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.