Friday, May 6, 2011

Bilbo the Traveling Thief

Unlike most of Tolkien’s stories, I do not believe that The Hobbit has any true monsters. It is either that or many of the characters that we encounter are all actually monsters. I like to think of the monster simply by one of the Oxford English Dictionary definitions: “A person of repulsively unnatural character, or exhibiting such extreme cruelty or wickedness as to appear inhuman; a monstrous example of evil, a vice, etc.” But this does not exactly define anybody of any species in The Hobbit. If we go with what was discussed in class that monsters could just be the embodiment of human vices or a monster is created in the perception of a person who has opposing goals, then everybody in the story can be considered a monster.

What makes somebody a truly vile monster is not clear. “If the conflict really is about things properly called right and wrong, or good and evil, then the rightness or goodness of one side is not proved or established by the claims of either side; it must depend on values and beliefs above and independent of the particular conflict” (Letter 183). This works with our established moral code based on religious principles of avoiding sin. God is the ultimate judge of our actions. In this case, Bilbo cannot be judged all that lightly.

Bilbo originally agrees to accompany the dwarves for the adventure and the fourteenth share of the treasure. His purpose of the group is to be the burglar! And Bilbo actually prides himself on his burgling abilities. Just like the gang of protagonists from the movie Ocean’s Eleven, we cheer for Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves, a gang of criminals on a mission of murder and thievery. The reader does not realize that just because Bilbo is not a large and grotesque being like the beasts that he encounters, it does not mean that he is not as much of a monster.

When he first encounters the group of trolls, Bilbo considers slipping away to avoid any conflict. “He was very much alarmed, as well as disgusted; he wished himself a hundred miles away, and yet – and yet somehow he could not go straight back to Thorin ad Company emptyhanded” (The Hobbit 45). Bilbo had a compulsion, entirely out of his control, to pickpocket the trolls. He did not even know what could be inside of their bags, and yet he made the conscious decision to take the risk and burglarize them. The trolls were minding their own business. When they finally discovered Bilbo, they took the opportunity to capture him and his dwarf friends. But that was not due to any inherent malice or personal hatred, but to hunger. Dwarves are to trolls as ponies are to Smaug. The trolls came across a group of tasty little creatures and they were tired of eating the same old mutton every day. What else you expect of a large carnivore?

But this is not the last time that Bilbo’s thieving impulses get him into danger. When in the dark and scary cave of Gollum, he steals the almighty One Ring. Granted, he does not know of its owner, but he still grabs it at first chance. And Gollum can hardly be called a monster. Like Satan, he fell into darkness after the ring corrupted him. But Bilbo does not know about that and makes assumptions far before Gollum reveals that he wants to eat him (again, another starving beast). At first sight and throughout the riddle contest, Bilbo constantly believes that Gollum is going to jump out of the darkness and murder him.

Finally, Bilbo faces the climax of his adventure, Smaug. But it turns out that Smaug is more like Bilbo than anyone could have imagined. This supposed “monster” speaks intelligently and overly polite. He is a terrifying beast that “floats heavy and slow in the dark like a monstrous cow” (Shippey 90). This paradox does not correlate to any definition of monster we have spoken of. However, Smaug did steal the treasure of the dwarves. He is defined by greed and his need to hoard every little piece of treasure in his possession. But if this quality is what makes Smaug a monster, than Bilbo cannot be let off the hook either. His whole reason for being there is that he is good at stealing. As soon as he entered the dragon’s lair, he was “bewildered” by the treasure and immediately took the heaviest piece of fortune that he could carry. And his new magic ring only makes his job even easier. While Bilbo has his sneaky hobbit abilities accompanied by the ring, Smaug large and powerful. They both have their own means of fulfilling their desires, or their sinful methods, to gain treasures.

As we can see, Bilbo is clearly the most monstrous of all the creatures that he encounters. He did not go on a mission to slay hideous monsters on his journey of revenge, but the primal characteristics of mysterious beings unknown to each clashed. However, Bilbo’s uncontrollable compulsion to steal is the catalyst for most of these confrontations. The only question is whether Bilbo can be held responsible for his evil actions. Or perhaps as an inherently burglarizing hobbit, he has no control over himself when he catches sight of potential loot. Just like what the ring does to Frodo or Gollum, Bilbo is forced into giving into temptation. Either way, this makes The Hobbit much more than a simple story of hero goes on a quest to slay the mighty dragon. There are many factors that contribute to the moral disposition of all characters, good and bad.

Alex A.

11 comments:

  1. The question of whether or not Bilbo can be held responsible for his "evil" actions is an interesting one, especially given our discussions of Free Will in previous classes. We generally assume that the hobbits, as one subset of the Children of Illuvatar, have Free Will-- if Bilbo instinctively wants to steal, does following that impulse instead of resisting undermine what it means for him to have Choice? Can Free Will exist in tandem with this apparently instinctual response, and are there examples of that?

    On another note, "evil" is a loaded word, and I find it odd that you used it in the context of dealing with Bilbo. Yes, he steals things as the burglar (your point about the relativism of the situation is spot-on in demonstrating how we as readers can be manipulated, though that's a topic for another post), but based on our discussions in the previous few classes, whether or not his actions are purely evil depends on the intent behind them. I'm not convinced Bilbo's intentions were ever distinctly malicious [though it's altogether possible I've forgotten moments in "The Hobbit" that could be construed as such, and I'd love it if someone else invoked them].

    Furthermore, it seems to me that an aspect of becoming a monster is abandoning any sense of regret over harmful actions. Though Bilbo may fall prey to what you effectively describe as mild kleptomania, he still seems to have a conscious, as evidenced by his changes to the story "winning" the Ring, and that in itself keeps him from being truly monstrous.

    ~CJH

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  2. I fully agree with your statement of evil being unclear in The Hobbit. However, I do strongly disagree with your general conclusions about Bilbo being more evil in some way. My concern is that you merely take the traditional argument, specifically that there are evil creatures and doing something evil to them isn't evil in itself, and reverse the characters. I believe that in just reversing who is evil, you lose the subtlety that you are trying to point out.

    Furthermore, I agree with CJH's comments on Free Will needing to still exist in the story and for it not to be just a random occurrence of natural events. I believe instead if we keep "evil" as ambiguous as CJH also suggests, than we are better able to enjoy the complicated choices that Bilbo makes. Gollum is about to eat him, why can't he steal from him, but two rights dont make a wrong. This dilemma exists in the stories constantly, and I don't think that we should assume an answer and then pass judgment on the characters based on our own assumptions.

    -Charles Martino

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  3. The question of whether Bilbo can be labeled “a monster” is extremely problematic and I think you build a great argument for it. There is definitely an element of appearances that, rather superficially, shapes are views of good and evil. More significantly however, I’d argue that we are more liable to fall into this trap in a fantasy tale where we tend to rather simplistically attribute absolute good and absolute evil to our conventional ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ respectively. Over time, or rather over the course of fantasy literature, recurring monsters such as dragons and trolls have acquired an inherent ‘evil’ quality.

    It’s rather ironic that The Hobbit, the book that Tolkien was in fact least happy with because he wrote it for children, is the one to raise complexities regarding the characterization of monsters. Your argument very aptly elucidates the flaws in our categorization and the fact that Bilbo is indeed a thief, just like Smaug. It is perhaps a testimony to the power of the characterization of fantasy literature that even after reading your blog post and understanding your argument, I am still very hesitant to consider, let alone label Bilbo “a monster”.

    A possible explanation for this is that Bilbo is not presented to us in an absolute. The trolls for example, are presented as completely evil (our only glimpse of them in the story reveals these beasts talking about how they’d like to cook the dwarves). It is therefore easy for us to dismiss them in the ‘monster’ category. On the other hand, we witness the many sides of Bilbo Baggins and see a multitude of traits over the course of the story. That’s why anyone who reads The Hobbit will never leave it labeling Bilbo as merely a thief, though indeed he was one. But there was a lot more to him. It is this fact that makes him more human, and less monstrous. So I think the question of categorization perhaps lies in the presentation of absolutes.

    —Tarika Khattar

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  4. You give us an intriguing puzzle: if our hero engages in less than virtuous actions, does that make him a monster, too? My suspicion would be not: heroes kill monsters, and killing as such is typically considered a bad thing, but we do not fault the heroes therefore for killing the monsters. I would agree with the above comments about The Hobbit as atypical for Tolkien: my first thought is that Bilbo's being a burglar is meant to be a joke that Tolkien thought children might like (the goodie being a baddie, as in Ocean's Eleven. But I think that there is also meant to be an element of learning for Bilbo in his various attempts at being a thief. He is ashamed of the role that he takes in tricking Gollum, so much so that he lies to the dwarves about where he got the Ring. And he returns the Arkenstone to Thorin rather than keeping it for himself. This is his final action as a thief, and it is to return what he has taken.

    RLFB

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  5. My goodness, everyone is a monster now! It might be going a bit far to label Bilbo a monster, at least compared to the other characters in The Hobbit like trolls, orcs, spiders, and a dragon. Remember, Bilbo was roped into being a burglar by Gandalf. True, he could thrown everyone out of his house and gone back to his hobbit life, but there wouldn’t be a story after that. Besides, helping the dwarves reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon that stole it from them hardly seems like a blameworthy thing to, even if your title is “burglar” (more of scout really). In the case of the trolls, it probably best to call them fell-beasts rather than monsters (if monster is to have the connotation of purposeful evil). Bilbo’s attempted theft of the troll’s purse while objectively wrong (being theft) was more stupid than ill-intentioned. Besides on the scale of wrong-doing, how bad is it to take a bit the troll’s ill gotten gains (remember they have been eating villages up to that point) to bring back to your cold and hungry comrades in the hope that it might be put to some better purpose than sitting in a troll’s pocket?

    In class, the idea wasn’t only that monsters were the embodiment of human vices, but excessively so to the exclusion of any redeeming characteristics. Ungoliant being a classic case—she is not simply hungry, but ALWAYS hungry, perversely hungry for anything and everything to the point that she would even eat herself. The only character in The Hobbit approaching that level of monstrosity is Smaug, but he isn’t quite that bad.

    Smaug and Bilbo have very different motivations which can help illucidate their monstrousness. Bilbo is basically there to he the dwarves get their property back. When he takes the largest piece of treasure, it is to return it to the dwarves not because he is a raving kleptomaniac craving to seize hold of any shiny thing he fit in his nasty little pocketses. Smaug took the dwarves' treasure out of sheer greed. It was not his to begin with and he did not need it for anything. Nevertheless, he burned and killed many just so that he could idly hoard it. The greed was monstrous, eating the ponies was animalistic. Smaug’s attack on Dale could be seen a defense of his treasure, but it was a defense of his original wrong act of theft from the dwarves.

    If you go with the idea that a “monster is created in the perception of a person who has opposing goals” then anyone can be monster depending on your point of view. As people, we are often manipulated into seeing monsters where we want to. While this may not be satisfying from philosophical or theological position, it is, as often as not, the way things work out in the messy real world we live in.

    -Jason A Banks

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  6. I liked the boldness of this post! But I think you have omitted an important part of your selection from letter 183. In the sentence which precedes the one you quote, Tolkien writes, “I am more impressed by the extreme importance of being on the right side, than I am disturbed by the revelation of the jungle of confused motives, private purposes, and individual actions (noble or base) in which the right and wrong in actual human conflicts are commonly involved” (original italics, p. 242).

    In my view, Tolkien is saying two things here: first, that the matter of chief importance is “being on the right side”; second, that “actual human conflicts” are much messier in terms of equities and ethics than those in fairy tales.

    To me, it seems undeniable that Bilbo is on “the right side,” regardless of our small quibbles about the way in which he conducts himself. After all, whatever Smaug’s ability to converse with Bilbo, he is still more like Beowulf’s dragon than Grendel’s! Likewise, Faery’s equities and ethics are more clear-cut than those with which we contend every day. It is hard to say how much we should respect the property rights of a Wall Street broker whose earnings are legal but still seem ill-gotten. It is much easier to say how we should deal with a Troll whose only claim on his ‘property’ is that he has wiped out a village to get it.

    -J.R

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  7. Hello Alex!
    I agree. Bilbo certainly isn’t the most innocent of hobbits. However, I do not think he is the most monstrous character in The Hobbit either. Although Bilbo is definitely a thief, which is not necessarily a bad thing, his occupation is not necessarily a bad thing. In many stories the protagonist is often the dashing rogue. Think of Robin Hood. He is clearly a thief and prides himself on it, but no one would say he was evil. Bilbo, of course, is not stealing for the sake of helpless peasants. Still, I would not say his theft put him into an “evil” category. Most of the time he was just trying to impress the dwarves and feel useful. If that makes someone evil most adolescents deserve to be called monsters. The only real act of greed on Bilbo’s part was the taking of the Arkenstone and he felt guilty about that the whole time and eventually redeemed himself by using it for good. Smaug, on the other hand, is truly greedy. He slaughtered an entire city so he could hoard some gold. As far as judging Gollum too quickly, Gollum had every intention of killing Bilbo. Bilbo’s judgment of him stemmed from logical, justified fear. Bilbo didn’t try to kill him first; he was just afraid and wary. As for the trolls and the spiders, they may have just been hungry, but it’s hard to argue a troll is just a victim of his hunger after he carries off dozens of peasants, at least from the peasants’ point of view. The troll could just keep eating not-quite-so sentient sheep.

    RJM

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  8. Hello Alex!
    I agree. Bilbo certainly isn’t the most innocent of hobbits. However, I do not think he is the most monstrous character in The Hobbit either. Although Bilbo is definitely a thief, which is not necessarily a bad thing, his occupation is not necessarily a bad thing. In many stories the protagonist is often the dashing rogue. Think of Robin Hood. He is clearly a thief and prides himself on it, but no one would say he was evil. Bilbo, of course, is not stealing for the sake of helpless peasants. Still, I would not say his theft put him into an “evil” category. Most of the time he was just trying to impress the dwarves and feel useful. If that makes someone evil most adolescents deserve to be called monsters. The only real act of greed on Bilbo’s part was the taking of the Arkenstone and he felt guilty about that the whole time and eventually redeemed himself by using it for good. Smaug, on the other hand, is truly greedy. He slaughtered an entire city so he could hoard some gold. As far as judging Gollum too quickly, Gollum had every intention of killing Bilbo. Bilbo’s judgment of him stemmed from logical, justified fear. Bilbo didn’t try to kill him first; he was just afraid and wary. As for the trolls and the spiders, they may have just been hungry, but it’s hard to argue a troll is just a victim of his hunger after he carries off dozens of peasants, at least from the peasants’ point of view. The troll could just keep eating not-quite-so sentient sheep.

    RJM

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  9. This was really interesting, but I have to disagree on the point of Bilbo being “monstrous.” He isn’t always perfectly good, like you’ve pointed out, especially in regards to the Arkenstone. In the end though, he does use it for good, and that is certainly not monstrous. None of the monsters we discussed feel any remorse, and that plays a large part in what makes them monstrous, in my opinion.

    Also, this made me think back to our discussion of Numenor, and the points that were raised about human sacrifice and, later, the use of orcs. The use of orcs I think is more relevant: in one of his letters (I believe) Tolkien mentioned that even if it had been the “good guys” using orcs and the sort of industrial weaponry Sauron did they would still be the good guys. This isn’t strictly the same case, since Sauron is also trying to set himself up as a new god, but I think there’s something still applicable. Bilbo’s actions are not always completely moral, but he not only feels bad, he’s working for and with people who are clearly “good.” Monsters in Tolkien’s universe that we really view as monsters are remorseless and, outside of “The Hobbit,” Tolkien’s monsters have a deep, physical monstrosity and malice about them that Bilbo simply lacks.

    CQC

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  10. I love the assertion that Bilbo is the most monstrous creature in the story! Not that I particularly agree (or disagree for that matter), but it is a beautiful illustration of the clearest idea which I got out of all of the class discussion on this topic, which in its simplest terms, is that good and evil are extremely, if not completely, relative. As such, I see the term monster as one which can be applied to anyone depending on the perspective of the person applying it. If considered from a broad enough perspective, “monster” really just means “an entity for which exceptions to standard morality can be made, because it’s really different from me and, god knows, I don’t want to get ensnared, poisoned, eaten, or anything else nasty and horrible.”
    This concept works incredibly well in stories because most of the time when we’re reading a story, the first thing that comes to our minds is not concepts of othering, or trying to understand why the monster does what it does. Because the story itself tells things from the perspective of the protagonist (and only from that perspective) we become invested in that viewpoint, and thus ideas like “turn the trolls into stone,” “steal from the dragon,” or “kill the wabbit” (maybe not that last one…Elmer Fudd, Antihero? You decide…anyway…) make perfect sense to us. The idea also gets turned on its head very effectively in stories where the one we saw as the monster becomes the protagonist, such as in John Gardener’s novel Grendel. But then again, if characters paused to consider moral relativism, they’d probably make terrible heroes and really tasty snacks.

    Ian Goller

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  11. I'm not sure if Bilbo wanted to steal from the trolls due to irresistible kleptomaniac impulses. The impression I got was that, having been "hired" as a "burglar", he wanted to prove his worth to the dwarves.

    This thing about "the thief of the group" is now a standard trope in fantasy fiction and games; the influence from Tolkien is obvious, but the way this trope is played in The Hobbit itself makes me wonder whether he was taking inspiration from an existing archetype.

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