SPOILERS FOR THE BOOKS OF BABEL (UP TO THE ARM OF THE SPHINX) BELOW.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but my first ever fantasy novel was a paperback copy of The Hobbit that I stole from a library.
In my defence, I was pretty sure that was how libraries worked. I was only 6 years old at the time, and when my mother found out she was so mortified that she forbade me from returning it. I still don’t see how I was in the wrong, to be honest. How was I supposed to know that there was such a thing as a check-out system?
Anyway, It wasn’t even a real library. It was the school library. If anything, it was payback for all the sums and times tables they made me do.
Regardless of how it came to be in my possession, I very quickly grew to love that book. It was the only book that I owned, and so I read it cover to cover more times than I could count on my fingers. I loved the world that lived within those pages: hobbit holes and trolls and a dragon sleeping in a mountain of gold. I loved the language, and the funny little backstories for common proverbs. But most of all, I loved the characters.
More specifically, I loved Bilbo Baggins.
He was frumpy, and funny, and a little bit priggish… but he was a kind and decent person behind all of his complaints. He might have convinced himself that he had no taste for adventure, but even a child could see that wasn’t true. Yeah, maybe he didn’t fit the conventional archetype, but Bilbo Baggins was a hero and no mistake.
And yet despite my undying love for The Hobbit, there was always a part of it that left me feeling a little sad: the ending.
When Bilbo returned to the Shire after the events of the book, he wasn’t the same hobbit that left it. He was changed by his experiences, and by all accounts led a rather restless life thereafter, always reminiscing about his adventures.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the ending of The Hobbit is a bad ending, or criticising it in any way. I love that book exactly the way it is and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
But the fact remains that, all things considered, it’s still a bit of a bummer for old Bilbo. It almost seems cruel that just as he discovers his taste for adventure, it’s back to the static (and frankly, boring) life of the Shire for him.
And this is where I wish to draw attention to the commonly-discussed parallel between Bilbo and another favourite character of mine: Thomas Senlin.
Like Bilbo, Senlin falls into an adventure that he’d really rather have no part in. Like Bilbo, Senlin spends most of that adventure reminiscing over a past life. And like Bilbo, Senlin develops a number of unlikely friendships and relationships along the way.
They are far from identical characters—Bilbo is a little warmer, and Senlin is a little more priggish (as evidenced by the fact that no review or essay will ever refer to him as ‘Thomas’)—but there are enough similarities there to merit comment.
It is the differences, however, that are more interesting.
While Bilbo’s ‘constant’—the thing that keeps him keeping on—is his memory of his cosy home in the ground, Senlin’s constant is the memory of his relationship with Marya.
And therein lies the biggest difference between their stories.
Senlin’s relationship with his wife is not a constant. Senlin is not the same man who first entered the tower. Like Bilbo, he has been changed by his experiences.
But that’s only considering half of the equation. Marya’s experiences, though we know little of them, have surely changed who she is, too. Both husband and wife have been through some life-changing stuff. Their worlds have grown far larger since their days in their little town by the seaside, and it’s perhaps unreasonable to assume that they would immediately be able to reconnect. When Senlin and Marya meet again, it will be with a child and a world between them.
While Bilbo had his old life and his old home to return to, Senlin doesn’t have that luxury. Too much has changed. And in the end, depending on how the story pans out, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
When Thomas Senlin first entered the Tower of Babel, his world was confined to his own head. Through his adventures and his friendships, it has grown. This is wonderfully portrayed, with the point-of-view cast expanding with Senlin’s understanding of the world, and it is a testament to Josiah Bancroft’s skill as an author that the story managed to retain its personal feel despite this growth.
Senlin’s world is still growing. Perhaps he didn’t mean to, but he already started building the beginnings of a new life for himself. We can’t quite be sure just yet, but perhaps Marya is doing the same.
The Books of Babel aren’t finished. There are still a lot of pages left to read. We’ve still to hear Marya’s side of the story, we don’t know how Edith or the baby will play into things, and the Tower still has a lot of mysteries left to unravel.
While there was no question in Bilbo’s mind that he wanted to return to the Shire, it’s hard to imagine that either Senlin or Marya will come to that decision quite so easily. So much has changed for them already, and they themselves have changed also. After all they’ve been through, I just don’t think that this couple will be capable of running back to their old life.
But I’m excited to see where they run to instead.