While I’m certain that I read The Hobbit (Fantasy 317 pages) by J.R.R. Tolkien at some point when I was very, very young, I remember the cartoon movie that came out in the 80s and the more recent live-action movies that came out rather recently a bit better than my memory of the book. After just finishing the book now, I have to honestly say that Bilbo is an excellent hero, even though he is definitely the reluctant one.
The story starts out with the initial meeting of Gandalf and Bilbo, as Gandalf searches for “someone to share in an adventure” (page 12) and Bilbo promptly replies: “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.” The very next day, thirteen dwarves show up at his home and make themselves uninvited guests. Bilbo spends the entire time frustrated and upset and then when they start talking about him going on the adventure, he “burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel” (page 25). Clearly, this is not someone who is typical adventuring material, especially since “the poor little hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting.”
But then on page 27, Bilbo says: “that you think I am no good. I will show you … Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of the East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.” He would have never had the courage to even stand up and say that much if Gandalf hadn’t believed in him. But because Gandalf believed in him, he saw something in himself that said he was made of better stuff than a bunch of uninvited dwarves thought. And he would prove it to them. Gandalf shows up, tells Bilbo he’s late and he has to get going, and Bilbo just goes. He doesn’t pack, he doesn’t finish or bring his cakes, he just goes. Gandalf doesn’t give him time to think about it and Bilbo just does what he asked.
With the company’s first experience being cold, wet, hungry, and miserable, they send Bilbo off to investigate a fire to see if they can get some food. On page 43: “Off Bilbo had to go, before he could explain that he could not hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat.” The majority of the time in the beginning of the story, Bilbo is rushed into doing things that most people wouldn’t do, especially if they were given any time at all to think about what they were doing. When Bilbo gets picked up by the trolls, he responds to their questions quickly, but then realizes that he might be putting the dwarves in danger, so he tries to confuse the Trolls and give them less information. He is a reluctant hero, but he is a loyal friend. He manages to get out of the trolls grasp, but then he hides in the bushes because there’s nothing he can do to prevent the trolls from grabbing the dwarves one-by-one. Having no combat experience and no weapons, he helps Thorin as best as he could. But when he can do no more, he hides in a bush and Gandalf saves them all.
The company then gets captured by goblins and taken to the goblin king. Once Gandalf again comes and saves them, Bilbo has to be pretty much carried through the entire mountain on the backs of the dwarves because he couldn’t keep up. When he gets knocked unconscious, he wakes up and doesn’t know what to do. So he keeps moving forward. He is mostly a passive observer, but he continues to make the choice to go back and help his friends. Right out of the goblin caves on page 101: “He had just made up his mind that it was his duty, that he must turn back – and very miserable he felt about it – when he heard voices.” He had no business going back, it scared him and made him miserable, but he felt that his friends needed him.
Bilbo goes from becoming someone the dwarves have to take care of to someone who is truly a hero. He has a magic sword and a magic ring and a lot of luck, but he doesn’t kill Gollum when he’s given the chance on page 97 because he pities him for “endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.” He is not a violent hero. He doesn’t start actually killing things until he must save the dwarves from the Mirkwood spiders on page 167: “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.” From that point on, Bilbo becomes the action-hero of the story instead of the accidental hero. He goes on to liberate the dwarves from the elfish prison and get them all the way to Lake-town.
Bilbo sees the ridiculousness of the entire treasure situation and tries to solve it peacefully by giving the Arkenstone to the Elvenking, the Bard, and Gandalf in hopes that they can use it to buy the peace with Thorin. In a way, it works, because it delays them fighting amongst themselves just long enough for the goblin and warg army to show up and everyone to band together against a common enemy. He freely admits to Thorin that he gave the Arkenstone to them in order to bring peace and Thorin throws him out. He stood up for what he believed was right, even though he was the smallest amongst them.
What really makes Bilbo a hero to me is that he will do anything to help his friends and he actually doesn’t like violence at all. He isn’t very good at it and there are so many things that are much better pursuits than killing things. The vast majority of page 301 with Thorin’s death sums up the entire hero experience for me: “’No! said Thorin. ‘There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry I must leave it now. Farewell!’ Then Bilbo turned away, and he wept by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and, whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse. He was a kindly little soul.”
Overall, this book is easily a four on my rating scale. I am glad that I own it, and glad that I own a fancy copy of it, so that I have all the full-page maps and illustrations. If I’d known how much fun this book is to read and how great a hero Bilbo is, I probably would have read this book and reviewed it much, much sooner.