The hero’s journey – Bilbo Baggins

I always thought my favorite hero’s journey was Frodo’s in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which was the story I intended to write about. But as I started writing about Frodo, I began to think about his uncle Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and felt I should probably mention him.

Then it occurred to me: surely he deserves more than a mere mention in the whole saga. It was Bilbo who took in Frodo when Frodo’s parents died in a drowning accident. He was the first adventurer, the reluctant hero. He was Everyhobbit, living a comfortable and simple life in the Shire, doing things that hobbits do: spending lazy days reading in his cozy home in the ground, enjoying hearty meals (making sure never to miss second breakfast), and avoiding any disruptions to the normal order of things.

The call to adventure

Until Gandalf the Grey, “that old, wandering conjuror”, approaches him with the offer of an adventure. Mythologist Joseph Campbell writes about “The Call to Adventure” being the first step in the separation or departure stage of the hero’s journey.

If Bilbo had not accepted his call to adventure, had not found The One Ring to Rule Them All and outwitted the creature Gollum to become its new owner, had not bequeathed the ring to Frodo, then the sequence of events and coincidences that led to Frodo being the hero in another larger adventure would never have happened.

So, here’s to the hero Bilbo Baggins (with Frodo getting an honorable mention).

There and back again

Bilbo’s book about his adventures, There and Back Again, in essence summarizes Campbell’s hero’s journey: separation, initiation and return. It describes Bilbo’s friendship with the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves, his departure from the Shire, his encounters with goblins, elves, orcs, trolls, humans, woodland creatures, the wretched Gollum, and the terrifying dragon Smaug of Lonely Mountain. And finally, his return to the Shire with a treasure trove of wealth and experience.

There and Back Again was taken from Bilbo’s accounts from The Red Book of Westmarch, under the title The Hobbit. (It’s striking to me that Bilbo had a Red Book, just like psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose accounts of his adventures into his own unconscious mind and inner world were just as fantastic and terrifying).

The Hobbit begins with Gandalf the Grey showing up (uninvited) in the Shire, “looking for someone to share in an adventure.” Bilbo, predictably, is horrified. He had never set foot outside the Shire. “An adventure?… nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.” But the seed has been sown, and so begins Bilbo’s journey to help the dwarves reclaim their mountain home which has been taken over by the terrible dragon Smaug. Bilbo encounters fantastic creatures and magical realms and survives countless perils in this quest.

Campbell writes about the hero of the monomyth possessing special gifts or qualities that are often unrecognized: it turns out that Bilbo is no regular hobbit after all: he is courageous, clever and quick; he outwits Gollum in a riddle game and acquires The One Ring; he turns out to be an expert swordsman and burglar, fighting orcs and stealing treasure from Smaug, then destroying the dragon by cunningly discovering his weak spot.

The witnessing consciousness

Throughout his perilous adventures, Bilbo receives what Campbell calls “supernatural aid” or the “unsuspected assistance that comes to one who has undertaken his proper adventure”. For Bilbo, this aid comes in the form of magical feats from the wizard Gandalf. He also receives protection and refuge from the Elves, who give Bilbo magical gifts like “Sting”, the orc-slaying dagger, and other enchanted objects that help Bilbo (and later Frodo) survive hunger, cold, loneliness, despair and darkness as they battled with terror and evil.

Bilbo and Frodo do not embark on their adventures alone. Those who undertake epic and dangerous journeys need a companion to guide them safely through the horrors that lie in wait for them. Campbell and Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched mention the crucial role played by the poet Virgil as the “witnessing consciousness” who, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, accompanies Dante through the underworld as his witness and guide as he descends into deeper and deeper layers of hell.

Both Bilbo and Frodo made descents into the underworld: in secret tunnels, in dark underground dwarf cities, in orc caves, in the heart of mountains, in the fires of Mordor, in the depths of despair. Bilbo has Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves as companions to help him defeat Smaug. Frodo’s loyal companion is his best friend, Samwise the Brave, who at the beginning of the adventure thwarts Frodo’s plot to sneak away on his own and insists on coming with him.

Frodo would never have made it without Sam, who carries him on his back through the dark caves leading to Mordor and rescues him when he is trapped in the lair of the giant demon spider Shelob. Sam provides much needed levity and deep companionship for Frodo in his lonely and dark journey to Mordor, and ultimately saves him from the fiery depths, helping him finally to destroy The Ring and save Middle-earth. (Maybe I should have picked Sam as our hero.)

The return threshold

In the hero’s stage of “The Crossing of the Return Threshold” Campbell states that the hero’s return and reintegration with society is the hardest task of all. Before Bilbo’s adventure, he asks Gandalf, “Can you promise that I will come back?” Gandalf’s reply: “No…and if you do, you will not be the same.” What heroes experience in their journeys leaves them changed forever. Their old life, perceptions, relationships, and activities pale in comparison to what they have lived in their adventures.

This is true for both Bilbo and Frodo: they returned at separate times to Hobbiton but seemed to suffer from a deep kind of loneliness; they could no longer relate to their old lives or habits any more. Bilbo leaves the Shire after disappearing mysteriously in the middle of a lively party he threw to celebrate his eleventy-first birthday. It later emerges that he went to Rivendell to live with the Elves in the House of Elrond, which is where Frodo later finds him after his narrow escape from the Ringwraiths.

After Frodo destroys The Ring and saves Middle-earth, both Frodo and Bilbo sail away with Gandalf and the Elves to the Undying Lands. Why the Elves? Perhaps because Elves are immortal and will never forget these stories. Or because Elves have seen unthinkable things and survived endless wars through so many lifetimes that they understand the bigger picture; they are unfazed by it all, or maybe just accept it. Or maybe they can empathize with the deep emptiness and loneliness that comes from experiencing the eternity of time, whether through a life-altering experience or the curse/blessing of immortality.

Home again

I think Bilbo and Frodo’s hero journeys can help us empathize with those who leave “home” (any familiar physical or emotional place) and have life-changing experiences: loss and grief, exile and forced migration, war, illness and hospitalization. Some may be lucky enough to eventually go back home to relative safety. Yet they may be unable to metabolize the experiences they have lived, or synthesize them with the normalcy of their daily routines.

It seems that once you accept the call to adventure (or it is thrust upon you), you can never go back: you know too much, you have seen too much, you are never the same again. This can be the source of profound loneliness, where life seems meaningless and you feel like nobody can relate to your experience.

Perhaps if we had something like the Undying Lands of the Elves, we could sail there to find refuge, healing, and meaning for our life’s adventures and travails.

Works Cited:

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kalsched, D. (2013). Trauma and the Soul. New York: Routledge.

Tolkien, J.R.R (1965). The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (2001). The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.