It's September 22nd, and ALL are admitted on Party Business to celebrate Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday! While the awe in which we hold J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium may come from its sweeping scope, so much of the charm of a book like The Lord of the Rings is in its smallest details. In honor of such a special day, I'd like to share how I delve into Tolkien's details when I illustrate a scene, and I hope this exploration might add to your merriment at Bilbo's birthday party. It might even inspire you to have a hobbit celebration of your own!
What happens at Bilbo's birthday party?
The hobbits have been feasting since lunch, and are now enjoying 'filling up the corners'.
"They were sipping their favourite drinks, and nibbling at their favourite dainties, and their fears were forgotten. They were prepared to listen to anything, and to cheer at every full stop."
Considering that it is Halimath (September) and harvest time, I feel that grapes, apples, pears and nuts would have numbered amongst the after-supper treats the hobbits are enjoying. There are also cakes and cheeses, and currant tarts in the golden light of the beeswax candles. Doubtless, there would have been many kinds of home-brewed drinks, including beverages made from local grains, fruits and flowers.
Bilbo has a reputation for specializing in food, and it is delightful to think of the cooks from the Green Dragon, the Ivy Bush and the other inns for miles around coming to prepare this magnificent all-day feast.
Adaptations may not stick to the facts, but the hub of Bilbo's feast takes place under the Party Tree, which is inside the great pavilion.
"Bilbo left his place and went and stood on a chair under the illuminated tree. The light of the lanterns fell on his beaming face: the golden buttons shone on his embroidered silk waistcoat."
Tolkien does not describe what hobbit lanterns look like. This is one of those fascinating, tentative, and almost breathless moments in which an artist has to be so bold as to consider history and culture to fill in the blanks. I don't take these moments lightly. The responsibility of trying to be amongst the "other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama" Tolkien referenced in a letter to Milt Waldman strikes me as a serious sacred trust. It may be only a lantern, but if you are daring to hang it in Tolkien's world, your heart had better be in the endeavor.
Given Bilbo's notable fondness for flowers, I decided that the majority of the lanterns would be simple glass globes decorated with pressed hobbit garden flowers (like nasturtians) and strung with the autumn season's hawkbit and oxeye daisies. Other than the flowers Tolkien specifically mentions in his writings, I tend to look at English wildflowers for inspiration. There are a couple of rock crystal lamps, as well, which I think Bilbo got from the dwarves.
It's young Frodo's birthday, too, and here we see him seated at the table Bilbo has just vacated. Frodo is only 33 this year, meaning he has just come of age. He is sitting next to a young Meriadoc Brandybuck, and is looking up from his plate to see what his cousin and guardian, Bilbo, is doing.
Frodo never forgets Bilbo's birthday party, and continues to observe it long after his cousin has left the Shire. Poor Frodo is an orphan, and his love and loyalty to the kind older relative who took him in is never broken, despite adventure, danger, and distance. Bilbo and Frodo's mutual family feeling is a beautiful example of both the tenderness and hardihood of hobbit folk.
One of the entertainments at Bilbo's party consists of hundreds of musical crackers.
"Most of them bore the mark DALE on them; which did not convey much to most of the hobbits, but they all agreed they were marvellous crackers. They contained instruments, small, but of perfect make and enchanting tones."
It's wonderful to think that Bilbo's part in helping defeat the dragon, Smaug, brought peace to Dale so that the craftsmen there could once again focus on the creation of beautiful objects like exciting party favors, tuneful little instruments and magical toys. Here, we see two young hobbits pulling a Dale-marked cracker.
As a result of the musical crackers, the young Tooks and Brandybucks interrupt Bilbo's farewell speech with an 'impromptu orchestra'.
"Master Everard Took and Miss Melilot Brandybuck got on a table and with bells in their hands began to dance the Springle-ring: a pretty dance, but rather vigorous."
I have never found that Tolkien more fully described the Springle-ring in any of his writings. To research what it might have been like, I studied the folk dances of northern Europe, such as Morris dances and English country dances. I invented the ringed bells Everard and Melilot are holding and I feel the couple would have been very finely dressed due to the status of their families. Melilot's gown is embroidered with melilot clover, and Everard's waistcoat hints at the hobbits' enjoyment of bright colors like yellow and of flowers. I made this impromptu dance the central theme of my painting because I feel it so splendidly captures the merriness of the hobbits. But what is happening off to one side of the picture is actually what is central to the great adventure.
"But Bilbo had not finished. Seizing a horn from a youngster near by, he blew three loud hoots. The noise subsided."
Here we see Bilbo taking one of the Dale cracker instruments from a small Brandybuck to regain the attention of his guests so that he can finish his speech, slip on the Ring, and disappear.
Because Professor Tolkien once described himself as being a hobbit in all but size, I have always thought of him as Bilbo, and made the decision to model Bilbo on him throughout this series of paintings. Here, I have embroidered his silk waistcoat with clover and bees in a nod to Bilbo's memorable experiences at the house of Beorn in The Hobbit. The party guests may dread that Bilbo's speech will include him rambling on about his adventure in song and poetry, but I love to to think that the old hobbit might have memorialized his trip, not just in writing, but in his garb, given that he had whole wardrobes devoted to clothes.
My other tribute to the honored professor (and you might have to look closely to see it) is that I have featured Mrs. Edith Tolkien as a happy hobbit Gammer at Bilbo's birthday party. I cherish the photographs taken by Pamela Chandler of the Tolkiens at home in their later years and did some studies of these to pay homage to Edith.
When one considers how she not only inspired key moments in the Legendarium, but also had to forego so much time with her husband so that he could pen the greatest faërie tale ever written, who could be more deserving of an invitation to Bilbo's birthday party than Mrs. Tolkien?
And, of course, our party wouldn't be complete without Gandalf, occupying a seat of honor opposite the empty and flower-garlanded chair Bilbo has just left to make his speech.
If you consider that Gandalf, as a Maia, is quite like an angel, it's rather astonishing to realize that he is on a humble hobbit's guest list.
But then, Tolkien does so marvelous a job of convincing us that hobbits have only an "ordinary everyday" sort of magic, that I didn't think of them as magical when my father first read me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I thought of hobbits as being just like me, and it was only the arrival of the wandering wizard that convinced me that some real enchantment was afoot. In fact, my most shining memory of that first childhood hearing of The Lord of the Rings was of Gandalf's fireworks. They kindled something warm and wonderful in my mind that has never faded down the years, and to celebrate Bilbo's birthday in 2023, I've done a very small but special painting of those memorable pyrotechnics:
"There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding at that moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces."
Gandalf is no mere guest at the party, of course. He is a messenger of the Valar, doing everything he can to make Bilbo's party absolutely wonderful. He comes with fabulous, funny, and frightening fireworks, encompassing a lived experience of the spectrum of life in Middle-earth, with its glorious nature and gripping foes. He does all this out of love for Bilbo and all of creation, and because of who Gandalf is within Tolkien's sub-creation, his love is a divine love.
What a celebration! What a story! I hope this walk through a scene and a painting in detail will help you look for the small things in my work and that it has brought some added festivity to your day. May your own story be filled with helpers, joys, and shining moments that never fade, and now please join me in saying, "Happy Birthday, Frodo! Happy Birthday, Bilbo! Thank you, Professor Tolkien, and many happy returns of the day!"