Last week we got the devastating news of the death of the brilliant actor Ian Holm, who played one of the greatest heroes of fantasy literature: Bilbo Baggins. To pay homage to Holm, we’re looking at why Bilbo was the greatest hobbit in Middle Earth and over the course of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings novels.
We meet many different hobbits in Tolkien’s books: Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck to name a few, but they don’t compare to the legendary Bilbo Baggins who takes the crown as the best hobbit character.
When I first started to get into these books, and movies, I very quickly came to adore the brave little Bilbo Baggins who saved his friends from monsters, bad guys, and greed alike. Where Frodo was almost burdened by this desire and goal to save the world, Bilbo simply wanted to help his friends and had a sudden urge for an adventure – which is much more relatable.
The most prominent, and arguably the most important, theme in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is bravery, which can be seen through the character arc of Bilbo Baggins. As Gandalf says in the book, Bilbo does not return to the Shire as the same hobbit he left. He was a shy, timid, homebody at the start of the novel who can’t quite work out how to entertain thirteen strange dwarfs in his house, and by the end he is a hero who is – literally – in the middle of a dangerous quest. In fact, even leaving his home in the Shire was an incredible act of bravery for Bilbo Baggins, never mind slaying giant spiders, out-riddling Gollum and breaking out his friends from an elf dungeon and helping them escape.
Bilbo was a rather small person who chose bravery in the face of uncertainty. But not the kind of bravery we see in other fantasy books that involve being able to set up and save the world. No, Bilbo excelled in what is considered the small and ordinary acts of bravery: the courage it takes for one person to stand up for another. To help his friends. Which is the kind of examples of bravery that young people need to see and inspire to have.
Another thing that differs between Bilbo and other hobbits like Frodo, is that everyone had high expectations of Frodo. Everyone already thought of Frodo as a hero, they expected big things from him – he was the Ringbearer after all. Bilbo, on the other hand, was not greeted with the same excitement. Thorin and company regarded Bilbo as useless – they actually thought of him as nothing more than a nuisance on their adventure. It was only Gandalf that saw what Bilbo was capable of, and Bilbo had to prove himself in every part of their quest before Thorin himself saw he had an ingenuity and selflessness about him. He had to fight a little harder to be considered worthy. Frodo and the other hobbits had to fight no such adversaries.
Bilbo also redefined what a hero could be. When we hear ‘hero’ we think of the superheroes and capes and the whole saving-the-world routine. Bilbo reminds us that a hero is someone ordinary so is willing to fight for the right thing and the people they love.
Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit is a very powerful story itself and carries a very alarming message. The book acts a warning of greed and wealth and what can happen when money and gold become the most important thing. In The Hobbit, Tolkien refers to this as dragon sickness, or gold sickness. When a person has an apparent mental change caused by large amounts of gold and treasure, resulting in greedy, illogical and even violent behaviour.
The only person that seems to see past this greed is Bilbo Baggins himself, who would give all the gold in Middle Earth to be back snug in his hobbit home, and even saves Thorin himself from being overcome with greed for gold.
What Bilbo shows us is that gold is nothing without the right people to share it with. And in the end, when we die, it won’t matter how much money we made or what we did to earn it. What will matter is the people we love, the lives we lived, the dreams we had and the adventures we had. The things that will matter in the end will be the things that can’t be bought with gold or money.
So, naturally, Bilbo Baggins has to be crowned the best hobbit, am I right?