Bilbo Baggins: An Unexpected Campbellian Hero?

Renée E. Skidmore                                                                                                                Professor Sexton                                                                                                                        English 580-B02 (Heroes’ Journeys)                                                                                                18 July 2017

Bilbo Baggins: An Unexpected Campbellian Hero?

          Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is not an epic hero—at least not in the most classical sense of the term. He is not of noble birth, not really. He does not possess a special gift or talent among his peers or community. Even the quest he reluctantly sets out upon at the beginning of the narrative is not his own—he is merely a follower. Instead, Thorin, the arrogant leader of the quest, seems more fitting for the role. After all, he is the character of clear noble birth. The character whose very presence exudes power, bravery, and strength. And it is Thorin’s quest to reclaim his kingdom and his ancestor’s gold from the powerful dragon, Smaug, that drives the plot of the novel. Yet, Bilbo is the rightful hero of the narrative because, while the quest belongs to Thorin, the heroic journey belongs to him—he is the Campbellian everyman hero.

Despite being a children’s story that takes place in the non-existent world of Middle-earth, Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit rather than a man in this fictional world, is relatable to readers of all ages. Because of this quality, Bilbo’s journey to self-actualization is far more interesting to the reader than Thorin’s quest to slay the dragon, especially as the reader is led to question Thorin’s status as the ideal hero, and more so when Thorin’s flaw leads to his failure and death. Still, Thorin’s quest does not merely serve as the catalyst for Bilbo’s journey, nor does his role as a (failed) hero merely serve as a juxtaposition to Bilbo’s (humble) everyman hero; instead, he is the embodiment of daring and courage that Bilbo believes he lacks—the “father” he must confront in order to find peace and acceptance within himself.

Oddly, the traits that Bilbo feels he is lacking do not come from his father’s Baggins-side, but from his mother’s Took-side. While the wealth of his Baggins-side has provided Bilbo some level of status among his neighborhood, it is the predictability and caution that he draws from this side of his heritage that has earned him respect among his community because, although they are wealthier and hold positions of leadership (Old Took, Bilbo’s grandfather, is head of the hobbits who lived across the water), the Took’s predilection for adventure has marred their reputation. In this non-traditional manner, Bilbo could be considered of “noble birth.” Additionally, there are a few other aspects of his background that align him with traditional heroes; for example, he is essentially an orphan (though he is roughly fifty), and he is not married and, thus, has the ability to partake in a journey (though he is said to have “settled down immovably” (Tolkien 3)), and he is undeniably in search of “something” beyond his current experience.

Still it is the latent Took-side that initially stirs when Gandalf first appears at his hobbit-hole. And it is the Took-side that awakens when the dwarfs sing their song of the misty mountains. And it is the Took-side that wins when Bilbo overhears the dwarfs question his ferocity. As hard as he tries to refuse the call and suppress his draw to the adventure, the Took-side blinds Bilbo long enough to allow Gandalf to push him out the door to join the dwarfs on their quest.

Although a few of the dwarfs help him or share interests with him, Bilbo’s status as an outsider is very clear throughout much of the journey, but particularly at the beginning when they very openly mock his size, nerves, and strength, or ignore him altogether. It is this feeling of otherness and the need to prove his worth among them that draws him on and causes him to act impulsively during his first task after crossing the threshold, with the safety of his hobbit-hole left far behind.

Upon being sent to scout out the source of a fire ahead and report back, Bilbo decides to practice his burgling (the job for which he was hired) by picking the pocket of one of the trolls he finds by the fire because “somehow he could not go straight back to Thorin and Company emptyhanded” (Tolkien 35). As a result, his impulsive decision leads to the capture and near deaths of the entire group, except for himself—luckily, Gandalf arrives just in time to save them. Ultimately, his failed attempt at burgling proves he is not ready for the journey ahead and causes the others to reject him even further.

Again, this need to prove his worth through daring and courage drives Bilbo forward on the journey. Despite the shortcomings of both his size and his skill, Bilbo is allowed to continue on the quest as they leave the safety of elves’ Last Homely House–one of several places that tempt him to stay or turn back. Strangely, it is one of his weaknesses (his unsettled nerves that causes him to have terrible dreams) that awakens the group right before they are captured by goblins and provides Gandalf with just enough warning to follow them in secret. Here, the entire group is pulled into the “belly of the whale.” As the group, with the aid of Gandalf and the courage of Thorin, manages to defeat the Great Goblin King and makes its escape through the goblin tunnels, Bilbo is left behind and finds himself following a tunnel that takes him deeper into the belly.

Finding himself alone in the dark tunnels of the mountain (the underworld), Bilbo initially considers giving up, but finds comfort and courage to push forth when he discovers that his “sword,” an elvish blade that shines in the presence of goblins, was not taken when the goblins searched him. After traveling so deep into the mountain that his sword barely shines its warning light, he splashes into a subterranean lake where he comes face to face with Gollum, a slimy creature that wants to eat him. Until this point, Bilbo has only thought of the physical strengths and (mostly) weaknesses of being a hobbit, even the courage he finds to push forth through the dark tunnels is measured by his fear. Additionally, Bilbo has been aided by his guardian (Gandalf) and helpers (the dwarfs) thus far, but now he must face the frightening creature alone.

Although he is not fully aware of the real danger that he is in, he is cautious enough to hold his sword, a physical symbol of power and strength, tight. While this talisman provides Bilbo with the ability to face this first trial alone with courage, it is his mental strength—and a bit of luck—that enables him to defeat Gollum in his game of riddles. Additionally, it is his moral strength that causes him to take pity on Gollum and spare his life when he could easily have killed him (he has found and discovered the power of the ring).

When Bilbo emerges from the goblin tunnels and rejoins the safety of the group, he has begun his metamorphosis and the experience has better prepared him to face the trials ahead, not just because he has found the ring, but also because the accomplishment has given him some confidence in a few of the strengths he possesses as an individual (as opposed to those of a hobbit, like softness of step and a heightened sense of smell): his wit and cunning. More importantly, at least to him, he has gained the respect of the dwarfs. However, the pride he feels is incomplete as he feels their respect would falter if they were to find out about the ring. It is important to note that Bilbo chooses to hide the ring out of shame because he feels as though he cheated and won the respect of the dwarfs falsely, not out of greed as Gollum does, or out of power as it comes to symbolize in The Lord of the Rings. For Bilbo, it is important that he gains their respect in the same manner in which he believes they have earned theirs, even though he has not been provided much proof that any of them have earned their respect in a manner other than being born dwarfs.

Although the next two trials Bilbo faces are crucial to his earning the dwarfs’ respect, particularly because he not only rescues them but also leads them, and to his transformation into a hero-figure, it is his third trial that truly shows his complete transformation. By the time he travels alone down the deepest part of a tunnel that will bring him into the heart of the Lonely Mountain, Thorin’s former kingdom and now Smaug’s lair, Bilbo has already abandoned his need to measure up to his dwarf companions.

In fact, as the dwarfs desperately search for an alternate passage into the kingdom when their attempts to open the secret gate by dwarf force and magic fail, Bilbo overhears some of them questioning his value once again. Instead of feeling unworthy, however, he is merely frustrated by their lack of gratitude and thinks to himself, “It is always poor me that has to get them out of their difficulties” (Tolkien 208), but his addition of “at least since the wizard left” (Tolkien 208) reflects his sense of humility—since he does not possess the magical abilities of a wizard, he is not better or more powerful. Even his realization that the dwarfs are undeserving of the admiration he has given them comes before he enters the tunnel, when the task to move forward into the most danger has fallen—yet again—on him. Although he knows he will go forward, he impatiently interrupts Thorin’s effusive speech in order to urge him to “say so at once and have done” (Tolkien 212) and even poses the possibility of his refusal before simply stating that he “will go and have a peep at once and get it over with” (Tolkien 212). Furthermore, the lack of volunteers when he asks, “Now who is coming with me?” (Tolkien 212) does not disappoint him; instead, it leads to his final realization that “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of money” (Tolkien 213).

And so, as Bilbo inches forward alone and fearful down the final part of the tunnel, he begins to separate himself from the dwarfs, thinking about how foolish he was for allowing himself to be drawn into their tales and how little use he has for the reward they seek (treasure). It is vital to Bilbo’s maturity and transformation to self-actualization that he embarks on this final trial alone, and more importantly, that he achieves it before he even steps through the doorway into Smaug’s lair (the dragon is their enemy to be conquered, not his). Tolkien marks the importance of this moment very clearly by stating, “It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait” (Tolkien 214).

Although Bilbo’s journey is not quite over, the realization of his own accomplishments, no matter how aided by magic or luck, and the discovery of his own bravery and skill, prepares him for all that comes after. In fact, when he returns with a golden cup which he has stolen from the great dragon’s horde, he hardly notices the dwarfs’ excitement, praise, and promised service of their future ancestors (Tolkien 216). Of course, in true dwarf fashion, this praise is quickly replaced with blame when the dragon becomes angered by its absence among his well accounted for treasure.

Bilbo’s behavior in the face of this betrayal shows the strength of his new self. Instead of joining the dwarfs in their despair, he bravely offers to return to the dragon’s lair and shares the wisdom of his father that “every worm has his weak spot” (Tolkien 221). As the dwarfs eagerly accept his offer, Tolkien notes: “Now he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own” (Tolkien 221). Bilbo’s transformation is nearly complete. Despite achieving some level of balance between the parts of himself that are distinctly his mother and father, he has not confronted “the father.”

This moment does not come until later in the novel when Bard, a member of the lakemen who live nearby, has slain the dragon and intends on going to war with Thorin to claim the kingdom and the treasure, which he feels he has rightfully earned. Bilbo, realizing that Thorin’s greed leaves his men vulnerable to attack from the dragon as he searches for the Arkenstone, the ultimate symbol of both his greed for treasure and his greed for power, decides to tuck the stone away for safe keeping. When Bilbo hears of the impending war for which he and his companions are greatly unprepared and outnumbered, he remembers the Arkenstone and sneaks off to give it to Bard as a bargaining chip.

Instead of bringing peace, Bard’s possession outrages Thorin, who has already declared that he would “be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it” (Tolkien 268); yet, Bilbo does not hesitate in confessing his crucial role in the scheme. Bilbo’s confession reflects his ability to abandon his idolization of Thorin and the heroic qualities that Thorin possessed because he now knows that those qualities alone are not enough. In an extreme fit of rage, Thorin denounces his friendship to Bilbo and nearly kills him until Gandalf steps in to save him.

At this point in the narrative, Bilbo’s journey departs from Campbell’s monomyth structure. Despite reaching a climax, Bilbo’s boon does not benefit anyone but himself (for now). His courageous actions have proven that “there is more to him than [anyone] expects” (Tolkien 273) and gained him the respect of Gandalf, Bard and the lakemen, the Elven King and the wood-elves, and even some of his dwarf companions; however, they do not bring peace among those who feel theyare justified in claiming the Mountain’s treasure.

Instead, a war of epic proportions breaks out. Just as Thorin and his cousin Dain are about to engage in a battle with Bard and the Elvenking, the goblins and the Wargs arrive and force the dwarves, wood-elves, and lakemen to join forces in order to defeat their common enemy, even the Great Eagles and Beorn join the fight against the goblins and the Wargs. As The Battle of the Five Armies begins, Bilbo slips on the ring and escapes most of the danger.

While this act is certainly far from heroic, it is necessary for a few reasons. First, it reminds the reader that this part of Bilbo’s journey is done. Although the battle must take place in order to restore order to the land, it is not his fight—he has already won his battle and does not have a stake in this one. Second, it reestablishes Bilbo as a hobbit, who by their very nature are peaceful beings. It should be noted here that the only creatures that Bilbo kills during his journey are beasts, and even so only out of necessity to protect life—not for the dominance and power that takes place during the battle. Finally, it reaffirms Bilbo’s role as the everyman hero—he is changed, yet still flawed.

Once the battle is complete, Bilbo, who has been knocked unconscious, awakens among the rubble and is quickly summoned to Thorin’s side. Thorin, who is dying from his battle wounds, has come to realize the err of his ways too late and wishes to make peace. A final atonement for both characters. For Thorin, the hero, he is able to redeem himself before his death. For Bilbo, the everyman, he is able to reclaim some hope in “humanity.” As a result, Bilbo is offered his share of the treasure, but he chooses to take just a small portion for his troubles.

Unlike Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain, his return home is quite easy, but not without danger. He is accompanied by Gandalf, the Elvenking, and Beorn for much of the way, but he and Gandalf—Beorn ends up going with them—choose to take the long way around Mirkwood forest because the way around it is now much safer than the creatures they may encounter while traveling through it. Although it is mentioned that he encounters some struggles as they travel through the Wild, “he was never in great danger again” (Tolkien 295).

As Bilbo finally reaches home, a chapter which Tolkien has actually titled “The Last Stage” and which aligns fairly neatly with Campbell’s monomyth, he is met with some problems to sort out—his home and belongings are being auctioned off because he left no notice of his departure or return. Still, his return to his community is relatively easy. Although he is considered an outcast, he is never fully alienated and never fully alienates himself. He uses his boon to spoil his nieces and nephews. He becomes the “master of two worlds” as he remains a part of his community, but also entertains visitors from beyond. Ultimately, he enjoys a quiet life of freedom in which “he remained very happy to the end of his days” (Tolkien 304).

Although he begins the novel as merely a follower in Thorin’s quest, Bilbo is the character whose skill and merit are tested the most. The character who must prove his worth not only to others, but also to himself. The character who, despite his small stature, manages to save the dwarfs (several times) and lead them ahead in their journey. In fact, Bilbo is the only one of the group to face Smaug. The fact that Bilbo is not the one to slay the dragon (neither does Thorin) does not detract from his status as hero because, like the battle, that part of the quest was never meant for him—though he does accomplish more than he was “hired” for anyway. In the end, Bilbo transcends his desired acceptance among the dwarves, especially Thorin. Instead, he achieves his status among the dwarves and men and elves (and other beings) in Middle-earth because he manages to exceed their expectations while maintaining true to who he is as a hobbit and an individual.

Resources

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Sexton, John P. “Monomyth.” Heroes’ Journeys, English 580-B02. Class notes/handout, Summer 2017.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Harper Collins, 1995.

4 thoughts on “Bilbo Baggins: An Unexpected Campbellian Hero?

  1. Well done! There exists a 1977 Rankin/Bass animated version of “The Hobbit”, that used to scare the beejeezus out of me. Tolkien’s canvas is smaller, obviously, than the one he utilizes in the trilogy that follows, but I’ve always considered “The Hobbit” to be a perfect introduction to the world of “middle-earth”, largely for the coherency you chart so successfully above. Especially interesting is the peaceable nature of Bilbo, and Hobbits in general, that you point out, as well as the fact that Baggins kills only beasts, and then only in instances of self-preservation. Fascinating how this unassuming, gentle creature does indeed become “master of two worlds”, having experienced trials and opposition beyond the shire, and then returning home with a reputation for valor that he successfully hides behind a placid and humble demeanor. Thank you for this.

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    1. Yes! The 1977 animated version is pretty scary for a “children’s cartoon,” but it’s great for comparative analysis in the classroom. The Peter Jackson version is MUCH too long to show in the classroom, but clips are excellent for visual purposes–especially in showing and comparing the light that surrounds the elves to the darkness of the goblin tunnels. Besides, the Jackson version draws quite a bit from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

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  2. Thorough analysis. The irony you point to in the beginning — about how Bilbo is far from an epic hero as we tend to consider them — is I believe precisely what Tolkien was going for when he penned the grandiose innards of Middle Earth. It is the notion that one need not be a great warrior to save the world that is at the heart of those stories. And, as you’ve noted, Bilbo is the paradigm of the everyman hero. It is fairly astonishing that Tolkien wrote his masterpieces while Campbell was mapping the epic hero, because Bilbo (and Frodo) appear to be taken almost directly from Campbell’s tropes. Nice work.

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    1. Absolutely! One line that really stuck out for me from our reading from The Inklings was when Tolkien reminds Lewis that when he read the stories of Balder or Adonis, he didn’t ask what they “meant,” but instead “enjoyed these stories, ‘tasted’ them, and got something from them that he could not get from abstract argument” (Carpenter 44). In this way, Tolkien reminds Lewis that the same can be said upon reading stories from the bible because, regardless of their “truth,” they “reflect something of eternal truth” (43) about the human experience.

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