|Posted on April 28, 2012 at 8:55 AM|
Strength, bravery, boldness, and resilience – these are some of the characteristics that embody the hero of Homeric legend. This classical hero, almost always a man, is as much a symbol of masculinity as he is moral virtue. At first glance, Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of The Hobbit (Tolkien 1937), could not be further from this portrait of gallantry. He is polite, nervous, and concerned chiefly with personal comfort and social perception. Yet, beneath this timid persona simmers a longing for adventure. Bilbo Baggins does not conform to the heroic tradition of Homer and Beowulf. He is a different creature entirely, and through Tolkien, acts as a statement on the nature of heroism, as well as an attempt to rewrite the hero for modern fantasy literature.
The traditional opening for a heroic story, usually involves a quest for revenge, wealth or fame. The Hobbit begins in a similar fashion, with the company of dwarves setting out to reclaim their gold from the dragon, Smaug. However, in a classical context, the perspective of the narrative would follow their leader, Thorin Oakenshield. He initiates the quest, and exemplifies all of the might of a traditional hero. Yet, Tolkien seems far more interested in the little hobbit, Bilbo, the unwilling, and generally unwelcome participant in this adventure. Bilbo is somewhat curious about what the adventure may entail, blaming his wild Tookish side, but his objections emerge when he realises that they may face many dangers, or indeed perish, in the process. It is the early chapters of the book that depict Bilbo as being so utterly uncourageous, and divergent from the traditional heroic archetype. However, despite the meek stature of its protagonist, the contract Bilbo agrees to sets up the story as a typical heroic fantasy, with its promises of sword-fighting, treasure-hunting and dragon-slaying.
Both Bilbo and the dwarves, question the hobbit’s role in this adventure, but it is the wizard Gandalf, who argues for his place in the company. Gandalf points out that the all of the great heroes of the land are off fighting wars against one another, and so he was forced to search elsewhere. Gandalf, like Tolkien, is searching for a new kind of hero, one who appears to embody none of the traits of a great warrior, but whose qualities may assist the company in other, less obvious, ways. Bilbo’s unassuming nature serves almost as his greatest advantage. If his enemies looked upon him and saw a warrior, they might attack him, but instead they see a timid, little hobbit, hardly worth the effort of bloodshed. He is invisible to the warriors of this world, including the members of his own company, who see him more as a burden. In fact, it is not until Bilbo acquires the magic ring, and is able to disappear from the world completely, that he starts to become a more proactive participant in the adventure, and even develop the heroic qualities that were never there in the beginning.
Gender also plays an important aspect of traditional heroism. The hero is often bound to male qualities, such as muscular bodies and the strength to defeat any enemy. This description would suit characters like Thorin, and the archer Bard, quite aptly. Bilbo, on the other hand, is no larger than a child, and possesses none of the physical prowess to fight battles. The shape-shifter Beorn is depicted as a mighty warrior in the climax of the story, slaying the Goblin King in battle. He is described as a huge man with great, muscled arms and legs. This is often what a reader thinks of when they picture the hero – a mighty warrior. However, despite Beorn’s fiery temper, he also exhibits a feminine side. He is a vegetarian who loves animals, and nurtures the company back to health with food and shelter, after their fight with the goblins. The loving, nurturing manner with which he treats his animals, contrasts sharply with the ferocious bear-man who we see in combat later. Beorn exemplifies a more modern heroic archetype, portraying a union of both male and female qualities.
Several of the male characters display feminine qualities. Bilbo is a sensitive, emotional character, who displays great caring for living things. Bilbo’s heroism lies in wisdom and morality. These traits may seem commonplace within modern heroes, but they contrast sharply with the masculine brutality of characters like Achilles, Ulysses and Beowulf. Unlike, classical heroes, Bilbo has no taste for war or fighting, and refuses to take up arms until it is the last option for their survival. A hero like Beowulf would have killed the creature Gollum (as he did Grendel), but Bilbo does not. He raises his sword, ready to strike, but his conscience tells him that it is wrong to kill a defenceless creature. This action becomes its own kind of heroism; the heroism of mercy and compassion.
As Bilbo develops into the heroic mould Gandalf has promised of him, the idea of rebirth plays an important part of his initiation into a new life. The little hobbit undergoes many dangers on his path, with each trial changing him in some way; calling upon some hidden aspect of his nature. At the beginning of the novel, Bilbo is almost childlike in his experiences with the outside world. He is quite content to live in comfort in his hole in the ground, and resents this violent disruption to his lifestyle. Bilbo’s hobbit-hole might even represent the womb, with its warmth and isolation; it protects Bilbo, but also stunts his development into maturity. The scene where he and the dwarves set off is his birth, and the beginning of his transformation into “hero”. Gandalf serves very much as a father-figure throughout this process, offering Bilbo equal parts encouragement and chastisement, until eventually leaving him all together at the border of Mirkwood, forcing the little hobbit to fend for himself. Like a father, Gandalf seems to Bilbo to possess an almost omnipotent knowledge and grasp of the world, and his guidance is paramount to Bilbo’s maturity.
Bilbo’s actual parentage is continually referred to throughout the narrative, representing his conflicting desire for safety (Baggins) and adventure (Took). This may be emblematic of the wider struggle within everyone; the potential for heroism that exists within seemingly unheroic people. What is especially interesting about Bilbo’s internal journey is his prolonged homesickness. His desire to return to the Shire never really dissipates, and yet he continues on, all the same. This resilience is another form of heroism, which again contrasts with the classical hero, whose gaze is always on the horizon.
Even at the height of his “heroic qualities”, Bilbo never acquires the sense of confidence and audacity that a classical hero might. He is always unsure of himself, and even in victory, maintains a humble nature. When he outwits the creature Gollum in the caves, or routs the giant spiders in Mirkwood, he does not gloat or taunt his fallen foes, as a Homeric hero might; Achilles mocking his rival Hector in The Illiad, for example.
Bilbo does not slay the evil dragon, nor lead his dwarven allies in battle against the goblins. Those feats are left to the more classically heroic characters of Bard and Thorin. Contrary to the heroic desire for wealth and glory, Bilbo gives up his share of the treasure, awarding it to those less fortunate. He does not regard violence and fame as heroic, and by this point, neither does the audience. What makes Bilbo a hero is his kindness and generosity, and his belief in doing what is right, rather than doing what is self-aggrandizing. This exemplifies the sharpest divide between Bilbo and a traditional hero. Where the latter would slay the dragon, and march his men into war, Bilbo attempts to divert the war, by offering to share his treasure in the hopes of peace. Whatever physical might Bilbo may lack, his moral strength by the end of the story towers above everyone.