© 1991, Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association. Used by permission.
Glenn, Jonathan A. “To Translate a Hero: The Hobbit as Beowulf Retold.” PAPA 17 (1991): 13-34. A very few corrections have been made to the article for web publication.
To Translate a Hero: The Hobbit as Beowulf Retold
By Jonathan A. Glenn
The issues raised by my title—the nature of heroism in Tolkien’s fiction and The Hobbit’s relationship to Beowulf—are not new. The former has received particularly lavish attention—from Roger Sales, for instance, in his Modern Heroism and more recently from James Hodge in his essay “The Heroic Profile of Bilbo Baggins.” The second issue (the relationship of The Hobbit to Beowulf) has largely been the preserve of Bonniejean Christensen since her 1969 dissertation, “Beowulf and The Hobbit: Elegy into Fantasy in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Creative Technique”; other voices in the conversation include Shippey (The Road to Middle Earth), Brunsdale, and Hodge.
In spite of such multiple treatment, however, studies of these issues are with few exceptions flawed in three dangerous ways: by the general critical sin of Sloppy Statements, by a tendency to simple-minded and profligate Parallel-Hunting, and by the Voilà Syndrome, whereby the critic impressively points to something but fails to ask that first of all critical questions, “So what?” As an example of this Syndrome, I offer Christensen’s notice of a parallel between Beowulf and The Hobbit. She writes:
Among the episodes and digressions that Tolkien here incorporates from Beowulf are the feasting and gift-giving and recapitulation of events that occur at Hrothgar’s table; Beowulf’s following of the trail of Grendel to the mere where his mother’s lair is; [and] Beowulf’s taking of trophies, specifically, Grendel’s arm and later head….
In The Hobbit we meet Beorn, a skin-changer, who is sometimes a man and sometimes literally a beo-wulf, a bear. With him there is much feasting and retelling of events and, upon the company’s departure, much giving of gifts. During the company’s visit, Beorn retraces their steps to confirm their story, and returns with trophies of their enemies, a warg skin and a goblin head—close enough parallels to the concluding scenes in Hrothgar’s hall. (“Tolkien’s Creative Technique” 6)
Quite apart from objections to piling up parallels of dubious usefulness here, any thoughtful reader will want to ask Christensen a serious critical question: What are these parallels “close enough” to Beowulf for? What is it that such comparisons accomplish?
To avoid such critical perils, I propose in this paper to attack my issues in a more readerly way than seems usually to be the case: I shall begin with Tolkien’s text and the terms it establishes for an understanding of Bilbo’s “heroism,” proceed to an analysis of the structure of Tolkien’s plot as it develops Bilbo’s character, and only then—and only in that context—try to understand how Tolkien’s plot and protagonist use certain structural quotations from the Old English poem and its analogues.
From its first paragraph, The Hobbit concerns itself with balance, particularly the equilibrium of its main character, Bilbo Baggins. Initially introduced in terms of place—Bilbo’s hobbit hole—this balance is at first a mere avoidance of extremes, a rather static addiction to comfort: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort” (15, see Figure 1).
This concern with balance is never lost sight of in the novel, and it is Bilbo’s balance that the dying Thorin praises after the Battle of the Five Armies: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure” (273, emphasis mine). Bilbo, then, remains somehow the same throughout his story, never becoming obsessed by the imbalances that damn or trouble others in the novel—Smaug, for example, or Thorin.
Yet the protagonist is in another sense vastly changed by his experiences, as Gandalf clearly recognizes: “‘My dear Bilbo!’ he said. ‘Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were’” (284). The parochial hobbit of chapter 1, whose world was the grass outside his newly painted door and a few walks beyond, has been transformed by his contact with what Tolkien called in another context, with due emphasis on the upper-case initials, “the Wide World” ("Farmer Giles” 71). Like its concern with balance, The Hobbit’s concern with change appears in almost embarrassing blatancy in chapter 1: “This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end” (15-16). And if one does turn to the end, one sees that, indeed, Bilbo has gained something more precious (and more serious) than dragon-treasure from his journey: he has gained a sense of his place in the world, a sense of proportion:
“Surely [says Gandalf] you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar. (286-87)
Thus The Hobbit identifies for itself an essential tension—the tension between balance and change—and identifies the fruit of the exchange between them as proportion, a quality transcending the lumpish comfort of Bilbo’s former life (see Figure 2). [ Note 1 ]
To these matters of character and plot, Tolkien adds the literal issue of terms: in literary terms, what should the protagonist be called? in terms of the story itself, what should the helper (the outsider who makes the mission possible) be called? Early on, Gandalf discards the notion of “hero” or “warrior": warning Thorin against a frontal assault on the dragon’s lair, he says, “That would be no good, … not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. [ Note 2 ] I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found” (33). And Smaug (who, whatever his vices, is no fool) much later boasts to Bilbo, “I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today" (215-16). [ Note 3 ] To the traditional hierarchy of Warrior-Hero, Tolkien offers an analogous but non-legendary alternative in his protagonist. Bilbo begins and ends as a Burglar, though from the beginning there is some question as to whether it is the right title, and Bilbo, in any case, is always uncomfortable with it and attempts to qualify it (see 31, 257, 277). As his character develops, however, he transcends his initial role, becoming first an Adventurer and then a Leader.
The critical question, then, becomes one of character development, of how Tolkien engineers Bilbo’s progress through the essential tension in his journey—a question that can, in large part, be answered in terms of the structure of that journey.
Viewed in terms of its individual episodes (at least eight of them), The Hobbit is a busily and simple-mindedly strung-along tale, with the only obvious formal principle being the “There and Back Again” of the novel’s subtitle, the circular closure of beginning and ending at home:
The novel itself, however, helps to create order in this simple multiplicity by providing transitional formulas at three points in the story, dividing the adventure into four major parts. The first appears at the end of chapter 6, just after the adventurers have been saved from the Goblins and Wargs: “So ended,” the narrator concludes, “the adventures of the Misty Mountains” (114). The second occurs after Thorin has been imprisoned by the Elven-king, but before the other adventurers have been captured; this formula suggests Bilbo’s centrality in the definition of the marked-out episodes, as the narrator anticipates “the next chapter and another adventure in which the hobbit again showed his usefulness” (166). The final transitional formula appears less than twenty pages later, just after Bilbo has sprung his companions from the dungeons of the wood-elves; the narrator announces here, “[N]ow we are drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on” (181).
Given these narratorial hints, it becomes relatively easy to identify the significant moments in Tolkien’s development of Bilbo’s character: one need only eliminate those episodes where Bilbo does not act (Elrond, Beorn, Lake-Town) and then ask of the five remaining episodes: What motivates Bilbo in his actions in each? Exploring that question reveals that in all but one, Bilbo acts legitimately for self-preservation or for preservation of his Company. [ Note 4 ] The odd-episode-out is the Troll-episode—in which Bilbo acts merely from stung pride, nearly brings disaster to himself and his companions, and learns a merely negative lesson (46 ff.)—leaving four significant moments, focal points, in the process of Bilbo’s change.
For part 1, then, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum; for part 2, the Spiders; for part 3, the planning and execution of an escape from the dungeons of the Elven-king; and for part 4, the slaying of Smaug. Examining the action of each of these focal points and the language in which Bilbo’s role in each is expressed reveals a pair of elements present in each—luck and self-reliance—and a crucial change in the ratio of these elements as the tale proceeds.
In Gollum’s tunnel and beside his lake, Bilbo faces his first real test, the beginning of his metamorphosis. Here, luck seems the more important element in the ratio of luck to self-reliance. Incidental luck is with him throughout. Because he is a hobbit and used to tunnels, his guess about the direction to go in is more or less correct (see 77). During the riddle game, he is twice saved by chance; indeed, when he calls “Time!” the narrator specifically notes that he has been “saved by pure luck" (84-85). He is again lucky during his flight from Gollum when the ring slips onto his finger (89) and, as the narrator notes, in his leap to freedom: “[H]e only just missed cracking his skull on the low arch of the passage” (93). Bilbo’s most important stroke of luck in these tunnels is fully realized only in his later experiences, but the narrator duly records and remarks his finding of the “ring of power”: “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment” (76). Though the ring clearly helps him to escape this unpleasant situation and plays a supporting role in every important episode during the rest of Bilbo’s journey, however, it seems to me no more important than his other lucky chances in the development of his character, no matter what happens with it in Tolkien’s later fiction: here it is merely another instance of Bilbo’s always unusual luck. [ Note 5 ]
In spite of the dominant lucky note here, however, self-reliance does play an essential role in this first test. Bilbo is, of course, alone; if he is to rely on anyone it must be on himself, and he does choose to act by going down the tunnel (76-77). At various points in the ensuing adventure, Bilbo’s self-assertions affect the outcome. At first, these seem primarily desperate stubbornness. For example, Bilbo’s final (and unorthodox) question in the riddle game is originally not intended as a riddle: “He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle….” Bilbo, “having nothing better to ask,” seizes the opportunity, asks his question again in a louder voice, and maintains his poise (and annoyed stubbornness) during the tense moments that follow (85-86). More significantly, Bilbo’s desperate final escape shows some glimmers of the courageous self-reliance he will later possess; it also shows what his later courage exhibits more clearly—that his heroism is as much a matter of choosing and judging as of physical feats. Here he debates whether to stab Gollum or not, finally choosing fairness over prudence, and then “a new strength and resolve” make it possible for him to leap: “No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark” (92-93).
Similar analyses of the two middle episodes—the spider episode in Mirkwood and the episode of the Elven-king’s cave—show the increasing importance of Bilbo’s individual acting and deciding with a steady hum of luck in the background. In the spider episode, the terms luck, lucky, and luckily certainly appear (154-55, 158-59), but his luck (like his ring) serves simply as support for his wit and his newly developing sense of capability. The theme of independence is sounded early in the episode, after Bilbo stabs and kills the spider that tries to wrap him as he sleeps:
Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. (154)
After that, his skills lead to the escape of the company from the spiders—skills at aiming and throwing (156: no luck, but lots of practice) and at planning and improvising (157, 161: luck, perhaps, but “necessity is the mother of invention,” and Bilbo invents both spider-baiting doggerel and spider-beating strategy here). These skills lead also to Bilbo’s tentative graduation to the next rung in Tolkien’s alternative to the heroic hierarchy: “Bilbo began to feel there really was something of the bold adventurer about himself after all…” (163).
In the episode of the Elven-king’s cave, a similar mix of luck and wit prevail. And again, the luck works primarily in the background as support for a flawed but active plan (see 173 for the luck, 172-73 and 177 for the imperfection of the plan). Reluctantly, Bilbo must rely on himself, as the narrator notes: “[Bilbo] often wished … that he could get a message for help sent to the wizard, but that of course was quite impossible; and he soon realized that if anything was to be done, it would have to be done by Mr. Baggins, alone and unaided” (170). The plans do not come easily here—"He sat and thought and thought, … but no bright idea would come” (171)—nor do they come quickly or entire: Bilbo “at last … had the desperate beginnings of a plan” (172). Yet this last of what we may call the preparatory episodes finishes Bilbo’s training for “the last and greatest adventure” (181)—his role in the slaying of Smaug.
In the last adventure, the novel spends no words on luck—except for Thorin’s note that Bilbo is “possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance” (203)—and Bilbo’s only reliance on it is his use of the by now familiar ring. Though recognizing the limitations of Bilbo’s knowledge and experience, the narrative stresses his initiative and independence, noting his development of “ideas and plans of his own" (211), his intuitive recognition of reason for hope just when the dwarves most nearly despair (223), and his ability to develop and execute a daring strategy with the Arkenstone (256 ff.). That this strategy does not work—indeed rather backfires—seems not to matter, certainly not to Gandalf, who turns up unexpectedly to praise him: “Well done! Mr. Baggins! … There is always more about you than anyone expects!” (258).
In the midst of this adventure, as well, Bilbo is graduated to the highest rung of Tolkien’s alternative hierarchy, and the dwarves recognize that “[n]ow he had become the real leader in their adventure” (211). And it is here that Bilbo demonstrates the maturity of the thinking and choosing and acting begun in Gollum’s cave. As Bilbo descends into the dragon’s lair for the first time and begins to see Smaug’s fire and feel his heat, the narrator offers what seems to me the finest description of the Tolkienian Hero (or, rather, “Leader"): “It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait. At any rate after a short halt go on he did…” (205). (Cf. Brunsdale 50.)
Tolkien, then, has developed in The Hobbit an alternative to the Beowulfian Hero, whom he criticizes so sharply in his writings on Beowulf and on The Battle of Maldon. [ Note 6 ] Tolkien’s Leader transcends his initial ineptitude by using “wits and luck and a magic ring"—all in the service of an ability to choose and to act according to his stature, an ability developed in a series of increasingly challenging episodes. Recognizing that the first and fourth of these episodes show the unmistakable imprint of major episodes in Beowulf—and that the figure of Beorn in The Hobbit derives just as unmistakably from an analogue of Beowulf (Hrólfssaga Kraka)—prompts the final inquiries of my paper: how strong are these “structural quotations” from Germanic story, and what are their effects in The Hobbit?
That the Gollum-episode is somehow related to Beowulf’s adventures in Heorot and its vicinity has been noted by Christensen ("Tolkien’s Creative Technique” 6) and by Hodge (219). Christensen asserts that the Gollum-episode is a conflation of Beowulf’s encounters with Unferth and Grendel’s mother. It seems to me, however, that Christensen fails to account for the change in “heroic” role effected by Tolkien here: Bilbo’s “heroism” consists in his wit, not in his might. Though it is probable that Unferth, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother all represent the monstrous undercurrent in Hrothgar’s civilization, one does not need Unferth to account for the verbal conflict between between Bilbo and Gollum: that is plausibly provided by the substitution of Bilbo for Beowulf. [ Note 7 ] Hodge, on the other hand, simply (and silently—but, I think, accurately) conflates Beowulf’s conflicts with both members of the Grendel family.
Reasoning backward from the obvious parallel between Beowulf’s draca and Smaug (discussed briefly below), one may reasonably seek a structural complement to it, to see whether Tolkien made of his novel anything analogous to the structure that he claimed for the Old English poem: “a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings” ("The Monsters and the Critics” 81). That Gollum is, like Grendel’s ancestor, a fratricide who has been exiled from his home to live in a subterranean “mere” strongly suggests a conscious parallel between the ancient monster and the modern one. [ Note 8 ] Like Grendel, too, Gollum is, of the two chief quotations from Beowulf in the novel, “the lesser and more nearly human"—or hobbit (“The Monsters and the Critics” 86). Because of the change in genre between Beowulf and The Hobbit (see Christensen), “[t]riumph over the lesser and more nearly human” is not, here, finally, “cancelled by defeat before the older and more elemental” (“The Monsters and the Critics” 86)—an alteration structurally prepared for by the introduction of Beorn in the next episode of the story. In any case, Tolkien’s summary of the placement of the Grendels in Beowulf’s life could equally apply to Gollum’s place in Bilbo’s development: “And the conquest of the ogres comes at the right moment: not in earliest youth …; and not during the later period of recognized ability and prowess; but in that first moment, which often comes in great lives, when men look up in surprise and see that a hero has unawares leaped forth” (“The Monsters and the Critics” 86; see also Tolkien’s note 32 on this page for a suggestive comment about heroes and “the ordinary things of life”).
Immediately following this episode and the transitional formula that ends it, Tolkien introduces, in a chapter called “Queer Lodgings,” the episode noted in my introduction as attracting such attention from Christensen in her search for parallels between The Hobbit and Beowulf. Christensen notes the digressive nature of the episode, the feasting and story-telling that goes on in Beorn’s hall, and the gift-giving and trophy-taking that characterize this part of the story (6). It seems to me, however, that Christensen’s analysis makes much of incidental similarities whose glitter (in her eyes) blinds her to the more important parallel—and differences—that Tolkien employs here, a parallel that depends less on what goes on in “Queer Lodgings” than on who lives there.
Beorn’s immediate source in Germanic story is not Beowulf, of course, but an analogue of that poem, the Norse Hrólfssaga Kraka. [ Note 9 ] Beorn’s name is the Old English word beorn which, although it means ‘warrior, hero’ or more generally ‘man,’ is cognate with the Old Norse björn ‘bear.’ By a happy linguistic chance (or choice), then, Tolkien is able to use a name for Beorn that suggests both his human and his ursine natures. As a character, Beorn evidently derives from a combination—with significant differences—of two characters, father and son, in Hrólfssaga: Bjorn, who was cursed by his sorcerous stepmother, White, to be a bear during the day and a man by night, and Bothvar Bjarki, Bjorn’s son, who appears in the saga’s last tragic battle as a great bear (Jones 265-67 and 312-15). [ Note 10 ]
Five differences between Beorn and his Old Norse antecedents are immediately evident. First, Tolkien has taken pains to make Beorn himself—not some other power, like Bjorn’s stepmother—the author of his own metamorphic powers. Gandalf, having described Beorn as “sometimes … a huge black bear, sometimes … a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard,” makes rather a point of adding, “At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own” (118). Thus he takes his place in that high circle of those few who work magic rather than suffer or resist it.
Second, whereas Bjorn appears somehow to become trapped within a bear’s body—Bera, the saga says, “seemed to recognize the eyes of Bjorn the king’s son in the bear” (Jones 265)—Beorn in his self-chosen transformations to ursine form appears to be just as fully Beorn as when he is in his man-shape. The third difference is closely linked to the second. The bear-form in which Bothvar Bjarki participates in Hrolf’s last battle against Skuld is a “sending”: Bothvar in human shape remains within the king’s lodging while the bear fights, and he cannot be on the field of battle in his man-shape and bear-shape at once (Jones 313-14). Beorn, on the other hand, is, as noted, at all times either wholly man or wholly bear: he chooses his form for the time and for the tasks he must do. In the Battle of the Five Armies, for example, the novel reports, “[h]e came alone, and in bear’s shape; and he seemed to have grown almost giant-size in his wrath” (174).
Fourth, unlike Bjorn—who as a bear kills and eats the king his father’s cattle and is explicitly cursed to do so by White (Jones 265-67)—Beorn is a vegetarian who “lives most on cream and honey” (119). In this way, his role as Justicer (discussed below) is untainted by any hint of killing in other roles or for other purposes. Fifth, whereas Bjorn’s bear-shape is assumed by day, his man-shape at night, Beorn’s shapes, insofar as they follow a regular pattern, are assumed the other way around: while Bilbo and the dwarves visit him, at least, Beorn is a man by day and a bear by night (see 127-31). This reversal of the antecedent simply puts Beorn in harmony with conventional/archetypal associations between daylight and rationality, darkness and animality.
Just as evidently, Tolkien takes pains to effect in Beorn a character isolated, somehow, in his magnificence. Though his great strength and size certainly class him with the heroes of Germanic story (see 120), Gandalf’s descriptions seem calculated to do something more, to inspire reverence in Bilbo and the dwarves. He is, first, an italicized “somebody,” but in the next sentence achieves Tolkienian “uppercase-hood"—"That Somebody” (with a capital “S"), Gandalf calls him, and repeats the uppercase later, adding “a very great person” (117-18). His eschatological appearance in the Battle of the Five Armies likewise sets him apart from all other players in this story:
In that last hour Beorn himself had appeared—no one knew how or from where. He came alone, and in bear’s shape; and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath.
The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers. He fell upon their rear, and broke like a clap of thunder through the ring. (274)
Without claiming specific influence, Beorn’s manner and noise here may be noted as similar to descriptions in the biblical book of Revelation; for example, St. John reports “a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of great thunder” (Rev. 14:2). Thus Tolkien sets Beorn apart from the other characters in the novel, giving him powers and associations denied even to Gandalf.
Finally, Tolkien has concentrated in this character one of Bothvar Bjarki’s traits—concern for justice—making it Beorn’s chief function in the novel. When Bothvar at 18 learns of the manner of his father’s death (cursed to be a bear, then hunted and killed as one), his response is typical of him, but not of his brothers—"We have many wrongs to repay this witch,” he says, and proceeds to take gruesome vengeance on White (272-74). Similarly, when he meets with his outlaw brother Elgfrothi, he has scruples about Elgfrothi’s way of life and lectures him on justice:
Frothi invited him to stay there and hold a half share in everything with himself. Bothvar had no wish for that, for he thought poorly of killing men for their money, so after this he took himself off. Frothi brought him on his way, and told him this, that he had given peace to many men who were of little strength. Bothvar was heartened by this, and said that was well done—‘And most men you should let go in peace, even though you think you have something against them.’ (Jones 275)
Bothvar’s rescue of Hott from the bonepile in Hrolf’s court shows a similar concern for fair play (Jones 279-81).
Tolkien’s use of Beorn as Justicer follows Bothvar’s lead, as is evident particularly in Beorn’s concern to check the truth of Gandalf’s story and in his reaction to discovering its truth: “It was a good story, that of yours, … but I like it still better now I am sure it is true” (132). And Beorn’s role in the Battle of the Five Armies is to redress the imbalance of numbers which favors the forces of evil (265-69, 273-74).
In terms of Bilbo’s character as developing Leader, Beorn’s function as Justicer qualifies the beginning of that development of power, a moral rather than strictly physical qualification. Just as St. Paul’s God reserves enforcement of justice to himself—"Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19)—so Tolkien reserves it in his novel to Beorn. The seriousness with which Tolkien took this reservation is evident in Gandalf’s later commentary on Bilbo’s sparing Gollum’s life. In The Lord of the Rings the wizard puts it to Frodo—who has just observed that Gollum “deserves death"—this way: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the wise cannot see all ends” (1: 93). Such a viewpoint, then, creates Beorn and qualifies Bilbo’s potential development in The Hobbit, denying him what the Beowulfian hero proudly takes as his duty and his right—the enforcement of justice against all wrong, whether monster of the dark underground or the fiery dragon of the ancient hoards. (See Beowulf lines 426b-32 and 2333 ff.; cf. Tolkien, “Homecoming" 19-24.)
Elements of the Smaug-episode have been noted, virtually from the time of The Hobbit’s publication in 1937, as borrowed from Beowulf, and specifically the theft of the cup from the sleeping dragon. [ Note 11 ] In 1938 Tolkien wrote to the editor of the Observer thus:
Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at this point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same. (Letters 31)
Yet as Carpenter has noted, Tolkien did think of using Bilbo in a different role: “[Tolkien’s] notes suggest that Bilbo Baggins might creep into the dragon’s lair and stab him. ‘Bilbo plunges in his little magic knife,’ he wrote. ‘Throes of dragon. Smashes walls and entrance to tunnel.’” Carpenter goes on to observe that “this idea, which scarcely suited the character of the hobbit or provided a grand enough death for Smaug, was rejected in favour of the published version where the dragon is slain by the archer Bard” (179).
Smaug’s slaying is not, however, as simple as “slain by the archer Bard” suggests, and the causal-chain slaying of the dragon is of a piece with Tolkien’s transformation of other Beowulfian elements in the novel. Tolkien’s criticism of the hero’s decision to fight the draca in Beowulf is well known: “But the king wished for glory, or for a glorious death, and courted disaster.” Universalizing his charge here, Tolkien quotes Wiglaf’s exclamation on Beowulf’s death—"Oft sceall eorl monig anes willan wraec adreogan ‘by one man’s will many must woe endure’” ("Homecoming” 24).
In The Hobbit Tolkien takes pains that the dragon, at any rate, be slain by other means than “anes willan"—to wit, by cooperation among Bilbo, the Old Thrush, and Bard: Bilbo discovers Smaug’s vulnerable spot (216), the Old Thrush overhears Bilbo’s account and relays the information to Bard (217-18, 237), and Bard shoots the arrow that takes Smaug’s life (237-38). [ Note 12 ] As with his use of Beorn—whose behavior and character are unpredictable and uncontrollable by characters in the foreground of the plot yet whose presence is vital to their success—so Tolkien here introduces the Old Thrush, thus effectively removing control of his information from Bilbo (who in any case has no idea what to do with it) and at the same time making possible Bard’s slaying of the dragon, without giving him any greater control or any cause to take credit for more than understanding and archery. The novel emphasizes Bilbo’s anonymity in this causal chain: “[Bilbo] did not, of course, expect that any one would remember that it was he who discovered all by himself the dragon’s weak spot; and that was just as well, for no one ever did” (250). One of Tolkien’s points about such a chain seems to be that all-by-himself acts don’t slay dragons. In Beowulf, on the other hand, the hero refuses to cooperate or to permit cooperation—"Nis þæt eower sið, [Beowulf says,] / ne gemet mannes, nefne min anes” [This is not your adventure, nor anyone’s, save mine alone] (2532b-33)—and so brings death upon himself and ruin on his people.
Tolkien, then, creates an alternative to the heroic hierarchy of Northern story. For the Warrior he substitutes the Adventurer; for the Hero himself, the Leader. Using “structural quotations” from Beowulf and its analogue Hrólfssaga Kraka at key points in The Hobbit’s plot, Tolkien creates in Bilbo Baggins his answer to the defects of a Beowulf or a Beorhnoth or a Bothvar Bjarki—creates, that is, a person who chooses and acts according to his stature, who learns to make his way in the Wide World when he must, but who—in a way the Beowulfs of the world never can—comes home again, to be “only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all” (287).
[ Note 1 ] This is not the only salvific change Bilbo’s journey brings him. Most notably, Tolkien has offered in Bilbo an exemplum of his notion of the “recovering” power of fantasy ("On Fairy-Stories” 57-59). In The Hobbit, this power is most clearly expressed in the account of Bilbo’s odd behavior after his return to Hobbiton: “He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (285). [Return to text]
[ Note 2 ] Note the uppercase initials here. Tolkien habitually uses them in cases where he wishes to emphasize the importance or extraordinary significance of an idea (often) or a person (sometimes). [Return to text]
[ Note 3 ] Besides the occurrence already noted, the term hero appears again twice in The Hobbit. The first occurrence describes Elrond’s ancestry, and so carries with it a hint of Tolkien’s “uppercase” sense of hero (60). The second use is less technical, as it were, but still suggests that hero refers to the out-of-the-ordinary, at least: “[D]warves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much" (204). The operative clause here is, I think, “don’t expect too much": of the Hero, one can and does expect “too much."
The term warrior appears rather more often in the text (besides the two occurrences already noted, 35, 36, 60, 185, 207, 210, 220, 235). Warriors, unlike Heroes, are not all legendary, and unbeknownst to Bilbo (or Smaug), part of Smaug’s contemptuous question ("Girion Lord of Dale is dead, … and where are his sons’ sons that dare to approach me?” ) has an immediate and literal answer: in Lake-Town, in the person of Bard (see 232), though Bard has never dared approach the dragon and could not have slain him in the end without Bilbo and the Old Thrush. [Return to text]
[ Note 4 ] It is perhaps worth noting, here, that the Company does not become “his” until after the adventurers leave Beorn’s “Queer Lodgings.” Here Gandalf leaves them and delegates care of the dwarves to Bilbo: “I am not going to allow you to back out now, Mr. Baggins. I am ashamed of you for thinking of it. You have got to look after all these dwarves for me. . .” (138). [Return to text]
[ Note 5 ] Note, however, that Gandalf in the end lets Bilbo know that his luck is never “mere luck” (286), suggesting that it serves some other unidentified managing power with larger aims and larger plans than the rescue of a hobbit from a small dark monster in the bottom of a goblin cave. Note also that when the dwarves learn of the ring after the battle with the spiders in the wood, they do not give it particular pride of place in Bilbo’s armory: “[T]hey saw that he had some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring—and all three are very useful possessions" (163). [Return to text]
[ Note 6 ] Primarily in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) and in “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” (1953) with its accompanying essay on ofermod ‘pride.’ [Return to text]
[ Note 7 ] For Unferth’s monstrosity in Beowulf, see Nicholson. In her notice of the Gollum-Grendel parallel, incidentally, Christensen calls Gollum “a descendant of Cain” (6)—an imprecise identification, since structurally he is “Cain,” not his descendant, with a life stretched wearily long, in Tolkien’s formulation (The Lord of the Rings 1: 83-86). [Return to text]
[ Note 8 ] As Hodge has noted, that parallel is undeveloped, in terms of fratricide, in The Hobbit itself (Hodge 219). See The Lord of the Rings 1: 83-86 for the story of Sméagol (Gollum), who avariciously slew his friend Déagol (not his brother, pace Hodge) for a ring. That Tolkien should on hindsight associate Gollum—and somehow the beginning of evil for hobbit-kind—with fratricide is natural. In his own mythology, the “Kinslaying at Alqualondë” plays an important role in the sorrows of Middle-Earth (Silmarillion 86-87), and he of course would know the central role assigned to the story of Cain and Abel in the origins of evil in the world by the Old English Maxims I (text and translation are quoted here from Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning, 72-75):
Wearð fæhþo fyra cynne,
siþþan furþum swealg
eorðe Abeles blode. Næs þæt andæge nið,
of þam wrohtdropan wide gesprungon
micel mon ældum, monegum þeodum
bealoblonden niþ. Slog his broðor swæsne
Cain, þone cwealm serede. Cuþ wæs wide siþþan
þæt ece nið ældum scod. Swa aþolware
drugon wæpna gewin wide geond eorþan,
ahogodan ond ahyrdon heoro sliþendne. (C,58-66)
[A state of violence came into being for the race of men, from the moment when the earth swallowed the blood of Abel. That was no one-day disturbance; from the blood-drops of that crime there sprang far and wide great wickedness for men, inextricable hatred and evil for many peoples. It was Cain who killed his own brother and plotted the murder. It was known everywhere after that that an eternal hatred was afflicting men. So the inhabitants of earth endured the clash of weapons widely through the world, inventing and tempering wounding swords.] [Return to text]
[ Note 9 ] Christensen’s noting that Beorn is “sometimes literally a beo-wulf, a bear” (6) suggests a closer relationship to the Old English hero than, I think, plausibly exists here, though it is clear that Beorn’s size and ferocity carry that aspect of the generic hero-type in the novel. Shippey has noted Beorn’s relationship to Bothvar Bjarki and the etymology of his name and has asserted, more forcefully than Christensen, that Beowulf is in fact in Beorn’s background; Shippey does not note the Bjorn connection (Road to Middle Earth 62). Brunsdale merely notes that Beorn “is reminiscent of the berserker warriors dedicated to Odin” (49), which is only peripherally true if Beorn is descended from Bothvar, since the Norse hero garnered much of his fame by opposing berserker elites (see, e.g., Jones 285-87). [Return to text]
[ Note 10 ] Bothvar’s mother’s name was Bera. As Jones notes, “Bjorn means ‘Bear’, Bera ‘She-bear’, and Bjarki ‘Little Bear’” (269n.). In my discussion I use Jones’s anglicized forms of the names in this story. [Return to text]
[ Note 11 ] Interestingly, the part of the Beowulf-manuscript containing this particular episode is badly damaged, so that only the bare outline of what the OE poet intended is known. (See Beowulf lines 2226-31; for the ms. at this point, see Zupitza 103-05 and the plates between 104 and 105.) [Return to text]
[ Note 12 ] Brunsdale notes the element of cooperation here, though she ignores the Old Thrush (50). She calls Bard a “human hero,” however (49, 51), which in my reading of the novel is incorrect: he is a Warrior and an important one, but not a Hero. [Return to text]
Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Ed. Friedrich Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1950.
Brunsdale, Mitzi M. “Norse Mythological Elements in The Hobbit.” Mythlore 9 (Winter 1983): 49-50.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton, 1977.
Christensen, Bonniejean. “Beowulf and The Hobbit: Elegy into Fantasy in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Creative Technique.” Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1969. DAI 30 (1970): 4401-02A.
———. “Tolkien’s Creative Technique: Beowulf and The Hobbit.” Mythlore 15 (Spring 1989): 4-10.
Hodge, James L. “The Heroic Profile of Bilbo Baggins." Florilegium 8 (1986): 212-21.
Nicholson, Lewis E. “Hunlafing and the Point of the Sword.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1975. 50-61.
Sales, Roger. Modern Heroism: Essays on D. H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
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———. The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton, 1983.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. Rpt. in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1963. 51-103.
———. “Farmer Giles of Ham.” 1949. Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham. New York: Ballantine, 1969. 61-156.
———. The Hobbit. 1937. Rev. ed. New York: Del Rey-Ballantine, 1966.
———. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” 1953. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966.
———. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1981.
———. The Lord of the Rings. 3 vols. 1954-1955. New York: Ballantine, 1965.
———. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1977.
Zupitza, Julius. Beowulf Reproduced in Facsimile from the Unique Manuscript British Museum Ms. Cotton Vitellius A.XV. 2nd ed. EETS, OS 245. London: Oxford UP, 1959.