The Hobbit (Tolkien)
(a cleaned up version of a paper written in 2014)
I think the thing that must seem most curious about this adventure to slay a dragon and reclaim a homeland and its treasure, is how the hell could adding a burglar to this motley crew be adding the decisive factor? What's the trick? For there must be one, since the dragon has only gotten larger and more deadly as the years have gone by. Peter Jackson changes things so that a burglar is needed because someone small and stealthy needs to enter Smaug’s lair to perhaps snatch one especially bright, one especially brilliant jewel—the Arkenstone—ostensibly readily noticeable even given its being shrouded by lesser delights. With that stone Thorin will earn control over seven kingdoms of dwarves, and with their might the dragon would finally look to be overmatched. In the book, it develops into a situation where, regarding the fighting and the killing the dragon, they decide that a full frontal attack of just themselves is their best bet, even as they agree that even the best armor hasn't a chance against Smaug.
I like to think that the one who recruited the hobbit Bilbo, the one who insisted on him—the wizard Gandalf, of course—had an inkling that their only chance now was not to pit themselves against Smaug's might but against his “overwhelming personality.” If to take on a dragon you need a “dragon,” tremendous physical might—several armies, or a singular hero of renown—and you haven't any, then maybe it's best to match personas—put a Watson next to his Holmes, and see what compatibility might jostle your way. And where do you find any such these days, people with considerable layers of self, of personality, and yet also—needed to effectively play sidekick while the other luxuriates as star—humility? Amongst those always at work or perpetually at war? No, this wears, doesn't develop. In great kings? Maybe not even—for Elrond is “noble,” “strong,” “wise,” and “kind,” which makes him seem a great figurehead but not someone you can safely invite over without taking over. Certainly not Thorin, for, “for being important,” means this is all he’s leant to doing, as “if he had been allowed, he would have probably gone on like this until he was out of breath, without telling any one there anything that was not known already.” Maybe not, interestingly, even Gandalf—for you notice how he can at times lose himself into becoming a phenomena, pure vengeance, not just when he blinds a cave of goblins and wrenches off the king goblin’s head, but more so where “[t]he sudden splendour flashed from his wand like lightning, as he got ready to spring down from on high right among the spears of the goblins. That would have been the end of him, though he would probably have killed many of them as he as he came hurdling down like a thunderbolt.” You actually find them in places so far removed from the rest of the world, they can, like Bilbo, exist undisturbed for fifty years in one place, ruminating in their books, compounding their reading and daily encounters into their compiling selves.
He may not appear to have a great tale yet to tell but as a frequent host he’s already great at conversing, great at managing all the emanations of the human so to properly register, compliment and encourage rather than toil, try and discourage those he’s talking with. In my preferred reading of Gandalf the most important thing he did for Bilbo’s self-development wasn’t so much his prompting his going out on an adventure as it was his testing his already highly developed social skills with repeat doses of the unaccounted for. (What happens when you have to accommodate something strange within the strides of your conversation, Bilbo?) That is, his making a hash out of Bilbo’s initial greeting—his initial efforts to manage him by way of “good mornings”—and, as well, his subsequently besieging him with dwarves, in through the door. Confronted with a dragon, he’ll be dealing with someone who loves conversation, riddles, and comfortably lounging amidst acquired clutter as much as he does. But as much as he might find himself surprised at how strangely accustomed he feels during his pinnacle heroic moment, it’s still not going to be like sitting down for tea with the Brandybucks. He’s going to need to adjust and expand his skills before he could possibly be ready.
The dwarves will serve as carapace, armor to get him through the wild. It’d be pointless to explain to them how Bilbo is actually akin to Smaug—“he’s actually a what? a dragon? and that's why he's useful? … Smoking a bit too much Halfling weed there, are thee, Gandalf?”—so Gandalf explains him in terms they’ll get. Thus: “I tried to find [a hero]; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled on burglary—especially when I remembered the existence of a Side-door.” With that the dwarves would look at small Bilbo, of a stealthy race, and it would look to appear good common sense on behalf of the wizard. And so off on the trails, to business, before any of them consider just how one even highly stealthy burglar could possibly help them reclaim a kingdom of gold.
In my reading, Gandalf deliberately misleads Bilbo as well, convinces him that his journey is to become more a Took, someone great not for knowing fifty years of comfort but rather a lengthy spell of adventure. And he’ll become that, reclaim his heritage, when he too can possess things beyond what hobbits could be expected to accommodate themselves to, very much including the dispatching of fearsome beasts. This, after all, is the enticement you offer anyone who’s delighted himself on stories but who’s been still most of their lives. You besiege him as if all the faeries in the world he’s rejoiced in reading and hearing about would reject him if now, finally, after passing him by his whole life, they dangled opportunity before him. You do this, even if the truth is—as it looks to be as soon as he steps outside, where they go “far into the Lone-lands where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse”—that venturing outside the supplying hearth can put you in sparser settings, with more barren people, that can as much deplete as invigorate you, because, unfortunately, persuading him of the more interesting truth, that for him “to be all that he can be” still means keeping rather more of his Baggins’ self than it does his reclaiming his Took,’ is only something he might understand after the journey was over, when the Took side has been found, denatured, and ready for unromanticized reappraisal.
Needing to believe he'll only be useful a long ways off, it's appropriate that compared to the horse-riding Bull-roarer Took he's been primed to hope to liken himself to, he starts off on “a very small pony,” and that he isn't actually useful for some time. The first useful thing he does demonstrates no ability on his part. It's pure luck that he finds a dropped key that provides access to a provisioning troll hoard. The second is a backhanded accomplishment: it's because he is too nervous to sleep well that he awakens to goblins sneaking up on them in the dark, thereby keeping Gandalf safe from being caught. And since his real talent is not in sneaking around but in agreeable conversation—however slippery and deceptive and sly he might prove therein—it’s appropriate that the first time he makes an impression upon the dwarves is when he’s elated out of having used a skill he’s actually very good at.
This is after his encounter with Gollum, of course, when he appears miraculously before them just after being discounted as lost to them for good. But before getting to this, it’s interesting to ask yourself how much more Bilbo distinguishes himself to us when he has his chance to prove commendable in combat than he does when he does so in conversation. Does being a warrior dispatching a large number of fiends really demonstrate his worth as much as his matching wits with great named denizens of the wild? In Mirkwood forest, he kills a lot of giant spiders—a lot. He’s brutally efficient with a sword and sublime with a sling (a proficiency, we note, the film steals from him to emphasize in the wood elves). And it sure means a lot to him—“[s]omehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great deal to Bilbo. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder.” But, well, of course it does, because he’d been convinced that maybe not ever having done what Bull-roarer had done meant he’d been asleep all his life. But it’s possible that however much it meant for him to go on the offence physically with sling and sword, it may have been just his going on the offence which thrilled—a talent, an orientation, maybe not sufficiently exercised in all his duties as a good host easing conflicts while quick with a re-supply of tea. But without that talent too, being someone who knows how to calm agitation and thereby keep a conversation going, he might never have manipulated Gollum into accepting that their interaction might be bound by rules out of a gentleman's club—involving respect for fair play—rather than the gutters. A clever stratagem that however much it wasn't decisive in his besting Gollum, did stretch out his encounter with him, giving him extended practice as a conversationalist in a dangerous situation.
Gandalf couldn't have known Bilbo would meet Gollum, but he knew there was a good chance that before his encountering Smaug he'd find himself alone with foes maybe with enough to them that part of the engagement would involve dialogue and the bandying of wits. Being a burglar and a scout to the company guaranteed as much, for he'd be the first to encounter enemies—and Gandalf would know Bilbo would default to his true familiarity and expertise every time an alien situation gave signal it would be amenable to it. Indeed, he's out in the lead with the company's first encounter in the wild, their tangling with the mountain trolls, Bert, Tom and William. He's not especially good here; unlike the film, he isn't the one who strings out the conversation so that “dawn claims them all” but rather only Gandalf solo who does so. However, he wretches himself out of simply being caught out and bewildered to in fact converse with them, endeavoring a stratagem, built out of what he's seen of them, that might have developed their encounter in an unexpected and fortuitous way—specifically, his offering to fill their gizzards in a different way, as their cook.
He doesn't initiate the riddle game with Gollum, but he reads that Gollum's ability—after having seen Bilbo's sword—to restrain himself means that he might be dealing with someone who may not be simply “fierce and hungry,” so he certainly goes along with the proposition. He blends courtesy in with slyness, giving Gollum the chance to go first and thereby possibly stymieing Bilbo before he's had any chance to ask his own riddle, presumably out of generosity or decorum—the person who proposes goes first—but really because he “hadn't had time to think of a riddle.” He's skillful to emphasize elements of their game which make it less a terrible struggle than just good sport between gamesmen. He teases Gollum, when he “whispered and spluttered” in frustration, that “[t]he answer's not a kettle boiling over, as you seem to think from the noise you're making,” which leads to Gollum’s actually pleading with him. He also restrains him through reminding him of the allowance (of time) that had just been given him, “[h]alf a moment,” “I gave you a good long chance just now.” There's not just a lot of back and forthing but significant on the spot thinking involved. His life was on the line and he managed his way past numerous moments of doubt and possible missteps to push the thing to a finish in his favor, favorably prepping him for Smaug.
The riddle game is about withholding information, keeping secrets, releasing them only when earned. Since it wasn't earned, Bilbo never tells Gollum what he had in his pockets. Bilbo doesn't at first tell the dwarves nor Gandalf about the magical ring either—“not just now,” he ruminates. Gandalf espies that Bilbo may not have revealed everything about how he escaped the goblins, but doesn't press him on it. I prefer to think he does this because he realizes one of the things that makes Bilbo different is that he isn't one who’ll divulge before he's had a chance to process what he's learned or acquired that he knows holds value, even as he himself might be inclined to do. There may not be much significance to the fact that just after Bilbo chooses to withhold information we hear of the wizard's eager willingness to disclose—“[t]he wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once”—but then again, there might be … and he might well have been aware of it. At any rate, I like to think that Gandalf realized that individuality, interestingness, doesn't come if you don't process the world to some extent on your own, refusing to share if it means you hadn't given your experiences a chance to ripen inside of you first. Bilbo had read a library of books, and you're kidding yourself if you think that after every tale he didn't sit back and think about and argue with and otherwise personally sift through what he'd been patiently engaging with, before discussing what he had just read with a neighbor. If that had been the case, he wouldn't have read in an armchair within a beloved reclusive study but outside amidst the commons, where every second sentence could be recited for others' benefit and “your” own broadcast, if he felt the urge. He would need to have depth to interest the grand, learned Smaug. And mystery—a taste of the bidding, withheld. And he would need to be one with sufficient respect for and practice in withholding that even when pressed by a hypnotic charmer like Smaug, he could keep baiting an aroused curiosity so that something might “innocently” be learned.
Gandalf isn't there for Bilbo when he faces Smaug, something he might have known could prove the case, despite his promise, for it not actually being his adventure. But before he goes off he shows Bilbo a fair simulacrum of what his encounter with him might involve, as if to say, this is pretty much what you're going to have to pull off. Gandalf enters the abode of the great Beorn, a personage with a fierce temper but also a healthy respect for good gamesmanship and well-told stories, and finesses him perfectly. And Mr Baggins, in a way you never hear him in regards to the abundance of sword-fighting or arrow-launching on his journeys, remarks on the skill, as if a fellow adept admiring another versed in the trade: “Mr Baggins saw how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars.”
With Gandalf gone Bilbo emerges as the company leader, and when he takes on Smaug all of Gandalf's hopes for him are realized. Smaug, who'd only been pretend-sleeping, tries to draw him out, but Bilbo refuses—graciously, with flattery. With this, with denial cagily sweetened into a gift, Smaug realizes he's hardly dealing with some ass possessed of a battle-axe, who could and should be dispatched just as soon as he could be tricked into revealing himself, but someone smart enough to make it as if by doing so a host would be shortchanged a good time with a genuinely intriguing guest. To let his thief know this, that for awhile he'll be accorded, also, the role as a not-entirely-unwelcome guest, he signals he's situated himself within a guest-host framework, where the rule is no initiation of termination until interest wains. So he offers the like of “lovely titles, but lucky numbers don't always come off,” and “[t]hat's better. But don't let your imagination run away from you,” which overtly convey that he’s genuinely interested in turning something with potential into something finely honed—a game.
Smaug wants him to continue not just to enable some entertainment but to find out more about his intrusion as a thief—who’s behind him? what’s the full intent?—of course. But for reasons of enjoyment, his keeping it also at this level means he's keeping things where the odds even up between them … and Bilbo knows not just how to pacify but by this time well how to strike for the killing blow. Bilbo, with flare, had revealed all that enticed about him—his being a mysterious barrel-rider, and so on—and Smaug, in reply and having fun, reveals all that bedazzles about his own grand self. His teeth, his claws … but unfortunately also, his “impenetrable” armor, which it turns out has got a piece missing, uncared for because Smaug doesn’t care a wit about mending. The movie shows this as just dumb luck on the part of Bilbo, but the book has it that he was working his way to just such a reveal to get further confirmation of something he thought he noticed the first time he found himself before him. And proving the loser in this domain, Smaug is rendered so that a single skillfully shot arrow can now end him. Bilbo got access to information that would have made the expedition feasible as a military enterprise right from the start.
So as I've said, I like to slightly alter the Gandalf in the book to imagine him as thinking up a plausible way to take down a formidable dragon who’d been lord of the mountain long enough. I'm not sure I'm doing any alteration of him, though, to think that what he had also hoped for was to accustom the world, maybe even significantly, to what a long-term denizen of a comfortable hole might offer it—that is, for a larger, even perhaps ultimately more realm-saving purpose, as well. Part of what makes Bilbo special is that no matter how much people talk to him about roles, the sad fate of who he is and of whom he really ought to become, despite his adventures he never really lets go of who he just intrinsically is from the start, which is someone fundamentally decent whose love of his own well-provisioned life means he can extend consideration upon “yours” as well. Bilbo isn't just good to people because he sees something for himself in it but because he can put himself in other people's position and emphasize. This has him do things which might look small, irrelevant to the quest, pointless, but in fact if they were well known outside the Shire the wild would lose much of what is truly wicked about it and there'd be less evil around to need questing against. I'm thinking of his noticing Gollum's being “alone, miserable, lost,” and deciding therefore it not only inappropriate to simply countenance him as “foul” but to think it just to “stab” him. And of how he decides to return an elf-guard's keys so the guard wouldn't be blamed for their escape because he’d appreciated his having been fair to them, and could identity with his situation. And of course, through his sundering them of the precious Arkenstone, of how he “betrays” his friends by giving his “enemies” a hold on them, and thereby doing nothing less than maybe preventing a war. The arrival of the goblin army means they wouldn't have warred against each other anyway, but the significance is in the larger realm outside the Shire being more accustomed to this kind of selfless and sophisticated way of reading a situation and acting. It's in their noticing what he did here, not so much how clever (not that it wasn’t a bit) but how strong and good he had been here, letting himself be seen as a traitor to his friends to have a chance to spare them their lives. Not a one of them would have thought of that.
Before he dies, Thorin acknowledges he learned something new from Bilbo, something significant enough that it ought fairly be carved as large onto mountains as any visage of the ancients: “There is more of good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Maybe with messages like this blazoned everywhere, those worn from the wild might range their way to Bilbo's comfortable hole in the ground, much more respectfully this time. There is after all in a sense a pint-sized Smaug to be found there, only one who’s greatest proficiency incurs with a swill of tea rather than with a blast of fire, and who, rather than always render, can build you up and mend.