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(Note: I'm trying to avoid spoilers, as much as possible.)

Toward the end of LOTR, we are told that bards have already begun singing the tale of

"Frodo of the nine fingers."

It took the bards roughly a week or two.

So, why wasn't Bilbo the Hobbit famous, by the start of LOTR? I would have thought that the tale of the "The Hobbit" (considering the monumental end results) would have been part of every bard's repertoire by that time, putting Hobbiton squarely on the map (so to speak). But instead, Sauron's black riders had to go searching for the hobbits.

Answers based on canon obviously preferred, but I'm OK with educated guesses. Edit (based on answers): By "famous," I mean "famous in the parts of Middle Earth that might have had bards," not "famous in the Shire." I understand that Bilbo was famous in the Shire (even without bards).

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    Well, within his community, Bilbo pretty much WAS famous. It was very rare for a Hobbit to go off on an adventure, let alone come back rich and a hero. – Omegacron Feb 5 '15 at 15:41
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    the elves and dwarves certainly knew of bilbo, its really the men who did not, and honestly the men of both rohan and gondor had very little dealings with the dwarves (other then special ordered items) and even less to do with the elves. only a few men had probably even seen elves and only lords such as Boromir and Faramir would actually travel to elf lands, dwarves would be slightly more common as they traveled to and from, but again, simple talk would be the dragons dead, not this 1 hobbit helped a group of dwarves get to the mountain. – Himarm Feb 5 '15 at 15:42
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    @Himarm I agree, after all even if the deed of Bilbo was great and so, it was muffled by the battle of the 5 armies, the sacrifice of thorin and his companions that were probably branded heroes in his stead. – yondaime008 Feb 5 '15 at 15:56
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    Biblo himself never did something "great" he didnt kill smaug, he didnt save the world, he was just a minor player in a major conflict. – Himarm Feb 5 '15 at 15:57
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    It's also worth noting that Bilbo was invited specifically for his ability not to be noticed. He wasn't a fame-seeker by nature, and many of his exploits were secret or stealthy, so there's a decent chance that many people knew of those events but simply didn't realize he was involved. – Nerrolken Feb 5 '15 at 17:18
59

He was.

First of all within the Shire:

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. (A Long-expected Party)

And then among other peoples:

He's often away from home. And look at the outlandish folk that visit him: dwarves coming at night, and that old wandering conjuror, Gandalf, and all. (A Long-expected Party)

Among the wandering Elf companies:

'Be careful, friends!' cried Gildor laughing. 'Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master.' (Three is Company)

And in Wilderland:

...the news of the great events went far and wide in Wilderland, and many had heard Bilbo's name and knew where he came from. We had made no secret of our return journey to his home in the West. (The Shadow of the Past)

However, Bilbo's deeds weren't of really great historical importance, as is told in the Prologue:

Yet, though before all was won the Battle of Five Armies was fought, and Thorin was slain, and many deeds of renown were done, the matter would scarcely have concerned later history, or earned more than a note in the long annals of the Third Age, but for an 'accident' by the way.

The 'accident' being, of course, Bilbo's finding of the Ring, which only became fully known at the time of Gandalf's last visit to Bag End.


Regarding Sauron and his capacity for knowledge of these events, the one point you're missing is that this was also the time when the White Council drove Sauron out of Dol Guldur. The Tale of Years in Return of the King Appendix B notes:

  1. Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf visit Bilbo in the Shire. Bilbo meets Sméagol-Gollum and finds the Ring. The White Council meets; Saruman agrees to an attack on Dol Guldur, since he now wishes to prevent Sauron from searching the River. Sauron having made his plans abandons Dol Guldur. The Battle of the Five Armies in Dale. Death of Thorin II. Bard of Esgaroth slays Smaug. Dáin of the Iron Hills becomes King under the Mountain (Dáin II).

  2. Bilbo returns to the Shire with the Ring. Sauron returns in secret to Mordor.

Dol Guldur itself wasn't reoccupied until Third Age 2951, when the Tale of Years notes that Sauron sent three Nazgûl there (and the Nazgûl were inactive in Minas Morgul up to that time), so there is a time period during which the death of Smaug, the Battle of Five Armies, the re-establishment of Erebor and Bilbo's return all happened, and when Sauron was not involved in events in Wilderland.

The conclusion is therefore that, despite Bilbo's fame and despite the news of events being fairly widespread, Sauron (1) was otherwise engaged at the time, (2) was elsewhere in Middle-earth at the time, (3) therefore didn't have the opportunity to learn much of what had happened, and (4) had no active servants in the area who could have told him.

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    He was a footnote until SHHIIRRREEE... BAGGGINNNNSSS... – corsiKa Feb 5 '15 at 16:50
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    Points #1 & #2 don't really give evidence for the kind of fame the op is asking about. He's famous in the Shire for being odd and the reputation of adventure, not the details of his actions, and he seems to be known to the elves of Rivendell because of his personal closeness (he was living in Rivendell at the time the quote was made so it would be odder for the company to not know him, than otherwise) – Shisa Feb 6 '15 at 7:06
  • A good answer, but it doesn't account for Sauron not knowing where Bilbo and the Shire were, at the start of LOTR, IF Bilbo had made it into the bards' tales. I'm assuming that Sauron had spys who could go to taverns. – dmm Feb 6 '15 at 23:21
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    I think, more to the point, it is not that many did not hear about the battle of the five armies of that the drawf's had reclaimed their kingdom, but that many would not of heard of Bilbo's part in it. There is no reason that any story about the events, would of necessarily of included that one of the companions was a hobbit, and by the way here are the directions to the shire. – Jonathon Feb 7 '15 at 21:55
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Even if "The Tale of the Death of Smaug" was famous, that doesn't mean that Bilbo's part in it was.

Most of Bilbo's contribution in The Hobbit consists of:

  • Getting the dwarves to the Lonely Mountain.
  • Sneaking into the mountain on his own and discovering Smaug's vulnerability.
  • Shaming Thorin into behaving reasonable before he dies.

Needless to say, all of this is important. But none if it is the kind of thing that would necessarily be obvious to random observers — and nobody who knows better seems to go out of their way to highlight Bilbo's role. It's not implausible that Bard and/or Daín end up as the focus of the tale, with Thorin as a footnote (or even a secondary villain who unnecessarily angered Smaug) and Bilbo omitted entirely.

In contrast, an outside observer of the events of The Lord of the Rings would have seen:

  • The mysterious collapse of Sauron's army at the Black Gate, in the middle of a battle that they seemed to be winning.
  • An incredibly public acknowledgment by the new king of Gondor, at his coronation, that Frodo is responsible for it.

This is a lot more likely to lead to songs about him than the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that Bilbo did!

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    Bilbo is essentially forrest gump, hes a witness and plays minor roles, is a whole series of major events. but he never really thinks himself important, hes just a hobbit who wants to enjoy being a hobbit. – Himarm Feb 5 '15 at 16:04
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    @Himarm: Bilbo is not just a Forrest Gump figure. By the end, he intentionally tries to prevent a war of men and elves against dwarves (at some personal risk). The point is, most of Bilbo's actions take place behind the scenes; and it is not in his character to boast about his achievements or try to promote himself as a great hero. – Royal Canadian Bandit Feb 5 '15 at 16:36
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    I wouldn't call giving the Elven-king and Bard the one item that they can use to break the deadlock "a minor role". – Matt Gutting Feb 5 '15 at 17:57
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In the grand scheme of things, Bilbo was arguably the least important member of the quest for Erebor (i.e., the quest of the Dwarves in The Hobbit). The other members of the quest certainly appreciated his contribution, but the most impressive feats accomplished by the quest were all performed by the others: Thorin reclaimed Erebor as his kingdom; Bard killed Smaug; Dain succeeded Thorin upon the death of the latter; Gandalf (unbeknownst to everyone else) dealt with the Necromancer.

Bilbo's main contributions were relatively unimportant to outside observers: he helped save the other members of the group at least once or twice. He found a ring, which was later revealed to be the One Ring, but at the time, everyone assumed that it was just a neat ring that makes the person who is wearing it invisible.

All the characters who knew how important Bilbo was to the quest were relatively unsociable: Either Dwarves who tend to stay away from non-Dwarves, or Gandalf, who has much more important and interesting things to do than to promote an unknown hobbit from the Shire.

Aside from these characters, only other hobbits would have known who Bilbo was, and they were never likely to tell everyone they met about the incredible hobbit down the road.

First of all, other hobbits didn't believe Bilbo's stories. They had always been a bit suspicious of him, due to his tendency to wander off in search of adventures. When he disappeared for over a year (something hobbits frown upon), then came back and started telling his neighbors insane stories about talking spiders, trolls being turned into stone, dragons, and wizards, they all assumed that he had finally lost his mind.

Second, hobbits don't approve of the kinds of things that Bilbo claimed to have done. They dislike adventure, they scorn people who they deem to be unreliable and unpredictable, and they distrust anyone who seems to be impressed with themselves. Bilbo was guilty of all these offenses, and seemed to be totally unrepentant. This is why, in the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien emphasizes that Bilbo's party was the first time, since his so-called "adventure", that his neighbors thought of him as anything other than a shady character.

In the eyes of the outside world, Bilbo hadn't done anything worth mentioning; in the eyes of the hobbits of the Shire, everything he claimed to have done made him that much more suspicious.

1

Given that the Shire is traditionally isolated from the rest of Middle Earth, I do not think the reason is knowing the relationship of Frodo with the War of the Ring.

In fact, in the book the events after the fall of Sauron are a little more complicated than in the films.

When Frodo and (hobbit) friends arrive back at the Shire, they find out that Saruman and Grima had fled there and now they are controlling the Shire. Having way more experience than the average hobbit, as soon as they arrive they convince the rest of the hobbits to rise against Saruman and his men, which they successfully do.

So

Bilbo was somewhat famous for his adventure and wealth, but Frodo lead many of them in battle and succeeded in expelling Saruman. The difference in standing is easy to understand.

Additionally

The book explains that Merry and Pippin take some beverage from the Ents, and as a result grow quite noticeably (like a foot?), which would have made them impressively tall for Hobbits.

  • I don't understand how this answers the question about Bilbo. – dmm Feb 6 '15 at 23:14
  • @dmm Bilbo was somewhat famous because he went outside and did "something" outside (think Lewis of Lewis & Clark). Frodo was a liberator who had won a battle at home and expelled Saruman (think George Washington or Winston Churchill). I do not find that hard to understand that Frodo popularity is way higher than Bilbo's ever was. – SJuan76 Feb 7 '15 at 19:07
  • Ah, I see. You meant in the Shire. Makes sense. I was wondering about the parts of Middle Earth west of Anduin, plus maybe the Iron Hills. Areas that might have had bards. I will make that more clear in the question. – dmm Feb 9 '15 at 18:03
  • Yes, my answer is only related to the Shire (it has been long since I read it, but IIRC the singing of the tale of "Frodo of the nine fingers" was in the Shire), so I took your question to reference it. – SJuan76 Feb 9 '15 at 19:05
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he was famous. we can see that on the beginning of the fellowship. And I m pretty sure bards were singing his tale. Of course, Frodo had saved Middle-earth , so it's logic that the bards singing one week later songs for him, but till his age, Bilbo was the first hobbit ever to have such a great adventure.

  • Do you have anything to back this up? You might also want to consider correcting your grammatical errors to create a more readable answer. – user44330 Apr 24 '15 at 21:56

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