One of my favorite films is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’ve watched it seven times so far and each time I’m swept away by the Middle Earth adventures of Thorin and company. While objectively speaking The Hobbbit is not as good as the The Lord of Rings somehow I cannot help but prefer the rambunctiously lighthearted spirit of The Hobbit.
The emotional center of the film is Bilbo Baggins, a stuffy middle-aged hobbit with a nervous tic. He is not fit for adventure, thus he keeps himself content indoors. In fact, the entire point of movie is to push this solitary little hobbit out of his complacency and into a place of real growth and change. This happens through a series of perilous tests which propel Bilbo from a static self-centeredness to a willful self-sacrifice.
Gandalf’s Introduction: Testing Candidacy
When Gandalf first shows up at Bilbo’s door, he’s looking specifically for a suitable hobbit to join the company. Since hobbits possess an unfamiliar scent, a miniature size, and a stealthy disposition, Gandalf wants to enlist one of them in their quest to take down the dragon Smaug. Remembering Bilbo from his adventurous days as a youth, the grey wizard conducts an interview of sorts on his doorstep. But it is not right answers he is after.
The wizard is looking beneath the surface, checking to see if this particular hobbit is indeed suited for the task at hand. While the audience sees only a stuffy contented homebody, somehow Gandalf sees a latent potential for courage. It will take the rest of the movie for us to see this same courage that Gandalf sees. By the end of their very awkward conversation he has made up his mind: Bilbo shall accompany the Dwarves (to Gandalf’s great amusement).
Dinner for Dwarves: Testing Complacency
Without Bilbo’s knowledge, Gandalf has invited a host of dwarves over to his house for supper. One by one they pile in through his doors. However this is also a test. As the dwarves raid his pantry, Bilbo stands back in horror. He is being robbed blind. But there is something more peculiar going on here: why does one solitary hobbit have so much food? Clearly his thin waistline does not betray him for a glutton. Bilbo’s pantry is fully stocked for a feast he clearly does not plan to have for guests he will not invite over. He has grown complacent.
The Dwarves however do know how to make the most of a full pantry. They are merry, raucous, and ravenously hungry. By eating and drinking up Bilbo’s reserves, they expose the hobbit as someone content living in an empty house filled with food he will never eat. Gandalf has invited the company over because he knows it will shock Bilbo out of his comfortable stasis. Content with doilies and silverware, the hobbit is now being tested with real life matters. Here sits a nomadic race who have been violently displaced from their homes. By literally taking over his home, the Dwarves demonstrate for Bilbo what it feels like to have your sacred dwelling invaded by an unwanted guest.
Leaving Bag End: Testing Desire
Unwilling to sign the contract or join their cause, Bilbo wakes up to an empty home. It is clean and tidy as if they had never been there. Physically his house remains unchanged from the day before. However the rowdy laughter that filled the rooms and hallways only a night before has now been replaced by an eery silence. This is a test of Bilbo’s desire.
Is he happy here at home in his unchanging isolated state? Does he not desire something more than this, a something he cannot quite place his finger on? While he would rather not embark on a perilous adventure, the alternative is to abandon desire and continue to grow numb to the world around him wanting nothing. Given the choice between the comfort of safety and the uncertainty of desire, he finally chooses the latter. Remember, this is the choice that enables the entire story to be. It will not do to simply have Bilbo be kidnapped. He must willfully and decisively walk out his front door or the story immediately ends. He must desire it.
Cooking with Trolls: Testing Resourcefulness
Everything up to this point has been target practice. Now we have arrived at the first real threat of Bilbo’s unexpected adventure. And he approaches it with either an alarming naivety or a strange courage, I’m not quite sure which. The ponies are missing and Bilbo unhesitatingly rushes into danger free them. Is this a hobbit trying to prove himself to his skeptical companions with mock bravery? Or is this an unaware shire-lover out of his league tiptoeing headfirst into certain doom?
Although we can’t be entirely sure, evidence seems to point to the first real sign of an innate tenacity behind Bilbo’s outwardly meek behavior. Bilbo outwits the trolls buying the company precious time. He does not cower in fear but he rises to the occasion employing his full wit to distract his foes from the impending light of dawn. Whether by quick thinking or sheer luck, our hobbit has resolutely passed a major milestone here.
Leaving the Company: Testing Resolve
However soon the honeymoon is over. Their adventure is fraught with danger at every turn. Orcs, trolls, wargs, and stone giants. This is not what Bilbo signed up for. But what stings most of all it is the perpetual disdain of Thorin Oakenshield. His disapproving comments cause Bilbo to doubt his place in the company. Ever since Thorin met the inexperienced young hobbit, he has found him soft and unready for the journey. The hobbit is a burden to him.
With death circling around their every footstep, Bilbo reconsiders his fateful choice to leave the protection of the Shire. His resolve is tested and for the first time he fails the test. Bilbo does not want to continue on and prove Thorin’s accusations right through an untimely death. Turning his back on the company, Bilbo readies himself to turn back toward Rivendell when the goblins spring their trap. Bilbo may have not passed this test but he will soon get an opportunity to retake it.
Facing Gollum: Testing Identity
Having failed the previous test, Bilbo is now isolated from the company and left to fend for himself against an unpredictable adversary. It is no coincidence that they are similar species. Gollum, a former hobbit-like creature, is a reflection of who Bilbo could become if corrupted by evil powers. Through their game of riddles, Bilbo asserts himself as a person of knowledge and understanding. He is also cunning, able to hold his own against Gollum’s trickery with a little trickery of his own. But once Bilbo has won, gained the ring, and found his way out the darkness, he must choose between taking life or sparing it.
This is an important choice. Has the world’s evil altered this once innocent hobbit? Will he kill an unarmed enemy now that he has the upper hand? Ultimately Bilbo returns to his roots, remembering Gandalf’s wisdom and his moral foundation. Back in the Shire, he would never do such a thing and neither will he now. He knows who he is. A hobbit. A resourceful bookworm. A courageous peacemaker.
Rejoining the Company: Retesting Resolve
Free from Gollum’s lair, Bilbo now must confront his doubts about his rightful place in the company. He was ready to abandon them and break his contract, but now what has changed? He understands who he is: a hobbit with all the limits and shortcomings that come with being a hobbit yet also possessing all a hobbit’s strengths. Reflecting on all the trials he has come through so far, he chooses to rejoin the companions he had left behind. He loves his home and regrets leaving it, but perhaps that is not his weakness but rather the true source of his courage. By assisting the dwarves, he is fighting for home. It may not be his home, but it is someone’s home.
Once more, he arrives late to the party and rejoins the very group he had written off. Once more, he pledges to travel with them on a dangerous quest to the edge of the world. His resolve is reestablished. There is no question now, Bilbo is with them.
Facing Azog: Testing Courage
Any naïvety Bilbo had toward the beginning of the journey is long gone. He understands that luck will not save him in battle. He is laying his life down on the line every time he picks up the sword instead of running the other way. After escaping the Goblin King, the company is now trapped once again by a contingent of Azog’s wargs.
Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the company and rightful king of Erebor, lies unconscious before the Pale Orc with seconds left to live. Bilbo must know he can’t defeat Azog’s warg-riders yet he has committed himself to the Dwarves’ cause, including preserving the life of their king. He cannot know if help is behind him, but he knows that his fate is now bound up with Thorin’s. The hobbit rises to fight, possessing little in the way of strength or skill but possessing much in terms of courage and will. Bilbo steps out to engage the enemy, rallying the dwarves to his cause and delivering the slightest margin of unexpected resistance allowing a few extra moments for the eagles’ rescue.
This is Bilbo’s moment. He has no guarantee of success, nor real hope to succeed. He only knows what he can do, what he must do, what he will do. The tests are over. The hobbit is now grown up into a true hero, the stuff of legend.