The Hobbit is a fantasy novel, and it contains many of the genre’s traditional tropes: a quest, treasure, a dark forest, and even a dragon. With this in mind, it’s worth asking who the hero—arguably the most important fantasy trope — of The Hobbit is, and how Tolkien defines heroism. Bilbo Baggins is the protagonist of The Hobbit, meaning that he’s the default hero. In the early chapters of the book, Bilbo is cowardly and reluctant to participate in the dwarves’ quest. Ironically, this makes Bilbo seem more heroic than ever—the “reluctant hero” is an old literary archetype (Moses and King Arthur are classic examples.). Also in these early chapters, Tolkien submits one possible definition of a hero: a larger-than-life person who excels at combat. Bilbo’s memories of his ancient ancestor, a hobbit who slew a goblin, suggest that this is how Bilbo, if not Tolkien, thinks of heroism.
Tolkien complicates this definition of heroism, however, as the story goes on. Heroism requires skill in combat, but also bravery, cleverness, and a talent for words. Characters who excel at only one of these things—Gollum, who excels at wordplay, the dwarves, who excel at combat, etc.—tend to fail in their aims; for instance, the dwarves are captured by spiders, their skill with swords useless. Although Bilbo is hardly a hero at the start of the book, he finds that he has many of the skills required for heroism as he and the dwarves travel to the Lonely Mountain. Ultimately, Bilbo develops a talent for both wordplay—he trades riddles with Gollum—and bravery—he alone is courageous enough to sneak into the Lonely Mountain while Smaug lives there. While he also shows some talent for combat, killing the spiders in Mirkwood forest, it’s clear that Bilbo is not a great warrior—indeed, he largely hides during the Battle of the Five Armies.
There seems to be no single character in The Hobbit who excels at every skill required to complete a quest. Bard, the archer who kills Smaug and goes on to lead the people of Esgaroth, excels at bravery and combat, but while he also shows some talent for words during his negotiations with Thorin, it’s difficult to imagine him riddling his way out of the Misty Mountains, tricking Smaug into revealing his weak point, talking his way into Beorn’s house, etc. Ultimately, the question of what makes a hero, or who best exemplifies heroism is less important to Tolkien than describing how characters cooperate with each other to fight evil and accomplish their goals. Thus, both Bilbo and Bard kill Smaug: Bilbo determines how to kill Smaug, and Bard uses the information to do the deed. It may be true that no single person is heroic in every sense of the word; thus, only when characters work together (as dwarves, elves, and men do in the Battle of the Five Armies) do their achievements become truly heroic.
Heroism Quotes in The Hobbit
This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walkingstick.
He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns.
Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up – probably somebody lighting a wood-fire-and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.
"Both wrong," cried Bilbo very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. He knew, of course, that the riddlegame was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.
Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate.
He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it.
It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo's heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.
Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins.
He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
"I will give you a name," he said to it, "and I shall call you Sting."
He had never thought that the dwarves would actually dare to approach Smaug, but believed they were frauds who would sooner or later be discovered and be turned out.
He was wrong. Thorin, of course, was really the grandson of the King under the Mountain, and there is no knowing what a dwarf will not dare and do for revenge or the recovery of his own. But the Master was not sorry at all to let them go. They were expensive to keep, and their arrival had turned things into a long holiday in which business was at a standstill.
"Let them go and bother Smaug, and see how he welcomes them!" he thought.
"Certainly, O Thorin Thrain's son Thror's son!" was what he said. "You must claim your own. The hour is at hand, spoken of old. What help we can offer shall be yours, and we trust to your gratitude when your kingdom is regained."
"If you mean you think it is my job to go into the secret passage first, O Thorin Thrain's son Oakenshield, may your beard grow ever longer," he said crossly, "say so at once and have done! I might refuse. I have got you out of two messes already, which were hardly in the original bargain, so that I am, I think, already owed some reward. But 'third time pays for all' as my father used to say, and somehow I don't think I shall refuse. Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days" - he meant last spring before he left his own house, but it seemed centuries ago -"but anyway I think I will go and have a peep at once and get it over. Now who is coming with me?" He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed.
"I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I as chosen for the lucky number."
"Lovely titles!" sneered the dragon. "But lucky numbers don't always come off."
"I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me."
"These don't sound so creditable," scoffed Smaug.
"I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider," went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
As you see, the Master had not got his position for nothing. The result of his words was that for the moment the people quite forgot their idea of a new king, and turned their angry thoughts towards Thorin and his company. Wild and bitter words were shouted from many sides; and some of those who had before sung the old songs loudest, were now heard as loudly crying that the dwarves had stirred the dragon up against them deliberately!
Bilbo thought that Thorin would at once admit what justice was in them. He did not, of course, expect that any one would remember that it was he who discovered all by himself the dragon's weak spot; and that was just as well, for no one ever did. But also he did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts. Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him. Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labors and the sorrows of his race.
“Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it."
From that treasure Bard sent much gold to the Master of Lake-town; and he rewarded his followers and friends freely. To the Elvenking he gave the emeralds of Girion, such jewels as he most loved, which Dain had restored to him. To Bilbo he said:
"This treasure is as much yours as it is mine; though old agreements cannot stand, since so many have a claim in its winning and defense. Yet even though you were willing to lay aside all your claim, I should wish that the words of Thorin, of which he repented, should not prove true: that we should give you little. I would reward you most richly of all."
"Very kind of you," said Bilbo. "But really it is a relief to me. How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don't know. And I don't know what I should have done with it when I got home. I am sure it is better in your hands."
"Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" said Bilbo.
"Of course!" said Gandalf. "And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
"Thank goodness!" said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.