Editor’s Note: Unsettling Wonder is pleased to welcome our newest editorial assistant, Cayt Addison. A graduate student in literature and an enthusiast for the fantastic, Cayt will be masterminding our social media presence—for which, keep your Like buttons at the ready—and contributing to the blog. Her inaugural post approaches the concept of wonder voyages from a perhaps unexpected direction—the perilous overland voyage of Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, Hobbiton.
High fantasy today is full of hero’s journey plots, elves and dwarves and worlds which can broadly be mapped onto medieval Europe. This is not limited to novels; computer games and pencil and paper roleplaying also take their cue from the standard ingredients generally accepted to be part of high or epic fantasy. The ingredients, in short, of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien.
I was given The Hobbit (1937) to read when I was seven, and it immediately became my favourite book. Deliberately light in tone, it handles peril with humour, fear with wit. I found new parts to love every time I re-read it. Smaug was captivating, Gollum, of course, so repulsive, and in Bilbo, crucially, I saw myself.
Though of course hobbits are not children, there is something of the child about them. Their size, for one thing, but also their greed, the obsession with food which we see in all of the hobbits of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Lost in the cold and the dark of caves, separated from his friends and guides, Bilbo wants his dinner. Surrounded by people larger than himself, carried away against his will to places he does not know, and spoken of as though he is not there, Bilbo’s experiences are the experiences of children. And yet through luck, or fate, or circumstance, Bilbo manages to save the day.
Unlike many fantasy heroes, Bilbo does not begin as a great or exceptional man. He is not a mage or a prince, has little skill or training in fighting, and mostly muddles through on wit and luck. He is surrounded by people who are stronger and more powerful than he is, but he holds his own among them. He makes himself useful. He saves the lives of his companions more than once. Not bad, for someone who would rather be sitting at home smoking his pipe and munching on his elevenses.
Bilbo is, to begin with, a reluctant member of the party. He would be quite content to remain in the Shire, living his quiet and ordinary life. He is not ostensibly a heroic character, except that he performs heroic acts. And, to a child, perhaps this is the most crucial message which The Hobbit imparts: it does not take an extraordinary person to do extraordinary things. Rather, doing extraordinary things is what makes someone extraordinary.
The Hobbit marked my first experiences of dipping my toes into the waters of fantasy novels, and it would probably be fair to say that I never looked back. From Tolkien’s work I moved on to reading more of what I think of as the ‘high fantasy canon’, and it has undoubtedly shaped my reading habits ever since. Without The Hobbit, it is impossible to say what current high fantasy would look like, and without it, I cannot say how my life (or bookshelves) would look now.
Bilbo Baggins is loyal, lucky, and fundamentally a good person. He may not be the most glamorous of adventurers, but nevertheless, he is one of my personal heroes.