The Hero's Journey in Tolkien's "The Hobbit": The Departure Stage
The Hero's Journey
Even before the Greeks began composing scrolls of poetic epics, the journey of the hero—better known today as The Hero's Journey, or, as Joseph Campbell referred to it, the "monomyth"—has been a formative structure for the plotline of epic works of literature. When looking at its core elements, the journey of the hero is a fundamental pattern that can now be detected in thousands of narratives worldwide. Though the topic has been thoroughly discussed by many writers, Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces highlights texts from various eras and regions where this famous cycle is prevalent. Though many stories follow this cycle, Tolkien's The Hobbit will be the focus of this article.
In Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he states that the hero shifts from his or her own world of commonality into boundaries that are unfamiliar and oftentimes supernatural. Along this journey, they encounter extraordinary forces, win an odds-defying victory, and return to his or her original region completely metamorphosized.
However, before we can look into how closely Bilbo Baggins traverses down the Campbellian road of the hero, it is imperative that we understand the complex and various segments of the cycle itself. Campbell's "journey" features seventeen segments, grouped into three main categories: departure, initiation, and return. In this article, the "departure" stage of Bilbo's journey will be analyzed.
Here is where we find the hero-who-is-not-yet-a-hero enjoying a comfortable life in a mundane setting where the only thing he or she has to worry about, essentially, is what time the morning paper will be thrown onto their doorstep. Everything about this meeting with the potential hero stresses normality. There is nothing extraordinary yet about this character and no inkling that this character bears even an infinitesimal smidgen of moxie.
In The Hobbit, the reader encounter's Bilbo Baggins, the fifty-year-old hobbit who enjoys the simple comforts of life: the eating of food, the drinking of ales, and the smoking of Old Toby outside on his porch. Nothing about the reader's initial meeting with Bilbo suggests that he has any underlying heroic qualities whatsoever.
The First Five Stages of the Hero's Journey
Stage 1: The Call to Adventure
According to Campbell, this is the stage during which "destiny" summons the hero from the friendly confines of his or her home to the unfamiliar and dangerous boundaries of the outside world. As stated by Campbell, there is "treasure" in this region, though that "treasure" will often be symbolically represented.
In The Hobbit, that far-off unfamiliar boundary is Erebor, the former stronghold of Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather Thrain, a location that is in the most literal sense possible, filled with "treasure." There, the precious-metal-coveting dragon Smaug looms over all the riches the dwarves once kept close. "Destiny" comes calling Bilbo in the form of a gray-cloaked, stooped-shouldered wizard named Gandalf, who attempts to urge Bilbo away from his quaint and quiet hobbit-hole to take up the role of a burglar in Thorin's company.
Stage 2: Refusal of the Call
Thanks, but no thanks. In stage two, the call has been given, and the future hero has declined. There are often various reasons that the hero refuses. Fear is perhaps the most prevalent. Leaving his or her mundane setting to venture into the world beyond is both perplexing and threatening, and the protagonist, in most cases, has never had to make a decision of this magnitude. Insecurity is usually another thing preventing them from leaving home. They might also be leaving a sense of duty behind, whether a profession or something similar.
Bilbo Baggins initially wants nothing to do with Gandalf's and the dwarves' quest. The Baggins half of him would like nothing more than to remain in the Shire, but his Took half (and more adventurous side) is hesitantly intrigued by stories of dragons, treasure, elves, and battles, and thus, upon the morning of the company's departure, Bilbo finally decides to join them.
Stage 3: Supernatural Aid
The hero has now answered the call and is already committed to their quest. Now it is time for their aide, guide, mentor, or helper to become known to the reader. Often, this character is of supernatural origin, whether it is a god or goddess (i.e., The Odyssey), ghost (i.e., Hamlet), or some other being with extraordinary qualities. Normally, this character will also provide the future hero with some kind of object that will later play a pivotal role in their quest.
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Gandalf is Bilbo's supernatural aid. At this point in The Hobbit, he is really the only supernatural being to come into the story. Certainly, Gandalf is one of Bilbo's supernatural guides, but I do not believe him to be the only one. While Gandalf proves to be Frodo's most important supernatural mentor in The Lord of the Rings, passing on the Ring to him and launching him off on his quest to Mordor, in The Hobbit, Gandalf simply asks Bilbo to come along with him and the dwarves. Indeed without Gandalf Bilbo would never have become a hero, but there are others that fit the criteria of the "supernatural mentor" other than Gandalf the Gray.
The concept of the talisman is what intrigues me most when regarding this stage of the hero's journey. As I mentioned earlier, Gandalf gives Frodo the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, setting him off on his quest to Mordor. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-wan provides Luke Skywalker with his father's lightsaber, which later helps him confront Darth Vader. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Dumbledore provides Harry with the Invisibility Cloak that proves to be a most invaluable tool throughout the series. But what does Gandalf give Bilbo in The Hobbit? In many ways, Bilbo comes to his own aid. There are certainly a couple of important talismans throughout the story, the first one being Bilbo's sword Sting, which he finds in an abandoned troll-cave after outwitting three trolls into staying up past sunrise. Created so that the blade glows blue when Orcs and other nasty creatures are close by, Sting helps alert Bilbo to the enemy's presence.
Obviously, the most important talisman in the story is the One Ring, which Bilbo also finds by his own doing in the lair of Gollum. Without the knowledge that it is actually the ring of the Dark Lord Sauron, Bilbo takes it for his own and finds that it aids him in escaping Gollum's lair and also the domain of the Goblin King, for it allows him to become invisible.
Stage 4: The First Threshold
At this point in the tale, the "known" gets left behind, and the character ventures into the "unknown." Crossing the "first threshold" initiates the hero's adventure. Now the hero will be subjected to unfamiliar and often dangerous settings and situations.
A few famous heroes to have crossed their first threshold include the aforementioned Luke Skywalker, who leaves Tatooine for the first time aboard Han Solo's Millennium Falcon, and Frodo Baggins, who along with Merry, Pippin, and Sam find themselves in unfamiliar territory as they leave the Shire and head to the village of Bree.
For the sake of this examination, I will argue that Bilbo Baggins crosses the first threshold of his journey when he and Gandalf join the dwarves at the Bywater Inn. There the dwarves are waiting for Gandalf and Bilbo to join them so that their journey can begin. A couple of very small, suggestive things happened in this section of The Hobbit that caused me to believe that this is where the threshold into Bilbo's adventure was crossed.
As stated earlier, this segment of the hero's journey is all about shifting from the "known" into the "unknown." Bilbo is sulking for several reasons. Firstly, he is upset because he has yet to have his "second breakfast." Secondly, he is disappointed at having left his favorite handkerchief behind. And finally, it comes to his attention that he forgot to make precautionary "preparations" for the time he is away. These are three very distinct routines that Bilbo Baggins (if not all hobbits) are accustomed to. For Bilbo to have not completed any of these routines suggests that, even before he exits the Shire completely, he is already moving into territories that are unknown to him mentally, if not geographically.
Stage 5: The Belly of the Whale
Everything the hero is familiar with is now completely gone, and their transformation, whether or not they are conscious of it, has already begun.
One particular scene in The Hobbit that represents this stage of the hero's journey explicitly is when Bilbo escapes the giant spider of Mirkwood in Chapter 8:
"Somehow the killing of this giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark...made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. 'I will give you a name,' he said to it, 'and I shall call you Sting.'" (154).
This is a crucial turning point in the story. This is the first enemy Bilbo has bested thus far, and it fills him with a flare of determination that he has been foreign to this point. This is a crucial junction in Bilbo's metamorphosis as a hero because from this point on Bilbo begins to take initiative and takes the company's best interests into consideration rather than his own preferences.
He also fully ignores his hunger during this scene, and though a minuscule act by our standards, for Bilbo that is a considerable step in his progression toward shedding off his former skin. This scene is also where Sting gets its name. Normally, in classic epics, the naming of a sword suggests that its wielder has assumed the mantle of a hero. Though Bilbo has yet to fully complete his journey, it is becoming clearer and clearer by this point that he is inching ever closer to his own claim to heroism.
Who Does It Best?
Which story do you feel follows the hero's journey most accurately?
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine, 1973.
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© 2013 Nicholas T. Daniele