Regarded as the father of modern fantasy, Tolkien is known for his best-selling works such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A lover of Middle English and Middle-Earth, his iconic stories have made a huge impact on the literary world. His first fantasy book, The Hobbit, tells the adventure of Bilbo Baggins and his comrades that go out to slay the dragon. However, there is much more than just iconic characters and epic battles that make the story. Tolkien follows the mythical structure of the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is an outline that has been used in literature for centuries, similar to character archetypes. The journey typically follows ten steps that include the hero going off on an adventure, facing challenges, and returning home with newfound fortunes. And what journey is more iconic than Bilbo Baggins’s? In honor of Tolkien’s birthday, we decided to break down the Hero’s Journey as it’s used in The Hobbit.
The Ordinary World
This is the first step in the Hero’s Journey and the most crucial: it is when the hero is taken from the ordinary world and called to adventure. Bilbo Baggins’s ordinary world is the Shire, where he eats plenty of breakfasts and smokes his pipe. One afternoon he meets Gandalf, a mischievous wizard, who asks if he would like to go on an adventure. Bilbo politely declines. That is until Gandalf and a load of dwarves invite themselves inside his home and begin to devise their plan on getting King Thorin’s mountain back.
Call to Adventure
Some calls to adventure may be subtle, such as a feeling or ambition, while others are a bit more obvious. The initial call gets the hero to leave the ordinary world and set out on the adventure. For Bilbo, his call is very obvious. Gandalf volunteers him and then convinces him to leave the Shire. It takes a lot of persuasion, but Bilbo decides to join them on their quest to help the dwarves reclaim their home from the dragon, Smaug.
Crossing the Threshold
Often the first step in the journey, this is when the hero leaves home and sets out into the unknown. At this point, stakes are set and so are the hero’s goals. Bilbo and the others leave the safety of the Shire and venture into the woods full of danger. There is a lot at stake for the group—they need to travel to the Lonely Mountain, slay the dragon, and find the Arkenstone. As for Bilbo, he has his new responsibility as the “burglar” to help the others—and survive.
Trials, Friends, and Foes
Along the journey, the hero encounters many new faces and obstacles. Some of these are challenges to help the hero grow, while others are allies that will serve as companions. In Bilbo’s case, he’s faced with hungry trolls, giant spiders, and Gollum, the latter of whom wants to kill him for stealing his ring. His journey is also filled with new friends, from the dwarfs to Gandalf, who he confides in. The function of these events is to help the protagonist achieve their role in becoming a hero.
During many encounters, Gandalf has been with the group to lend his aid. He kills the Goblin King in order to save the dwarves and finds them shelter in the woods. All this time, Gandalf fulfills his role as magical mentor to Bilbo and the group. The magical mentor offers advice and wisdom to help the party out in overcoming obstacles.
The Dragon’s Lair
The hero is close to reaching their destination. They will be faced with their biggest obstacle yet before completing the journey. In the case of The Hobbit, they are literally entering the dragon’s lair. The group makes it to Thorin’s castle and confronts Smaug. He’s a greedy dragon that has taken over the kingdom and all the gold for himself. Smaug is enraged by Bilbo and the others and decides to burn down Lake Town, a nearby colony full of innocent humans.
One of the hardest obstacles in the journey is overcoming the Shadow figure, which will often bring about a great change within the characters. It’s not Smaug who the heroes must overcome, since he was shot down by an archer in Lake Town, but the army of elves and humans that march up to the castle for its treasures. Thorin, who is just as greedy as Smaug, refuses to share any of his riches. To keep them from fighting, Bilbo gives the elves and humans the Arkenstone, one of Thorin’s most prized possessions. When Thorin finds out, he yields and offers the army a part of his gold in exchange.
The ordeal is over, and the hero has won. They receive a prize for overcoming the obstacle. This is a moment in the journey where things have calmed down. For Bilbo, his reward isn’t initially a positive one: Thorin has his kingdom and the Arkenstone back, but he banishes Bilbo for cornering him into giving up some of his gold. For a moment, it seems like this is the end of Bilbo’s journey. However, this calm doesn’t usually last long. There is one final battle that awaits.
The Road Back
This is when the hero is ready to return home with their prize. Their journey is done, but often obstacles appear before they can return. An army of Goblins and Wargs come in search of the treasure. Bilbo’s last heroic act is unifying the armies between dwarf, human, and elf to fight this last battle together. The Goblin and Wargs are defeated, Thorin reconciles with Bilbo before he dies, and the dwarves have been united with the elves and humans once again. The battle is finally over.
Return with the Elixir
The journey has officially ended and the hero returns home with their treasure. It can be monetary treasures or spiritual treasures that have shaped them. In the case of Bilbo, he receives both. He earns treasure from the Lonely Mountain and has also become braver. Returning to his comfortable home in the Shire, Bilbo will always have this adventure to remember.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.