Bilbo Baggins, a wealthy and eccentric hobbit who lives at Bag End in the Shire, announces that he will be throwing an extraordinary party to celebrate his “eleventy-first” birthday. This unusual announcement prompts local townsfolk to gossip about the legends and myths that surround Bilbo and his past adventures. As a young hobbit, he mysteriously disappeared from the Shire before returning home, apparently laden with treasure. Furthermore, since his unexpected journey, hobbits have marveled at his seeming lack of aging. Despite their mistrust of unusual characters and behaviors, the conservative hobbits tolerate Bilbo’s oddities because he is generous with his wealth.
Readers are privy to Bilbo’s “happy ever after” since the events of The Hobbit—he has gained both advantageous and unfavorable status since his adventures, becoming the subject of silly gossip and enduring myth. Again, the narrator foregrounds the conservative nature of hobbits, who tend to dislike anything that does not agree with their insular worldviews.
Bilbo is on good terms with all of his relatives except for the Sackville-Bagginses, obnoxious hobbits who hope to inherit Bilbo’s luxurious hobbit hole at Bag End. Bilbo is particularly close with his favorite nephew, Frodo Baggins, and they curiously share the same birthday of September 22. At the age of 99, Bilbo adopted Frodo as his heir, and they have lived together at Bag End ever since. While Bilbo turns 111 this year, Frodo will come of age by turning 33.
Since his journey to the Lonely Mountain, the only evils Bilbo must deal with are the Sackville-Bagginses’ trivial irritations. The fate of characters is also hinted at in the strange rhythms of time and chance surrounding Bilbo and Frodo’s existences—the hobbits share their birth date, and both have significant birthday milestones this year.
Excitement builds as September arrives and the much-anticipated joint birthday party grows near. Rumors of marvelous fireworks spread like wildfire, and hobbits gawk at the outlandish guests who visit Bag End—dwarves drive wagons laden with goods, and Gandalf the Grey unloads great bundles from his cart. The wizard is known in these parts for his party tricks, with hobbits unaware of his hidden great powers.
Bilbo’s unusual friendships are evident in Gandalf and the dwarves’ arrivals. The local hobbits’ staring shows their general suspicion of anything foreign or unusual. However, they are happy to embrace Gandalf’s fireworks as a known entertainment that only demonstrates a hint of magic.
After unloading the goods and shooing away curious hobbit children, Gandalf and Bilbo sit together at Bag End, looking out on the well-tended gardens. Bilbo confirms that he means to follow through with a plan, information that Gandalf is pleased to hear, although neither hobbit nor wizard elaborate further.
The next day more carts arrive bearing goods to Bag End, and orders go out across the neighborhood for provisions of every kind. Even more exciting are the invitations that flood the local post. Almost everyone from Hobbiton has been invited, and many more from the wider Shire regions. Bilbo busies himself with all things administrative for the party, barring entry to Bag End except for those on official party business.
The buildup to the party reinforces many aspects of hobbit culture that readers have learned about from the prologue: a love of food and drink, appreciation for orderliness, and a delight for social interaction bordering on intrusiveness.
The day of the celebration finally arrives, and guests flock to the great tents that have been erected in a large field near Bag End. As is customary, guests receive presents from the host, and this year Bilbo has outdone himself with strange and wondrous gifts for all of the partygoers. The birthday party is a great success, with every kind of food, drink, and entertainment one could think of. A crowd favorite is the magnificent fireworks show that Gandalf designed and created; it culminates with the flight of a spectacular simulated dragon.
The party again affirms hobbits’ love of homely comforts and also demonstrates the generous nature of hobbits when hosting one another. Hobbits can be hypocritical creatures—they are happy to embrace foreign influence if benefits them, as in the case of Bilbo’s marvelous gifts. The feature of a dragon in the fireworks show pays homage to the myth and history surrounding Bilbo and Gandalf’s adventures together in the journey to the Lonely Mountain.
After supper, the party’s special guests who are squeezed into the central tent listen to a speech from Bilbo. The audience is full of great cheer, but become rather confused by Bilbo’s muddling words as he mixes compliment with insult and recalls obscure details about his youthful adventures with the dwarves. The crowd is then outright shocked at the elderly hobbit’s sudden and outlandish declaration that he is leaving the Shire permanently. He then suddenly disappears from sight in a flash of light. Many party guests consider this to be a joke in poor taste, or even rude. Frodo is the only hobbit present who seems unfazed by his uncle’s strange behavior. After privately toasting good health to Bilbo, Frodo slips from the great tent to make his way home.
Bilbo’s strange speech gives the audience another reason to exclude him as an eccentric and unlikeable hobbit, yet Bilbo clearly enjoys shocking his audience, as he chooses to put on the ring for a climactic disappearance with all eyes on him. Unlike the other hobbits, Frodo is in on the secret and demonstrates an unwavering loyalty to Bilbo. Frodo’s integrity and curiosity mark him as of similar character to his adventurous uncle.
Meanwhile, Bilbo has slipped on his magic ring to become invisible at the climax of his speech. He exits the party and returns to Bag End, where he prepares for travel, wearing his old garments and sword from the Lonely Mountain adventures of his youth. He puts his ring in an envelope addressed to Frodo, but suddenly decides to take it back and slips the ring in his pocket.
Bilbo’s plan to leave the Shire is now revealed. The Ring is a major player in this plan, functioning as a device that enables action and as an object that creates interior conflict for Bilbo. Bilbo’s dressing in his old travel clothes demonstrates the power of history to imbue objects and people with particular qualities—in this case, the well-used clothes and sword prepare Bilbo for the excitement and unknown of the road ahead.
Gandalf enters the study, and they discuss Bilbo’s plans to leave the Shire. Gandalf is intrigued to hear how tired and old Bilbo feels, which is surprising given the hobbit’s well-preserved appearance. Bilbo’s one regret in leaving Bag End is that he will miss Frodo dreadfully. Bilbo explains that he has left everything he owns to Frodo, although Gandalf calls the hobbit out on the ring that remains in his pocket.
Bilbo’s statement about feeling his age despite his well-preserved looks raises alarm bells for Gandalf. The narrator has hinted that the wizard is more wise and powerful than his shabby appearance suggests, so readers should take note of his intuition.
Bilbo gets angry at Gandalf’s insistence that he leave the ring for Frodo—a reaction that is very out of character for the hobbit. Gandalf intentionally heightens his stature to loom over Bilbo to help persuade him to leave the ring behind. Bilbo finally relents and offers Gandalf the ring. Gandalf carefully refuses to touch it, suggesting that Bilbo leave it on the mantelpiece for Frodo as he originally planned to do. As soon as Bilbo lets go of the ring, he experiences a deep sense of relief. Whistling merrily, the hobbit steps out his front door with three dwarf companions, bidding Gandalf farewell as he eagerly sets off down the road on one last adventure.
It is Gandalf’s loyalty to his friend’s wellbeing that causes him to confront Bilbo about the Ring. Gandalf alters his appearance to reveal some of his true power to Bilbo: this establishes a recurring pattern in which characters are slowly revealed as more powerful and noble than they appear. The Ring’s influence is hinted at when Bilbo feels a weight fall from his shoulders upon relinquishing it. Furthermore, there are cyclical echoes of history when Bilbo sets out for far-away lands by intentionally starting off down the road outside his front door.
Shortly after, Frodo enters Bag End to find Gandalf sitting in the darkness of Bilbo’s study, thinking deeply. Confirming that Bilbo has left as planned, Gandalf also draws Frodo’s attention to the ring that is waiting for him on the mantelpiece. The wizard advises Frodo to keep the ring secret, but says no more on the matter.
Gandalf tempers his advice to his young friend with a warning to keep the Ring hidden. Again, he will not yet elaborate on his suspicions.
With Bilbo departed, Frodo is the new master of Bag End and feels it is his duty to see off the guests from the party. He finds the responsibilities of the next few days tiring, with numerous queries and intrusions from hobbits who are curious about Bilbo’s whereabouts. Upon learning that Bilbo has truly gone, hobbits—including the devious Sackville-Bagginses—converge upon Bag End to claim any valuables they can get their hands on. All are disappointed to be firmly turned away. Some need a firmer hand than others, as Frodo finds three young hobbits knocking holes in the walls of Bag End, searching for Bilbo’s legendary gold from the adventures of his youth.
If all that a person had to put up with was infuriating family members, it would be a blessed life indeed. Although he despairs at his obnoxious relatives, Frodo has not yet encountered true evil. The rumors caught up in Bilbo’s legendary adventures provoke young hobbits into a small adventure of their own as they forcefully inspect Bag End’s walls.
Because of these disturbances, Frodo bars the door to all but his close friend Merry—a level-headed and responsible hobbit who has come to help Frodo deal with the aftermath of Bilbo’s party. Frodo is surprised but delighted when Gandalf appears one day and demands entry to Bag End. The wizard has stopped by to wish Frodo farewell and to repeat his grave warning to keep the ring secret. Again, he will say no more on the subject. As Gandalf walks off into the distance, Frodo reflects that the wizard looks burdened by troubling thoughts.
Frodo is familiar with Gandalf’s tendency for unexpected comings and goings, but he is alarmed by the wizard’s troubled demeanor. Gandalf’s second foreboding warning that Frodo must keep the Ring secret heightens readers’ suspense even further—there is the sense that something enormous and sinister is about to happen.