J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: An Unlikely Hero Driven to Heroism

Essai en anglais
Nathalie Giraud - 2009
Articles théoriquesArticles théoriques : Ces articles permettent d'avoir une vue d'ensemble du thème traité mais ils nécessitent une bonne connaissance des principales œuvres de J.R.R Tolkien.

Plan de l'article :
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit:
An Unlikely Hero Driven to Heroism


In the 1930’s, European civilisation was facing an economic crisis and was just recovering from the shock of the First World War. Decolonisation created many political tensions and marked a break with the past. As a consequence, European literature was affected by many changes. In Britain, new literary movements rejected patriotic and imperialist themes popularized by Rider Haggard or Rudyard Kipling and looked for innovations. Modernists, such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, showed their dissatisfaction with the growing capitalism and used new techniques to deepen the contemporary treatment of human emotions in literature. For instance, they took inspiration from impressionism and adopted a fragmented narrative style, destined to highlight the fragmented flow of human thoughts, which came to be called “stream of consciousness” by William James1).The french writer Edouard Dujardin used this technique for the first time in his novel Les Lauriers sont Coupés (1888), and it was then developped by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien did not have this goal when he began to write. He belonged to the Inklings, a literary group including C.S.Lewis, who praised more traditional styles and put forward the value of narrative in fiction. As a scholar and fascinated by medieval and pre-medieval literature, he always thought that Britain needed a mythology of her own - the tales of Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table having been mostly exploited by French poets such as Chrétien De Troyes. This was one reason why he began to write, yet The Hobbit was not a direct attempt to fill this gap.

The other reason was that Tolkien always had a particular passion for philology, from the time when he invented languages to play with his cousins until he became a professor of Anglo-Saxon and English literature at Oxford University. Several years before he started to write The Hobbit, he had already created a complete and coherent linguistic system based on Finnish and Welsh, which was later going to be called “Elvish”. The Hobbit, as well as The Silmarillion - the genesis of Middle-Earth he began to write in the trenches - were originally meant to be a mere but necessary background for the history of Elvish.

But more than a linguistic quest, The Hobbit was at first a tale Tolkien told his children episode by episode before they went to sleep. The idea of this character came suddenly into his mind in the late twenties, while he was correcting his students’ essays. He just wrote on a blank copy “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” and this sentence inspired in him a tale for children that he did not immediately put on paper. In 1936, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was published by chance, since it was a family friend, Elaine Griffiths, who talked about the incomplete manuscript to a George Allen & Unwin Publishers staffmember. The first edition was sold out within three months due to enthusiastic reviews. Because of the book’s popularity, Tolkien was soon urged to write a sequel. This was to be The Lord of the Rings. From 1951 on, the fantasy trilogy obtained a huge, international and lasting success. During the writing process, Tolkien changed his vision of The Hobbit and decided to include this fairytale into the legendarium he was building. That is why, since 1951, the year of the second publication, he made various revisions of the text so as to make the adventures of Bilbo more coherent and meaningful in the history of Middle-Earth. Here I will take these revisions into account. The edition of The Hobbit that I chose is the 2006 edition from HarperCollins Publishers, London, and all the further quotations extracted from The Hobbit in this essay refer to this edition.

In this research project I will not analyse The Hobbit as part of the saga of The Lord of the Rings but as a single piece of work. Usually, discussions about Tolkien’s works focus on the trilogy, considering Tolkien as the author of just one book, and disregard The Hobbit. But although this book did not inspire as many critical works as The Lord of the Rings, it made a hit with both children and adults because it tells the story of a small person who finds himself plunged into epic adventures and it tackles various universal themes dear to Tolkien such as courage, personal development and values. Thus The Hobbit occupies an ambiguous space between children’s literature and adult literature. Although this status is still debated, my project will not be constructed around this debate.

To write my dissertation I chose to focus on different works by Tolkien, including The Hobbit of course, but also the ancient texts he translated into modern English: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. References and allusions will be made to The Lord of the Rings and pre-medieval Scandinavian texts like The Edda but they will not be analysed in depth. In order to have the best view of Tolkien’s life and work, my research work has included various critical writings like Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien. These books were easy to find either in libraries or on the Internet, but most of them only dealt with The Lord of the Rings. Finally my research was extended to specialist studies about epics, traditional heroes and the structure of myth in order to apply general theories to The Hobbit.

In my opinion, what makes The Hobbit a work of great interest for an adult public is the fact that the main character of the novel is far from corresponding to the traditional features of an epic hero; and yet Bilbo the hobbit finds himself at the core of a mythical quest which will turn him into a hero. Thus the question I ask is: How did an anti-heroic character created for children become an epic hero who appeals to adults as well as to children?

In this dissertation I will analyse how a little folktale creature and an epic hero are actually mixed in the character of Bilbo. Firstly I will detail in what respect Bilbo is an untraditional main character for an epic novel and is presented as an anti-hero; secondly I will analyse the course of Bilbo’s unwilling journey towards the achievement of a quest, stressing the evolution of the character throughout the novel; and finally I will show how Tolkien made Bilbo become a true hero despite himself.

Part I - An Untraditional Main Character

The traditional features of the epic hero


Before I begin to answer the main question of this essay, which is built above all on Bilbo as an anti-heroic character, it is necessary to define the main characteristics of a traditional epic hero. Later I will show how Bilbo corresponds or does not correspond to these features.

The epic hero was born in very remote times and he survived through oral tradition until legends and folktales reached their written form - we can think for instance of the Homeric epic hero Ulysses. Homer is thought to be a poet of Greek antiquity who was inspired by traditional stories and created Ulysses, an epic hero who takes part in the Trojan War and then struggles against gods on his journey home. The theme of the epic hero has been frequently used in Middle-Age literature and myths and it still exists today in modern literature - we can think for instance of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the author makes parallels with Ulysses’ odyssey. According to the psychiatrist Carl Jung’s terminology, the Hero is an archetype, that is to say “a symbol, theme, setting, or character-type that recurs in different times and paces in myth, literature, folklore, dreams, and rituals so frequently or prominently as to suggest that it embodies some essential element of ‘universal’ human experience”2). Thus, treating every existing hero’s characteristics would be far too long and fastidious. That is why I have concentrated on only two traditional epic heroes: Beowulf and Sir Gawain. There are three reasons for this major choice: firstly, because the texts Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight belong to British literary history as well as The Hobbit; secondly because they are testimonies of two different historical periods - around 700-1000 for Beowulf and late 14th century for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - and last but not least, because J.R.R.Tolkien was one of the scholars who proposed a translation of these two ancient texts: his translation of the original Anglo-Saxon text of Beowulf is still a reference for linguists today. Moreover, Sir Gawain is a perfect representative of Arthurian heroes and Beowulf is one of the Scandinavian heroes who inspired Tolkien in his works of fiction. So in my opinion it is interesting to analyse how and up to what point Tolkien chose to give the characteristics of these heroes he knew well to Bilbo or not.

Characteristics traditionally associated with epic heroes

The first characteristic we can expect from an epic hero is his physical strength. Gawain, answering to the Green Knight’s challenge, succeeds in beheading him with just one blow of his axe. And it is said of Beowulf that he has extraordinary strength: “(…) he was for main strength of all men foremost that trod the earth at that time of day (…)”3), “(…) this fighting man in his hand’s grasp had the strength of thirty other men”4). The second characteristic is obviously courage: the hero has no fear for his life. Gawain is brave enough to accept the Green Knight’s proposition in the place of his king, Arthur, in these words: “I beg you now in plain words that this contest may be mine”5) and before he leaves, he declares “What should I shrink from? What can one do but plumb to the depths that Fate holds in store, painful and pleasant alike?”6). Moreover he goes on a journey which would normally lead him to his death, since he promised the Green Knight that at its term he would receive a blow in return for his. In the same way, Beowulf risks his life to aid the King Hrothgar:

(…)I abjure utterly
the bearing of sword or shielding yellow
board in this battle! With bare hands shall I
grapple with the fiend, fight to the death here,
hater and hated!7)
. . . . The Geat put on
the armour of a hero, unanxious for his life (…)8)
. . . . The strong champion stood up (…)
confident in his strength,
a single man; such is not the coward’s way!9)

In addition to his bravery, the epic hero fights alone: Gawain goes for a perilous journey by himself10) and Beowulf successively fights Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the Dragon without any help from his followers.

The third characteristic of the epic hero is his noble origin: Gawain is a Knight of the Round Table and above all King Arthur’s nephew, which gives him a privileged place among the Arthurian court; he could even be a potential heir to the throne of Britain after the death of the childless Arthur; while Beowulf is the son of a famous Scandinavian warrior in a society whose hierarchy is not based upon blood ties but upon feats of arms. But what makes a hero out of a man is not only his feats but above all the fame he gains from them: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have to be read as testimonies of a legendary past, and they both present their main characters with a clear status of a hero: the word is often used to designate Beowulf - for instance “then the hero lay down”11) - and Gawain is one of the few Round Table members to be referred to as “the greatest knight”. Strength, courage and nobility are thus the most prominent features of the epic hero; but their quest has also some traditional characteristics that have to be analysed.

Cul de Sac (© John Howe)

The heroic quest

Even before their quest, the heroes have a glorious reputation. As a knight Gawain “was known to be a good knight, and like refined gold, free from every imperfection, graced with chivalric virtues”12) and Beowulf has many feats of arms to his credit:

These men knew well the weight of my hands.
Had they not seen me come home from fights
where I had bound five Giants - their blood was upon me -
cleaned out a nest of them? Had I not crushed on the wave
sea-serpents by night in narrow struggle,
broken the beasts?13)

They are also famous as bearers of renowned weapons: Gawain’s green silk girdle that protects from any harm is adopted by the Knights of the Round Table as a symbol of honour; and sometimes weapons are renowned enough to have a name and their own genealogy just like living beings14): Hrunting and Naegling are the names of Beowulf’s swords - it reminds us of Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur. The epic hero never goes for his quest without being heavily armed and equiped: the “equipment of the hero” is a recurrent motif in heroic tales and it is often the object of a long and detailed description such as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on pages 57 and 59 “First a silken carpet was spread over the floor. . . . a trusty sword girt about his waist by a silken girdle”15) or in Beowulf on pages 96 and 97 “The Geat put on the armour of a hero. . . . This was not the first time that it had to do heroic work.”16).

Another feature of the epic hero is the fact that he makes a modest debut: Gawain is the youngest of Arthur’s knights, which implies a lack of experience; Beowulf is not raised by his parents and despised by his pairs17). Here we can think of Arthur again: in the first years of his life he is not even present in the court of his father Uther Pendragon, because he has been raised far from his native land.

There we can notice that both of these two heroes leave their family to go for adventure, and they do not seem to be upset by this separation. Anyway they do not leave a home but a royal court, in both cases ruled by their uncle, the king (Arthur for Gawain and Hygelac for Beowulf). The relationship uncle/nephew is often present in heroic poems and medieval romances such as the Arthurian saga. The epic hero rarely has strong family ties and he does not hesitate to break them in order to go for his quest.

It is also important to note that the hero always accepts what Joseph Campbell calls “the call of adventure”18). In Campbell’s list of the successive stages of the hero’s quest, the call of adventure is the first one. It is brought to the hero through the “herald” who is a person or a beast “(…) often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world”19) summoning him to live, to die or to “the awakening of the self”20). It is the starting point of his adventure. For Gawain, the call of adventure is of course the Green Knight’s challenge and Gawain’s consequent promise to meet his appointment one year after. For Beowulf, it is the rumor saying that the King Hrothgar has difficulties with the ogre Grendel. For Arthur, God, through the Lady of the Lake, summons him to initiate the Quest for the Holy Grail. The answer given to the call of adventure is important because it will put the main character at the center of a quest: it will give him a status of hero, but also a certain category of hero. As Joseph Campbell says:

There are both kinds of heroes, some that choose to undertake the journey and some that don’t. In one kind of adventure, the hero sets out responsibly and intentionally to perform the deed. (…) That is the adventure of finding what your career is, what your nature is, what your source is. You undertake that intentionally. (…) Then there are adventures into which you are thrown - for example, being drafted into the army. You didn’t intend it, but you’re in now. You’ve undergone a death and resurrection, you’ve put on a uniform, and you’re another creature.21)

The traditional epic hero thus belongs to the first kind of hero, the one who intentionally goes for the quest. Beowulf answers: “(…) The warrior king he would seek, [Beowulf] said, over swan’s riding, that lord of great name, needing men.”22). And Gawain leaves with these words:

Now, sovereign lord of my life, I ask your leave to go. You know the nature of this affair, and I do not care to speak to you further about the difficulties involved, it would only be a waste of breath; but I am to set out for the return blow tomorrow without fail, to seek the Green Knight, as God shall guide me.23)


Thus we can say that the typical epic hero is a mythical image of a perfect man: he combines all the noble qualities of strength, bravery, independence and perseverance, and the fame and rewards that he gains from his almost superhuman feats are always deserved and used with wisdom and modesty.

Now that the features of the traditional epic hero have been described, we can start to focus on The Hobbit and see if these characteristics are present in the book and more particularly in the main character, that is to say Bilbo the Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien was very aware of what a true hero was made of, but he did not necessarily choose to make a true hero out of Bilbo. In further parts we will see what he finally decided to do.

The Hobbit : epic or tale for children?


“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

This sentence, famous by now, marked the starting point of a literary odyssey for its author as well as for its readers. Just like Bilbo himself, Tolkien was carried along on a huge adventure from the writing of this sentence, which led him to an international success that he did not expect. The Hobbit and its “sequel” The Lord of the Rings aroused an interest which has been incessantly revived both on its own and through various adaptations. For the moment, we will concentrate on the period of writing of The Hobbit and question its genre: is it an epic or a tale for children?

Context and history of the writing

Indeed, Tolkien could never have imagined that The Hobbit would lead him to commercial success, for he never had the intention to publish it. He was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford24) and living an ordinary family life when he wrote the sentence above. On a summer’s day, he was correcting a pile of exam papers when he noticed a blank leaf “which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner”25) he noted humorously. On this leaf he wrote the sentence which was to be the very first line of The Hobbit. But at that moment he did not write further. For years, he did nothing more dealing with hobbits: perhaps Bilbo was slowly awakening in his mind, waiting for the right moment to be born. This happened in 1930 or 1931, when Tolkien began the book to please his children: every evening after tea time, he used to read a passage of the tale in order to help his boys John, Michael and then Christopher to go to sleep. As Humphrey Carpenter remarks, the manuscript tends to show that Tolkien wrote with few hesitations:

The manuscript of The Hobbit suggests that the actual writing of the main part of the story was done over a comparatively short period of time: the ink, paper, and handwriting style are consistent, the pages are numbered consecutively, and there are almost no chapter divisions. It would also appear that Tolkien wrote the story fluently and with little hesitation, for there are comparatively few erasures or revisions.26)

Actually the only passage that gave him some difficulties was Smaug’s death: Tolkien tried to write a version in which Bilbo stabbed the Dragon, but he finally abandoned it in favour of the final version, in which Smaug is killed by the archer Bard of Lake-town. After this passage, the story was left aside with other unfinished tales, although it had been typed out. Tolkien’s sons had grown up and did not need bedstories anymore, so it seemed that The Hobbit was to stay forever unfinished.

But finally things did not turn out that way. A graduate named Elaine Griffiths was shown the typescript while she was visiting Tolkien’s family. Indeed she was a former pupil of Professor Tolkien and also a family friend. Having been engaged by George Allen & Unwin Publishers under the recommendation of Tolkien himself, she mentioned the typescript to a staffmember, Susan Dagnall. Interested, the latter asked to read The Hobbit. In return, she proposed its author to write the end with a view to publishing it the following year. That is why Tolkien went back to work on the story until he finished it in October 1936. When he received the book, the firm’s chairman Stanley Unwin asked his son Rayner to write a report: the latter was only ten years old, but he was thought to be the best judge for a children’s book. The review was good, thus The Hobbit was sent to publication. This first version included Thror’s map as well as a number of black-and-white drawings made by the author himself, such as “The Hall at Bag-End, Residence of B.Baggins Esquire” (see above). Indeed, drawing was a childhood hobby for Tolkien, and he did not underestimate the business of illustration. After the first British publication on September 21, 1937, C.S.Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and one of Tolkien’s closest friends wrote a positive review in The Times which included these words: “All who love that kind of children’s book which can be read and re-read by adults should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation. To the trained eye some characters will seem almost mythopoeic.”27) Many other critics praised the book as well, and thanks to this reception all the copies of The Hobbit were sold out by Christmas. A reprint was immediately programmed. The American edition, released a few months later, was given the New York Herald Tribune prize for the best juvenile book of the season. But only a few weeks after the first publication, J.R.R. Tolkien and Stanley Unwin were already meeting to talk about a successor to the best-seller. Tolkien then proposed various tales prior to The Hobbit but although they were admired, none of them was accepted for publication: Stanley Unwin wanted “another book about the hobbit”28). That is why Tolkien chose another hobbit, Bilbo’s nephew (first named “Bingo”) to put on the road to adventure. But as the story progressed, the tale of the “new Hobbit” moved far away from the initial project and became much longer, darker and more complex than The Hobbit. It was to be known as The Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit and Tolkien’s other stories for children

With its archaic style and complex system of references to the elaborate mythology of Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings is not a children’s book at all. On the contrary, there are many different facts which allow us to say that The Hobbit is definitely a children’s book. When one skims through Tolkien’s bibliography, one realizes that he had an imagination which was able to create a rich and detailed background as well as simple tales. We can say that The Hobbit belongs to a category of Tolkien’s writings aimed at amusing children: before 1930, other stories such as “Carrots”, “Bill Stickers” or “Mr.Bliss” were already told by John’s bed because he had difficulties to fall asleep. “Roverandom”, a tale about a dog turned into a toy by a wizard, was destined to comfort Michael who had just lost his fluffy dog. The “Father Christmas Letters” are a collection of fake letters including illustrations: Tolkien wrote and painted them every year for his children to help them wait for Christmas day. Neither the Bombadil poem nor “Farmer Giles of Ham” nor any of the other texts obtained a great success with the publishers before the triumph of The Lord of the Rings. But we will see how The Hobbit fits among these children’s stories.

Bilbo le Hobbit (© John Howe)

As far as narrative style is concerned, some elements show that The Hobbit is a children’s tale. Repetition, for example in the successive arrival of the dwarves at Bilbo’s place then at Beorn’s, is frequently used in fairytales. The riddle game that Bilbo plays with Gollum then with Smaug is also a repetition but a childish pastime too. The way that characters tend to be divided into two sides: good and evil, with human races on one side and Trolls and goblins on the other, is also representative of fairytales. And as in many fairytales, the main character is a small person, either a child or resembling a child.

But more than its resemblance with other children’s tales, what makes of The Hobbit a tale for children is its content. Throughout the story, the narrator addresses readers and seems to seek a certain complicity with a young audience thanks to remarks such as “large stupid folk like you and me”29) or “most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place”30) and “there is no need to tell you much of his adventures that night, for now we are drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on.”31). Thanks to these “digressions” Tolkien efficiently maintains the suspense of his story (to keep the attention of young readers) and shows his talent as a storyteller. When he received the page-proofs for the second edition of The Hobbit, Tolkien made many revisions in the text and became dissatisfied with these remarks: although there are many left, he removed a large number of them. But anyway, he always stuck to his original aim of entertaining children

The main character Bilbo is also proof that The Hobbit is a tale for children. His physical features makes him closer to a child than to an adult: like every hobbit he is little, has no beard, likes bright colours and laughing, and these characteristics surely help children to identify with him and thus feel involved in his adventures. To create Bilbo, Tolkien was inspired by other modest creatures. Humphrey Carpenter quotes the possible sources:

(…) the nursery also housed more recent additions to children’s literature, among them E.A.Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs, which was published in 1927. Tolkien noted that his sons were highly amused by the Snergs, ‘a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength’. (…) certainly he knew Babitt, the novel published in 1922 about a middle-aged American businessman whose well-ordered life gradually comes off the rails. (…) both The Marvellous Land of Snergs and Babitt played a small part in The Hobbit. Tolkien wrote to W.H.Auden that the former ‘was probably an unconscious source-book: for the Hobbits, not of anything else’, and he told an interviewer that the word hobbit ‘might have been associated with Sinclair Lewis’s Babitt. (…) Babitt has the same bourgeois smugness that hobbits do. His world is the same limited place.’32)

According to this quotation, we can think that Tolkien did not consciously choose to make a hero out of Bilbo but more a fantastic creature inspired by fairytales. Moreover, Bilbo is often the victim of subtle humour in the story, and this tends to keep him far from the mythic image of the epic hero.


Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that Bilbo is only a fairytale creature. The Hobbit can be related to a corpus of texts belonging to children’s literature, Tolkien’s and others, but we cannot ignore that at the same chronological period, Tolkien was working on other texts that have nothing to do with fairytales. It was during the First World War, when he had returned from the trenches suffering from “trench fever” that he began to write the genesis of Middle-Earth, that is to say The Silmarillion33). While Tolkien was still working on The Hobbit, the manuscript was still disordered, but he had already composed a long epic poem entitled “The Gest of Beren and Luthien”34). His translation of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight was published and he had also written “The Fall of Arthur”, an Arthurian poem involving the character of Sir Gawain. Thus we realize that even at the time of The Hobbit, Tolkien was already creating a grander myth and his own heroic legends. Humphrey Carpenter calls these two different tendencies, “two distinct courses that did not meet”35) and he adds: “Something was lacking, something that would bind the two sides of his imagination together and produce a story that was at once heroic and mythical and at the same time tuned to the popular imagination.”36). Indeed it is necessary to look beyond the fairytale features present in The Hobbit and put it in relation to myth and heroism.

Bilbo as an anti-hero


Now that I have situated The Hobbit in its context and its genre, let us focus on the main character, the subject of this dissertation, that is to say Bilbo the hobbit. As I said before The Hobbit is a fairytale, and Bilbo is as a consequence a fairytale hero. Verlyn Flieger wrote in an essay about The Lord of the Rings:

If it is romance or epic the hero will be of great stature, a larger-than-life Beowulf, or Galahad, or Arthur, or Sigurd. If it is a fairy tale he may be a common man like ourselves, the unlikely hero who stumbles into heroic adventure and does the best he can…37)

I will see how this quotation is applicable to Bilbo and in what respect is his character closer to an anti-hero than to an epic hero.


Dictionaries say that an anti-hero is “a main character in a book, play, or film who is an ordinary or unpleasant person and lacks the qualities that you expect a hero to have”38). On the Internet, we find the term defined as “a protagonist who is lacking the traditional heroic attributes and qualities, and intead possesses character traits that are antithetical to heroism”39). In more literary terms, we could define the anti-hero as “a central character in a dramatic or narrative work who lacks the qualities of nobility and magnanimity expected of traditional heroes and heroines in romances and epics. (…) The anti-hero should not be confused with the antagonist or the villain40)”. To put it briefly, an anti-hero is not the enemy of the hero as one could think at first, but the exact opposite of the traditional features that I depicted earlier. I will now see how Bilbo corresponds to these definitions.

An ordinary person

If an anti-hero is an ordinary or unpleasant character, Bilbo is obviously not unpleasant. The characteristics and personality that Tolkien chose to give him do not make a “villain” of him. The humorous and gently-mocking way that Bilbo is described renders a touching and endearing character. But Bilbo is surely an ordinary person. Although his physical features seem unusual, as Tolkien depicted the hobbits as:

…a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves.(…) they (…) wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads…41),

these characteristics stay superficial for the analysis of the character. But at least we immediately understand that the hobbit is not a person possessing impressive physical strength. To create the people of the hobbits, Tolkien was inspired by rural Englishmen; above all by their attachment to nature and simple life, but also by their smugness. In J.R.R.Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter says that during an interview, Tolkien confessed that “the hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination not the small reach of their courage or latent power”42). Carpenter also reveals that Hobbiton was like Warwickshire Tolkien’s home town during his childhood in his mind, and Bag’s End Bilbo’s house or “hobbit-hole” like his Aunt Jane’s farm in Worcestershire43). Briefly, Bilbo represented for Tolkien all that he loved in the West Midlands44). By linking him to real country people, the author creates a familiar character for the reader. Contrary to an epic hero whose bravery and perseverance arouse admiration, the hobbit resembles the average man, and provokes empathy and compassion.

Bilbo’s commonness can be seen on several levels. Firstly, he does not seem to know anything outside of his familiar background. Tolkien writes on page 42 of The Hobbit: “he had read of a good many things he had never seen or done” and during the journey to the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo’s astonishment in front of unfamiliar landscapes is expressed in a recurring way, as on page 67 when he is faced with the Misty Mountains: “Bilbo had never seen or imagined anything of the kind”. Bilbo’s ignorance shows that he does not correspond to the image of the epic hero as an experienced traveller. Secondly, Bilbo has the reactions that we could expect from an ordinary person when the latter is thrust into a dangerous adventure: he is terrified. When the dwarves sing about their plan to fight Smaug the Dragon, Bilbo is afraid of the dark like a child:

He got up trembling. He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer-barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away.45)

Then, while his companions are prisoners of the Trolls, Bilbo is “up in a bush, (…) not daring to move for fear they should hear him”46). Later, while the Eagles are rescuing the company from the woods on fire, Bilbo suffers from vertigo: “at the best of times heights made Bilbo giddy. He used to turn queer if he looked over the edge of quite a little cliff (…) So you can imagine how his head swam now…”47). Bilbo does not demonstrate his bravery either when he is separated from the dwarves in the dark Mirkwood forest: “that was one of his most miserable moments”48). The examples of Bilbo’s terror are numerous and they are far from the courage of the epic hero. Thirdly, Bilbo shows a constant materialism, which is opposite to the image of the heroic wandering knight with no ties. He is extremely attached to food, as the variety of his larders shows, and food is one of the things he misses the most along the journey. Indeed, “these [meals] didn’t come quite as often as Bilbo would have liked them” and a giant spider manages to surprise him in Mirkwood because “he was deep in thoughts of bacon and eggs and toast and butter”49). Before he follows the dwarves, food seems important enough for Bilbo to dictate his thoughts and feelings:

He had only just had breakfast, but he thought a cake or two and a drink of something would do him good after his fright. (…) Bilbo was finishing his second cake and beginning to think that he had escaped adventures very well.50)

But when he seems desperate that thirteen dwarves have “invaded” his house, “his appetite was quite taken away”51). Bilbo is also dearly attached to things: when the dwarves sing a song about breaking his crockery, he is “squeazing with fright” and he is later upset to have lost the buttons of his waistcoat: “. . . . and I lost lots of buttons, he said sadly looking at his torn clothes”52). Anyway, the concept of comfort is deeply associated with the hobbits’ ideal, as said from the very start of the book: “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”53).No need to say that such a materialist person does not wish to take the road of adventure as epic heroes do.

An “anti-quest”

It is Gandalf who wishes Bilbo to take part in the dwarves’ project, but the hobbit clearly refuses the call of adventure. Successively, he answers the Wizard in a very down-to-earth way:

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them. (…) We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! (…) Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you54).

Un nain (© Anne Eissmann)

The word “adventure” has no attraction at all for Bilbo, on the contrary it seems to be for him a synonym of danger and discomfort ⎯ things he is not used to and rejects. That is why he appears anxious at the Dwarves’ project and even tries to hide it from himself : “the four dwarves sat round the table, and talked about (…) lots of (…) things which he did not understand , and did not want to, for they sounded much too adventurous”55) but finally he is forced to face the truth when he begins to “wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house”56). Here Bilbo’s reluctance is far from Beowulf’s resolute will to go rescuing King Hrothgar57). As he did not really choose to follow the dwarves on their journey, we cannot talk of it as a real “quest”, but we could rather refer to it as an “anti-quest”. Whereas the epic hero has a goal he sticks to whatever the difficulties, Bilbo often wonders why he followed the dwarves and bitterly regrets his home:

Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing! It was not the last time that he wished that!58)

. . . . He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!59) . . . . He wished again and again for his nice bright hobbit-hole.Not for the last time.60)

The narrator’s insistance upon the repeated words “not for the last time” efficiently shows Bilbo’s misery throughout the journey. Moreover he has initially been chosen to take part in the dwarves’quest only for them to avoid travelling as a group of thirteen people, which, according to them, would provoke bad luck61). Thus, not only is Bilbo on a journey he regrets to have accepted, but he also seems to be an extra member of the group and not the central character of the quest, contrary to epic heroes. But even if the hobbit is an anti-hero on an “anti-quest”, he is still taken along on the journey the story is based on. So perhaps some circumstances encouraged Bilbo to accept the call of adventure. In the first place, despite his obvious reluctance, we can detect a latent excitement in the hobbit for this quest: Bilbo seems to be very enthusiastic about the identity of Gandalf and his talent for fireworks62), so as Tolkien remarked, we can “(…) notice already that Mr.Baggins was not quite so prosy as he liked to believe”63). Indeed he does not appear so prosy when he experiences unexpected feelings during the dwarves’ song: “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves”64). Here Bilbo clearly empathizes with the dwarves. Moreover, although he apparently just wanted to take his leave of the wizard as politely as he could, the hobbit invites him to come to tea, thus implicitly to reiterate his proposal about the quest. Indeed, if we read his invitation this way: “I don’t want any adventures (…). Not today. (…) Why not tomorrow?Come tomorrow!”65) then we can understand that Bilbo would be ready to think twice the day after. These three elements demonstrate an unconscious acceptance of the call of adventure inside him, as Anne C.Petty has noticed66). In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says that “As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts”67). So we can say that perhaps Bilbo did not make a simple mistake when he behaved too politely with Gandalf, adventure did not “fall” by chance over him for he was secretly longing for it.

In the second place, Bilbo’s genealogy shows that his parents have very different origins, and consequently have two different influences over him. The narrator separates the Baggins influence from his father and the Took influence from his mother, whose clan “once in a while (…) would go and have adventures”68). That is why Bilbo, “(…)although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his make-up from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out”69). As a consequence, these two influences are incessantly alternating along the journey and have hold over Bilbo one after the other:

Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great

mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. . . . . He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr.Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.70) . . . . feeling all confused and a bit shaky inside, but so far still Tookishly determined to go on with things.71) . . . . The Tookishness was wearing off, and he was not now quite so sure that he was going on any journey in the morning.72).

So we can guess that the Took side inherent to Bilbo was one of the reasons why he finally took the road of departure. Here it is interesting to note that this double influence was not inspired in Tolkien by the traditional epic heroes but by his own genealogy. As Humphrey Carpenter wrote, Tolkien was in many ways like a hobbit:

In the story, Bilbo Baggins, son of the lively Belladonna Took, herself one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, descended also from the respectable and solid Bagginses, is middle aged and unadventurous, dresses in sensible clothes but likes bright colours, and has a taste for plain food; but there is something strange in his character that wakes up when the adventure begins. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien , son of the enterprising Mabel Suffield, herself one of the three remarkable daughters of old John Suffield (who lived to be nearly a hundred), descended also from the respectable and solid Tolkiens, was middle aged and inclined to pessimism, dressed in sensible clothes but liked coloured waistcoats when he could afford them, and had a taste for plain food. But there was something unusual in his character that had already manifested itself in the creation of a mythology, and it now led him to begin this new story.73)

Finally, we can think that Bilbo finally accepts the call to adventure thanks to the trust Gandalf, a person he esteems, has in him. Indeed, Gandalf says many times that he is sure he has made the right choice by picking the hobbit (“And here is our little Bilbo Baggins, the burglar, the chosen and selected burglar.74)”), and that the latter possesses unsuspected strength (“Gets funny queer fits, but he is one of the best, one of the best ⎯ as fierce as a dragon in a pinch.”75) “If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.76)”).


To conclude we can say that Bilbo actually corresponds to the definiton of an anti-hero by his ordinariness, ignorance of the world, materialism and the fact that he is not willing to go on a quest ⎯ which makes the opposite of an epic hero out of him. But despite this aspect, there exists a small unsuspected side open to adventure inside him, which will support him along the journey. The author Robert A.Heinlein wrote about the concept of the “brave little tailor” as “the unheroic hero (or seemingly anti-hero) who adopts or is thrust into a role initially far too large for him, and successfully grows to be worthy of it”77). I will now discuss how Bilbo succeeds or not in bearing the role of the “Burglar”.

Part IPart II →

1) The phrase was first used in William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890).
2) BALDICK, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. p.16
3) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p.57 v. 196-197.
4) Ibid. p.63 v.379-81.
5) BARRON, W.R.J. , ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974. p.45.
6) Ibid. p.57.
7) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p.64-65 v.436-40.
8) Ibid. p.96 v. 1441-2.
9) Ibid. p.131 v.2538-41.
10) BARRON, W.R.J. , ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974. p.65. “He had no company save his horse among the woods and hills, and no one but God to speak with by the way, till he drew very close to north Wales.”
11) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p.72 v.678.
12) BARRON, W.R.J. , ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974. p.61.
13) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p. 64. v.418-23.
14) Cf. Infra Bilbo’s heroism p.61.
15) BARRON, W.R.J. , ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974. p.57 and 59.
16) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p.96-7. v.1441-95.
17) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p. 120 v.2182-5. “He had been misprised for long, the sons of the Geats seeing little in him and the lord of the Weather-Geats not willing to pay him much in the way of honour on the mead-benches.”
18) CAMPBELL, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. London: Fontana Press, 1993. p.49-58.
19) Ibid. p.53.
20) Ibid. p.51.
21) CAMPBELL, Joseph. The Power of Myth. 1988. Betty Sue Flowers, ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1991. p.158.
22) Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. p.57 v.200-2.
23) BARRON, W.R.J. , ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974. p.57.
24) See Supra Appendix 1. p.72.
25) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien, a Biography. 1977. London : Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p.175.
26) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien, a Biography. 1977. London : Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p.181
27) Quoted in: CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien, a Biography. 1977. London : Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p. 186.
28) Ibid. p. 188.
29) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.4.
30) Ibid. p.212.
31) Ibid. p.217.
32) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien, a Biography. 1977. London : Unwin Paperbacks,1978. p.167-8.
33) First entitled “The Book of Lost Tales”,it was to be published posthumously as The Silmarillion, which means “the history of the Silmarils”.
34) These two names invented by Tolkien are now engraved on his and his wife’s tombs.
35) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien, a Biography. 1977. London : Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p. 174.
36) Ibid. p.175.
37) FLIEGER,Verlyn.“Frodo and Aragorn: the Concept of the Hero”. Understanding The Lord of the Rings: the Best of Tolkien’s Criticism. Neil D.Isaacs and Rose A.Zimbardo, eds. Houghton Mifflin Books, 2004.p.124. URL : http://books.google.fr/books?id=GEWXQbASXZUC&printsec=frontcover#PPA124,M1
38) The LONGMAN Dictionary of Contemporary English. 1978. Harlow : Pearson Education Limited, 2003. p.54.
40) BALDICK, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1990.
41) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.4.
42) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien : a Biography. 1977. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p.180.
43) , 63) , 69) Id.
44) Ibid. p.179.
45) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.20.
46) Ibid. p.48.
47) Ibid. p.125.
48) Ibid. p.180.
49) TOLKIEN J.R.R., The Hobbit. p.180.
50) , 65) Ibid. p.9.
51) Ibid. p.15.
52) Ibid. p.110.
53) Ibid. p.3.
54) TOLKIEN J.R.R., The Hobbit. p.7 and p.9.
55) Ibid. p.12.
56) Ibid. p.14.
57) Supra I.1.1. p.8 and I.1.2. p.11.
58) TOLKIEN J.R.R., The Hobbit. p.38
59) Ibid. p.55.
60) Ibid. p.72.
61) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.23-24. “You asked me to find the fourteenth man for your expedition, and I chose Mr.Baggins. Just let any one say I chose the wrong man or the wrong house, and you can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like.”
62) Ibid. p.8.
64) Ibid. p.19.
66) See: PETTY, Anne C. One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology. The University of Alabama Press, 1979. p.19.
67) CAMPBELL, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. London: Fontana Press, 1993. p.51.
68) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.5.
70) Ibid. p.19-20.
71) Ibid. p.27.
72) Ibid. p.33.
73) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien : a Biography. 1977. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p.179
74) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.27.
75) Ibid. p.21-22.
76) Ibid. p.24.
77) CLUTE, John and John Grant, eds. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St Martin's Press, 1997.p.136.
essais/personnages/hero-to-heroism-part1.txt · Dernière modification: 06/04/2020 18:47 (modification externe)
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