Professor Brandon Alakas
31 March 2014
The Unexpected Hero:
Bilbo’s Journey from Traditional Heroism
Throughout history there has been countless examples of different types of heroism. In the Bible David can definitely be described as an imperfect hero when he kills Goliath, Sir Gawain symbolizes the classic Arthurian hero and Lord Byron’s Manfred displays the perfect bad boy hero. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, The Hobbit, the central character Bilbo Baggins definitely begins to redefine his own class of heroism; leaving the classical norm of heroism displayed by the Dwarves, specifically Thorin Oakenshield. By analyzing Bilbo’s appearance, speech and actions it is evident that Tolkien’s new approach to heroism is much different than Sir Gawain, Manfred’s and even the obvious leader of the company, Thorin. More specifically, Tolkien’s a portrayal of Bilbo as a character possessing average traits is a deliberate movement away from his predecessor’s heroic depictions. Oddly enough Bilbo defies former literary heroic characters in that he appeals to the average person. Bilbo never fashions himself with the attributes of the classical hero, yet his journey provides an opportunity for him to morph from an unassuming hobbit who shuns adventure to one where his traveling cohorts acknowledge his undeniable heroic influence and purpose in saving the lives of others, as well as himself. This transformation elevates Bilbo Baggins far beyond that of the previous grand classical hero and an unexpected hero unfolds!
One of the most common telling traits of a hero is his appearance. In popular literature the “classical hero” is portrayed as a fearless king or knight, physically strong and finally, displaying courage and wisdom. Tolkien's depiction of Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the Company of Dwarves, best describes this heroic character. It is Thorin who is the cunning warrior, and the exiled King from under the Mountain. Yet despite appearances, Tolkien’s inverse usage of Bilbo Baggins as the hero quickly shows how Bilbo is nothing like Thorin. Firstly, Bilbo does not in any manner resemble a warrior: “[Hobbits] are little people, about half our [human] height…They are inclined to be fat in the stomach and dress in bright colours”. Based on Bilbo’s appearance- a hairy hobbit clothed in the loud colours of a jester - the chance of a new hero being discovered definitely appears improbable! Certainly Bilbo's comic appearance does not command the serious attention a respectable leader should demand; unfortunately Bilbo's initial physical presentation results in him being overlooked as a leader. But as the story advances so does Bilbo’s physical transformation. This change in his appearance goes way beyond his initial dress code. Specifically, Bilbo's appearance is impacted by his attitude. Not surprisingly, a hero is trained to have the confidence of a leader. The classical hero from birth is trained that he will lead his followers and this training of the attitude is reflected in his demeanor and appearance. Initially Bilbo has a very strong opinion about not participating in the dwarves adventure proposed by the wise wizard, Gandalf. However, Bilbo's only hint at being bold in his character is when he refutes the invitation to join the adventure: “ ‘Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today.’ ” Bilbo’s initial resistance can again be interpreted as his fear of the unknown, which would naturally be reflected in his outward appearance. In turn, this fear would also have been augmented by the fact that Bilbo would have known that his involvement in an adventure could result in him being ostracized from the Shire, as hobbits that went on journeys lost the respect and dignity of their community. But Bilbo evidently does not want to go on the adventure because he is afraid. He just wants to stay in his hobbit hole, eat crumpets and drink tea. Interestingly Tolkien introduces Thorin as a contrast to Bilbo. As Bilbo’s hole is being barraged with dwarves, the arrival of Thorin, “the special one”, displaying his confident attitude is the exact opposite of Bilbo’s. Nonetheless, it is not until the next morning that Tolkien shows the beginning changes in Bilbo and his potential as a special hero. Waking from his sleep Bilbo realizes his lost opportunity in being a part of the adventure and chases after the company, hoping not to be left behind. It is this altered state of attitude that shows Bilbo he is willing to defy his tradition and join the journey. This changed attitude marks his initial transformation in becoming the new hero. His decision to join the departed travelers is reflected in his appearance as he no longer appears shy and withdrawn, but rather determined and dedicated. Bilbo’s less than average physical attributes, his comic dress, unassuming behavior and timid attitude all contribute to his overall appearance that appeals to the average reader. In his humble simple self, the reader sees a glimpse of him/herself and when Bilbo begins to shed this initial portrayal, the reader sees a new hero being created. By deciding to leave the Shire, Bilbo no longer looks fearful and shy. He still is short, hairy and plump, but, he now appears confident and it is this boldness that marks Bilbo's move away from his former old self to that of a new hero.
 Tolkien, J. R. R. "An Unexpected Party."The Hobbit. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988. 14.
 Tolkien, The Hobbit, 17.