Theme in The Hobbit: A Rite of Passage

Bilbo Baggins loves the comfortable life of the Shire. The appearance of Gandalf the dwarves serves as a wakeup call to Bilbo, calling him out of his comforts and into an adventure to help him grow up, take on responsibility, and achieve virtue through suffering and sacrifice.

  • “Bilbo Baggins is a creature of comfort dedicated to the creature comforts. Nothing could be further from Bilbo Baggins’ mind, or further from his desire, than the prospect, or the threat, of an adventure. In Christian terms, Bilbo Baggins is dedicated to the easy life and would find the prospect of taking up his cross and following the heroic path of self-sacrifice utterly anathema” (Pearce, 13).

Tolkien wants us to identify with Bilbo and see how we are also called to go on a rite of passage from the comfortable Shire to the Lonely Mountain.

  • “The fact that adventures are uncomfortable is the very reason for their usefulness” (Pearce 18).

“The Hobbit is much more than a simple children’s story and that any dumbing down of the gravitas of its moral dimension would do much more damage to the integrity of the work than the graphic depiction of violence and the frightening presentation of the monstrous. At its deepest level of meaning—and great children’s literature always has a deep level of meaning— The Hobbit is a pilgrimage of grace, in which its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, becomes grown-up in the most important sense, which is the growth in wisdom and virtue. Throughout the course of his adventure—and every pilgrimage is an adventure—the hobbit develops the habit of virtue and grows in sanctity. Thus The Hobbit illustrates the priceless truth that we only become wise men (homo sapiens) when we realize that we are pilgrims on a purposeful journey through life (homo viator)… Bilbo’s rite of passage from ignorance to wisdom and from bourgeois vice to heroic virtue” (Pearce, 2-3).

When Gandalf and the dwarves approach Bilbo with an offer to be their burglar, Bilbo is so satisfied with his life and his home that the mere thought of adventure is enough to irritate and even frighten him. Yet Tolkien gives clues that Bilbo, deep down, wants to go on quests after all: he’s a descendant of the famously adventurous Took family, and seems to have inherited some of the Tooks’ love for maps and quests. While Bilbo never explicitly says that he wants to go with the dwarves to the Lonely Mountain (he merely rushes after them, prodded by Gandalf), it’s likely that he secretly, even subconsciously, wants to join them, realizing his inner potential for adventure.

Along the way to the Lonely Mountains, Bilbo is placed in countless situations where he cannot rely on anyone else, and must learn to take care of himself. A particularly illuminating

example of this phenomenon occurs when Bilbo falls off of Dori’s shoulders, and must out-riddle Gollum and out- maneuver the goblins to escape from the Misty Mountains. The contrast between the way Bilbo enters the mountains (on someone’s shoulders) and the way he leaves them (on his own, with a ring of invisibility to help him) couldn’t be clearer: his experiences force him to become stronger, more independent, more powerful—to grow up. Later, when giant spiders capture Bilbo in Mirkwood forest, he adds other skills to his resume, using his sword to kill spiders and skillfully springing the dwarves from prison. By the time Bilbo reaches the Lonely Mountain, he’s brave enough to sneak in Smaug’s lair while the other dwarves hang back. Travel and danger have encouraged him to develop his bravery and cunning—skills of which he shows dim signs when Gandalf approaches him at the beginning of the novel.

Yet, while Bilbo matures throughout The Hobbit, he doesn’t entirely reject the life he made for himself before he met Gandalf. Late in the novel, he’s still regretting leaving his hobbit-hole in the first place, and when the dwarves succeed in winning their treasure and defeating Smaug, he wants to return to hobbit-town. Bilbo grows up, but he doesn’t forget where he comes from—a fitting message coming from The Hobbit, a children’s book that people read long after they’ve grown up.

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