Originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1974 (2nd ed. 1990) and by Allen & Unwin in 1974 (2nd British ed 1974); Bilbo's Last Song was also published in paperback edition by Allen & Unwin in 1992 and by Dragonfly Books in 1992.
For many years, Joy Hill served as secretary for J.R.R. Tolkien, and a close relationship they had. As the story goes, Professor Tolkien used to joke that, if ever a diamond bracelet were to fall out of an envelope of the correspondence she handled for him, it would be hers.
Near the end of Professor tolkien's life, as she helped him pack his office for a move, a poem Professor Tolkien had written fell out of a book. Ms. Hill read it, and fell in love with the short, three-verse piece; and Tolkien made it a gift to her, her "diamond bracelet", so to speak.
Some time shortly later, after Professor tolkien's death in 1973, Ms. Hill gave the poem to the composer Donald Swann, who in 1967 had worked with Professor Tolkien himself to set many of tolkien's songs to music in the collection _The Road Goes Ever On_. Mr. Swann himself was so moved by the piece that he set it to music, and added it to the 2nd edition of the collection, which was published in 1978. The same poem was published as a poster in 1974, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, one of tolkien's favorite illustrators; and was included in the BBC audio production of the _Lord of the Rings_.
The poem does not itself actually appear in The Return of the King, the last volume of the _The Lord of the Rings_ trilogy, but takes place at it's very end, when many of the principal heroes of the War of the Ring prepare to set sail into the West, to leave Middle Earth forever: among them the great wizard Gandalf the White; Frodo Baggins, the great Ringbearer; and his elder Bilbo, who found the Ring so long before.
" 'Well, here at last, dear friends," [said Gandalf], "on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.'
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost.
The poem is Bilbo's farewell to his friends and to Middle Earth, and in a sense, this poem is tolkien's farewell as well: to the Middle Earth he created, to the secretary who served him so faithfully; and to us, his readers, who came to cherish the world he created. But the poem's depth and meaning still rings strong even for those who know nothing of tolkien's great masterpiece. The feelings Bilbo sings of are universal. In a few short lines Tolkien has for me, and so many others, captured perfectly the sorrow and hope alloyed together that make up all partings, from the ends of visits with beloved friends and family, to the final depature for mysteries unknown that all of us must one day face. And in that achievement, Tolkien demonstrates again the genius that has made him one of the greatest poets of this, or any, age.
In the recent swell of tolkien-related books, because of new fans of the movies, this little gem is often overlooked because it is basically a gift book, one of those tiny little books that are mostly pictures. But even if you don't buy gift books, this is so far and above the other ones that it should definitely be purchased.
This is Bilbo's song as he arrives at the Grey Havens at the finale of "Lord of the Rings," at the Elven ships that will sail for the Undying Lands. His thoughts as he prepares to leave Middle-Earth are looking back on his long, adventure-filled life - poignant, peaceful, and a little bit hopeful for the future.
While this is not a story or a sequel, it is nevertheless very Tolkienish. The rhythm, meter, and wording of this little poem is very recognizable as tolkien's work, for anyone who has read his books and the wonderful poetry that is sprinkled through them. And Pauline Baynes has augmented the poetry with a series of beautiful pictures. Quite detailed and pretty, they have a slightly unearthly tinge, like the starlight around the Elves. And this new edition has excellent paper and printing, very high quality.
Even those who aren't die-hard Tolkien fans can appreciate the beauty of his poetry and the perfect accompaniment of Baynes' pictures. Lovely little gem.