Just Like a Novel: Packing Lessons From Bilbo Baggins and Others

For travellers who perpetually overpack and lose luggage. | By Aishwarya Subramanian  
Packing is hard sometimes. Photo: MIM FridayAlamyBkktry/IndiaPicture
Packing is hard sometimes. Photo: MIM FridayAlamyBkktry/IndiaPicture

I’m always envious of the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. Heyer’s characters (most of them superlatively rich) never pack for themselves. There are servants for that, and the need to be well-dressed at all times trumps the need for keeping your luggage light. Your valet will fret if you don’t carry a dozen spare cravats, and you can always hire an extra carriage or two for the excess baggage. The hero of These Old Shades is happy to send his long-suffering valet back and forth between England and France for any small thing he has forgotten. In Devil’s Cub, a character finds a few dozen bottles of good wine in a French inn and immediately arranges to hire a coach or a boat to transport it home to England.

For most of us, packing for a trip is a little more difficult. If we’re flying, luggage restrictions oblige us to somehow fit everything we need into the smallest, lightest possible bag. Magazines in their summer issues offer tips for doing this, none of which seem in the least bit practical. Before us is dangled the mystical figure of the seasoned, sophisticated traveller who is somehow able to dress for every occasion and meet every travel emergency with the contents of a small backpack. Of course, the implication is that if we were sophisticated, seasoned travellers too, we wouldn’t be lugging around these overloaded suitcases and heavy laptop bags. As if rushing around airports and train stations and hauling baggage wasn’t stressful or unpleasant enough, we also have to worry about looking stupid.

It’s at times like this that I turn gratefully to the various fictional characters who are even worse at this packing thing than I am. A classic example is the group of incompetents who make up the title of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The early chapters of Jerome’s book are taken up with planning and preparations for the trip, and at first they seem to have things well in hand. The three men manage the arduous tasks of making lists and gathering the items on them, and all that is left is to put them into the bags. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. Whole suitcases have to be unpacked and repacked, and many of their food supplies are inedible by the end of it. It’s particularly comforting to know that the narrator of Three Men in a Boat is the sort of person for whom the mere packing of a toothbrush is a challenge:

“I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it. And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.”

I’ve been there.

I’ve also had nightmares about oversleeping on the morning of a journey. The three men (and dog) do just this, and start hours after they’d planned to. Another traveller who oversleeps is Bilbo Baggins, title character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Waking up mere minutes before he is due to meet the dwarves who are his fellow travellers (who, incidentally, have woken up on time), poor Bilbo rushes out of the house and is well on his way before he realises that he hasn’t even packed a handkerchief and isn’t sure he wants to go on this adventure in the first place.

But then, Bilbo’s bad luck with luggage is unparalleled. He and his companions have their supplies refurbished at multiple points during the journey—and each time, some catastrophe befalls them. After a visit to the friendly half-elf Lord Elrond, both their bags and their mounts are stolen by goblins. Beorn, a strange man who can turn into a bear, offers them supplies to sustain them as they travel through the forest of Mirkwood, but the food soon runs out and they are forced instead to carry an unconscious (and very heavy) friend. Though the people of the town of Dale provide them with food and ponies for their journey up the Lonely Mountain, they must eventually abandon most of their luggage, and their mounts are eaten by a dragon. It’s unsurprising that by the end of all of his adventures Bilbo Baggins seems less concerned with material possessions. After all, he’s used to losing them.

I suppose there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of this, unpleasant as it may be. Those of us who can’t be as superlatively rich as Georgette Heyer characters will just have to learn to travel as light as possible. If the characters in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy manage interstellar travel carrying only a towel, surely the rest of us can at least aspire to a well-organised backpack.

Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Packed for Everything”.

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