The hero of The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who, at the age of 50, has never had an adventure and who asserts that no respectable hobbit wants adventures. An adventure, however, comes to him at the instigation of Gandalf, the wizard known to Bilbo only by his reputation for fireworks, great stories, and the ability to tempt young hobbits to try unusual things. The companions of Bilbo and Gandalf are thirteen dwarves, treasure-seekers who, following Gandalf’s advice, take Bilbo with them as their official burglar. Bilbo’s major assignment is to help them retrieve their ancestral treasures, long guarded by the dragon Smaug. The subtitle of the book, “There and Back Again,” suggests the cyclic nature of the quest as the underlying theme: Bilbo accomplishes his quest and returns home, but he is, as Gandalf tells him, a different hobbit than before.
As the quest takes Bilbo “There and Back Again,” two related themes develop: the nature of maturity and the nature of heroism. In the early stages of the book Bilbo seldom has an opportunity to make decisions for himself. He is forced by the requirements of hospitality to welcome Gandalf and the dwarves to his “unexpected party.” During their planning session he first lets himself be drawn into the discussion because he resents the dwarves’ condescending remarks about his size and his ability. When he finds himself running to catch up to the dwarves, his major concern is that he has forgotten to take his pipe and his handkerchief. It is his desire to impress the dwarves that almost turns them into troll food and it is his physical limitations that lead to his encounter with Gollum.
Gollum’s nature and background are not related in this book, but in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf explains to Bilbo’s nephew (and to the reader) that Gollum’s family had been hobbits. By the time Bilbo meets him, however, Gollum has degenerated from his original happy, friendly nature into a repulsive creature of darkness. The riddle game is Gollum’s idea, but once Bilbo has accepted the suggestion he plays alertly, making the most of accidental advantages: solving the “time” riddle and creating the unorthodox “pocket” riddle. This alertness helps him to discover the secret of the ring of invisibility and to turn Gollum’s efforts to capture him into an escape route. His ability to think under pressure suggests that Bilbo is maturing, but two other traits emerge during the Gollum episode that give clearer evidence of Bilbo’s developing maturity and heroism: his pity for Gollum, which leads him to risk being caught rather than kill a defenseless enemy, and his decision to return to the goblins’ cave in search of his friends.
In the adventures with the goblins and wargs, with the eagles, and with Beorn the skin-changer, Bilbo is again relatively ineffective, but his wits and courage are both needed when he rescues the dwarves from the giant spiders of Mirkwood and later from the wood elves. At Esgaroth, where the first human characters figure in the story, Thorin briefly assumes leadership, claiming his title as “King under the Mountain” and obtaining from the Lake-men provisions and transportation for the last stages of the journey to Smaug’s Lonely Mountain.
When the companions reach Smaug’s cave, they are still without Gandalf, who left them before they entered Mirkwood. By this time the dwarves, even Thorin, have accepted Bilbo as their leader-and their risk-taker. He is the one who recognizes the significance of the thrush when they are trying to find the secret of the door. Once inside, he goes alone to investigate the tunnel and takes a gold cup from the sleeping Smaug. Showing courage and ingenuity, he returns to the angered dragon’s lair, flattering Smaug in order to discover his weak spot. After Smaug’s furious attack on the mountain side, the dwarves again turn to Bilbo to investigate the treasure chamber and to check on Smaug’s whereabouts. While the dwarves wait timidly in the tunnel, Bilbo plunges into the darkness, not yet certain that the treasure-guardian has left. During this solo investigation Bilbo finds and keeps the Arkenston, the family jewel that Thorin is eager to locate. Only when the dwarves are convinced that Smaug is no longer at home do they join Bilbo and move through the tunnels to find the main entrance, a passage down which Thorin is now willing to lead the way.
Smaug has been portrayed as a typical fairy-tale dragon: winged, breathing fire, obsessed first by love for his treasure and later by the desire for vengeance on the Lake-men, who, he thinks, are responsible for encouraging the dwarves to invade his premises. While Bilbo and the dwarves are exploring his cave, Smaug flies off to destroy Lake-town. At this point Tolkien introduces a human hero, Bard the dragon-slayer. Warned by the flaming approach of Smaug, Bard plans for defense, directing the filling of water buckets, the destruction of bridges, and the careful positioning of bowmen. Throughout Smaug’s swooping attacks, he encourages the Lakemen to keep up their steady defense and, when only one of his arrows remains, he calmly listens to the thrush who brings him news of Smaug’s armor-free spot and then carefully aims his arrow to kill Smaug. Bard has shown heroic traits during Smaug’s attack, and other aspects of his leadership emerge as he directs repairs on the village, sends to the wood elves for help, and organizes an expedition to the Lonely Mountain to claim part of the treasure as compensation for the destruction caused by Smaug.
The leadership roles of Bilbo, Bard, and Gandalf merge when Thorin refuses to share any of the treasure with the Lake-men or the elves. Bilbo takes the Arkenstone to Bard, suggesting that he use it to bring Thorin into a bargaining mood. In doing this, he sacrifices his own claims to part of the treasure and risks losing the friendship of the dwarves in pursuit of the greater good. Bard’s role is to unite the forces of men and elves, to arrange the treaty with Thorin, and to ensure that Thorin keeps his promise. Gandalf, who has arrived from other tasks, resumes his leadership role by uniting men, elves, and dwarves against their common enemies: goblins and wargs. Eventually, the forces of good conquer, even though Thorin dies after being reconciled with Bilbo.
Thorin’s dying words to Bilbo convey one of the underlying themes of Tolkien’s book, a theme that contributes to the appeal of the hero himself: “There is more in you of good than you know…If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”