Bilbo says, ‘I’m a storyteller. Before I’m a Baggins, before I’m a Took, even before I’m a respectable hobbit, I am a storyteller.’
He pauses. There is a weight and a whisper in the back of his mind.
Thorin asks, ‘Will you tell stories about this here?’
He waves his hand to the sleeping companions. The darkened forest. Bilbo remembers the stench of goblins, the sinking sense of fear. He remembers his name being hissed by that shadow that lurks in the darkness that was that creature.
They are sitting by the fire. It is Bilbo’s watch but Thorin is awake and the Hobbit isn’t sure if it’s because he is untrusted or if it is because he is alone. They both are alone.
‘The art of storytelling is, of course, knowing what to tell and how.’
Frodo is in his tweens when he asks for the story of the ring.
Bilbo creates images from air for the lad. He whispers, ‘I found it in a cave. A creature tried to kill me for it. We played a game of riddles.’
‘For the ring?’
Between them is a tea pot. A pair of teaspoons. Bilbo counts them. They are resting against the saucers.
‘No. For my life.’
When the Company comes to Laketown Thorin takes Bilbo aside one night and asks for a story. Something about the hobbit himself.
‘We have travelled so far,’ the not-yet-king explains. ‘But I feel you know more of us than we know of you.’ He pauses. He peers at Bilbo. Bilbo stares back. ‘You keep things very close. Though most think you don’t. A clever guise.’
‘Just politeness. Hobbit custom; don’t go sharing your business with others.’ Bilbo cracks a smile. ‘Most likely because others’ll snoop it out of you soon enough. One must have some secrets, after all.’
There is a pause. A man strikes up a tune and Bilbo remembers his home.
‘When I was a boy my mother turned loaves for the local girls in order to tell their fortunes. She would swirl rain water in a crystal bowl to scry for the names of their husbands.’
Thorin’s face is unreadbale. Finally he says that the hobbit is a witch-son. That is ill luck, indeed. The witch-son shrugs.
‘It’s a story,’ he says. He finishes his ale. ‘Believe of it what you will.’
Sometimes he tells Frodo the riddles. The deep roots of the mountains. The rust and decay of time. Hidden treasures in plain boxes.
But it’s not often.
Because when he does he remembers the damp of the cave. The slick stones under foot. The smell of decay. Because a part of him whispers, ‘That is where you need to go next. Find the roots of the earth and you will find the greatest story of all. Bless us, you will.’
Frodo jars him from his thoughts. He asks, 'Uncle, which riddle did you tell to win?'
‘You know, I don’t rightly recall.’
His fingers are in his pocket.
Some stories are never shared. Some stories are kept secret. Are kept safe.
Bilbo watches as the dwarves sink into the gold, the jewels, the finely hewn rock. He thinks of a tale Gandalf had once told to him on a midsummer’s eve about rings. Elves and rings. Men and rings. Dwarves and rings and desires and greed and the darkness of every creature just being their goodness corrupted.
‘Passion,’ Bilbo mutters. ‘A passion for gold my arse.’
He finds scraps of paper fluttering out of the once shuttered library. He catches them and finds them blank. With ink and a carefully carved stick he writes.
‘In the blood of Durin runs the gold-lust. The gold-madness. Just as in the blood of Tooks runs the word-lust. The wandering-madness.’
He thinks that he and Thorin are much the same, no matter how much the King of a Nationless people would deny it.
Bilbo adds, ‘My lust for words, for mountains and valleys, will bring only ruin to myself and my name. His lust for gold and jewels will bring ruin to us all.'
On one of their shared birthdays Frodo finds the old sketch of Bilbo hidden between sheets of paper; rain spoilt and dusty.
‘Haven’t seen that in years, my boy.’ He exclaims when Frodo shows it to him.
‘Who drew it?’
‘Thorin. When we were in Laketown. As a bit of a gift.’
‘I had told him a story. In exchange,’ he motions to the picture. ‘I had wanted one of the Company but…’ he smiles. ‘A few were gone at the time so it wasn’t possible.’
They are in Erebor when Thorin draws him. It was one of the few moments the dwarf took away from his gold and his search and his blasted arkenstone.
It was one of the few moments Bilbo took away from his books and his words and his stories that would be eventual explanations for what he was soon going to do.
Laketown is a better memory.
Bilbo wishes it had been there.
‘Which riddle was it again, Uncle?’
‘The teeth one.’
It is seven days until he is eleventy-one.
‘Wasn’t it the egg one?’
‘Was it? Oh, dear me, it might have been. Yes, yes you’re quite right.’
Bilbo fears the day when Frodo will ask, 'Uncle, it wasn’t really a riddle that won the game, was it?'
Thorin gives him his friendship and his forgiveness as he dies.
Bilbo tells everyone this. Because it hurts less the more he tells. He manages to convince himself that the brave face is his real one.
There are some stories never shared. Not even Gandalf can glimpse at them through the tangles of words Bilbo leaves behind him.
He tells the story about his mother not in Laketown but in Mirkwood. It’s muttered through a keyhole while he hears whispers in the back of his mind.
The world is exhausting. It is grey and heavy. He slumps against Thorin’s door. He can’t think of another story to tell when that one runs out. So he makes up a new one. It has a happy ending. He likes to think they, too, will have a happy ending.
When young Samwise Gamgee comes trooping into Bagend leaving a trail of moss and dirt Bilbo laughs. Because between Samwise and Frodo there is one Bilbo Baggins and it’s nice to see himself in the young hobbits.
Bilbo takes Samwise into his study and shows him maps of Erebor. Of Rivendell and Mirkwood. He traces the arches of the Misty Mountains and hums a few lines of an old song.
‘How can you be so happy about it?’ Samwise asks. Bilbo thinks that the Old Gaffer named his son well.
‘Because there is always hope. Even when you think that nothing can be the same again, after all the death and destruction, there is always hope. And in the end the darkness and the hurt are passing. Some may never leave you completely, but the searing pain eases. Like the ebb and flow of the ocean, the tide of time takes away the pain as it smooths out the memories so they are dull and faded and beautiful.’
When Thorin dies Bilbo does not cry.
He sits next to Gandalf and says, ‘I thought stories made us. Not the other way around.’
‘What do you mean?’
They are smoking. Around them the screams of the dying can be heard. Though they are growing more faint with passing minutes, hours.
‘In the great stories, the old legends, kings reclaim their thrones. And if stories have such momentum, such force, then Thorin should be alive. And Fili and Kili should be alive. Because they were destined to be kings and don’t the kings always reclaim their thrones? Aren’t the good guys supposed to win?’
Gandalf doesn’t answer for a spell. The pipeweed tastes bitter so Bilbo snuffs his pipe out.
Gandalf is blowing out smoke rings. They are imperfect. There is no magic.
‘Some do. Some do.’ He sighs. ‘There is an old story of a broken sword, I think you might want to hear.’
Sometimes he is tempted to rewrite the ending. But the words stick in his throat like ashes.
At night he dreams of fire.
He begins to doodle eyes and mountains in the margins of his notes. At the top is a broken sword. He scrawls, not all those who wander are lost.
He gets up and walks outside, mutters some excuse to Frodo, then disappears into the woods. He finds the path they took to leave the Shire. He cries.
Balin tells him that he is going to reclaim Moria. Ori will write the histories of it, the same as Bilbo wrote for the quest to Erebor.
‘I look forward to reading them,’ Bilbo says.
He is drawn by Thorin not in Erebor but at Beorn’s. Bilbo finishes explaining what, exactly, turning a loaf means when the dwarf king-prince-soldier-wanderer orders him still.
‘The light is better here.’ Is the gruff explanation.
‘Better than what?’
‘All the times before.’
Gandalf asks about the ring. Bilbo tells him a story about whispers in the dark. A shadowed game of riddles. He makes damn sure to remember which riddle he told Gandalf was the winning one.
In Mirkwood he explains to Thranduil that lying is just a form of storytelling. But with more at stake.
The elf-king laughs. It is bitter, dark and cold. It is the waters in Gollum’s cave. It is the feel of a blade in hand and the sight of an orc dying at the other end.
Gollum’s eyes had been lost and hopeless. He doesn’t think he’ll ever forget them. That is important.
‘So you don’t lie, Master Hobbit. Merely spin fairy tales?’
‘That’s one way to put it.’
Frodo is sitting with Gandalf when he explains to the wizard, ‘Hobbits don’t cheat. Gollum meant to cheat all the time. He was just trying to put poor Bilbo off his guard.’
Bilbo doesn’t know this. Bilbo will never know this. Just as Frodo will never know why his uncle would ask, ‘what’s in my pocket’ and laugh.
On his deathbed Thorin gives Bilbo his love and says that the hobbit should have one of Dain’s scribes sketch him.
‘A belated present. A token of my- I would have done it myself, but… other things seemed more important at the time.’
Bilbo tells no one about this.
He smokes with Gandalf.
His lungs are ash.
Some stories can never be shared.
Either because the story-bearer has felt too much, or has seen to much, or has heard too much and in the end tasted too little.
Bilbo tells Gandalf that he has thought of an ending for his book.
'And he lived happily ever after, to the end of his days.'
It is a lie. But one with nothing great at stake.
A boy’s parents die in a river. The boy never changes the story and does not understand why anyone would. A cousin arrives one day. A strange hobbit. A hobbit with a smile and a ready story at hand.
‘Halloa there, Frodo my lad. I’m just a cousin, to be sure, but would you rather that I be your uncle? Would you like that? To come live with me in Hobbiton?’
And Frodo says, ‘Would I? Yes, please. I’d like that very much.’
As they enter Bagend the young hobbit asks, ‘Uncle Bilbo, what is it that you do?’
‘Why Frodo, I’m a story teller. Before I am an uncle. Before I am a Baggins, or even a Took, I am a story teller.’