Among the characters who happened to have Sauron’s ruling One Ring in their possession, Bilbo Baggins stands out as one of the most resilient to the corrupting effects of the Dark Lord’s terrible creation. Among the key aspects of his unyielding stoutness are Bilbo’s character, attitude and behaviour.

Bilbo’s finding of the One Ring looks purely accidental, as it might have seemed to the Hobbit himself. The fact that there were other powers at work and Bilbo was meant to find the Ring is explained much later by Gandalf. Having escaped from the Goblins and found himself in the narrow tunnels under the Misty Mountains, Bilbo puts his hand on the Ring in the dark and — without realising what he is doing — puts in his pocket. This discovery is followed by Bilbo’s playing the riddle game with Gollum and winning the game, though not without a generous dose of luck and a trick, it must be admitted, with the unhealthy influence of the Ring beginning to show straight away and later to peer through Bilbo’s lie to Gandalf. In his subsequent escape from the creature, devastated by the loss of his precious, and out of the tunnels two things happen: first, Bilbo learns that the Ring can make him invisible. Second, and most important, even being unseen and desperate, Bilbo does not kill Gollum who is sitting in his way to freedom:

He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.

(Hobbit, p. 102)

Bilbo’s pity for the poor creature that feels even more wretched after losing his precious Ring is the starting point in his possession of the One. That very feeling made the whole of Bilbo’s keeping of the Ring way too different than it could have been had it begun otherwise. In his conversation with Frodo Gandalf makes it explicitly clear that Bilbo’s pity made a huge difference:

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 78)

Gandalf makes his point. Pity and mercy are among the most fundamental concepts to be found in Tolkien’s work. His using capital P and M for Pity and Mercy emphasise the wizard’s point even more, showing that these two notions are vital in an individual’s life: they are virtuous and can start good ripples, the chain of other virtuous events, the beginnings of which might not be obvious at first, but prove fatal in the longer run. In his letters Tolkien clearly stated that first Bilbo’s and later Frodo’s pity to Gollum helps bring about the end of the One Ring which seems quite unlikely without the poor creature’s enormous part in it.

While Bilbo’s coming into his possession of the Ring with Pity is crucial, other aspects are at work in his resilience to its powers, too. First of all, when back to the Shire, the Hobbit does not use the One very often. When he does put it on to become invisible, it is usually for practical commonplace reasons, like hiding from unpleasant nosy visitors. Bilbo has not got the slightest idea how evil the ring that he has is. For him it is just a magical token that can make him unseen. Moreover, Bilbo never uses the Ring for bad purposes, to gain power or dominion over others. These aspects are also important in his possession of the One. But even despite Pity, Mercy and well-meaning usage, the evil thing is taking its toll on the sturdy Hobbit.

Bilbo’s life is long, but years never show on his face. He does not look his age, but feels much older than he looks and probably than he even is. The wicked influence of the Ring is at work. It does not grant a longer life, but a mere continuation of existence in a more and more weary state.  Bilbo’s striking metaphor that he feels “all thin, sort of stretched … like butter that has been scraped over too much bread” (Fellowship,of the Ring, p. 42) shows that the Ring is beginning to overcome him. Had he not left it behind before going away from the Shire, he would have vanished into the world of twilight with the continuous wielding of the Ring. Bilbo’s natural sturdiness as a Hobbit and his harmless usage of the Ring could simply postpone the tragic outcome, but never avert it.

It is even worse on the inside. As Bilbo is making ready to depart from Bag End and finds himself reluctant to part with the Ring, he confesses to Gandalf:

It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 45)

Once separated from the thing long in his possession, Bilbo feels and looks relieved. The whole situation scares the Hobbit a lot, too. With the Ring left behind on the mantelpiece a huge burden falls off his shoulders when we see a flash of anger change into a look of relief: even though with Gandalf’s help, Bilbo has given up the Ring of his own volition, and that too is important for his future life and freedom from the evil bonds of the One.

The effects of keeping the One Ring for so long are not so easily shaken off, though. On the two meetings between Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell — before the Ring was destroyed and after it — Bilbo inquires after the Ring. Before the quest fully commences,  Bilbo asks to look at the Ring. Frodo obliges, but it brings a horrible change upon Bilbo who, upon the Ring’s appearance, looks like a nasty, wrinkled creature seen as if through a veil. After the Ring is destroyed, Bilbo, now very old, still remembers about it, but he takes the news of Frodo’s getting rid of it very calmly and sensibly. It is only the memory that lingers: the link with the terrible thing is broken.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

4 thoughts on “Mercy, pity and the Ring.

  1. Thank you so much for the update. I really appreciate all your reflections on Tolkien’s works!
    Now I understand the true meaning of pity and mercy in case of Mr. Bilbo

  2. But the ring and sauron were more powerful in frodo’s time of possession. Not to mention the constant call of the nazgul hunting it down. I think frodo’s 1yr or so carrying it greater than Bilbo’s many

    1. That’s true! I think it happened because Sauron bent his thought to finding the Ring, after he had learnt it was in the Shire. He set out the hunt for the One, and the Ring began to react to its master. Frodo’s possession of the Ring, especially in the final year, was very difficult.

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