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

Part II - Bilbo's Unwilling Steps Towards The Achievement of a Quest

Friends and lucky chances


During his long quest or rather “anti-quest”, Bilbo the hobbit is not alone. Friends like the Elves of Rivendell and more particularly their leader Elrond who finds out the moon-letters written on Thror’s map, and Beorn, the “skin-changer” man who provides food, ponies and good advice, play an important role for the company. Such providers are perfectly common in the epic heroic tradition: Beowulf is given a sword by Unferth, Sir Gawain is given a magical girdle by Lady Bertilak, Arthur is advised by Merlin… But for Bilbo the hobbit this support would not be enough, and he is given much additional support. To progress until the achievement of his task, he is often supported by his fellow travellers, Gandalf the wizard and the thirteen dwarves. He can also count on extraordinary luck which helps him to resolve problematic situations.


As I said before, Bilbo is thrown into the adventure by Gandalf, and the latter does not hesitate to urge the company to show courage and perseverance all along the journey despite the lack of food and bad weather ⎯ “we must just tighten our belts and trudge on”1).

Gandalf’s advice and encouragements are very useful to the little Bilbo. Before he leaves the hobbit alone with the dwarves just in front of the dark Mirkwood, Gandalf urges him to go on: “So cheer up Bilbo and don’t look so glum. (…) And I am not going to allow you to back out now, Mr Baggins. I am ashamed of you for thinking of it.”2) But mainly, he is the only one who defends the hobbit when most of the dwarves show doubts or dissatisfaction about him. In the very beginning, Gloin is the first to express mistrust of Bilbo:

“ (…) It is all very well for Gandalf to talk about this hobbit being fierce, but one shriek like that in a moment of excitement would be enough to wake the dragon and all his relatives, and kill the lot of us. I think it sounded more like fright than excitement! In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”3)

And Gandalf answers back: “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, or go back to digging coal.”4). In the same way, when Bombur reproaches Bilbo not to have stolen the Trolls’ stock (“Silly time to go practising pinching and pocket-picking (…) when what we wanted was fire and food!”5) ), Gandalf retorts: “And that’s just what you wouldn’t have got of these fellows without a struggle, in any case”6). Then while the company is hiding at the exit of the Goblins’ cave waiting for the lost hobbit, a quarrel opposes Gandalf and the dwarves to decide whether the hobbit should be abandoned in the caves or not:

“After all he is my friend,” said the wizard, “and not a bad little chap. I feel responsible for him. I wish to goodness that you had not lost him.”The dwarves wanted to know why he had ever been brought at all, why he could not stick to his friends and come along with them, and why the wizard had not chosen someone with more sense.7)

And finally Gandalf defends Bilbo from Thorin’s anger for having been stolen the Arkenstone: “If you don’t like my Burglar, please don’t damage him. Put him down, and listen first to what he has to say!”8). At the end, when he reappears Gandalf is satisfied to notice that his trust in the hobbit was justified: “ ‘Well done! Mr Baggins!’ he said, clapping Bilbo on the back. ‘There is always more about you than anyone expects!’ ”9).

Gandalf le Gris (© John Howe)

But Gandalf is not a stable character in The Hobbit: he disappears several times while the dwarves and the hobbit have to go on by themselves. On page 39, the company notices the absence of Gandalf ⎯ at this moment of the adventure, the narrator notes that the wizard had never said if he was really taking part in the dwarves’ quest; and he left without warning them. Then on page 71, Gandalf seems to have disappeared while the company is attacked by the goblins, and he reappears to save them on page 76. He also goes away for one day from Beorn’s house where the company rests. But his longest absence is from page 159 to page 315: Gandalf warns the company that he will have to go to deal with “some pressing business”10). and he does not reappear before the eve of the Battle of Five Armies. In fact the wizard always reappears when the company is in need: he saves them from the Trolls, then from the goblins, and at the end he reappears as a negociator.

So the wizard is not always present at Bilbo’s side, he rather seems to be an ephemeral character always passing from one story to another ⎯ Gandalf’s longest absence from The Hobbit is explained in The Silmarillion; and even in The Lord of the Rings, in which he is more present, he always goes to carry on his own fights (against the Balrog, Saruman, etc) like parallel quests, and his reported speeches are almost embedded stories. Gandalf is not an omnipresent character: his role is to support Bilbo whatever the circumstances, and to encourage him to take the road of adventure. But if the wizard had always been at Bilbo’s side along the journey, the hobbit could never have proved any courage. So by his absence, Gandalf is also helping the hobbit: he gives an opportunity to his hidden qualities so that they can surface. Actually Tolkien made the wizard disappear on purpose: later, we will see how Bilbo takes on Gandalf’s role in the company.

The dwarves

Contrary to Gandalf, the dwarves are reluctant to trust Bilbo. At the beginning of the journey it is said that they “jogged on, never turning round or taking any notice of the hobbit”11) but when they think they cannot do anything else without being exposed to danger themselves, they suddenly count on Bilbo’s unsuspected skills praised by Gandalf: “ ‘Now it is the burglar’s turn,’ they said, meaning Bilbo. ‘You must go on and find out all about that light, and what it is for, and if all is perfectly safe and canny’ ”12) the dwarves demand, whereas Bilbo was not even worthy of being called a “burglar” before.

It is important to keep in mind that the term “burglar” here has not the meaning that we usually attach to it. Although the task of a burglar is to sneak into a place in order to steal precious objects, here the company is referring to a strategy to recover the treasure without fight. Actually it requires special skills and abilities, that is why Bilbo is granted a great role in the company. This episode of the trolls is the first but not the last time in the book when the dwarves are testing Bilbo and also considering him as a scapegoat. Indeed, even when Bilbo has triumphantly brought a cup back from the dragon’s lair, the dwarves finish by blaming him for that, saying that it is because of this theft that Smaug killed their ponies13).

But except for these rare occasions, the dwarves still bring some support to Bilbo. If they all get caught by the trolls one after the other, it is because they seem anxious not seeing Bilbo coming back. Then, to help Bilbo to escape from goblins as quickly as he can, Dori takes the hobbit on his back14; and finally the dwarves “took it in turn to carry him on their backs”14). This proves that the dwarves are not really resentful of Bilbo’s apparent uselessness. But from the moment when the hobbit succeeds in going out of the goblins’ caves on his own, the dwarves progressively change their minds about his abilities: “It is a fact that Bilbo’s reputation went up a very great deal with the dwarves after this. If they had still doubted that he was really a first-class burglar, in spite of Gandalf’s words, they doubted no longer.”15) and “The dwarves looked at him with quite a new respect, when he talked about dodging guards, jumping over Gollum, and squeezing through, as if it was not very difficult or very alarming.”16). Despite their occasional lack of gratefulness, the dwarves begin to consider Bilbo as a true burglar and support him all the more: “(…) they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him (as Gandalf had said they would)”17), “(…) they all trusted Bilbo”18) or “(…) the dwarves’ good feeling towards the little hobbit grew stronger every day. (…) they patted him on the back, and they made a great fuss of him”19). It is also useful to note that Thorin himself has changed his way of addressing Bilbo, in the first chapter calling him “with mock-politeness” the “burglar-expert”20) and then in the ninth chapter Bilbo has turned into “the remarkable Mr. Invisible Baggins”21). Thus the dwarves bring support to the hobbit just like Gandalf does, but in a totally different way. While Gandalf comforts Bilbo with encouragements, the dwarves frankly express anti-hobbit prejudices. These doubts seem unfair to Bilbo, who will finally be stimulated to go on in order to overcome them. But even the support provided by Gandalf and the dwarves would not have been sufficient for Bilbo to become a hero if he had not benefited all along his quest from recurring pieces of luck.


Luck plays an important role in the achievement of the quest. It always does in epic tales, but it is particularly the case in The Hobbit. Without a series of strokes of good fortune, neither the dwarves nor the hobbit could have reached their destination and completed their original task: recover the dwarves’ ancestral treasure from the clutches of Smaug. In spite of their bad luck to have chosen a goblin’s cave as shelter, the company is saved by the fact that Bilbo could not sleep: his scream when goblins appear happily wakes up Gandalf, who has time to disappear and kill the Great Goblin in return, allowing the company to run away. Bilbo is also very lucky in the passage about the goblins’ tunnels: first he finds the ring by chance22), which will be very helpful for him and the company; secondly during the riddle game with Gollum he finds the answer to a difficult question by yelling for time, and “time” was the correct answer ⎯ besides the narrator notes here “Bilbo was saved by pure luck”23). And finally the hobbit finds the question which will give him victory only by talking to himself: “What have I got in my pocket?”24) he asks, and Gollum thinks it is a new riddle, that he cannot answer. Bilbo has just to take advantage of the misunderstanding. Later, the company is very lucky that the Eagles can hear the attack of the Wargs because they can rescue them by air. Then in Mirkwood, Bilbo is much helped by good fortune: he fortunately wakes up just before being poisoned by a giant spider that was tying him up, unlike his companions the dwarves; after that he tries to pick some direction in the dark to find his friends “and by luck (he was born with a good share of it) he guessed more or less right”25) since he actually finds them; and just at the moment when the hobbit needs the Elf guards to be inattentive, it happens that the wine that they taste is strong enough to make them drunk. The narrator remarks that “Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then”26). To finish, luck is still with Bilbo when he falls over the steps that lead to the secret door in the Lonely Mountain’s side: “But at last unexpectedly they found what they were seeking. (…) About midday, creeping behind a great stone that stood alone like a pillar, Bilbo came on what looked like rough steps going upwards.”27) Then it is by luck that the old thrush is present when the hobbit reveals Smaug’s weak spot to the dwarves: the bird will be able to repeat this piece of information to Bard, the archer who finally kills the dragon. And Bilbo shares his luck with the company when he has the foreboding that the stone door should be shut behind them: if the dwarves had not closed it, they would all have been burried under rocks, because Smaug destroyed the mountain side, out of rage.


Here we have noticed that Bilbo’s task as a burglar is enabled thanks to other actors and also exterior factors, and we have to take them into account when we analyse Bilbo’s form of heroism during the journey. Now we will see how internal factors help the hobbit to succeed. Because Bilbo has inside of him some characteristics and natural qualities that were to be wakened and proved along the quest, and Gandalf, disbelieving the role of luck, knew they would be sufficient to lead the little hobbit to success. “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole bene-fit?”28)

Bilbo’s skills and qualities


In Middle-Earth, every kind of creature possesses its own moral qualities and physical features. Hobbits are not exceptions, and Bilbo is a hobbit just like the others, at least at the beginning of the book. By describing a hobbit who seems to have nothing more than his peers, Tolkien aims at showing us that even the smallest person can have unsuspected qualities, and that heroes are not necessarily made of extraordinary stuff like superhuman Beowulf or Sir Gawain. Bilbo’s kind and also his lineage are individual characteristics which encourage Gandalf to pick him as a fourteenth member of the company. The qualities the company needs are those of a “burglar”, since Gandalf chose to use burglary instead of heroic deeds29). So the wizard did not expect the hobbit to turn into a Knight, but he planned that Bilbo’s inner skills would surface during the journey.

Racial characteristics

Bilbo, like most hobbits, possesses several qualities that are very useful either to the company or to himself during the quest. The first of them is presented at the very beginning of the book, when the narrator makes a description of what a hobbit is: “There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folks like you and me come blundering along (…)”30). Indeed Bilbo can be very silent, even when it is difficult ⎯ as in woods, “But at any rate hobbits can move quietly in woods, absolutely quietly.”31) ⎯ and this ability allowed the hobbit to save his companions from the giant spiders who could neither hear him thanks to his inborn quietness, nor see him thanks to his ring, and also to save himself from the dragon, since the latter did not wake the first time that the burglar came into his lair. The ring helps Bilbo to be unseen but it does not help him to be unheard, so it is thanks to his own abilities that he can surprise the dwarves outside the goblins’ cave. Balin who was on watch said “Well, it is the first time that even a mouse has crept along carefully and quietly under my very nose and not been spotted.”32). Then the narrator says that hobbits have “long clever brown fingers”33) and Bilbo’s fingers are shown to be clever when he succeeds in kiling a considerable number of spiders one after the other thanks to a single stone. Here again the hobbit has a special skill:

Bilbo was a pretty fair shot with a stone, and it did not take him long to find a nice smooth egg-shaped one [stone] that fitted his hand cosily. As a boy he used to practise throwing stones at things, until rabbits and squirrels, and even birds, got out of his way as quick as lightning if they saw him stoop; and even grown-up he had still spent a deal of his time at quoits, dart-throwing, shooting at the wand, bowls, ninepins and other quiet games of the aiming and throwing sort (…)34)

There is also the fact that Bilbo is a small creature, even smaller than dwarves, and he is sometimes picked to do a task especially for that reason, as when the dwarves wish to situate their position in Mirkwwod from the top of a tree: “They chose him, because to be of any use the climber must get his head above the topmost leaves, and so he must be light enough for the highest and slenderest branches to bear him.”35). It is also important to note that Bilbo has sharp eyes; the dwarves do not hesitate to call on his sharp-sightedness: “ ‘How far away do you think it is?’ asked Thorin, for by now they knew Bilbo had the sharpest eyes among them.”36). And at the end of the Battle of Five Armies, the hobbit is the first to notice helpers coming from the sky: “ ‘The Eagles! The Eagles!’ he shouted. ‘The Eagles are coming!’ Bilbo’s eyes were seldom wrong.”37) Moreover, as a hobbit Bilbo is used to living and moving underground, which helps him to bear tight places like the goblins’ caves:

Now certainly Bilbo was in what is called a tight place. But you must remember it was not quite so tight for him as it would have been for me or for you. Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people; and after all if their holes are nice cheery places and properly aired, quite different from the tunnels of the goblins, still they are more used to tunnelling than we are, and they do not easily lose their sense of direction underground ⎯ not when their heads have recovered from being bumped. Also they can move very quickly, and hide easily, and recover wonderfully from falls and bruises, and they have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago.38)

This quotation informs us how much Bilbo’s natural gifts as a hobbit suit him to his mission of “burglary”.

He is a particularly clever hobbit, and his intelligence and inventiveness often helps the whole company to cross obstacles. In Mirkwood, he has the idea to create a diversion for the spiders in order to save the dwarves: using his talent as a songmaker, he provokes their anger and encourages them to run after him, while thanks to the ring he creeps back to rescue the prisoners remaining unseen. His strategy finally saves all the dwarves. But it is from the moment when the company is near the Lonely Mountain that Bilbo’s wit is particularly useful, since he is the one who remembers the message written in moon-letters and understands how the secret door opens. Then the hobbit shows wisdom when he talks to the dragon without revealing his name and without accepting to come near him. And Bilbo makes another decisive discovery: he uses cunning and flattery to find Smaug’s weak spot on his left breast. Then finally, Bilbo is wise enough to decide to betray his friend Thorin for a greater good: he gives the Arkenstone, Thorin’s dearest legacy, to the Laketown men so they can use it as a counter in negotiations. On all of these occasions the hobbit proves that he has useful intellectual capacities, which will lift him above the common lot of hobbits.

Thorïn Oakenshield (© John Howe)

The Took side

Race is not the only inner factor that helps Bilbo progress in his journey. Family lineage plays also a great role in the achievement of his task. Tolkien has created a world where everyone’s personality and objectives are determined by their own personal history. Thorin decides to go on a long and hard journey in order to recover his ancestors’ treasure, which is his birthright. His role as Thror’s grandson is to become the new King beneath the Mountain and he sticks to it. Bard the archer is a descendant of Girion, Lord of Dale, and after leading men against the dragon he finally becomes Lord of Dale himself. In Middle-Earth, the past and social history are important bases to determine who you are. Bilbo is not an exception. His family lineage is exposed by the narrator in the beginning of the book: as said above Bilbo is the son of Belladonna Took and Bungo Baggins, two very different hobbits. When Bilbo is influenced by his mother’s side, he feels ready to have “an adventure” whereas when he is influenced by his father’s side, he feels frightened by the outside world, has feelings of self-doubt and just longs for a comfortable bed. Consequently, the hobbit constantly shifts from fear to courage and vice versa during the journey. But during the quest, his Took side is generally the stronger because it is stimulated by circumstances, either the excitation of adventure ⎯ “Then something Tookish woke up inside him”39) ⎯ by doubts that the dwarves express about his courage ⎯ “The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce.”40) ⎯ or by danger. When Bilbo is faced with real danger, the two influences are fighting: “He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”41). But although his Baggins side is still alive ⎯ “ ‘Dear me, what a fool I was and am!’ said the least Tookish part of him.”42) ⎯ Bilbo’s “Tookish” courage always wins and pushes him forwards. At the end, when his task is achieved and the hobbit can make his return journey, his Baggins side finally surfaces: “The Tookish part was getting very tired, and the Baggins was daily getting stronger”43) but, like Bard and Thorin, Bilbo has ancestors he was destined to resemble: he is the son of Belladonna Took, herself one of the Old Took’s daughters, and the latter was the grand-nephew of “(…) Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club.”44) Bilbo’s brave deeds can be compared to Bullroarer’s, although most of the hobbits of the Shire would never know about them, because their world stops where the Shire stops.

Resistance to greed

Perhaps the major quality of Bilbo that favour his progression towards heroism is his disinterest and resistance to greed. When Bilbo lets himself be mixed up in the dwarves’ quest, we can think that he is interested by the fourteenth part of the treasure he was promised. And when Bilbo takes the Arkenstone from the hoard, his fascination for the gem seems to control his whole body: “Suddenly Bilbo’s arm went towards it drawn by enchantment. His small hand would not close about it, for it was a large and heavy gem; but he lifted it, shut his eyes, and put it in his deepest pocket.”45). Greed seems to make his body lose control, since by shutting his eyes the hobbit shows that he is not really willing to steal the Arkenstone. But the word “enchantment” here is very strong, for the author wants to insist on the danger of greed. The greatest villain in the book is Smaug the dragon, and dragons are traditionally figures which represent greed. The Master of Lake-town also represents greed: he is happy to see the dwarves leaving his town because their stay was expensive, and at the end he flees with gold and dies of starvation. Greed is dangerous because it takes hold of everyone’s desires: at the end of the story Smaug is killed and the company has reached their goal, but instead of the happy ending we tended to expect, a terrible battle occurs between races over the sharing out of the treasure. Although it can be seen as a return to their roots, the dwarves’ journey is after all guided by greed, and Thorin who is at the origin of the quest, finally dies because of his greed for gold. As for Bilbo, he finally overcomes the danger of greed. Once he has faced the dragon, he loses his interest for his part of the treasure: “But the enchanted desire of the hoard had fallen from Bilbo.”46) It reads like the breaking of a spell. He will succumb to his desire for the Arkenstone but finally to give it to men, renouncing the fourteenth of the hoard47). Then after the Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo refuses the gold he is offered, now adopting a very reasonable view: “ ‘Very kind of you,’ said Bilbo. ‘But really it is a relief to me. How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don’t know. And I don’t know what I should have done with it when I got home. I am sure it is better in your hands.’ ”48). The hobbit also proves his disinterest when he gives a necklace of silver to the Elvenking.


Bilbo has the characteristics of his kind and he has skills and qualities provided by his everyday experience. He has some qualities but not heroic qualities yet: like an “Everyman” ⎯ the term is derived from the title of a 16th century English morality play ⎯ Bilbo has ordinary qualities that enable us to identify with him. But his involvement in extraordinary events will give him other qualities such as resistance to greed. His new attitude at the end of his adventure tends to prove to us that Bilbo has already received a different kind of reward: a human and moral reward. And contrary to the dwarves, the hobbit is satisfied with it. This leads us to think that after having proved that he has the qualities of a burglar ⎯ quietness, manual skill, sharp eyes, courage etc ⎯ Bilbo may also have the qualities of a hero.

The development of heroic consciousness


Above I showed in what respect is Bilbo presented at first as an anti-hero and how he does not correspond to the traditional image we have of an epic hero. We have also seen that the hobbit is an “Everyman”. But he is not only a small fairytale creature. During his forced journey, he progressively evolves towards “burglary”, and beyond that, towards a certain sort of epic hero. In his progression he is helped by exterior factors and by innate qualities, but most changes happen within him. The closer Bilbo gets to his goal, the more he thinks and behaves as a true hero.

Bilbo’s pride and self-confidence

What pushes Bilbo forwards is above all his will to prove his value to Gandalf and the rest of the company. From the beginning, the wizard shows an unshakeable trust in the hobbit’s hidden qualities ⎯ which resembles what Tolkien himself said about rustic Englishmen’s “courage and latent power”49) ⎯ and Bilbo is flattered by his faith. He will later do his best in order to be worthy of it, as said on page 27: “(…) doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional and live up to Gandalf’s recommendation”50). He will also try to prove the dwarves that they were wrong when they disbelieved his qualities as a burglar. When he steals the cup from Smaug’s lair, he aims to prove his bravery: “I’ve done it! This will show them. ‘More like a grocer than a burglar’ indeed! Well, we’ll hear no more of that.”51)

In a sense, we can say that it is pride which stimulates Bilbo. But although he has his pride, the hobbit is not self-confident at all. The ring will help him to gain assurance and to show his latent courage.

As I said before, Bilbo is terrified by anything touching “adventure”, so much so that hearing about it makes him almost faint. And although he will finally prove the contrary, he thinks he cannot be an adventurer. This initial attitude shows that Bilbo lacks self-confidence. But from the moment when the hobbit takes possession of the ring, his opinion of himself seems to change. The narrator clearly stresses this change when he says: “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.”52) He informs the reader of the properties of the ring ⎯ “(…) it was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible; only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint.”53) ⎯ but Bilbo will discover them by himself: “His head was in a whirl of hope and wonder. It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring: it made you invisible! He had heard of such things, of course, in old tales; but it was hard to believe that he really had found one, by accident.”54) Here luck in addition to the feeling of being comparable to folktale heroes give hope to the hobbit. Thanks to this artifact Bilbo will be able to accomplish heroic deeds. The fact that they are not totally due to his own talents does not matter because the ring has not the power to heal his lack of self-confidence: the hobbit will finally do it by himself. He is more inclined to trust in a magical ring than himself, but the consequence is the same: from the time of the episode of the goblins’ caves, Bilbo grows psychologically stronger. The ring acts like a placebo. In Mirkwood, Bilbo is forced to reveal his secret to the dwarves in order to explain to them his strategy of diversion. But this mystery heightens all the more the dwarves’ opinion about him:

Knowing the truth about the vanishing did not lessen their opinion of Bilbo at all; for they saw that he had some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring ⎯ and all three were very useful possessions. In fact they praised him so much that Bilbo began to feel there really was something of a bold adventurer about himself after all (…)55)

Bilbo’s courage

In brief, the magical ring is another thing that gives Bilbo the qualities of a hero: self-confidence, courage and fame. While he is wearing the ring, the hobbit allows himself to do things that seemed previously impossible for him. He only just escapes a group of goblins, he uses a tactic to surprise giant spiders, he secretly enters the Elvenking’s palace while his friends are prisoners and stays unnoticed for days; and he gets close to a dragon to steal from him. All these things he can do thanks to the ring encourage Bilbo to show more and more self-confidence and also more and more courage. When he gets lost all alone in Mirkwood, the hobbit feels miserable but he does not panic and wisely decides to stay where he is until the break of dawn. Just after, when a great spider tries to tie him up and poison him, he does not hesitate to attack it with his sword just like a warrior and kills it with two strokes. This first real fight makes him lose consciousness: this clearly shows how strong the shock is for the hobbit to act like a warrior. He feels like a totally different person:

Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr.Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.56)

Then Bilbo shows courage and generosity when he decides to go rescuing his friends, prisoners of the spiders, all by himself. But the occasion when the hobbit shows the most courage is at the Lonely Mountain. The narrator often points out the transformation that Bilbo has already undergone at this point: “None of them had much spirit left. Now strange to say Mr.Baggins had more than the others.”57), “He was trembling with fear, but his little face was set and grim. Already he was a very different hobbit from the one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago.”58) and “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.”59). The hobbit even offers by himself to go down again in Smaug’s lair after having stolen the cup, while the dragon seems to be sleeping. Here the reader has realized that Bilbo the anti-hero had a hidden courage that surfaces not only thanks to the magic power of the ring but above all in adversity.

Bilbo (© John Howe)

The hobbit is even more surprising when he begins to make strategic battle plans and to show a certain skill in fighting. As I said before he has the idea to provoke the spiders to attract them away from their prisoners, and then coming back, unheard and unseen, to set the dwarves free. This strategy of diversion finally saves the whole company. But his finest plan is to use the Elves’empty barrels to make the company float until they are out of the palace. It is important to note that even if they are at the origin of the quest, the dwarves do not elaborate such plans. And Bilbo acts like a warrior when he fights several spiders alone: “He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near”60) whereas the dwarves always stay in a group. Thus now we see Bilbo separating from the group, to go on into the solitude of traditional epic heroes.

Bilbo as a leader

As Bilbo shows individual heroic qualities, it is logical that he finishes as the leader of the company ⎯ leadership being itself another heroic quality. The first character who appeared as a leader was Gandalf, but in his absence it is Bilbo who replaces him in this role. The hobbit’s superiority begins to be apparent from the moment when he escapes the goblins’ caves: here the dwarves start to consider that Bilbo is more gifted than they thought. His opinion is now respected. But Bilbo actually takes on the role of the leader when saving the dwarves in Mirkwood: he rules all the rescue operation and gives the instructions: “ ‘Come down! Come down!’ he shouted to the dwarves on the branch. ‘Don’t stay up there and be netted!’ ”61) and then “ ‘Go on! Go on!’ he shouted. ‘I will do the stinging!’ ”62). There the hobbit really seems to behave like the chief, altough he never meant to be at the place of Thorin: his qualities as a leader surface naturally just like his bravery. Bilbo constantly shows respect to Thorin, however we can notice that his attitude towards him evolves throughout the story. On page 225, he does not hesitate to underline Thorin’s lack of thankfulness:

“Well, are you alive or are you dead?” asked Bilbo quite crossly. (…) “Are you still in prison, or are you free? If you want food, and if you want to go on with this silly adventure ⎯ it’s yours after all and not mine ⎯ you had better slap your arms and rub your legs and try and help me get the others out while there is a chance!”63)

while before the adventure, all that Bilbo could say in front of Thorin’s dissatisfaction was “Sorry”. At the end of the journey, it is the hobbit who stimulates the others just like Gandalf did. After all their misadventures, the dwarves are tired and demotivated, but Bilbo still wants to reach their common goal. He incites the dwarves to look for the Lonely Mountain’s secret door and later he encourages them to go down in Smaug’s lair. In return, “ (…) they had come to respect little Bilbo. Now he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own.”64)


To conclude this second part we can say that Bilbo successfully fulfils the role of the “burglar” thanks to both external and internal factors. We can notice an evolution of the character which is both exterior and interior as well. The hobbit’s pride and the power of the ring guide him to bravery, victory and leadership. Bilbo has distinguished himself from the group and we can now see in what respect he is a kind of solitary epic hero on a traditional mythic quest, and how The Hobbit fits into the epic genre through an intertextual and cultural tradition.

← Part IPart IIPart III →

1) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.112-3.
2) Ibid. p.160-1.
3) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.22.
4) Ibid. p.24.
5) Ibid. p.50.
6) , 24) Id.
7) Ibid. p.107.
8) Ibid. p.318-9.
9) Ibid. p.315.
10) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.159
11) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.38.
12) Ibid. p.40-1.
13) Ibid. p.255. “Then as is the nature of folk that are thoroughly perplexed, they began to grumble at the hobbit, blaming him for what had at first so pleased them: for bringing away a cup and stirring up Smaug’s wrath so soon.”
14) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.78.
15) Ibid. p.108-9.
16) Ibid. p.110.
17) Ibid. p.192.
18) , 21) Ibid. p.204.
19) Ibid. p.231.
20) Ibid. p.27.
22) In The Lord of the Rings, we learn that the ring has a will by its own: so we can think that it was not by luck that Bilbo found it, as Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, p.54: “It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him”. However we learn on the same page that the ring was not intending to be found by Bilbo, but to return to his master Sauron: “The Ring was trying to get back to its master.” So we can consider this find as a real piece of luck.
23) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.92.
25) Ibid. p.182.
26) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.207.
27) Ibid. p.239.
28) Ibid. p.351.
29) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.26. “ ‘That would be no good,’ said the wizard, ‘not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands (…). That is why I settled on burglary (…)’ ”
30) Ibid. p.4.
31) Ibid. p.41.
32) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.109.
33) Ibid. p.4.
34) Ibid. p.183-4.
35) Ibid. p.172.
36) Ibid. p.166.
37) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.330.
38) Ibid. p.83.
39) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.19.
40) , 44) Ibid. p.22.
41) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.249.
42) Ibid. p.248.
43) Ibid. p.340.
45) Ibid. p.275.
46) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.268.
47) Ibid. p.314. “ (…) I am willing to let it stand against all my claim, don’t you know.”
48) Ibid. p.337.
49) CARPENTER, Humphrey. J.R.R.Tolkien : a Biography. 1977. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1978. p.180.
50) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.27.
51) Ibid. p.251.
52) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p. 81.
53) Ibid. p.95.
54) Ibid. p.100.
55) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.192.
56) Ibid. p.181.
57) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit.. p.238.
58) Ibid. p.248
59) Ibid. p.249.
60) , 62) Ibid. p.191.
61) TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Hobbit. p.189.
63) Ibid. p.224-5.
64) Ibid. p.256.
essais/personnages/hero-to-heroism-part2.txt · Dernière modification: 06/04/2020 18:47 (modification externe)
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