Analysis of Major Characters
The protagonist and title character of The Hobbit, Bilbo is by far the novel’s most important figure. Bilbo’s thoughts, feelings, and actions form the focus of the novel and shape its plot. Bilbo’s central role is underscored by his appeal—he is not only the most important but also the most likable and honorable character. Even as the other participants in his quest become corrupted by greed, Bilbo maintains his common sense, courage, and eagerness to please.
Bilbo’s understated charisma is a quality common to many protagonists in children’s literature. Another quality he shares with many heroes of children’s literature is his small size: as a hobbit, Bilbo is only half the size of a man. At the beginning of the novel, Bilbo is, like most hobbits, comfortable and complacent. He loves food, drink, and security, and he relishes his snug little hole at Bag End, Underhill. But as Gandalf says, there is more to Bilbo than meets the eye. Bilbo is a Baggins, the heir of a thoroughly respectable and conventional family, but his mother was a Took, an eccentric clan of hobbits noted for their love of excitement and adventure.
When Gandalf enlists Bilbo’s help in Thorin’s quest for the treasure under the mountain, Bilbo begins a process of gradual development, transforming from a cautious homebody at the beginning of the novel to a brave and confident hero at the end. As the quest progresses, Bilbo shows a vast reserve of inner cunning and strength and slowly becomes the dominant force holding the group of hapless dwarves together. He saves them from the goblins by shouting for Gandalf, he rescues them from spiders and wood elves in Mirkwood, he finds the way into the mountain, he leads them to the treasure, he discovers Smaug’s weak spot, and he attempts to thwart Thorin’s greed and to bring peace to the feuding dwarves, elves, and humans.
Bilbo’s heroic deeds are all the more remarkable because they fail to change him. He discovers capabilities that had been unknown to him, but he does not become arrogant or relinquish his values. In his final conversation with Bilbo, Thorin acknowledges the value of the simple lives of hobbits, even in a world marked by grim heroism and danger. Though Bilbo learns to thrive in this outer world, he draws strength from the simple source that guided his heroic quest. His decision to return to Hobbiton toward the end of the novel indicates that, despite his newfound heroism, Bilbo has stayed true to himself all along.
Though his history and character are more fully explored in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, Gandalf remains a looming mystery in The Hobbit, a constant reminder that Middle-Earth is more vast and cryptic than Bilbo realizes. A powerful wizard, Gandalf generally prefers to keep his powers and motives closely guarded. He never reveals, for instance, why he chooses to help Thorin in his quest; he certainly has no interest in the treasure, and he leaves the company in Mirkwood while he goes to fight against the Necromancer. Something both inspiring and dangerous defines Gandalf’s character—he is an unshakable bulwark against evil, and yet he seems to have an enlightened, almost godlike knowledge of every person’s place in the world.
Gandalf’s sweeping, epic personality separates him from the vast majority of characters that commercial fantasy literature has produced in the decades since The Hobbit was first published. Though Gandalf can be viewed as the source of the stereotypical figure of fantasy wizard, Gandalf himself is more than just an old man with powerful spells and a pointy hat. Tolkien imbues Gandalf with a sense of heightened awareness, ensuring that Gandalf always knows more about what is happening than we do, even when the other characters are left in the dark.
The leader of the dwarves who embark on the treasure quest in Chapter 2, Thorin is in many ways a typical member of his race: brave, stubborn, proud, and greedy for gold. Though his birthright and noble bearing initially make Thorin seem like a fairly heroic figure, the dwarf’s status quickly declines as Bilbo’s rises. Soon after Gandalf leaves the party, it becomes apparent that Thorin is not a true leader: he is incapable of formulating a plan, makes hasty and poor decisions, and generally relies on Bilbo to see him through his adventures, all the while treating Bilbo like an insignificant underling. Once Thorin gets his hands on Smaug’s treasure, he becomes irrationally greedy and obsessed with wealth, to the extent that he would rather wage a violent war than give the men from Lake Town their fair share of the treasure. Thorin is partially redeemed by his dying apology to Bilbo, but not even this act of remorse can fully redeem him. In general, the arrogant Thorin works as a foil for the unassuming Bilbo, setting off Bilbo’s best qualities and creating a leadership void that provides Bilbo the chance to seize the initiative and become a true hero.