How can someone prove to themselves that they have the skills and traits needed to achieve bold dreams? How can a person demonstrate that they are worthy of trust and friendship? These questions capture the conflict that Bilbo Baggins faces in The Hobbit when Gandalf confidently sends him on an adventure. Along the way, Bilbo discovers his values, skills, and courage. The journey suggests that heroism and strength lie within everyone, and one way to access these inner reserves is to take life’s challenges head on, even when they bring peril.
Bilbo is a reluctant hero who tries, literally, to shut the door on the inciting incident. When offered the chance to go adventuring, he retreats into his home. Bilbo’s timidity and reluctance to take risks oppose the latent heroism that external events will compel him to demonstrate. His internal conflict suggests that he must overcome his fears to find his heroic potential.
As the rising action begins, the door that Bilbo closes opens to the traveling companions whose stories and songs persuade Bilbo to leave his comfortable home. Bilbo’s slow emergence from insecurity and complacency leads to opportunities to prove himself, though he does not always succeed. He fails the first test of his skills as burglar in the encounter with the trolls. The whole party is captured, and only Gandalf’s return saves them. Yet Bilbo does steal a key, and he gains a sword.
Danger increases as the party travels, and the reluctant hero longs for his cozy home, “[n]ot for the last time!” But the rising action sweeps him on, and each mile enlarges Bilbo’s understanding of the world beyond the Shire. Even small mountains awe him, and Rivendell awakens in him a love of Elvish ways. In the Misty Mountains, the party narrowly escapes goblins—again, with Gandalf’s help—but in the frantic scramble, Bilbo is dropped, faints, and awakens in the dark. Now he must rely on himself. His encounter with Gollum tests his wit and nerves nearly to a breaking point, but the ring he finds helps him escape. Though the ring seems a boon, its power will test Bilbo’s integrity.
Through Bilbo’s character development, Tolkien suggests that acting heroically involves not just trusting oneself but also trusting friends and supporters. The hobbit is getting his feet under him, but he is hardly a hero yet, as he proves when he conceals the ring and the real story of his escape. He learns, though, that in the adventure business, allies matter. Gandalf, Elrond, the eagles, and Beorn rescue, guide, or provide for the party. When the party enters Mirkwood without these powerful allies, worry nags Bilbo. His heroic story reaches a climax when he is forced to kill a giant spider. He names his sword Sting and feels “much fiercer and bolder.” Tolkien again uses the folklore tradition of heroes naming their swords to emphasize Bilbo’s emergence from his timid, complacent shell. He follows courage with intelligence, luring the spiders away so that he can free the dwarves.
The dwarves trade one captivity for another when the Elvenking imprisons them, but Bilbo comes up with another escape plan. Now Bilbo is the savvy ally without whom the dwarves’ quest would end in the Elvenking’s dungeons, and the dwarves finally respect their burglar. It is Bilbo who recalls the map’s riddle to open the secret door, slips in to find Smaug, and takes the golden cup. Again, Bilbo uses his intelligence, tricking Smaug into revealing his only vulnerability.
But Bilbo’s clever riddling talk rouses Smaug’s suspicions, and Smaug leaves his treasure to punish Lake Town. Finally the dwarves can see and rejoice in the treasure, and each takes a few items. Bilbo unwittingly chooses two significant objects—the mithril shirt and the Arkenstone. Aware that Thorin wants the stone above all other things, Bilbo hides it, revealing Bilbo’s distrust of the gold-greedy dwarves. As Bilbo’s wisdom grows, the dwarves become more reckless.
Greed surrounds Bilbo as the novel reaches its climax. The people of the ruined town—Thorin and the dwarves—and the Elvenking all want the treasure, which leads to the great battle. However, Bilbo, whose experiences have led to greater wisdom, becomes disgusted and wants to abandon the treasure and go home. His despair over Thorin’s decisions and the dwarves’ greed reveals what Bilbo values: peace, reason, and fairness.
Bilbo breaks his alliance with the dwarves and chooses to do what is right: he takes the Arkenstone to Bard, and Gandalf affirms that Bilbo has acted wisely. Driven nearly mad with desire for the Arkenstone, Thorin leads his army to war against the elves and men, but an attack of goblins forces the enemies to band together and fight. Bilbo watches, saddened and exhausted, longing again for the peace of the Shire.
The battle’s aftermath begins the falling action. Thorin, now free from the treasure’s spell, praises Bilbo as someone with “[s]ome courage and some wisdom, blended in measure.” He dies, and Bilbo returns home. A comic coda ends Bilbo’s story and underscores its resolution. In Bag End, Bilbo is presumed dead, and all he owns is being sold off by opportunistic neighbors. The bad feelings that arise between Bilbo and some hobbits once would have troubled him. His reputation and standing in the Shire once mattered. But he now knows what he truly values, and he has seen how pride shatters friendship. He has nothing left to prove and lives at peace, which he now regards as life’s prize.