Bilbo’s quest for identity and maturity in J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Hobbit"

Bachelor Thesis, 2015

50 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Heroe’s Journey
2.1. Separation
2.2. Initiation
2.3. Return

3. Bilbo’s Quest for Identity
3.1. Baggins vs. Took
3.2. Important Stages
3.2.1. Trolls
3.2.2. Gollum
3.2.3. Spider
3.2.4. Smaug
3.3. Causes for the Change
3.4. Coming Home

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Even though Tolkien’s works have already been popular at the time when they were published, they became even more popular through the medium of film. Peter Jackson achieved a huge success with the filming of The Lord of The Rings 1 in 2001 until 2003 and an even bigger success with the filming of The Hobbit, which expanded Tolkien’s readership and audience to a bigger size than ever before. How popular Tolkien’s works are, is displayed in the fact that right after the Bible, LOTR is the bestseller in the 20th century.

When thinking about the genre of fantasy one will probably first diminish it as children’s and juvenile’s literature. How old the genre of fantasy is can be seen on the example of the The Hobbit as it was published in 1937 and already enjoyed popularity among its readers back then. How well the genre is established, well-read and popular today is expressed through the huge amount of books, films or conventions. Although The Hobbit was awarded as the best juvenile book of the season in the U.S. in the 1930s it is obsolete to reduce it and the fantasy genre as being only for children and juveniles because adults have the same right "to read fairy-stories as a natural branch of literature" (Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories 11). Thus fantasy blossomed out to be interesting and meaningful for an adult readership as well. J.R.R. Tolkien is acclaimed as the main leader of fantasy literature and has clear ideas about what fantasy is and what it is not and which criteria need to be met so that it can be called fantasy. He found his theme in The Hobbit and "learned what he had to say and how the fairy story could say it" (Helms 29).

In The Hobbit the reader will get to know Tolkien’s invented world called Middle-Earth. The title of the book already drives at its hero, Bilbo Baggins, who lives at Bag-End and is "a most unheroic hobbit [who] achieves heroic stature" (Helms 29). Already the subtitle of the book There and Back again tells the reader that the plot will deal with a quest, namely the quest of Bilbo. The majority of the story deals with the "there" and only touches upon the "back" of the story, which does not mean of course that it is less important. Bilbo’s main job and the quest’s purpose is to regain the treasure of the dwarves which was stolen by the dreadful dragon Smaug. It is no coincidence that Bilbo’s title is "burglar" as he is very skilled when it comes to sneaking, stealing and finding secret doors (cf. Helms 34). In one year the small hobbit Bilbo overcomes his desire for a quiet, comfortable hobbit life with always enough food and cosy armchairs and instead becomes an adventurer who will fight for his friends and developes a heroic character. The Hobbit tells the reader about growing up, how the anti-heroic Bilbo was chucked out of his door into the adventure, how he let go of his immature behaviour and developed into a grown-up and responsible person. The Hobbit is especially famous because Bilbo is a realistic everyday character that is becoming a hero with whom everyday people can identify with.

As far as the origins of The Hobbit are concerned it is said that it nearly stayed unfinished and that there are many parallels to Tolkien’s personal life. Even Tolkien was aware of the parallels saying "I am in fact a hobbit, in all but size" (qtd. in Carpenter 179). Carpenter bases his knowledge on one of Tolkien’s children, who says that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit to entertain his children around 1930 but left it unfinished. Only later did he decide to continue and finish the story (cf. 183) and find out about all the possibilities of his new world Middle-Earth. It was Tolkien’s aim to convince his audience of the value of mythic literature and he once said to a friend that he is shaken about the lack of myths of the English so that he decided to create one himself (cf. Cater 14). Porter claims that Tolkien’s work "speaks to people who are looking for a change in their lives" (169). Even today the fictional worlds seem to represent a refuge for people with "a desire to find heroes who overcome their own terrible problems to emerge victorious" (Porter 169).

The heroe’s journey is not an unfamiliar theme of investigation in literature and always enjoyed a vast popularity. Campbell’s Monomyth is the major concept of this paper to explain how the heroe’s character is shaped throughout his journey. Tolkien, as well as many before him, was influenced by Campbell’s idea. Campbell’s theory did not only influence literature but also film and comic, such as Star Wars and The Ultimate Spider-Man. Genuinely, the idea of myths is to convey moral values and provide moral instruction (cf. Purtill 107). The idea of the Monomyth cannot only be applied to a literary hero but also to any other human being. The quest of Bilbo Baggins will serve as an example of the heroe’s journey in which many features of the Monomyth can be found. Moreover, the idea of the journey is made clear through Bilbo’s quest as he not only has to take physical hurdles but also psychological ones.

The following thesis aims at analysing Bilbo’s quest for identity and maturation.

It has been said that The Hobbit not only offers a fantasy world but also deals with the human psyche. First of all, the theoretical and more general part will be explaining the heroe’s journey, the Monomyth of Campbell, its quest-plot, establishing the basis for the later analysis of Bilbo’s character. In the third chapter Bilbo’s quest will be examined, investigating his character as it is intermingled between the Baggins and Tookish2 part of his family. It will be displayed how his two natures are at first rather opposing each other and how Bilbo develops so that they complement each other. Furthermore, the most important stages of his development are presented: the trolls, gollum, the spiders in Mirkwood and finally Smaug. It will be shown how the first three stages are crucial turning points and prepare Bilbo for his final ordeal Smaug and how they shaped his character for the rest of the journey and the rest of his life. Furthermore, the causes of Bilbo’s development will be investigated focussing on what made him do the things he did and what makes him let go of his immature way of life. In addition, the thesis will focus on the "back" of the story, Bilbo’s homecoming, examining how Bilbo changed throughout his journey, what he learnt, what he achieved, and how he is coming to peace as a better and mature hobbit. In the end, all thoughts and ideas will be summed up and it will be critically looked back at what the thesis dealt with.

2. The Heroe’s Journey

The heroe’s journey, the quest plot or what Joseph Campbell calls the Monomyth is crucial for the personal development of the heroe’s character. Campbell borrowed the word from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (cf. Campbell 30). Campbell, through his studies on mythology and legends, comes up with a pattern which he claims has repeatedly shown up not only in myths and legends but also in our lives as human beings, in the human psyche. He recognises in the various myths from all certain time periods a resemblance in the journeys of the heroes.

First of all we need to distinguish between mythology and myth. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary describes mythology as "ancient myths in general; the ancient myths of a particular culture, society" (843) as for example the "Greek mythology" (ibid.). In contrast, the myth is described as "a story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or […] history of people" (842). Throughout all times "myth of men have flourished" (Campbell 3), have been told and retold, and they largely contributed to our "human cultural manifestation[s]" (ibid.). Campbell claims that mythology is "everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume" (4) and that myth lasted into modern times also because it serves as a means of conveying moral values (cf. Purtill 108).

As Campbell’s idea is a psychoanalytic model, we as human beings have our own myths as well represented in dreams which contain not only good things but also "dangerous jinn" (Campbell 8). For Cambell erotic dreams of the mother are crucial in this matter which imply the Oedipus complex introduced by Freud. He claims we cave in those secret thoughts because they threaten our secure lives which we have built, but he suggests that these thoughts are also fascinating, because they "carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self" (8). Freud came up with the analysis of dreams by "the initiating medicine man" (9), the doctor who "is the modern master of the mythological realm" (9) we have built. Campbell claims that this doctor has the role of the "Wise Old Man […] whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventure" (9). He helps the hero to find a weapon to slay the dragon, tells of the reward, heals the wounds and then releases him into normal life (cf. Campbell 10).

The prime function of mythology is to "supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward" (Campbell 11) not to hold it back. The doctor is the reminder of the fears that dwell in our brain, and although the human mind heals itself the images have to be supplied from the outside, otherwise we have to go through them again and again in our dreams (cf. Campbell 11). When the human being looks back at his "dangerous adventure" (Campbell 13) and what it was promised to be, it will be seen that it was "a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world […]" (ibid.). This is the basis of Campbell’s claim that myths share similarties.

Who is then the hero? Campbell suggests the hero is the one who submitted, who actually closely looks into his psyche, sees where the difficulties lie, deals with them, extinguishes them, fights this battle with himself and breaks through personal limitations (cf. 17). The human being who has become a hero has been reborn and now he has to go back where he came from and show what he has learned to his people (cf. Campbell 20). An adventure can always be at hand, for everyone, it is not much needed to follow the call to adventure and stop going the easy path, and through adventure human kind will be reborn and find its true inner self. Furthermore, the hero of the Monomyth has exceptional gifts and either he is well-liked, ignored or happens to be despised by his fellow people (cf. Campbell 37). Moreover, he distinguishes between two kinds of heroes namely the fairy tale hero and the myth hero. The former achieves personal domestic triumph and the latter a world-historically triumph significant for the whole world (cf. Campbell 38).

However, Campbell’s idea of a unified, general pattern has often been critised for its simpleness, as an easy way out. Van Ness fears that the journey will become a cliché, taking away all the mythic features (cf. 148). Although Campbell deals with some heroines, she says that his idea is gender-oriented, focussing mainly on the male hero (ibid.). As his very idea of myth is based on the Oedipus complex in which human beings are caved in, according to Campbell, it is a justifiable claim of Van Ness, because the Oedipus complex is a phenomenon of young boys, not girls. Also Van Ness criticises the assumption that all myths are similar if not the same, because it lays in the eye of the beholder who can be considered a hero and who cannot (ibid.). Moreover, Elwood stresses the importance of the cultural background of myths, which have a strong influence and should not be neglected. He contradicts Campbell’s opinion that myths are cross-culturally the same. Thus, a general pattern of a journey extracted and combined from different myths is not possible, neither for him nor for Van Ness (cf. 145).

Nevertheless Hourihan subscribes to Campbell’s view and also claims that the heroe’s quest is always the same and that we cannot deny the "centrality of the hero story in our culture" (2). She also describes a deep psychological level, as Campbell does, that the story is also concerned with the developement of a boy to a real man as similarly the basic theme of the hero story is about the hero going into the wilderness (cf. Hourihan 22). Also for Auden to go on a quest means "to look for something of which one has, as yet, no experience" (31) and thus, the quest is a "subjective experience of becoming" (31). Auden suggests that there are six essential elements to a quest namely a valuable object which needs to be found, a long journey, a hero with the right qualities, a series of tests in which the hero will be revealed, guardians who guard the treasure and at last helpers who complement each other in their qualities (35).

Hourihan emphasises the dualism of the hero story as the good hero will encounter bad things on his journey which he has to fight and which will add to his personality (cf. 2). The image of the dualism must be a "contest between two sides" (Auden 36). Moreover, there is nothing more easily recognisable than the quest plot, and it has influenced and inspired all kinds of myths as for example Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid which is why, when we look at them more closely we will find many similarities (cf. Booker 70). If we want to accept it or not, genuinely there are certain patterns which can be found in many hero stories, which are repeated, cannot be denied of their existence, can be applied to many myths and legends and can also serve as a means to compare heroe’s journeys and quests.

It has been said and claimed that the heroe’s journeys in myths and literature follow a certain pattern which can be projected on a plenty of myths all together. There are not many other forms which are as easily recognisable as the quest plot. We learn that there is some prize or reward at hand if the hero agrees to the adventure and the quest is not fulfilled until the one task of the hero is managed and completed. However, not all myths follow all stages, as a matter of fact only a few do, while others only cover some there are even myths which barely cover a few of the stages. The quest plot is not only a device that brings the plot further but also contains symbolical value. What the quest plot means for The Hobbit and in particular for Bilbo will be explained in chapter three.

Campbell distinguishes three main stages of the quest, namely 1. separation, 2. initiation and 3. return, which he names "the nuclear unit of the monomyth" (30). By separation Campbell means that a hero leaves his comfort zone, his ordinary normal life and sets out into a different supernatural world of wonder (cf. 30). The second stage initiation describes the journey of the hero, the risks and adventures he has to take and overcome, with or without assistance (ibid.). The last stage return, as the word already suggests, is the time when the hero managed the journey and is coming home from this strange world he travelled, with his achieved "boon" which is in his power to give to his people (ibid.). Each of the main stages include more sub-stages which will be described in the following paragraphs. Frye Northrop expanded Campbell’s concept claiming that the quest is a key feature in mythological narratives, stating three stages. 1. Agon the stage of "preliminary minor adventures" (187), 2. pathos the stage in "which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die" (ibid.) and 3. anagnorisis the stage when the hero is discovered and recognised.

Campbell’s theory of the Monomyth has often been used as a template to create another heroe’s story, which thus, "indirectly shapes and delimits the expectations of audiences, critics, and storytellers" (Rogers 74). He claims that these patterns work cross-culturally because what the hero experiences in his adventure is nothing surreal but is part of every human’s experience. It is not only about the structure these stories share, it is also about how we relate to the story and the hero.

2.1. Separation

The world the hero lives in is at danger at losing its freedom and harmony and is about to fall and be ruined. Something has gone terribly wrong and the hero cannot stay at home. The hero can save his endangered world if he dares to follow The Call to Adventure which is the first sub-stage of the separation or departure (cf. Campbell 38). There are many ways in which the call can be expressed which summons the hero to the adventure and it is most often miracle-like (cf. Campbell 51). Whether the summon is about life or death, something big or small, it triggers a transfiguration and amounts to a death or a birth (ibid.). What was once important to the hero is now outgrown and replaced by new concepts and priorities, old concepts may even lose its value and it will never be the same again. The caller Campbell termed the "herald" (53), which is often "dark, loathly, or terrifying" (ibid.) or sometimes even a beast, marks a new period and is most often represented with a fascinating atmosphere (cf. Campbell 55). However, what it will take of the hero is nothing new as it is already inside of him what it takes to go on the adventure (ibid.). It is his destiny to be summoned to this adventure which is set in a place unknown and which has both treasure and danger ready.

Obviously, the hero now has two options: acceptance or refusal of the summon. The hero who leaves the call unanswered will be a victim who needs saving as his life and interests turn into boredom and senselessness (cf. Campbell 59). The hero who denies the call is in the stage of The Refusal of the Call which is also a refusal to give up your own interest (cf. Campbell 60). The refusing hero might think that it must be a mistake or that he is not the right person for the journey. But not all who hesitate are lost as they are destined to be saved (cf. Campbell 65).

If the call is not refused, or first refused but then accepted, the hero encounters his Supernatural Aid, which is the next stage, and is portrayed as a mostly elderly and masculine protector of the hero and also a provider of weapons and powers (cf. Campbell 69-72). However the protector does not have a definite shape as he has in some myths been in a wizard or in others a smith or teacher (cf. Campbell 72). This person "represents […] the benign, protecting power of destiny" (Campbell 71) which will always be at the heroe’s side with the protective power if only he has trust. Not only the protector but also Mother Nature helps the hero to fulfill his mighty task (cf. Campbell 72). Booker emphasises the importance that the hero is not alone but with a variety of friends which accompany him and which are also always at help (cf. 71f). What should not be underestimated are the various relationships the hero has to his companions. Booker lists a few namely 1. a large number of companions which are not differentiated, 2. the hero has an alter-ego accompanying him which is always loyal, 3. the hero has an alter-ego as company with qualities that display the opposite of the hero and 4. the hero is accompanied by a number of companions which each have certain qualities which complement each other and "add up to a whole" (Booker 72).

The Crossing of the first threshold represents the point at which the hero actually goes into the new field of the adventure, into the unknown dark endangered world. He must turn away from his comfortable limits and boundaries and go into the unexplored, into "a new zone of experience" (Campbell 82). Now that the hero has crossed the first threshold he is ready for a whole transformation. He is reborn in the stage of The Belly of the Whale, he has stopped fighting for his traditions and instead "is swallowed into the unknown" (Campbell 90). Without the crossing of the threshold there would be no whole transformation of the hero, which is why the threshold most often is a form of self-destruction (cf. Campbell 91). The hero thinks about himself, goes inward and thinks about what he is and with this is born again. The hero has to change in order to enter the temple in which the threshold guardians lay, which "ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within" (Campbell 92). The threshold guardian could for instance be a dragon whom the hero needs to slay in order to get his reward. Thus, he must have the ability to critically think about himself and have the will to be reborn when the time comes in order to meet is final ordeal.

2.2. Initiation

Now that the hero has crossed the threshold and has a readiness and willingness to transform he has to manage to survive The Road of Trials which is the first stage of the initiation with his protector and helper (Supernatural Aid) always at his side (cf. Campbell 97). It is not just a journey, but also the heroe’s personal journey through his own "spiritual labyrinth" (Campbell 101) in which he has to fight his own demons and turn them into something good. He will see that his current self and his opposite which he becomes are one person and in order to become that other side he has to break through his resistance. Thus, "he must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable" (Campbell 108). He has to give in to the transformation.

As the hero will be continuing his quest there will be The Meeting with the Goddess which already indicates a gender-based turn. When the trials have been managed Campbell claims that the meeting of the hero and the goddess stands for the unconditional love of the infant to his mother (cf. 111). However, it is not always the good mother which is presented, but also the bad mother which was absent and punishing (ibid.). Thus, it is also a test "to win the boon of love" (Campbell 118). Moreover, the hero has to experience The Woman as the Temptress who has the power to lead him away from his goals and who genuinely stands for all the temptations in life which the hero has to overcome in order to fulfill his task (cf. Campbell 122). Nevertheless Booker does not claim a psychological foundation but plainly claims that the woman in the quest also serves as a helper as the wise old man does (The Supernatural Aid) (cf. 77). They both give rest, food and guidance to help the hero make his way.

The next stage is considered the center stage of the quest plot, everything before leads to it and everything after departs from it: Atonement with the Father. Only the hero who is free of all "inappropriate infantile cathexes" (Campbell 136) can come to an atonement with the father or a father figure. The hero must open his soul to understand the father, the ultimate power of life and death, and both can be atoned (cf. Campbell 147).

The Apotheosis is the stage when duality is left behind and a new life begins

"through the reconjunction of the two" (Campbell 154), he has been reborn. The hero is now more than a man, more than he ever was (cf. Campbell 162) he can be described as a superior man (cf. Campbell 173). This stage is directly followed by The Ultimate Boon which is the part when the goal of the hero has been achieved (cf. Campbell 173).

The quest has been accomplished and it is now time for the hero to make his way home with his reward, his trophy, to bring to his people. He must bring his trophy "back into the kingdom of humanity" (Campbell 193) meaning that he has to leave the supernatural world in through which he has been travelling and go back to his hometown which he once even refused to leave.

2.3. Return

The first stage of the return is called the Refusal of the Return and implies the contrast to what the hero is responsible to do. Instead of returning hom there have been several stories of heroes which took residence forever in the second world. The hero will have difficulties living in his old world which has become strange to him (cf. Campbell 218). If the hero does not have a choice he is explicitly questioned to return to his home in order to restorate his society. On the other hand if the hero gained a trophy out of the quest which enemies desire as well they might want to take it away from him which then turns into The Magic Flight, which "may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasion" (Campbell 197). Furthermore, the success of the Monomyth has to be shown by human success, not human failure or superhuman success (cf. Campbell 207).

In the next stage of the Return the hero might need a Rescue from Without. Just as he needed assistance to set out for the journey there are also chances that he needs help to get home safely. This fact brings the hero much closer to the audience, because it makes him more human, more like everyone else, more like us.

This will lead to The Crossing of the Return Threshold. Just as the hero has to give it a try to enter into the adventure he also has to deal with the fact that it is over now. Although in his adventure he wished several times that he was in his cosy home, he will only then experience that it will never be the same again because he has changed. The hero has to understand that the two worlds, his journey from comfort into unknown darkness, are really one world which was the whole sense of the journey. What once was important will disappear and the hero will assimilate to the things he once dreaded because of ignorance (cf. Campbell 217), the opposites will become an entity. In fact the boon the hero brings forth from his journey is quickly reduced to nonentity and there will quickly be a need for a new hero (cf. Campbell 218). Campbell claims that the hero will have difficulties living in his home again which he once so loved and he has to learn to love the "passing joys, sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life" (Campbell 218). No one from his old world will appreciate or understand the hero, the things he had to overcome and what he has experienced.

In order to live a peaceful life the hero has to become the Master of the Two Worlds. He understands the differences between each world, but also its common ground, he has the freedom to pass back and forth between the two worlds, he does not mix the principles of the two worlds but yet appreciates both (cf. Campbell 229). The whole journey was also a psychological journey for the hero in which he gave up his personal limitations, ignored his hopes and fear and did not resist the self-destruction any longer in order to be reborn which makes him mature growing from a boy to a real man (cf. Campbell 237). He does not live, but relax in this new status of life and "whatever may come […] pass in him" (Campbell 237) which makes him an anonymity (cf. Campbell 237).

When the hero has conquered all demons of the adventure and of himself there are certain paths he can take for his future. He may refuse to go on with life as he saw so much pain in the world, he may become a self-righteous person who misunderstood the purpose of the journey or he may travel again, but the most important thing is: he is free in action (cf. Campbell 238f). Booker claims it is the happy ending which makes the quest complete and knowing that the world which was at first threatened is now renewed (cf. 82). "And we can see at last (although it was by no means clear while the story was still unfolding) that this was what the Quest had really been about all along" (Booker 83).


1 From now on abbreviated with LOTR.

2 Used as an adjective from now on to describe Bilbo’s adventerous nature influenced by his mother Belladonna Took.

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Bilbo’s quest for identity and maturity in J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Hobbit"
University of Bonn  (Anglistik)
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hobbit, identity, maturity, tolkien, bilbo, monomyth, hero's journey
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Katja Grasberger (Author), 2015, Bilbo’s quest for identity and maturity in J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Hobbit", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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