An excerpt from Chosen: The Journeys of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire:
Gandalf recounts in the unfinished tale “The Quest of Erebor” how the twin threats of Sauron and Smaug greatly troubled him. He thinks a trip to the peaceful Shire will help settle his mind. Bilbo Baggins impressed the wizard during a previous visit. The hobbit had not yet reached maturity and was full of curiosity about the outside world. Gandalf thinks he would be the ideal person to accompany Thorin Oakenshield and Company on their trip to Smaug’s mountain. In The Hobbit, the wizard meets the adult Bilbo and learns the painfully incompatible lineage of completely predictable Baggins and scandalously adventurous Took has the former firmly in charge. “. . . Bilbo has become entrenched in his routine, as if he has allowed himself to become so comfortable with the ‘expected’ that he has lost any sense of individual will” (Marotta 73). Devin Brown notes “an inordinate need for predictability, safety, and comfort” defines and confines the hobbit (83).
Within this straitjacket, however, Bilbo’s adventurous dreams still exist. All they need is the proper match to flare up. The unexpected and unwanted arrival of Gandalf and dwarves provides this. On some level, the wizard notes in “Erebor,” the hobbit himself is aware adventure may come to call at some point in his life, whether he wants it or not: “. . . I guessed that he wanted to remain ‘unattached’ for some reason deep down which he did not understand himself – or would not acknowledge, for it alarmed him. He wanted, all the same, to be free to go when the chance came, or he had made up his courage” (331).
Bilbo’s slumbering Tookishness stirs after Gandalf arrives at Bag-End. It thrills to remember the legends surrounding the wizard. His Baggins side, however, flatly refuses the call to adventure. The hobbit dismisses the wizard and thinks he managed to dodge the bullet. He learns, much to his dismay, he has not. As he plays host to thirteen dwarves who walk and tumble into his home, the Baggins part of him tries to deny the sneaking suspicion an adventure has indeed burst upon him. The song of the dwarves kindles anew the cold ashes of the Tookish longing for excitement.
It is at this moment that his spirit is awakened by his imagination, freeing his will from the enslavement of routine and igniting a desire within him to seek an existence outside of the expected. His body may not leave Bag-End until the next morning, but it is here that his heart embarks, leaving the comfort and confines of the Shire for the unknown world beyond. Through the fundamental change that takes place in Bilbo’s soul, his departure becomes an act of free will, rather than simply the result of an involuntary ‘nudge out of the door.’ This distinction is essential to the hobbit’s journey, as it is Bilbo’s willpower that will come to define him. (Marotta 74)
Stephen C. Winter notes, “Both Bilbo and Gandalf are called by a longing for beauty to risk all to preserve it in the world. For Gandalf this longing has been a conscious discipline sustained throughout his long pilgrimage in Middle-earth; for Bilbo it is a longing that is awakened within him almost against his will. . . . Sauron could not be overcome without both Gandalf and Bilbo” (“Sustained”).
The Baggins side is no less imaginative than the Tookish, but this causes it anxiety rather than excitement. It gets so overwrought by Thorin’s declaration the journey to the Lonely Mountain may be fatal, it cries out in terror and collapses. This does not endear him to the dwarves. Bilbo does not seem at all the adventurous type the wizard told them to expect. Gandalf twice says he deliberately chose the hobbit for it. He assures them all Bilbo will rise to the occasion. The wizard brings out a map of the Mountain and a key to a secret entrance. For the third time, Gandalf speaks of Bilbo as “the chosen and selected burglar” (Hobbit 26).
The next morning, Gandalf returns and draws Bilbo’s attention to a note Thorin left expecting the hobbit to accompany them. Before Bilbo can pack, and more importantly, before his Baggins side can stop him, he rushes out to meet his companions almost before he knows he left. Thus begins Bilbo’s long descent from respectability as a solid, predictable, and unadventurous hobbit and an ascent to an epic hero.
After the death of the Great Goblin, and in the midst of a desperate flight from many enemies, Bilbo wonders yet again why in the world he ever decided to take part in this adventure. The goblins quietly pursue their prisoners and attack Dori at the rear, while he carries Bilbo. The hobbit falls and is knocked unconscious. He wakes alone in the pitch dark with no idea where he is.
The crucible of doubt and danger in which the hobbit’s adventurous spirit is being formed and refined . . . [reaches] its hottest and most desperate point.
. . .
He has been steadily and increasingly immersed in the world of adventure . . . , but up until this point he has only been a kind of passenger, an observer. . . . Mr. Baggins . . . now finds himself . . . forced to find his way to the other side of the Misty Mountains through the complex tunnel network of the murderous goblins who are hunting for him, without any food or water or even a source of light. Bilbo must now become a real adventurer or die. (Olsen 84, 85)
The hobbit’s separation from his companions provides another crucial moment in his ascendance as a key player in the history of Middle-earth. As he crawls along the floor, he happens upon a small ring. Many different choices Bilbo and others make enable him to arrive in time to pick up this particular thread of the Story as it winds its way through history. These decisions reach back as far back as Gandalf and Thorin meeting by ‘chance’ on the way to Bree. The wizard chooses to respond to the call he felt to decide upon Bilbo in particular and to convince the dwarves to take the hobbit along. Bilbo makes the choice to come with them. Gandalf decides to rescue the Company from the trolls and the Great Goblin. Dori chooses to carry Bilbo. Gollum chooses to throttle a goblin and unknowingly loses his precious ring. It lays there for Bilbo to come by and pick up. Gandalf makes clear the providential timing of this lynchpin event in his discussion with Frodo decades later.
Just as vital is the moment he meets and pities Gollum. Here are two critical battles for the freedom of Middle-earth from the devouring evil of Sauron. The Ring itself provides unwitting aid. Joe Kraus notes Bilbo’s “invisibility gives him a glimpse into another’s humanity. The power to see and not be seen . . . liberates him and allows him to show mercy in a way that . . . proves essential to Sauron’s downfall” (246). Of course, Bilbo has no foreknowledge of the profound effects his mercy will have. His conscious mind is unaware Ilúvatar guides and guards him. Such permeates his soul, though, and inspires his will to freely choose to act in concert with his Creator’s plans. He knows Gollum intends to murder him and even enables this possibility by his mercy. But rather than give into fear of what might happen or even is likely to happen, the hobbit knows he cannot, must not strike. Frodo later does not for the same reason and with far greater knowledge of Gollum’s villainy. These choices allow the Bagginses to escape from shedding blood or taking a life. They preserve the purity of their souls and avoid the slow and painful spiritual death which would have occurred if they struck down their adversary without need. Gollum’s defenselessness and ignorance of his danger also helps the Ring-finder to decide what action to take.
Thousands of years later, Jesus tells His followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27) and “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:36). Bilbo and all those who show pity and mercy to Gollum already live out this wisdom. Upon this knife edge a most critical point in the history of the Ring and of all Middle-earth pivots.
As the journey to Smaug’s Mountain continues, Bilbo proves himself over and over as the most valuable member of the group. He and the dwarves switch places from who is the most fearful and the most adventurous.
Years after Bilbo’s adventure, Gandalf and Balin come to visit him. The wizard demonstrates he is quite aware of the hand Providence had in the hobbit’s entire journey and how Bilbo himself was one of its instruments. What appeared as lucky happenstances were much more than that. Grant Sterling observes, “Real prophecies come from minds inspired by the timeless God with knowledge of what is to come. But perhaps Bilbo is truly lucky after all – lucky to have been chosen to play such a great part in a providential plan” (216; emphasis in original). “In the end, Bilbo chose the path less traveled, the Tookish path, and this indeed made all the difference – to Bilbo and to all of Middle-earth” (Bassham 17).
Bassham, Gregory. “The Adventurous Hobbit.” Bassham and Bronson, 7-19.
Bassham, Gregory, and Eric Bronson, editors. The Hobbit and Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
The Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition. Edited by Alexander Jones, Doubleday, 1968.
Kraus, Joe. “There and Back Again: A Song of Innocence and Experience.” Bassham and Bronson, 234-249.
Marotta, Ray. “An Unexpected Hero.” Silver Leaves . . . from the White Tree of Hope, issue 5, 2014, 73-77.
Olsen, Corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Sterling, Grant. “The Consolation of Bilbo: Providence and Free Will in Middle-earth.” Bassham and Bronson, 206-217.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Illustrated by Jemina Caitlin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
—. “The Quest of Erebor.” Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1980, 331-336.
Winter, Stephen C. “Sustained by a Longing for Beauty.” Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings, 3 Mar. 2015, stephencwinter.com/2015/03/03/sustained-by-a-longing-for-beauty/. Accessed 18 Sept. 2018.
Art: “The Unexpected Party” by Ted Nasmith.