The Hobbit

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Hobbit, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Heroism Theme Icon

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.

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Heroism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Heroism appears in each chapter of The Hobbit. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Heroism Quotes in The Hobbit

Below you will find the important quotes in The Hobbit related to the theme of Heroism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In this early quotation from the book, Tolkien establishes the basic plot: the protagonist, whose name is Baggins, will go out into the world and discover that he's capable of doing and saying new, exciting things. The quotation is written in a simple, almost fairy tale-like style ("This is a story"). But although the quotation might seem simplistic, it establishes an important and complex theme of the novel: the relationship between external travel and internal change. Baggins will travel a great distance in order to have his adventure. And yet the real adventure will occur within him: as he encounters new people and places, Baggins will discover new things about himself.


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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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins, Smaug
Page Number: 15-16
Explanation and Analysis:

In this early scene, Bilbo invites a group of dwarves, led by the wizard Gandalf, into his home. The dwarves begin dancing and singing about their ancestral treasures—beautiful objects made from gold and jewels. As Bilbo listens to the songs, he feels a deep stirring of desire to go out into the world and explore the unknown. But suddenly, Bilbo feels a flash of fear, and abruptly stops fantasizing about adventure.

The quotation is important because it establishes that Bilbo has the potential to be a great adventurer, even if he's untrained. As Tolkien puts it, Bilbo has a trace of the "Tooks"—his wilder, more adventurous ancestors—in him. More generally though, he discovers here that he does have a secret desire to go off on adventures, a desire that few in his peaceful, complacent community would support. The passage also suggests how fear and routine act as barriers to happiness and curiosity. Bilbo might desire to explore the world, but right now he's too afraid of danger to translate his desire into reality.

Chapter 5 Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Gollum
Related Symbols: The Misty Mountains
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bilbo, who is trapped beneath the Misty Mountains, exchanges riddles with Gollum, a frightening, mysterious cave-dweller. Although Bilbo and Gollum have almost nothing in common (or so they think), they do abide by a common set of rules: they believe in the importance of words and language. As a result, the game of riddles they play with one another has a "sacred" side to it. Gollum promises to show Bilbo the way out of the mountains if Bilbo can stump him; now that Bilbo has won the game, Gollum is "bound" to honor his agreement.

And yet as the passage makes clear, language can be twisted and manipulated to suit people's needs. Here, Bilbo is afraid that his victory in the game of riddles isn't binding, at least not in the sacred, "ancient" sense. Based on the passage, it's clear that Gollum is dangerous to Bilbo, and moreover, his dangerousness is closely related to his refusal to keep his word. In the world of Middle Earth, honor and honesty are of the utmost importance; no creature who breaks his word can be "good."

In the absence of rules—the rules of riddle-telling, in this case—Bilbo must learn to depend on a new set of skills; namely, his abilities with a sword. Thrown into danger, Bilbo is forced to master the art of language, and then, when language fails him, he's forced to resort to physical fighting. Because it proves that he's a versatile, multi-talented person, Bilbo's interaction with Gollum represents a milestone in his journey to becoming a hero.

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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins, Gollum
Related Symbols: The Ring
Page Number: 86-87
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Bilbo contemplates killing Gollum, whom he knows to be dangerous, but then hesitates. Without warning, Bilbo feels a sudden burst of sympathy for Gollum, a creature who's forced to live a hard, lonely life under the mountain. It's because of his sympathy that Bilbo decides to spare Gollum's life.

Bilbo's behavior indicates that he's becoming a more confident, mature adventurer; moreover, it suggests some important things about heroism in general. Only a few chapters ago, it would have been easy to imagine Bilbo panicking and striking Gollum with his sword out of fear. The fact that Bilbo hesitates suggests that he's become calmer and more clear-thinking; he's growing used to the life of adventure. More generally, though, Bilbo's behavior reminds us that heroism is about being merciful and gentle as much as it is about physical prowess and bravery. At times, heroes are forced to kill their opponents, but only in self-defense. As he journeys through the mountains, Bilbo learns a lot about fighting and survival, but he never allows these "lessons" to interfere with his decency or mercy. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sting
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important scene, Bilbo kills a giant spider, using the sword he acquired during the course of his earlier adventures. Standing over his defeated opponent, Bilbo feels like a new hobbit: braver, stronger, and more independent than ever before.

It's important to note that although Bilbo has owned his small sword for some time now, it's only now that he chooses to give it a name. Bilbo's decision to name his sword reflects his emergence as a full-fledged hero: a brave, intelligent warrior who defends his friends (in this scene, the dwarves, who have been captured) from evil. Previously, Bilbo had the potential to become a bold adventurer (just as his sword had the potential to kill), but now his potential has become a reality, as reflected by his new sense of courage. Bilbo seems to be naming his sword, but he might as well be rechristening himself: he's a hero now.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: The Master (speaker), Thorin Oakenshield, Smaug
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the Master—the temporary leader of the men of Lake-town (the area near Smaug's lair)—deals with Thorin and the other dwarves. The dwarves have come to the Master's territory to ask for supplies with which to scale the mountain and defeat Smaug. The Master is amazed that the dwarves are actually going to attempt to kill Smaug, and because the Master himself is a rather cowardly liar, he naturally assumes that Thorin and his followers are liars, too, and that they're just in town for the free food and lodgings the townspeople have offered them.

The passage is amusing because of the way it juxtaposes the Master's thoughts—crass, petty, and greedy—and his words, which are grandiose and comically eloquent. Like many of the villains in the novel, the Master maintains his power by manipulating language, using speeches to convince the townspeople that he is their proper leader, and saying certain things even when he secretly believes the exact opposite. In general, the passage establishes a contrast between Thorin's noble dedication to his quest and the Master's opportunism. Tolkien reminds us who the real heroes of his story are, just before they go off to fight Smaug.

Chapter 12 Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Thorin Oakenshield
Page Number: 212-213
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bilbo Baggins is surprised to learn that Thorin and the other dwarves intend for him to sneak into Smaug's cave alone, in order to explore the area. Bilbo knows full-well that this is a dangerous mission, suggesting that the dwarves aren't as brave as they presented themselves to be. In spite of his annoyance, Bilbo decides to explore the cave, anyway.

Bilbo's behavior in this scene reminds readers how much he's changed in only a few months; the mention of the "old days" illustrates that Bilbo thinks of his old life in the hobbit-hole as a distant memory. Moreover, the passage shows readers that Bilbo both is and isn't the hero of the novel. On one hand, Bilbo has become exceptionally brave in a short period of time: he's learned how to fight and talk his way out of almost any situation. (Although he's reluctant to enter the cave by himself, it's not because he's particularly frightened.) And yet Bilbo also isn't a typical hero at all: he can be sarcastic and irritable, reminding the dwarves of their cowardice in a rather petty way, and much of his "bravery" stems from the fact that he secretly possesses a magic ring of invisibility. Perhaps the passage is meant to suggest that the people whom one thinks of as traditionally heroic—like Thorin Oakenshield, with his gravitas and ancestral ties to the land—are rarely as brave as they seem, while those who don't appear particularly heroic, such as Bilbo, are often stronger and braver than they appear.

"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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Smaug
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Bilbo has snuck into the dragon Smaug's lair. There, he toys with Smaug, identifying himself with a series of clever nicknames that allude to his impressive exploits across Middle Earth. Bilbo's behavior in this passage suggests a number of things about his progress as a hero and an adventurer. By this point in the novel, Bilbo has had some significant experiences as an adventurer--and he knows it. Impressed with his own bravery and resourcefulness, Bilbo sings his own praises, giving himself epithets like those in Classical poems like Homer's Odyssey.

At the same time, Smaug's reaction makes us wonder if Bilbo's self-satisfaction has any point, or if Bilbo is in fact becoming overly confident and arrogant. Unlike Bilbo's clever wordplay with the spiders or with Gollum, his speech in this scene doesn't help him in any discernible way: it doesn't confuse or frighten Smaug, and his phrase "Barrel-rider" even inspires Smaug to attack Lake-town. So although Bilbo's behavior here proves how far he's come in the novel, Tolkien is also setting Bilbo up for a defeat connected to his own hubris (pride as a fatal flaw). Indeed, in the final few chapters of the novel, Bilbo's actions will prove largely futile, and he'll be reminded of his own smallness and weakness.

Chapter 14 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: The Master, Smaug
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Tolkien describes how the Master of Lake-town manipulates his followers. The Master knows that if the dwarves can defeat Smaug and reclaim their rule of his mountain, the Master's own position as a leader will be in danger. In order to maintain the current order, then, the Master riles up his people, convincing them that they should be fighting against Thorin and his dwarves instead of welcoming them as returning rulers (as many had earlier). This shows how fickle a crowd can be in its sense of loyalty, as many of those men who had praised Thorin as king now consider him an enemy. But it also is another example of the power of language in the novel; more than almost any other character, the Master excels at using language and speech to control others and get what he wants. The difference between the Master and the other characters who excel at language (like Bilbo or Gandalf) is that the Master uses his gifts to support his own selfish needs, while the other characters often use it to help their friends or simply to escape danger.

In general, the passage is also a good piece of evidence for what Tolkien does—and doesn't—consider heroic. While there are many characters in the novel who excel at fighting or language, only a handful excel at both, and even fewer use these skills for unselfish reasons. Gandalf and Bilbo, and few others, exemplify this particular kind of heroism, while characters like Thorin are in murkier territory, and the Master is an example of someone who uses his skills only to help himself.

Chapter 15 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, Smaug
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Thorin shows his true colors, and muddies Tolkien's definition of what a true hero is. Although Bilbo has helped the dwarves reclaim their treasure in dozens of different ways (saving their lives; finding out how to defeat Smaug; sneaking into Smaug's lair), Thorin is remarkably ungrateful for Bilbo's contributions. As Tolkien explains it, Thorin is too greedy for his treasure to listen to reason: he's too obsessed with possessions to hand any of them over to Bilbo. Thorin's behavior here reminds us of how one's connection to a home or other particular place can be a barrier to heroism and virtue. Thorin feels a deep, ancestral tie to his treasure—it's partly because of this ancestral bond (and righteous sense of victimhood, as this home and birthright was stolen from him) that he feels perfectly justified in treating Bilbo badly. Although Bilbo seems to feel an equally profound connection to his hobbit-hole, he doesn't let this connection interfere with his heroism. But Thorin is also dealing with forces and a history Bilbo doesn't have to face, and Tolkien further draws an implicit comparison between Thorin's lust and possessiveness regarding his ancestral treasure, and Bilbo's regarding his Ring.

Chapter 17 Quotes

“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."

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker)
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

Near the end of his adventures with the dwarves, Bilbo has a sudden change of heart. After hundreds of pages, during which he's come to truly enjoy the daredevil thrills of adventure, Bilbo decides that he's had enough of danger and violence. Bilbo has heard from books and songs that war is a noble thing, but up-close, he finds that it's anything but. (In real life, Tolkien fought in some of the bloodiest battles of World War I, and critics have often interpreted this passage as Tolkien's gloss on his own experiences as a soldier.)

In a broader sense, the passage suggests that Bilbo is sick of being a hero and an adventurer. While he's enjoyed himself at many points in his quest, he's also come to see that many of the things he associated with glorious heroism, such as battle and treasure, actually cause more suffering than they're worth. Largely for this reason, Bilbo decides to turn his back on the world of quests and treasure. While he gains some material wealth as a result of his travels, his most valuable "takeaway" is the newfound courage he acquires over the course of the novel—courage that outstrips that of the dwarves who roped him into adventuring in the first place.

Chapter 18 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Bard (speaker), Dain, The Elvenking
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bilbo and Bard—the brave leader who slays Smaug—discuss the future of the treasure that the dwarves have claimed for themselves. Bard is now a leader of the men, and has been charged with distributing the share of gold that Thorin, on his deathbed, bequeathed to him. As Bard discusses his decisions with Bilbo, it becomes clear that he and Bilbo are rather similar, and are two of the most "heroic" characters in the novel. They're both modest, intelligent, and fairly uninterested in material wealth. (Unlike Thorin, Bard leads his followers without selfishly claiming a "right" to treasure—on the contrary, he gives away large quantities of treasure, and says that he would like to give even more to Bilbo.) Both Bard and Bilbo also feel a strong connection to a particular place: Bard to his hometown, and Bilbo to his hobbit-hole.

But where Bard's connection to a place leads him to become a leader, Bilbo's nostalgia for home draws him away from adventure and back to a life of peaceful complacency. As Bilbo explains here, he wants to return to his hobbit-hole, and has no real interest in treasure anymore. Bilbo has received something more valuable than treasure: an unforgettable experience.

Chapter 19 Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Gandalf (speaker)
Page Number: 305
Explanation and Analysis:

Years after Bilbo's adventures in Middle Earth, he's back in his hobbit-hole, and gets a surprise visit from Gandalf the wizard. Gandalf suggests to Bilbo that he was being "helped" through his adventures by powerful, invisible forces. (At various points in the novel, it's suggested that these "forces" are simply fate, the gods of Middle Earth, or even Gandalf himself.) Surprisingly, Bilbo doesn't dispute Gandalf's suggestion at all—he acknowledges that he's simply not that strong and independent, and is "only quite a little fellow in a wide world."

It's especially surprising that Bilbo agrees with Gandalf's statement since he's admitting that he's not really much of a "hero" in the end. Bilbo has proven himself to be a capable, intelligent adventurer. And yet Bilbo ultimately comes to reject the world of traditionaly heroism—the world of treasure, battle, and centuries-long feuding. In spite of his talents, he washes his hands of adventure, and retires. And yet Bilbo's adventures with Gandalf and Thorin haven't been for nothing. On the contrary, his adventures have made him a more confident, capable hobbit, with a wealth of wisdom and experience.