Everything belongs to Tolkien. Comments and criticism are, as always, very, very welcome.
A Little Hope
One of the great talents of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, although he did not know it yet, was his ability to remain perfectly open, candid, and natural—in a word, perfectly hobbitish—under all kinds of extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately he had not had much chance to demonstrate this talent so far, and in fact it seemed to him that everything he had done up to the present moment had been exactly the opposite of normal hobbit behavior. To begin with, an ordinary hobbit would have known better than to get mixed up with dwarves or wizards in the first place, and would never have allowed himself to be advertised as any kind of burglar, expert or otherwise. He would have stayed safe at home in his hobbit-hole, far away from adventures and journeys, and there was no denying that he would have been the better off for it. At the very least he would have been spared making the acquaintance of any hungry trolls in the wild, and for that alone he should have been very grateful. At least, if he had been an ordinary hobbit, he would.
Bilbo was not quite an ordinary hobbit, but somehow the more he was away from home, the more like a hobbit he began to feel. It was true that he had always harbored a bit of a secret Tookish fascination for unusual goings-on, whether terrible or wonderful—a love of fairy-tales which his friends back in the Shire would have rebuked with profound alarm, if they had ever known about it. But now that he actually found himself confronted by terrible and wonderful things, he felt very small and bewildered, and not Tookish in the least. However bold his intentions, he was still only a hobbit, and it seemed that even if he forgot his hat and his handkerchief he could not help bringing along the peculiar curly-headed artlessness of his people: whether he was resting on hard, cold stone outside a troll-cave, sharing dry bread with weary dwarves, or whether he was feasting at the high grand table of Lord Elrond here in Rivendell, surrounded by wisdom ancient beyond his ability to conceive, still he crossed his furry ankles and smoked his pipe, and daydreamed fondly about breakfasts and round, sunlit windows. He knew that Gandalf was a powerful wizard and that Thorin descended from a line of mighty kings, and he even had some notion that Elrond could have written out the whole history of Middle-earth from living memory; but all the same, a hobbit he remained, honest and simple-hearted even among the greatest of Wizards, Dwarves, Elves, and Men.
Not that Bilbo minded this state of affairs; he was happy to remain a hobbit. Nevertheless, he did not consider it very helpful—not now that he had gone and got himself stuck in an adventure, of all abominable things. He had no doubt that there were plenty of good uses for small and furry-footed people, but whatever they were, he suspected they had a great deal to do with warm beds, hot meals, and burning pipeweed, and very little to do with mountains, treasures, trolls, or, worst of all, dragons.
The elves, mind you, were another story; Bilbo was actually very comfortable in Rivendell. He enjoyed the singing, and he enjoyed the food, and even though the conversation of both the elves and the dwarves was in the main thoroughly over his head, he enjoyed the company. For the full two weeks that he stayed in Rivendell, he was content, and his only grief was that he could not stay longer. It never even occurred to him that anything could be lacking, that one could desire anything more than what the House of Elrond had to offer—not, that is, until the end of the fourteenth day, after he was already packed and ready to set out again with the dwarves next morning. It was nearing sunset, and he had stepped out into the gardens to wish them a final farewell and to smoke his pipe for a while in the open air. In fact he had already wished the gardens farewell at least a dozen times already, but found that that he enjoyed it so much, he would have been happy to sit and wish them farewell every day for the rest of his life—and a bother to all those dwarves and their kindly offers to pay his funeral bills.
At first, when Bilbo came out into the gardens, he thought he was alone, for he saw no elves around. He found a nice patch of grass and sat down with his back against a tree trunk, and he lit his pipe, humming to himself some tune he had picked up from the minstrels, without having any idea what the song was about. After puffing a bit, he raised his eyes—and through the cloud of smoke, he suddenly noticed a little figure standing some distance away, watching him curiously from between the trees.
The fellow was very small indeed, and for the first instant, forgetting all reason, Bilbo mistook him for a hobbit, and nearly leapt up for delight. But he was not a hobbit, as Bilbo soon realized, looking again. He was too slim, and his hair was not curly at all. Bilbo tried not to feel disappointed about this, but he couldn't help thinking that it would have been nice to have some of his own people around. He loved listening to the elves, and he even enjoyed talking with Gandalf and the dwarves (when they had time for him); but it wasn't the same as sitting in a nice cozy garden with good, plain hobbit folk, sharing a cup of tea and watching the caterpillars. That was one kind of pleasure that Bilbo supposed the elves would never quite understand.
The figure in the trees was still watching him, still curious, and even though he wasn't a hobbit, Bilbo decided to invite him over. He was starting to feel lonely now, with no one else around.
"Hello!" Bilbo called, waving his pipe a bit in greeting. "Would you like to join me?"
The figure seemed surprised, but hesitated only a moment before he nodded, apparently glad of the invitation. As he came closer, Bilbo got a better look at him: he really was a tiny little person, scarcely any taller than Bilbo himself, and not nearly so wide. He looked very young. From his silvery robes and black cloth boots, Bilbo guessed that he must have been an Elf-boy; yet there was something about him that was not altogether Elvish—or so it seemed to Bilbo, who admittedly was no expert on elves.
When the boy had come within a few paces, he stopped and made a short, respectful bow, without speaking.
"Oh, now!" said Bilbo, a bit flustered. "I don't know about that." Bowing to guests was probably a custom for Elvish children, he supposed, but it seemed excessively formal to bother about it now, out here in the warm gardens—him sitting barefoot under a tree, and still in his travel-stained coat and fraying trousers. He puffed on his pipe some more while the boy stood there, and at last he exclaimed, to fill the silence: "What a wonderful evening!"
This did not seem to have occurred to the boy, who turned and looked around at the trees in a distracted sort of way, more out of courtesy than any genuine interest. His eyes soon returned to Bilbo, however; he clearly felt that if there was anything wonderful about the evening, it was sitting right in front of him, with grass sticking up between its toes.
"Sit down, if you like," said Bilbo. "There is plenty of room." He drew on his pipe and blew out a large, beautiful smoke-ring—one of his very best, he thought proudly to himself—but the boy barely glanced at it. He went on looking at Bilbo in silent wonder, and finally sat down beside him on the ground.
He said, "You came with the dwarves."
"Yes—and what a pity that I shall be leaving with them, too!" answered Bilbo. Heaving a little regretful sigh, he looked off into the trees. "I think that I could stay here forever. But who knows if I shall ever come back again?"
The boy studied him very carefully.
"You are not a dwarf, are you?"
"Me?" Bilbo laughed. "Bless me, no! I'm just a hobbit. I don't suppose you meet many hobbits here in Rivendell."
The way the boy shook his head expressed plainly that he had not only never met a hobbit, but had never even heard of one, in Rivendell or anywhere else.
"You don't look like a dwarf," he said after a while, with a furtive glance down at Bilbo's curly feet. "I was told that they all wear long beards, but I had never seen one before. It is rare for dwarves to come to Rivendell."
"Or to Hobbiton," Bilbo agreed. "I never dreamed of seeing any dwarves at all—until one day thirteen of them showed up on my door-step! What a mess they made! And now I seem to have committed myself to helping them steal back a hoard of gold from some terrible dragon in the mountains." He blinked several times after saying this, as if the full petrifying impossibility of it had never occurred to him until now. "Dwarves! Wizards!" he said with despair. "I don't know what I can have been thinking. Mind you don't get dragged along too."
But his wide-eyed companion evidently had a somewhat different view.
"A dragon. Ah, I wish I could go. There are no dragons in this part of the world anymore, and I would like to see one. I can fight," he added, watching Bilbo's face to see if he would believe him.
"Good gracious, I hope it won't come to that!" said Bilbo, shuddering a little. "I don't wish to fight anyone, and a dragon least of all! I am only along for good-luck, anyway—if I am good-luck, and I sometimes wonder. You are certainly braver than I am."
"But my mother would never let me go," the boy frowned. "Lord Elrond didn't even want me to know what your business was. He... does not entirely approve of the enterprises of dwarves."
He seemed uncertain whether Bilbo might take offense at this, but Bilbo only scratched his hair.
"I think I should have agreed with him, not long ago. But I guess they are beginning to grow on me."
"What are they like?"
"Dwarves?" said Bilbo. He fell quiet for a moment, smoking thoughtfully; it was true that they were growing on him a bit, but he was still very ambivalent about the dwarves, and not without good reason. "Well, you mustn't mistake it that I am any kind of authority. But it seems to me that dwarves are a lot like finely carved rocks: rough and solid, and very strong. They are rather harsh, I guess—by which I don't mean them any disrespect, you understand! It is only that all around they seem as hard and chilly as stone to me. But they make beautiful songs, and they have bright eyes, sharp and glittering like diamonds. And I am beginning to see that there is more in them that is worth mining, besides."
"I wish I could see them," said the boy.
"Only from far off, very briefly. Lord Elrond will not allow me in the company of his guests—he says I am too young. I did get a glimpse of you all on the night you arrived, before you went in to dine. I had never seen such beards before, except on wizards," he mused, with a kind of suppressed awe. "But my mother would not let me stay to look."
The boy paused a moment, as if uncertain whether to proceed. Then he moved closer to Bilbo and said, almost in a whisper, "At first I thought I would sneak out of my room for a better look. I didn't mean it just to be unruly; I have always wanted to know more about dwarves, and I hope you won't think it rude, but I was very curious about you as well. But..." He chewed his lip. "If it had been any other house, I would have done it. I know the secret places around the dining hall, and I know how to keep very quiet and very still, so that no one would have seen me. But this is the House of Elrond, and such things are simply not done here."
"Not even by curious boys?" said Bilbo quietly, laughing again. "Well, whatever Lord Elrond's secret is, I know a good many hobbit-fathers who would like very much to know about it! But it is a pity you could not see the dwarves. Still, if they will pardon my saying so, they are not really very much to look at. They are made as much of beard as of anything else!"
The boy gave him a tentative smile.
"You are certainly nothing like a dwarf," he said, "if they are really as hard and chilly as you say. And nothing like an elf, either. Are all hobbits like you?"
"It seems not," said Bilbo, "since none of them has ever gone hunting for dragons before."
"I don't mean it like that. You seem... happy."
"Do I? Well, I suppose I am. How could anyone be unhappy in Rivendell?" Bilbo swept his pipe out in a gesture meant to encompass the majesty of the gardens, which were falling into twilight now, more beautiful than ever under the deepening pink and gold of western sky.
"Rivendell... is like a memory of happiness," the boy said. "It is like happiness in spite of the world: a bright flame in the darkness. But you seem different—truly happy, like full sunshine without a cloud. Are all hobbits that way?"
On another occasion, Bilbo might have laughed that hobbits were certainly not all happy, and he would have had certain Sackville-Bagginses pointedly in mind when he said it; but just now, the boy's words about light and sunshine had such an effect of bringing Hobbiton alive in Bilbo's memory, and recalling all the golden warmth of his own hobbit-hole in The Hill, that he at once said, "Yes... I think so," and wondered desperately what had ever made him leave.
"What are they like?"
What indeed! It is a strange fact that although this question was the first Bilbo had had in several weeks which put him in any kind of familiar territory at all, it was a moment before he found himself able to answer it. His head was suddenly so full of stories and faces and impressions that they all crowded each other aside, and none of them seemed to find their way to his mouth. At last he said, with a sort of spontaneous confusion:
"Hobbits... are like tea-cakes, and fresh round apples. Big warm fires, and soft chairs, and hot cider. And dancing! And foolish songs, and presents, and shops full of beautiful things without any use at all. Vegetable-patches and orchards, and flower-gardens all fluttering with butterflies, and little wooden fences with creeping vines. Wonderful! Oh, at their worst I suppose hobbits can be as miserable as anybody—but at their best! There is no place like Hobbiton for green fields and sunlight, and blackberry-picking, and picnics with hot buttered rolls, and friendly faces, and stories by the fireplace at evening."
"I wish I could see it," said the boy; and curiously enough, he sounded much more regretful about not seeing Hobbiton than he had sounded about not seeing the dwarves, or even the dragon.
But Bilbo was too far lost in his rekindled passion for tea-cakes, cider, and hot buttered rolls to take any notice of this. Indeed, he might well never have returned to the conversation at all if he had not been roused from his musings by the discovery that in the course of his fitful discussion on hobbits, his pipe had gone out.
"Oh, I say," he muttered, patting his pockets in search of his tinder-box. He found it and lighted his pipe again, and said to the boy, "I beg your pardon, what was that?"
"I said that I wished I could see Hobbiton," the boy repeated. "Here everyone is so serious."
"Here? The elves?"
"Oh, they play games and sing nonsense all the time, yes; but it is not hard to see through that, if you know them. Their time is ending. Many have sailed away, and none of them are as full of laughter as they pretend. They don't mean to be serious—but you know, not all of Middle-earth is as peaceful as your Hobbiton, and they have seen a lot of it."
That just shows what good comes of adventures, Bilbo thought; but he didn't say it. The boy meanwhile moved back to sit against the tree, beside him.
"My place is with the elves, I guess," he went on. "But it is nice once in a while to meet someone more like my own people. Someone who is not yet weary of the world."
"But—aren't you an elf?"
The boy turned to him with surprise. "I? No, no. I come from the race of Men."
"The Big Folk!" said Bilbo, and he clapped his hands together, nearly extinguishing his pipe again. "Wonderful! I have heard of them, but there are none in Hobbiton. And what are they like?"
"I don't really know," the boy replied. "The only Men who come through Rivendell are Rangers, and they rarely speak to me. When I first saw you..." He stopped, and seemed to consider how he should go on. "You see, when I saw you with the dwarves, it was only a glimpse, far off, and at first... I thought you might be one of my kind. I thought you must have been very young, and I wondered how you came to be among all those old dwarves." He laughed a little at his mistake, running a hand through his hair. "It was foolish of me—wishful thinking, I guess."
Bilbo was laughing himself. "And to think," he said, "I at first thought you were a hobbit! Wishful thinking indeed!"
The boy looked at him, and for the first time, he broke into a real smile.
"I guess maybe we found what we were looking for after all."
Bilbo checked his laughter long enough to blow another smoke ring, and this time the boy watched it as it drifted up into the now darkening sky.
"If I had only found you here earlier," the boy said, half to himself. "I would have loved to hear more about your dragon, and about dwarves and hobbits and your journey here. But I must go inside; I am already late, now that the sun has set, and my mother will not be happy." He sighed and got to his feet slowly, and brushed the grass from his silvery robes. Bilbo rose as well.
"Yes, and I have an early start. Dragons!" he said, clapping a hand to his head. "I don't know what will become of me! But I hope someday I shall see Rivendell again, and you can hear how it all turned out. —Why, I've just remembered!" said Bilbo. "You don't even know my name. Bilbo Baggins." He put a hand to his belt and bowed a curly-headed little hobbit-bow. "At your service."
The boy smiled again, and bowed in return.
"My name is Estel."
It was just at that moment that a woman's voice was heard calling from the inner gate—not quite angrily, but certainly with authority—
"Estel! Estel, come inside, your supper will be cold!"
And with the flash of a final parting smile, the boy was gone, running back in his little Elven boots to the House of Elrond, where such things as missing supper, Bilbo was very glad to see, were simply not done.
Around him, the evening skies had deepened now to indigo and black, and still the trees in silhouette looked beautiful—as slender and elegant as Elven maids, reaching up toward the stars. The air was warm and fragrant. Bilbo cast his gaze around the gardens once more; but he no longer felt the need to wish them farewell. He blew a few more rings of smoke into the dark, and turned to go back inside. He was ready to face his adventure.
Someday, he was certain, he would be back.