Happy 80th Birthday, Bilbo Baggins!

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Eighty years ago, in September of 1937, when the evil of fascism was poisoning Europe, and the world teetered on the brink of the most devastating war in history, a new hero was born. He was 50 years old, about three feet tall, with a beer belly, slightly pointed ears, and feet so hairy they needed to be brushed. His name was Bilbo Baggins and he was a pipe-weed-smoking, food-obsessed homebody, of a breed of creature no one had ever heard of before: a hobbit. Bilbo and his woolly toes stepped out of The Hobbit or, There and Back Again, a fantasy novel about Bilbo’s adventures with a wizard named Gandalf and a pack of dwarves on a quest to steal back their gold from an evil dragon. It is hailed as one of the finest, most beloved classics of English children’s literature. 

Bilbo’s creator, J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien, was a professor at the University of Oxford in England who was fascinated by invented languages, Norse myths and epic legends of dragons, dwarves and swashbuckling warriors like the Anglo Saxon prince, Beowulf. Tolkien would perform the classic poem about Beowulf aloud in his English Lit class, shouting, “Hwæt!” (Old English for “Yo!”) to begin the poem (and wake up his students.) Yet when Tolkien created his own hero, it wasn’t a monster-slaying prince or a hammer-wielding Norse god. Bilbo emerged from a single phrase formed in Tolkien’s mind while grading boring student exams: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Ten words that blossomed into his first novel, The Hobbit or, There and Back Again, published in September of 1937, followed in 1955 by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. All together the books sold hundreds of millions of copies the world over, launched a multi-billion dollar Oscar-winning movie franchise, and spawned a legion of fans devoted to this very day to arguing the fine points of “Tolkien legendarium”—the exquisite details of the imaginary worlds and languages in his books.

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