image: Wikimedia commons (link).
September 21, 1937 is the original publication date for the beloved book The Hobbit: or, There and Back Again, by J. R. R. Tolkien.
And, as most of the millions around the world know whose lives have been touched by that tale, and by the Lord of the Rings trilogy which followed it, the following day of September 22 is the shared birthday of both Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo Baggins.
The date of September 22nd is of course very significant, as September 22nd is the day on which the autumnal equinox generally occurs (with some occasional "slippage" due to the fact that a complete orbit around the sun does not correspond to an even number of daily rotations of the earth upon its axis, causing the day-count to be slightly out of alignment with the annual circuit, and necessitating periodic adjustments, which we manage today using the "leap-year" system but which could also be adjusted by various other methods). This year, the earth will pass through the point of the September equinox on September 22nd at 1:02 pm Pacific time, which is 4:02 pm Eastern time (in North America) and 8:02 pm Greenwich time (also known as UTC).
Professor Tolkien almost certainly knew what he was doing in giving both Bilbo and Frodo a shared birthday on the date associated with the fall equinox (in the northern hemisphere). Both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings involve journeys of transformation and personal growth for the protagonists Bilbo and Frodo -- and in the ancient epics and mythologies of humanity, found around the world, there is a celestial "language" which describes the beginning of the soul's quest in imagery associated with the "crossing downward" point of fall equinox, on the way down to the lowest point of winter solstice, where there will be a sort of "second birth" and a turning-point in the journey of the soul's progress.
The action in The Hobbit gets to its lowest place in the very "roots" of the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo stumbles into the icy waters at the very bottom of the underground passages of the goblins, for his fateful encounter with Gollum. After that point, and his "victory" of sorts in a very difficult situation, Bilbo is a changed hobbit.
A parallel could be drawn to the action in the ancient epic of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus must descend to the very underworld of Hades before he can complete his own quest and return home. In Star Myths of the World, Volume Two (which focuses almost entirely on the myths of ancient Greece), I show that the celestial imagery in that ancient epic very much indicates that the long and arduous journey of Odysseus embodies the voyage of the soul's plunge down into this incarnate life (which the ancient celestial system envisions at the point of fall equinox) across the "lower half" of the Great Wheel of the year, with a resulting elevation of the spiritual nature by virtue of the challenges encountered and overcome during the difficult crossing.
The very same pattern can be found in countless other myth-systems from around the globe, including in the stories of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It can also be seen very strongly in the epic of Gilgamesh (also known as the "Gilgamesh cycle"), which is perhaps the oldest epic to which we still have access today in its original form, on clay tablets which were rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Here is a previous post which explores the theme of the difficult crossing through the "lower realm" of this incarnate life as it surfaces in the Gilgamesh cycle (particularly in the encounter with Uta-napishti).
Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880 - 1963) provides us with what I believe to be the clearest explanation of this ancient system of allegorizing the progress of the soul's plunge into incarnation and the "underworld crossing" in terms of the annual progress through the equinoxes and solstices. You can read an extended quotation from his essay Easter: The Birth-day of the Gods in which he explains the significance of each of the solstices and each of the equinoxes in this previous post.
In other words, whether or not Tolkien consciously intended it, he was following a pattern which can be perceived in ancient myths from around the world (and, as an accomplished scholar of myth and folklore, it is quite likely that J. R. R. Tolkien knew just what he was doing -- especially since we can see that he also incorporates summer solstice aka "mid-summer's eve" at significant points in his epics as well). In those myths, according to Alvin Boyd Kuhn's interpretation, the story is not simply about the adventures which some external character undergoes -- the arduous plunge into a strange and perilous realm is actually a picture of the experience undertaken by each and every one of us as we enter into this incarnate life, a "plunge" which the world's ancient myth-system associated with the point of the fall equinox, when the sun's path "plunges" below the line of the celestial equator, crossing from the "upper" part of the year in which hours of daylight are longer than hours of darkness, down into the "lower part of the year in which hours of darkness are longer than hours of daylight.
This "lower journey" keeps getting darker and colder and more difficult until the absolute "low-point" is reached. In many of the ancient myths, this lowest point is represented by a journey to the land of the dead (as in the Odyssey of ancient Greece). In Tolkien's The Hobbit, I would argue that this "low-point" takes place in the roots of the mountains, in the encounter with Gollum -- after which Bilbo finds a new confidence and begins to really grow into becoming a completely new person (or new hobbit).
Alvin Boyd Kuhn called these two points on the annual cycle (the fall equinox and the winter solstice) the "two births," which are also found in many ancient myths and scriptures. In many cases, a figure in the myths will actually have "two mothers" in order to illustrate this concept, as discussed in this previous post on that subject. Sometimes these "two mothers" would be associated with the signs just prior to the fall and the spring equinoxes, as discussed in that post, but as I demonstrate with abundant evidence in many of the episodes discussed in my Star Myths of the World series (particularly in Volumes Two and Three), the ancient myths use the point of winter solstice as the point of the "second birth" (or spiritual birth) just as frequently -- if not more frequently.
Thus, to put it back into "Hobbit" terms, we can see that Bilbo's "physical" or "natural" or "first" birthday is indeed September 22nd -- but that his "second birthday," when he stops "descending" and begins "ascending," takes place during his adventures when he reaches a sort of "lowest point," and begins to "find himself" and develop into someone with an entirely new dimension, a dimension that perhaps was present (but dormant) before, perhaps held back by doubts or fears or hesitation (as in the powerful story of Doubting Thomas in the New Testament gospel according to John).
Thus, in one sense, we can say that we all have a "birthday" that corresponds to September 22, and that we all follow a journey that is akin to the journey undertaken by the Hobbit, as we wind our way through the "lower crossing" of this incarnate life.
For previous posts which mention other illuminating aspects of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, see also:
- "The importance of Orion" 05/14/2011.
- "The Solar Double Spiral" 05/31/2011.
- "The Hobbit and Summer Solstice" 06/20/2011.
- "Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast" 08/08/2012.
- "The Lord of the Rings, the Power of Music, and the Stories that Really Matter" 04/20/2015, and
- "The Djed Column everyday: Earendil" 04/22/2015.
For previous posts discussing the celestial mechanics involved in the point of equinox, and the use of the solstices and equinoxes in the worldwide system underlying the ancient Star Myths, see also:
- "The equinox and the plane of the ecliptic" 09/22/2011.
- "Winter solstice, 2011" 12/20/2011.
- "How the earth-ship metaphor helps explain the sun 'standing still' at the solstices" 12/23/2011.
- "Star Myths of the World: the Hymn to Durga in the Mahabharata" 06/28/2015.
- "Chinese characters and the moment of Equinox" 09/23/2015.
- "Gaining fluency in the language of the myths" 08/14/2016.
- "Fall Equinox, 2016" 09/22/2016, and
- "New Video: The Vision of Ezekiel (Wheels within Wheels)" 08/31/2017.
As we pass through another significant crossing-point in the annual cycle -- as well as a significant anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien's first full-length book, eighty years ago -- it seems appropriate to pause and consider our own progress in this arduous journey of "There and Back Again."