Bilbo, who said ‘there and back again’ like that was something you could do— like when you came home the lilac tree in the backyard wouldn’t have withered, like the children wouldn’t have learned new games, like you wouldn’t feel like a stranger in the carved halls of your home.
Bilbo’s father had built this little hobbit hole for Bilbo’s mother and it had been an act of love. Bilbo came home and it was an act of surrender and victory all at once. The next time he went to market, he forgot a pocket handkerchief and the whole pub murmured shock when he admitted it. Bilbo looked at them—round faces, apple-cheeked and accusatory, curious. Then he wiped his nose on his sleeve, grabbed his tomatoes, and walked away.
Bilbo had been unconscious through so much of that last battle, and now he couldn’t sleep at all. He was glad to be home, with his soft bed and his stocked pantry. “Happy to be back,” he told the neighbors, shaking hands with jolly cheer, and went on long, solitary walks but could never get quite far enough for his legs to ache properly. He tangled into in his soft blankets, smothering, and then threw all the shutters open and slept curled up on the window seat with his old once-green cloak, pretending he wasn’t alone on this cold night.
Yes, let’s talk about Bilbo, who titled his red book ‘there and back again’ because he knew you couldn’t ever come back, not really. Writing is sometimes like wishing. When he pressed his book in Frodo’s hands, decades later, Bilbo was giving him the heart of a foolish, stuffy young hobbit. He was giving him Fili, and Kili, and Thorin, and he trusted their story to be safe in Frodo’s small hands. But that was years from now, from this little bachelor who woke from dreams where he could hear spiders coming for him.
Death comes everywhere, even the sweet walks of the Shire. Bilbo had forgotten. Over scones and jam, sun dropping through lace curtains, Old Gaffer told Bilbo that according to Loretia Proudfoot according to Gammy Took according to Jeremiah Brandybuck, Bilbo’s silly fool cousins Drogo and Primula had gotten themselves drowned. Bilbo had not realized that death would shake him quite this hard, when his hands were sticky with this season’s strawberry jam and not rich Laketown mud.
“They had a son,” said Gaffer, but Bilbo was barely listening, swimming in older years. Tea, untasted, was scalding his tongue. Kili had been quite terrible at making tea, and Fili might have been worse. “Freddy, I think,” said Old Gaffer. “Frolo. Something like that.”
It was not Fili and Kili who Frodo reminded him of, when Bilbo finally met the boy out in the Brandybuck clan’s rambling home. It was not the young ones who jumped to mind when Bilbo saw little Frodo, but the older dwarves, tired, the ones who had once seen their whole world burned at their heels. They had been left standing, but it was a still, shattered sort of standing, steady on exhausted feet. There was a way Thorin had had, of staring into the campfire and not seeing the campfire.
There was a boy, big-footed with a messy mop of hair, sitting in Brandy Hall and not seeing the hearth fire flickering cheerily in front of him. Bilbo reached out, like he almost couldn’t help it, and tapped his shoulder.
“That’s always such a long story,” said Bilbo when Frodo asked him who he was. “But they say I’m mad."
Frodo surveyed the madman in front of him and told him gravely, “It’s my birthday tomorrow.” The boy was twelve by hobbit years, younger by man’s, an ancient exhaustion in his bones that Bilbo had only seen in old dwarves’ stone ones.
"Oh dear,” said Bilbo. “That’s my birthday, too."
Even on the sweet walks of the Shire, things come along that sweep you off your feet—adventures, wizards, children. Bilbo came down, a month after he’d adopted this strange, quiet boy on a whim and a wonder, and found his whole (second) living room scattered with some unholy combination of paint, jam, and mud. Frodo sat in the middle of the mess, with dirty hands and innocence plastered all over his face.
Bilbo leaned on the door because something in that bright grin had taken his balance from him. He went for a mop. He had not felt so at home since thirteen dwarves had tumbled through his round green door. He felt like Frodo had stolen something from him and then given it back better than it had left.
Thievery, perhaps, ran in the family.
Gandalf visited with fireworks (Frodo’s eyes got so big that Bilbo hoisted him up, even as big and gangly as he was getting, and helped him balance on the garden fence to see them a little better). Balin came by with Dale-made toys that they parceled out at the birthday parties of wondering young hobbit children for years. When the dwarves visited, Bilbo thought his halls (and his pantry) were too small, until they went away again.
"Good to see some life in this hole,” Gandalf said, over a sup of ham and toasted cheese on dark rye bread.
”I’m alive,” protested Bilbo, mildly, reaching for the mustard. Oin and Gloin, in the parlor room, were trying to teach Frodo how to juggle Bilbo’s third best china.
“You are now.”
Bilbo poured himself into his studies, his languages and maps, into teaching little Samwise how to read. Gaffer Gamgee’s chest puffed out when Bilbo told him how quick his Sam was to learn. “A bright lad, that one,” said Bilbo and Old Gaffer said, “He’s going to go far,” and neither of them knew how true that would be.
“The road goes ever on and on,” Bilbo told Frodo, and Frodo believed him. His road would go farther than Bilbo’s ever had. Frodo listened to him tell stories about trolls, and by those same old stones Frodo would have a poison buried in his shoulder he would never be rid of.
Bilbo told stories of victories over spiders, with Sting in one hand and the Ring in the other. When Frodo met his spider, it would kill him for a little while. The Ring would be a weight and not a blessing. Sam would weep over him.
Bilbo told stories of capture by greenwood elves, and Frodo would leave elves, men, hobbits, and a dwarf on a rivershore because he would rather die alone than at the hands of his friends.
Bilbo had given Gollum a moment of mercy, and for it he got a breathless escape, a story to tell. Frodo gave Gollum days of it, trust and chances, his old name; Frodo would watch Smeagol die and the poor wretch would take a piece of Frodo with him.
“The road goes ever on,” Bilbo had told Frodo, twenty, who climbed tall trees to see how far he could see. Bilbo thought he was giving the boy a promise, a gift. “I am so sorry,” Bilbo said, curled up warm in Rivendell after the Fellowship had gone, and wondered what cold hollow his boy was sleeping in that night. “It goes on and on."
They were the longest years of Bilbo’s life, after he left the Ring, after Frodo went east and down, down, down. Bilbo’s world was all elf-song and sunlight, milky parchment spread out unending. Bilbo buried himself in translation and lyrics, except for when he dragged his old limbs up to the map room and poured over every sketched inch of the journey from Elrond’s Last Homely House to the wastes of Mordor.
"Do you think they’re taking the pass through Rohan? What does this symbol mean? Have you ever been to Fangorn? Do you think they’ve reached Mordor yet? How will they get in? Mithrandir will handle it, he always does, so long as he doesn’t get called away of course, silly bloke."
The elves loved to answer questions, but they hated to frighten Bilbo, which was just too bad for them— they had survived centuries, war, and a darkening world, but they had never before faced the stubbornness of a hobbit and a Baggins no less.
Bilbo’s bones ached more and more with each coming day. He had seen his neighbors and grocers bend and stoop under the weight of years, but he had been spry until the day he dropped his Ring and walked away. He curled into his aches and wondered if Frodo, at least, would have sturdy bones for his journey.
But Bilbo had borne the Ring in peace, in grace, and he knew it. Frodo was taking it to its death. Bilbo knew, in the deepest pit of his stomach, that it took one death to deal another.
The Fellowship came home without Boromir, who they had lost by old ruins and an older river. They came home without Aragorn, who they had lost to a crown and a heavy mantle, without Legolas and Gimli, who had caves and forest to marvel at, without even Gandalf.
They came home—four hobbits: Samwise the Brave; Merry, Squire of Rohan, and Pippin, Guard of the White City; and Frodo, Nine-fingered, Ring-bearer. They came home, and they came home without the boy who had learned how to juggle in Bilbo’s second best living room and lit the whole place up.
When Frodo stepped into Bilbo’s little study, he looked like a slender vase shattered and glued back together. He was hesitant, stepping in. Frodo didn’t think he had any adventures on the tip of his tongue, nothing to share, no poetry, no song, no story. He had gone away, and the better part of him had not come back.
"My boy,” said Bilbo, opening his arms wide. He was crying, but he was smiling too. This Frodo moved slow, shook, hands cold, but Bilbo was a creaky old man. They would both ache for the Ring all their lives, and Bilbo could not be prouder. “My boy.”
Bilbo had left this lad a legacy. He had gathered him up, after water-logged tragedy, and given him fireworks and a home, stories and a Ring tucked in a little envelope. Frodo looked at the hearthfire now and didn’t see the fire and Bilbo knew, aching, that this was the inheritance he had left him. This was the burden Bilbo had been too tired and too selfish to carry on himself.
“No,” said Frodo, when Bilbo apologized, and told him about Elvish on his tongue in Shelob’s lair, about Oliphant poems tripping off Sam’s, a touch of a wonder on the shadowed edge of Mordor. “You gave me that."
Frodo told him about Moria, where the mithril shirt had saved his life, and Bilbo remembered Thorin pressing it into his hands. A friendship, years buried, a gift from friend to friend to child—that silver weight on Frodo’s shoulders had guarded the last hope of the world up until the final miles of the quest.
Even back in the sweet paths of the Shire, there was a cold pain in Frodo’s shoulder. There was cold. When Sam found him in Bag End with all the windows flung open, sometimes he would sit with Frodo and smell the wind. Sometimes Sam would latch them all and stoke the fire and wrap Mr. Frodo’s cold hands in his. Frodo poured himself into his book, the little affairs of Hobbiton, and teaching Sam’s children how to read. “They’re clever ones,” he told Sam. “They’ll go far.”
"But not any farther than they want to, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam, and Frodo remembered being carried up the mountain. “And I’m glad of that, I am."
”You wanted to see the elves, Sam.”
"Yes,” Sam said, and laughed, because it had been years, cold winters and hot summers, and this was something that could be laughed about now. “But we could have turned around at Rivendell. That would have been alright.”
It wouldn’t have been. There were dozens of hard miles and worse in the bend of Frodo’s spine, now, but there was only one more trip to make.
The elves took Bilbo from Rivendell’s graces to the very western end of the world. In the study of Bag End, Frodo pressed the red book into Sam’s hands.
Frodo was giving him Boromir, Theoden-king, Gandalf the Grey, all the friends who they had lost along the way, because they would be safe in Sam’s hands. He was giving him Saruman and Denethor, too. And, bundled up in those pages, like it was something precious and something to lose, he was giving Sam a hobbit who had smiled once like he wasn’t breakable at all.
Merry and Pippin cried on the dock like it was a wake, like Frodo had already been buried. For these lively young hobbits, he had been, a long time ago. They had mourned him for years, and moved on.
Sam cried like it was a death, like he was holding a hand and he wanted a very old man to know how very loved he had been. Count every tear. At this point, they’re all I’ve got to give. But then Frodo squeezed his hand and it wasn’t cold at all. Sam cried like it was a good-bye, then, which was more true.
The seagulls were shrieking. Bilbo, already boarded, was remembering elf songs and deciding they had lied a bit about how joyous and graceful that sound could be. They were leaving, two tired scraped-thin boys whose feet couldn’t keep hold of the ground. Bilbo had been drifting for years.
Frodo’s shoulder was aching, even here, in the salt spray of the sea. It would ache no matter how far they sailed. But the Shire was green. Sam was weeping, but he was breathing. Sam was mourning things because they deserved mourning.
Bilbo’s knees ached, his vision blurred. There was a weight in his pocket he would miss all his life. The Lonely Mountain was not lonely anymore, now a thriving, clanging town, but there was a king who would never see the clamor and life of it. There was a little hobbit who would never see it again.
No matter how long Frodo had stayed in the quiet walks of the Shire, strawberries and cream would always have tasted like ash. But the strawberries still grew, every summer, turned from white blossoms to blushing fruit.
Frodo squeezed Sam’s hand. “It goes on,” he told him. “It goes on,” he said, and let go.