Most of his guests were drunk to the point of “filling up the corners” after a large feast to celebrate his birthday, so Bilbo Baggins thought it time to make a speech. After greeting everyone, he said:
Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today!
I hope you’re enjoying yourselves as much as I am. I shall not keep you long. I have called you all together for a Purpose. Indeed, for Three Purposes. First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live amongst such excellent and admirable hobbits.
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
Bilbo went on, but we need not, at least for the moment. This last line has left many a Tolkien admirer puzzled, including me. Perhaps Tolkien wanted to puzzle and confuse us at least as much as Bilbo had confused his 144 guests.
I had long thought it obvious that Bilbo was attempting to insult his guests, or at least some number less than half of them (50%-1 at a minimum), but all the halfs might be saying something else. A quick internet search for this particular quote will find quite a few discussions and disagreements on this matter by would-be hobbitologists.
The first section is straightforward enough – Bilbo is expressing regret for not getting to know some of of the guests as well as he might have. The second part seems straightforward as well. It would appear Bilbo is saying that he likes 50%-1 of the guests less than they should be liked, ie, less than they deserve. Understood this way, it is a self-deprecating statement, with Bilbo blaming himself for not liking them. But this understanding doesn’t mesh with Bilbo’s character in many respects. He isn’t as unsure of himself, and he is both smarter and cheekier than this understanding allows.
Instead, I suspect my original reading of the book is correct – and this is the way the line is delivered in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, though perhaps a little meaner and drunker than Tolkien made out. Bilbo is being ironic and deliberately obfusticating his meaning, but it is still clear to the careful reader. He is saying that there is a portion of the group, something less than half, who he simply doesn’t like and, what’s more, being disliked is still better than what they deserve.
The irony here is that what Bilbo says and what he means are two different things. Irony is the tension inherent in the contrast between these two things: what is and what seems to be. It is an English Professor’s ((Tolkien was, after all, a Professor of English and a Philologist to boot)) type of irony, to be sure but it is irony nonetheless. Tolkien’s commentary on the speech, in the book, further points this out:
This [the line] was unexpected and difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a compliment.
Bilbo delighted in the confusion and puzzlement, but it was nothing compared to the hubbub to come when he slipped the One Ring on his finger and disappeared from their sight forever. It was just a neat little prelude.
This same delicious irony is used throughout Bilbo’s speech. We’ve already seen one example of it in Bilbo referring to all of the hobbits as “excellent and admirable” when his true feelings for many of them had been made well-known to the reader.
Bilbo goes on to announce it is also Frodo Baggins’s birthday, and their two ages combined (111 and 33) made 144, a gross. Then he openly told them they made up one gross, and cheekily excused himself with “if I may use the expression.” Tolkien writes that the Sackville-Bagginses were not impressed.
Then he waffled a little before disappearing.
Bilbo was an ironic little hobbit, and meant precisely what he wanted to mean (even if it wasn’t precisely what he said) in just the same way wizards arrive just when they mean to.
What do you think? Am I right, or was Bilbo actually feeling regretful for not being nicer?