When Bungo Baggins, the firstborn son of Mungo Baggins, was thirty-four-years-old, he stole Belladonna Took, the third youngest daughter of Gerontius Took, to be his bride.
Bilbo knew this story backwards and forwards. He even knew both versions of it, for his parents had a habit of never quite agreeing as to the specifics. His mother always said that she'd been the one to give the idea to his father, while his father always insisted that he'd come up with it all on his own. There were also a few inconsistencies regarding the actual abduction, which Bilbo's father always claimed happened in broad daylight with the tacit cooperation of the other Took siblings, who'd put up a fight strictly for the show of it. Meanwhile, Bilbo's mother contended, quite firmly, that he'd climbed through her window in the dead of night and seized her still in her nightgown, her hair loose down her back, to ride off down the road to Bywater on his black pony, her brothers on their heels and her father roaring about hanging that thieving Bagginses from the tallest branch of the Old Willow.
Oh, he was a bold hobbit, your father, Mother had sighed into Bilbo's curls. Almost Tookish! The way he leaped onto his pony and laughed as he rode off with me in his arms, oh, my heart! My brother Hildigrim was very impressed, and my sisters are jealous of me to this day. Neither of theirs did it properly, you know.
I hurt my ankle, remembered Father, his pipe in his teeth, tripping on the fence. Hildigrim and Hildifons were trying not to laugh while they swore they'd kill me, the Old Took pretended to throw his walking stick after us, and your mother was shouting insults at everybody because her hair got caught on the hedge. My ankle was swollen for two weeks, and the pony bit me twice. Oh, I ought never to have done such a thing, never. Except, my boy, your mother has those eyes, you see. Hm. Those eyes.
Details and degrees apart, Bilbo's parents were both agreed that a real and for true bride-theft had taken place, and this was the most unbelievable part of the story for Bilbo. He hadn't believed them at all the first time he heard it, looking at his calm, stolid father and being wholly unable to see a heroic kidnapper. Little Bilbo had been quite convinced that Bungo Baggins had never done a disreputable thing in his life. It seemed rather more likely, even to his five-year-old sensibility, that his mother had been the one to kidnap his father.
I suppose I could have, Mother had said when Bilbo had suggested this. If he'd put it off for even a week longer, I should have had him in a sack and halfway to Tuckborough by teatime, no matter what Daddy said! I wonder if he would have shrieked like Rosa did when Hildigrim stole her?
Why, by the Star, would your mother have had to do that? Father had said, when Bilbo referred to him. If she'd pointed her little finger at me, I would have put the sack over my own head and run to Tuckborough. I only stole her because the Old Took wouldn't give us his blessing unless I did. Took me ages to figure it out, the clever old man.
Bride-theft had been the reason the Bagginses had begun feuding with the Tooks, and it had also been the reason the Bagginses and the Tooks made peace. Ponto, who'd married the gentler way, had taken it very ill when Hildigrim had made off with his oldest girl Rosa, and went about telling all and sundry that he'd never forgive those wild Tooks, never never never. Then Bungo had stolen Belladonna, which most in the Shire and in Tuckborough seemed to think made them all evensies, and happy marriages ought to mean happy families however the suits had been pressed. Mungo himself, as the head of the Baggins family, had gone to talk it over with Ponto, and they decided between the two of them that the Bagginses didn't despise the Tooks after all, even if Ponto grumbled at Hildigrim for a good while longer.
Most hobbits, Bilbo's parents told him again and again, did not practice marriage-theft. It was a mostly Tookish tradition practiced mostly by Tooks, which perhaps accounted for how much more warlike the average Took was compared to the average hobbit in general. Even in Buckland, where hobbits were more bellicose than most, angry Tooks were considered to be Bad News, and most Bree-hobbits, who were much more used to the ways of Men and Dwarves, were of the opinion that even a touchy Dwarf was preferable to a touchy Took. Yet all agreed that the Tooks were a distinguished family, and made for helpful, if not entirely decent relatives. This perhaps also explained why most hobbit families didn't immediately call for the Shirriffs and the Bounders when a Took happened to them.
But you are a Baggins and a Took, my Bilbo, his mother had told him. So I suppose you'll just have to make out for yourself how to kidnap someone politely.
Or you can do it the boring way, his father had suggested, in that stuffily playful manner he had.
To the young Bilbo, the talk of stealing brides had seemed powerfully romantic, and he'd dreamed with all his half-Tookish heart of the day when he'd steal his own bride right out of her bedroom window, riding off into the woods on his stamping pony. He'd take her straight to Bag End, where his mother would help her into a wedding dress, and then all his Took cousins would see how bold he was. Perhaps he'd thieve himself a Brandybuck, or even a Bree-hobbit! There'd even been a brief, embarrassing period around three-and-ten where he'd wondered for far too many weeks how Elves felt about bride-theft.
But when he'd turned nine-and-ten, his parents' talks about marriage-thefts began to change.
You know, Bilbo, his mother had said one time, being stolen can be quite as thrilling as stealing, with the right person. There's something to knowing that someone wants you enough to dare it.
That same day, his father had told him, very mildly, Let's stay closer to home for a while, yes? No, nothing's wrong. Only it would make me feel better, Bilbo. Just for a while.
Bilbo remembered with startling clarity the day his mother barred Adalgrim from Bag End. Adalgrim had been nine-and-twenty, almost a man, and for several weeks he'd been giving Bilbo such long, considering looks that Bilbo had been made uncomfortable and embarrassed by them, though he would never say such rude things to the cousin he adored most. Years later, he still remembered the hard grip of Adalgrim's hand on his wrist, which occurred more and more often as Bilbo came closer to his twentieth birthday. It was one such occasion when his mother had caught them, and she'd immediately sent Adalgrim home and sent Bilbo inside.
But I want to go with Adalgrim, he'd protested.
Maybe you do, his mother had answered calmly, and maybe you don't, but right now you are still too young. If on your twenty-fifth birthday you still want to go with Adalgrim, then you can. But not a day before!
Despite all his parents' stories about marriage-theft, he hadn't understood any of it then, and gone to bed that night feeling it monstrously unfair. His mother had been right; he'd simply been too young. From what he later heard, there'd been several long talks with Adalgrim, from both his own parents and Bilbo's, and the end of it was that by the time Bilbo turned four-and-twenty it had become certain that Bilbo did not want Adalgrim as Adalgrim wanted him, and such was Adalgrim's good nature that they stayed friends.
The trick to a marriage-theft, Uncle Hildigrim had told Bilbo once, when Bilbo was two-and-twenty and visiting with his mother because in those days there still seemed a chance that their children would tie the two branches even more tightly together, is to steal someone who wants to be stolen. Unwanted thieving only leads to heartbreak, Bilbo. No matter how long you keep her locked up, if there was no love to begin with there will be none to come.
Still, be careful, my Bilbo, his mother had said, because there are hobbits who won't mean to hurt you but think that love can come if they try enough.
That hadn't been so with Adalgrim, who had been disappointed and kept away for a year but come back happy enough to be cousins again. He'd stolen a bride a few years later, and that had been that.
But not all hobbits were Adalgrim, as Bilbo had discovered at the age of six-and-twenty, when a North-took out of Long Cleeve had kidnapped him out of the garden one summer night. Bilbo did not like to think about those ten, terrifying days, which he'd spent trembling in a closet while the North-took and his sisters tried to talk him out and Bilbo's mother and her brothers formally demanded either proof of marriage or his return. On the tenth day, the North-took's parents had told him that not all marriage-thefts were meant to be, and if the Baggins boy was yet so afraid that he hadn't even asked him his name then perhaps the poor lad was too young or his heart too unwilling but in any case he had better let him go. The North-took had been a dark-haired, dark-eyed hobbit, only a few years older than Bilbo, unusually tall and well-made, and he'd had tears in his eyes as he'd given Bilbo back into Belladonna Took's arms.
Thereafter there'd been very little talk of Bilbo stealing anybody. Uncle Hildifons said that perhaps there was more Baggins than Took in Bilbo after all, but Uncle Hildigrim said that a gentle heart was no great burden, and Mother and Father told him, again and again, that they only wanted him to be happy, stealing or stolen or not. Mother's own two sisters, Aunt Donnamira and Aunt Mirabella, had married untraditionally, for Tooks, and they were happy enough for a dozen marriage-thefts between them.
There were a few more attempts, over the years, but Bilbo was never again so easy to catch and, one by one, the Took families learned that he would not be taken by force. One or two then did as Uncle Hildigrim said they always should have done, which was to try at Bilbo the Baggins way before they tried at him the Took way. Men came at him, and a few women too, but what never came was love.
Don't you take just anyone, my boy, Father had told him on his deathbed. Whatever anyone says, don't take just anyone. There is only one of your mother in this world, and stealing her was the most indecent and the most important thing I ever did. Bebother them all. Steal only what will be stolen, Bilbo.
Some don't marry, Bilbo, Mother had said, a few days before she died. Some never steal and are never stolen. My brother Isengrim was like that. It was never in him to thieve. There's no shame in it, my own heart. Perhaps you're more Tookish than Bagginsish after all, only we should have been thinking of Isengrim instead of me.
Then Bilbo was in his mid-forties and still unstolen and unmarried, and he was beginning to think that this was the manner in which he would live his life. Against all his expectations, there were still those who occasionally showed him a sign that they would like to come and try to thieve him, or that they would not mind if he were to try at them, but he always showed back that it would not be welcome, and if they still tried, well, Bag End was built to withstand and the locks were expert-made, imported all the way from the Blue Mountains. A man nearing his fiftieth birthday had no business letting himself be stolen.
Bilbo Baggins, mostly a Baggins and mostly not a Took after all, would not steal or be stolen. This seemed quite all right to him.
Until the Dwarves came.
I'm no Took or thief, Father told him years ago, when he was only five, but then I saw your mother, and she seemed made for stealing.
Well, Bilbo was a Took, at least the some of him, and a wizard had made him a burglar. So he had twice the reason that Bungo Baggins did, and his eyes were even sharper than his father's.
And some Dwarves seemed made for stealing.