Close your eyes for fifteen seconds and picture a fantasy protagonist. It can be a specific one from a specific book, or it can be a nameless representation of the genre. Just picture the guy you imagine as a fantasy hero.
Chances are that you imagined some kind of heroic looking knight. Or perhaps a powerful wizard. Either way, they’ll have come from humble origins. Maybe they were raised in a cupboard under the stairs. Or maybe they were a farmer called away by destiny. No matter what, I’m willing to bet the person you imagined was young, tall, strong, and brave.
The exact opposite of Bilbo Baggins.
The Hobbit is often overshadowed by its successor, The Lord of the Rings. When people think of the hobbits themselves, they’ll often think of Pippin or Merry or Sam or Frodo. And for good reason. Those four are fantastic protagonists, and the stories they’re all a part of were absolutely incredible. But me? I’ll always have more of a soft spot for ol’ Bilbo.
He’s not exactly what you might think when you think of fantasy heroes. He’s not some young farm boy brought in from the countryside to fulfill a dramatic destiny. He’s a lazy fifty year old dude who spends his days doing nothing. A mighty warrior? Uh, no; the dude is fat and he’s never even picked up a sword. He loves maps and good food and tobaccos and a good song.
What I find exceptionally interesting about Bilbo is his arc. Like many fantasy heroes, Bilbo’s story is all about learning to embrace adventure and to be brave and all that. But he isn’t learning to be a powerful wizard or a noble knight. He’s learning to become a burglar.
Which is fitting. Because Bilbo is actually a pretty selfish dude.
You have to remember: Bilbo doesn’t want to be a part of any of this. Even near the end of the story, when his arc is near completion, he still wants to just go home and relax. We can see this on display most strongly right before the Battle of Five Armies; Bilbo straight-up betrays Thorin and the others, using the Ring to sneak off and join forces with the Elf King. Why? Because he doesn’t want to get caught in a siege and starve, even if he has to do it with his new friends.
As brave as he became by the end, Bilbo was still far from heroic. He spent the first half of the Battle of Five Armies hiding, then the second half knocked out. And it’s not like he ever marched up to his enemies with a sword in hand. His primary tool wasn’t Sting, it was the Ring! Every encounter he has, he spends it hiding and scheming!
That’s part of why I find Bilbo so compelling. It isn’t that he needs to become a mighty warrior or a brave hero. Rather, he relies on his cunning to survive. Which is perfect, because he really isn’t suited for fighting or heroics. He’s a hobbit, for god’s sake! He’s all about sneaking around, messing with people’s heads, and coming up with clever plans to escape a bad situation. And if he has his way, he’ll end up on top.
It’s like if the party rogue was the main character and I love it!
He even carries this onto ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Granted, he plays a much smaller role in that story than he does in ‘The Hobbit’. But his cunning is still on full display. Not just in his party prank, either; he uses that to Frodo’s advantage before his successor has to journey out to Mount Doom, encouraging his nephew to wear the mithril shirt beneath his normal clothes in order to conceal it. That act alone saves Frodo’s life several times later on in the story!
Also, can we talk about Bilbo and the Ring? Can we appreciate the fact that Bilbo is the only character who has given up the Ring after using it? After using it for decades, no less! Even Frodo couldn’t do that, and he only had the ring for a few years!
It’s easy to see why Bilbo gets overshadowed by the other characters. Sam is amazing, Aragorn is badass, Gandalf has been copied into just about every fantasy ever written, Gollum is downright iconic, the list goes on. But of all the many faces living in Middle-Earth, Bilbo will always be my favorite. To me, he is the perfect protagonist for the perfect fantasy book.
It certainly helps that Ian Holm played him in the movies. That’s a good actor, right there.