75 reasons: Tom Shippey



When I used to teach a course on Tolkien, one of the essay questions which my students answered consistently well was the one which asked them how, in The Hobbit, Bilbo developed a kind of heroic status. The reason they did it well was perhaps that Bilbo’s turning points are so clearly marked. To begin with, of course, he is anything but a hero, as compared with the fierce, grim dwarves, creatures from the old saga world. In fact Bilbo does the worst thing you can do in the old saga world, which is lose self-control. At Thorin’s mention of “may never return” he shrieks and falls down, “shaking like a jelly” (ch.1). In the “Saga of Hrafnkel Priest of Frey”, which Tolkien knew well, one of the characters is so moved “that he weeps” – and after that we hear no more of him. Weeping or crying out in public, for an adult male, is unforgivable in the old heroic world.

Bilbo, then, has a lot of ground to make up, but it turns out that he has some useful qualities. He can move very quietly (ch.2). He has sharper eyes than the dwarves (ch.8). He is “a pretty fair shot with a stone” (ch.10). Sometimes he is just lucky, as when he wakes up in the mountain cave in time to give the warning yell that enables Gandalf to escape the goblins (ch.4). He was not much use in the adventure with the trolls, though he did try to live up to his role as Burglar, but in the cave it is conceded that it was “a good thing that [the dwarves] had brought little Bilbo with them, after all”. Bilbo also finds the ring, which is what really enables him to become a Burglar, and gives the dwarves “quite a new respect” for him (ch.6), even “a great respect for him” (ch.8), “a very high opinion indeed” (ch.9), so much that by ch. 12 “he had become the real leader in their adventure”. So far so good. But Burglars are not the same as Heroes, and the dwarves’ growing respect for Bilbo is somewhat accidental: they do not know how he has changed.

There are maybe five main turning-points for Bilbo, most of them clearly marked. The first is in ch. 5, when he comes round, on his own, in the dark, in the goblin tunnel. He draws his elvish blade, finds it comforting, and goes on. The narrator notes that while Bilbo was certainly in “a tight place”, as a hobbit he has resources ordinary people do not (including “a fund of wisdom and wise sayings” of which one would be glad to hear more). Bilbo’s moral stature increases when he spares Gollum a few pages later, but it should be noted that this occurs only in the later-rewritten version. If one were drawing a graph of Bilbo’s progress, this moment would be a little out of line with the original chart.

Bilbo, however, does take another step at the start of ch.6, though this moment is often missed, being slightly ironic. He has just made up his mind that it is “his duty”, having ecaped from the tunnels, to go back and look for the dwarves, when he hears them discussing what to do, and one of them says, contradicting Gandalf, that they ought to abandon him. Here Bilbo, for the first time, is definitely one-up on the dwarves when it comes to courage, though their growing respect for him is not based on this. More clearly marked is the moment in ch. 8, when Bilbo wakes up to find himself being attacked by the spider, and manages to kill it, “all alone by himself in the dark”. He feels “a different person”, enough of an old-style hero by this time to give his sword a name, Sting. In the fight with the spiders Bilbo acts not only bravely, but aggressively, charging, stabbing and stinging.

Bilbo uses his wits and his ring to get the dwarves out of the elvish prison, and plays a role in finding the secret door into the Lonely Mountain. But his peak of courage, clearly signalled as “the bravest thing he ever did” comes in ch. 12, when he conquers his own fear and goes on down the tunnel to Smaug to steal the cup. Note that his second trip down, when he holds the conversation with Smaug, is “not so bad”.

Nevertheless Bilbo still has one step more to take, though we know nothing about what makes him do it. This comes when he creeps away from the dwarves and hands over the Arkenstone to Bard and the Elvenking to use as a bargaining point (ch.16). This is courage of a different kind, for it could be seen as dishonourable, even treacherous. Bilbo recognises as much, and increases his stature even further, when he insists on going back to rejoin what he now calls “his friends”. Thereafter Bilbo reverts to normal hobbit-status. He plays no part in the Battle of the Five Armies, and it would have rung false if he had. It is ironic again that this is the event Bilbo later is “most proud of” (ch.17). It shows his modesty that he seems never to recognise his own major achievement with the Arkenstone.

In fact none of Bilbo’s five main turning-points, except to some extent the last, is recognised by the outside world. They all take place when he is alone, and most of them when he is in the dark. His courage is shown in conquering his own fear. It is markedly non-aggressive, except for spiders, and no-one can imagine Bilbo ever being called Víga-Bilbo, “Killer-Bilbo”, like a saga hero. What he shows is what some call “cold courage” or “3 o’clock in the morning courage”, achieved without the assistance of rage or banners or war-horns. As for his decision over the Arkenstone, this is clearly “moral courage”: doing what many would call wrong, in defiance of general opinion, and accepting the risk of blame.

Both these styles of courage can be seen as especially relevant to the modern world, and here the authority I would cite is Tolkien’s old classmate and exact conemporary from King Edward’s School, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, later Viscount Slim of Burma, KG, DSO, MC etc. Slim is generally accepted as the most professionally competent British general, and probably Allied general, of World War 2. He was extremely popular with his troops, partly because they knew he had been shot several times, both before and after he became a general. Slim had a lot to say about courage, and one thing he said was that while no-one could fault his enemies, the Japanese, for physical courage, he thought their commanders lacked moral courage. They would not admit that they had failed, and by their refusal to lose face, they condemned their armies not just to defeat but to annihilation (see Slim, Defeat into Victory (1956), ch.23)..

One other incident was recalled by another professional soldier, John Masters, later a successful novelist. In the second volume of his autobiography, The Road Past Mandalay (1961), he describes the moment he first saw Slim, then a junior general charged with the British and Indian invasion of Iraq in 1941. The officers being addressed were regular soldiers of the Indian Army, who had seen a good deal of combat, and were used to talks from generals for whom they had no high regard. Slim was received, then, not with “awed expectation” but with “a judicial hush” (ch.4). Masters reports that Slim addressed a few technical issues, and then began to talk about morale. The “dominant feeling” of a modern battlefield, said Slim, is “loneliness”, and it takes more than just discipline to make a man go on without the drums and bugles and battle police of earlier conflicts. Slim’s remarks only seemed more relevant in the jungle fighting which would develop for Masters in Burma, and later on, of course, for many others in Vietnam.

Tom Shippey (c) Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey (c) Tom Shippey

Tolkien could not have predicted this, but one conclusion one could well draw is that modern armies need Bilbos as well as Bards and Thorins. Or perhaps he could have predicted it. Either way, one thing which The Hobbit does uniquely well is offer at once a sympathetic protrait of the old heroic world, so often now dismissed as mere macho posturing, as well as an updated image of heroism for the modern world: both to be developed further in The Lord of the Rings.

[learn_more caption=”Author biography: Tom Shippey”] Tom Shippey has taught medieval literature at six universities, including Oxford and Harvard, and retired in 2008 from his last academic appointment, the Walter J Ong Chair at Saint Louis University. His books on Tolkien are The Road to Middle-earth (1982, 4th edition 2004), JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000), and Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien (2007).[/learn_more]


A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert

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  • Reodwyn

    Very interesting post on courage and Bilbo’s heroic development. I am about to start a re-read of the Hobbit soon and we will discuss it in our Grey Haven’s group here in Colorado. I keep thinking that Slim’s comments on Japanese lack of moral courage also anchors in cultural differences. In the west, in particular eras more than other, it is courageous to admit your mistakes and defeats, while in other cultures other approaches, even such extreme ones as suicide.

  • Very clear and straight arguments.

  • I appreciate and agree with this analysis. Sadly, Jackson does not. I won’t spoil it, but the first of the three Hobbit movies does serious, possibly irreparable, damage to Bilbo’s character in this exact dimension.