Hobbit hoopla has started again with the release of Part 1 of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Yes, I know, there are dwarfs, elves, trolls, and even a dragon. And the voices of the main antagonist pairing—Bilbo the hobbit and Smaug the dragon—come from the two actors who play Watson and Holmes in the new BBC series, Sherlock. Mere distractions all.
We don’t watch (and read) Tolkien tales for that stuff do we? Of course not. It’s for pointers on family history and personal biography that we turn to the good book (so to speak). You knew that, right?
Because Bilbo is, right down to the soles of his hairy, oversized feet, a family man. True, he has no wife or children of his own (that history records) but Bilbo adopts a son (Frodo) and is as devoted to his kith and kin as ever a person was. No one knows their lineage better, or throws better parties for the relatives, or struggles to get right the dictates of etiquette, or gives better presents to nieces and nephews than Mr. Bilbo Baggins.
Speaking to his assembled cousins on one famous occasion (his Eleventy First birthday in point of fact) he says, “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.”
Which, if you can tease it out, is a statement of regret that Bilbo doesn’t know his relatives as well as he should—and has judged them a little too harshly in the past. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
And while Bilbo has a busy life surviving trolls, finding a magic ring, outwitting a dragon, going where no hobbit has gone before, he takes the time to write all about it. He decides to set down the lessons his life’s events hold for the benefit of those who will come later (like us). Thus we have our first lesson in family history from Bilbo:
Hobbit Lesson 1: Do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart. Teach them to your children and to their children.
This is, of course, the “really big idea” of personal history: Experience life, and pass on your wisdom. Actually, this lesson, drawn from The Hobbit, is pretty close to a lesson contained in that other good book—you know, the Good Book (Deuteronomy 4:9 to be specific.)
Now, safely home and sitting by the fire on autumn evenings, with the sound of the kettle hanging over the hearth as his music, Bilbo begins to write. And the memoir that Bilbo pens “in his thin, wandering hand” about his tussles with Smaug and his falling out with the dwarfs is to be titled: There and Back Again, a Hobbit’s Holiday. Which name proves that hobbits were as fond of alliteration as (the much taller) men and women of today. And this gives us our second lesson in presenting family history:
Hobbit Lesson 2: Choose an interesting and engaging title for your work of personal history.
Bilbo knew well his hobbit forebears and many of their stories. He tells us all about his mother, the famous Belladonna Took, one of three remarkable daughters of the Old Took. And of his father’s side, the Bagginses, he tells us that they were actually more respectable but less rich.
And we have, thanks to Bilbo, a remarkably detailed family tree going back several generations with those who attended his famous party helpfully underlined (Appendix C – LOR). Few appreciate that Mr Baggins was a proto-genealogist! So:
Hobbit Lesson 3: Tell about your own life but do not ignore progenitors.
Now, some sixty years of peace and prosperity pass and still Bilbo has not finished his memoir! Dear oh dear. Hobbits are a bit like that. But then things get really complicated (the rise of Sauron, the Black Riders and such). Bilbo will never finish his memoir now. What is to be done?
Well, on the advice of his writing coach (you would know him as Gandalf the Wizard), Bilbo decides to leave the compromised safety of his hobbit hole (with the round door) and travel to a quieter, more restful place. He goes to the house of Elrond, the elf. Here he finds the quiet to put the finishing touches to the work and supplies our next rule:
Hobbit Lesson 4: Never give up. Endure setbacks and periods of languor but finish the work at all costs! Find a different place to write if necessary.
Middle Earth will experience all kinds of torments, shared in and fought by Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, that Bilbo will play no part in (see Rings, Lord of the). Civilization teeters on the brink of total destruction but is saved just in time. Bilbo spends the rest of his days living in the house of Elrond with the elves (snoozing and smoking pipe-fulls of tobacco). And there, in Rivendell, Bilbo’s personal history memoir—a book that we have come to know as The Hobbit—might have stayed and eventually become lost.
But the precious memoir was not lost. Bilbo entrusts his precious There and Back Again to his nephew Frodo. He, in turn, entrusts it to his doughty lifelong companion Sam Gamgee. Which gives us our final lesson:
Hobbit Lesson 5: Ensure your history is placed in a safe set of hands. If doubtful of that, make lots of copies.
Go and see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Once the impact of the film’s many whizz-bang effects has faded, you will be left with the story of one small, modest hobbit. A story that you would never have known had he not taken the time to create a family history biography.
About today’s contributor: Jane Shafron is a video biographer and APH board member. Based in Orange County, California, her company, Your Story Here LLC Video Biography, specializes in recording and preserving family history. Her work was recently featured in Success magazine and in the Los Angeles Times, and her award-winning films have been screened in festivals in the United States and Canada. Jane blogs regularly at Video Biography Central and Life Story Video.
Photo credits: Warner Bros. Pictures