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A Subversion of Structure: Creating an Unusual (Real) Hero with "The Hobbit"

Some authors have had such a powerful impact on literature that almost everyone has read their works. One such author is J. R. R. Tolkien, the indisputable father of modern fantasy. He penned the first high fantasy stories with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Published in 1937, the prequel takes the form of a children’s story that ingeniously subverts the literary tropes of the Hero’s Journey to define a different kind of hero.

Describing the paradigm in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell mentions that a hero must leave his ordinary world and venture into the unknown to acquire a new sense of self, returning home forever changed. Tolkien was familiar with this traditional hero narrative. A linguist professor and scholar, he meticulously crafted his stories; for this reason, the alterations to the structure can only be intentional. This analysis will focus on three key plot points in the Hero’s Journey to illustrate how Tolkien transforms a three feet tall hobbit into an utterly realistic hero: the call to adventure, the rebirth, and the return.

Bilbo Baggins’ fateful encounter with Gandalf and the dwarves is the marking point that sets him on his journey, his ‘call to adventure.’ They come as a disruption in Bilbo’s comfortable life in his hole in the ground of Bag End. So far, Tolkien’s story follows Campbell’s structure, but the novel just as quickly breaks from it when Bilbo rushes to reach the dwarves in the next scene, thus already initiating his rebirth. As Cecilia Wicklander remarks, “[Bilbo] is childish not only in size but in manners also,” with a hardly heroic behavior (9): “There was a growling sound outside, and a noise as of some great animal scuffling at the door. Bilbo … dived under the blankets and hid his head” (109). He needs to experience a physiological and not physical rebirth for the maturation process to begin. Consequently, Bilbo runs through the long corridor and out from the womb-like hobbit hole to face the outside world. By having the moment of rebirth before the hero’s trials, Tolkien reverses Campbell’s causality chain to help his character prepare for the adventure that is to ensue.

As the protagonist of his story, Bilbo needs to achieve maturity to embody Tolkien’s vision of a hero; the adventure to the Misty Mountains is the perfect vehicle through which the hobbit grows up and accepts his position. He complains about wanting to go back home throughout the journey but, nonetheless, continues to push through. The character’s internal make-up motivates this back-and-forth: he is split between the Baggins side of his father, which symbolizes comfort and complacency, and the Tookish side of his mother, which reflects adventure and the unknown. This internal conflict is prevalent throughout the story, Bilbo swinging from one side to the other until he creates an equilibrium between them to fulfill his role as hero. While walking toward pending doom in the dragon’s lair, Bilbo thinks: “If only I could wake up and find this beastly tunnel was my own front-hall at home” (185). Even though he is scared, he pushes forward once again, realizing that “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.” (185). With this revelation, Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug becomes the climax for him acknowledging a hero’s position.

Although Bilbo is now a fully heroic figure, Tolkien still delineates from the norm because he must preserve the hobbit’s innocence. As such, Bilbo only tricks Smaug and is not the one to physically defeat him. This subversion illustrates how Bilbo’s maturation and heroism do not arise from masculine domination but from personally acknowledging powers like empathy and intelligence. His rejection of typical macho stereotypes is precisely what makes him the ideal hero: peaceful, honest, and generous, a hero by virtue of his sensitive character (Wicklander 15-16). Furthermore, Tolkien’s resentment for war is justified. A former World War I veteran, war is neither epic nor glorious for him; hence it also repels Bilbo: “[his] heart fell, both at the song and the talk: they sounded much too warlike” (228). The hobbit also misses the Battle of the Five Armies.

At the end of his adventure, Bilbo mourns the death of his friend Thorin, the text showing the destructive nature of war. The return, then, happens almost against his wishes in another subversion of the Hero’s Journey, where the return is immediate. Having gone through his journey, Bilbo resumes living in Bag End, only with a new sense of identity and appreciation for life. Tolkien uses this final image of Bilbo to uncover a different side of heroism, raising a mirror to the readers since they, too, would most likely behave like the hobbit throughout the ordeals.

As it appears in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins might be small, but he is mighty in soul, a hero who stayed true to himself and did not fight wars. J. R. R. Tolkien subverts the traditional Hero’s Journey at all key points, ultimately portraying a more realistic hero who shows that merry meals, honesty, and peace can change the world for the better.


Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, 1949.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit or, There and Back Again. Graphia, 2002.

Wiklander, Cecilia. The Image of Heroism in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. PhD. dissertation, University of Gothenburg, 2011.



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