“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea”
We can see references here to the trek over the Misty Mountains, the fortress of Thranduil beneath Mirkwood’s trees, the darkness of Gollum’s cave and the river that runs into the Long Lake.
“Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon”
This sections nods at the winter lay-over in Beorn’s home turning into a more pleasant journey as they move westwards, as well as the events of “On The Doorstep” regards the moon-writing on the mountain.
“Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar”
This is a fairly obvious reference to Bilbo himself, now coming to the end of his journey. This verse strikes an optimistic tone of being able to come home again, and contrasts again with Frodo’s trauma at the conclusion of Tolkien’s follow-up.
“Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known”
Finally, Bilbo hints at his own trauma, having faced dragons and battle. Referring to “Inside Information” as an encounter with “horror in the halls of stone” is noteworthy, but Bilbo is already looking past that, to more familiar and certain terrain. Still, too much has happened for Bilbo to remain as he was. The hobbit that got so fussy about the party of dwarves turning up at his door was not the kind of person who would come up with such a song, and even Gandalf is surprised by the extroverted demonstration of it:
“My dear Bilbo!” he said. “Something is the matter with you! You are not
the hobbit that you were.”
The very final end of the adventure becomes one of almost slapstick comedy, as Bilbo stumbles into the hilarious situation of being present at the posthumous auctioning off of his effects, the hobbit having been declared dead. Bolting from your home and running off without telling anyone might not have been the wisest course as it turned out.
There’s lot to enjoy in this section: Bilbo’s shock at this turn of events being emphasised by his horror at people not wiping their feet (the Baggins side is firmly at the wheel now), the auctioneers being “Messrs Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes” perhaps indicating Tolkien’s opinion of the profession; items of Bilbo’s being sold for literal songs, the image of his villainous Sackville-Baggins cousins measuring rooms for a now postponed residence, and the begrudgery of some lookers-on: “In short Bilbo was “Presumed Dead”, and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.”
This rather remarkable homecoming has some basis in previous stories, and the concept of an adventurer being declared legally dead only to surprise people at home by turning up alive can be found in works of fiction as diverse as Lord Tennyson and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It’s a great way to make an outsider by the sheer amount of time they have been a way from their traditional environment, enough that their once-neighbors and friends now consider them as no longer existent. It also says something a bit about the Shire and its society, which must have been somewhat scandalised by the idea of one of its tentpoles running off with a party of dwarves and wizards.
Such are the legal wranglings in the otherwise lackadaisical Shire that Bilbo isn’t even admitted to be alive for “quite a long time“, his re-appearence described as “much more than a nine days wonder” a phrase that finds its origin in Shakespearean actor William Kemp dancing a Morris jig between London and Norwich in Nine days in 1600. Poor Bilbo is obliged to actually buy back many of his own possessions, a situation that reflects rather badly on the Shire if you think about it, and the grudge with the Sackville-Bagginses is set in stone, a plot thread not to be resolved until “The Scouring Of The Shire“. I suppose hobbits aren’t all easy-going and sunshine, and have that countryside trait of ingrained stubbornness too.
In all of this extraordinary circumstance, the one person missing is Gandalf, who apparently accompanied Bilbo nearly all the way back to his front-door, but then vanishes from the next part of the narrative. You can only imagine what the auctioneers would have said about the tall, vaguely unnerving wizard at Bilbo’s side as he tried to stop his silver spoons from being robbed.
From here, we move rapidly into an epilogue for Bilbo. At first, it seems a little underwhelming, as the narrator outlines how Bilbo has lost more than just his auctioned off possessions: “…he had lost his reputation…he was no longer quite respectable“. For someone like Bilbo, this sort of social opinion could be perceived as quite serious. The Shire might be an agrarian utopia of some sort, but it’s still conservative, a place where straying outside the bounds of social convention is grounds for a sort-of shunning. Sort of.
But Bilbo has come too far and seen too much – he “had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way” – to be unduly troubled by it all, even if the narrator expresses a small bit of disapproval himself: “I am sorry to say he did not mind“. Bilbo hangs up his sword, his coat of mail and luxuriates in the sound of a boiling kettle as he had so often imagined on his journey, but he is changed: more open perhaps, more liable to enjoy his life and to speak freely. He is “queer” according to the “elders” of the Shire, but he has some admirers, not least “his nieces and nephews on the Took side“, yet another dangling thread that will be pulled firmly by the time of The Lord Of The Rings. Some go as far as to pity “poor old Baggins“, but he has found a more worthwhile fulfilling existence than many hobbits. The text turns to traditional language to describe this – “…he remained very happy to the end of his days” – while also leaving room for some additional possibilities – “…and those were extraordinarily long“. In the end, the negative crowd are just the butt of another joke, for our last mention of that most precious possession of Bilbo’s: “His magic ring he kept a great secret, for he chiefly used it when unpleasant callers came.”
The last part of the last chapter is for an epilogue. As Bilbo sits and writes his memoirs – “There and Back Again, a Hobbits Holiday“, one of Tolkien’s original titles for his work – he is surprised by Gandalf and Balin, dropping in without an appointment just as Bilbo had insisted they do.
This final interaction starts with a fairly obvious note on the success for all parties, both in terms of gold and largesse: “If Balin noticed that Mr. Baggins’ waistcoat was more extensive (and had real gold buttons), Bilbo also noticed that Balin’ s beard was several inches longer, and his jewelled belt was of great magnificence.”
The topic of conversation is, naturally enough, the fate of both Dale and Erebor. And, in keeping with the optimistic tone, things are going rather well. Bard has become a great Lord of men and made the former desolation into a land of milk and honey, and even Lake-town has been rebuilt and prospers. But not everybody joins Bard, as Smaug has one more victim to take:
“The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions.”
The Master was never a very sympathetic character, being a politicking manipulator at every moment, but this sorry fate may still surprise a reader. In the battle between Bard’s lineage and cynicism and the Master’s insidiousness and populism, it is Bard that has won out. The Master becomes the only fatal victim of the sickness that previously affected Thorin and, to a lesser extent, Bilbo.
Balin notes that the new Master, “of a wiser kind“, has begun to attract myths of his own: “They are making songs which say that in his day the rivers run with gold.” Bilbo is quick to counter that the old prophecies, elaborated upon in “A Warm Welcome” have thus come true, in a roundabout fashion.
This leads into the last bit of the text, and perhaps we can consider it Tolkien’s closing statement as well. Gandalf good-naturedly admonishes Bilbo for any disbelief in the old prophecies, since he himself “had a hand in bringing them about“, before offering something akin to his words to Frodo in “The Shadow Of The Past“:
“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!”
In other words, Bilbo should not discount the possibility of a higher power being involved in his adventures, at least in some capacity. In this, you’d imagine Gandalf is zeroing in on the discovery of the Ring, that blind groping in the dark of a goblin tunnel that led Bilbo to his greatest treasure. As Gandalf will tell Frodo later, in more serious circumstances:
“It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark…Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought.”
For Bilbo, such philosophical arguments are beyond him at the present time. He’s been there and back again, and has little need, at the present time, for more adventures, to potentially be another game piece in a grand cosmic battle between good and evil. In the end, Bilbo is happy to be “a little fellow in a wide world“, content with the comforts of home and hearth:
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.”
“The Last Stage” has the unenviable task of wrapping up The Hobbit, in a way that concludes the narrative effectively while pleasing the reader. And, while it is truncated at a times and a little all over the place with the tone it is trying to strike, I think that it succeeds.
Bilbo’s main adventure has already come to an end, and Tolkien wants to hit a few key items in what amounts to a fleshed out epilogue, in line with the previous chapter. These are a believable, yet truncated, account of Bilbo’s journey home, some brief set-up for stories to comes, and an examination of how Bilbo has changed as a character. The first is accomplished fairly easily, with “The Last Stage” amounting in that respect to a clip show of some past adventures. The second is also dealt with in rapid fashion, with brief nods to the Necromancer, Bilbo’s fondness for Rivendell, his newfound “queer” status in the Shire and his many nieces and nephews that remain fond of him.
It’s the third that is the most important of course, a summary argument for how Bilbo has embraced his Took side (but not too much). Bilbo returns to the Shire, in a physical sense, very different from how he left, relatively laden with treasure, carrying a sword and mail shirt, and with the blessings of men, elves and dwarves upon him. And on the inside, he’s changed too. He no longer gives as much care for the idea of being respectable or of conforming to society’s demands. He has a freedom that other hobbits don’t have, one granted to him by exotic experiences in the far east, and that’s as big a reward as any chest of treasure.
I will not drag things out much further with any lengthy closing remarks, now that we have reached the end of The Hobbit. I do adore this book, and always have since my first reading of it nearly two decades ago, and many readings have come since. Doing this sort of analysis necessitates a different kind of reading, and sometimes that can result in a change of perception. But not here, not really, unless “I like it even more now” counts. The Hobbit remains one of the iconic works of fantasy literature, standing well besides ever its more illustrious successor, and is likely to remain in that position for a very long time.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.