Eighty years ago, in September of 1937, when the evil of fascism was poisoning Europe, and the world teetered on the brink of the most devastating war in history, a new hero was born. He was 50 years old, about three feet tall, with a beer belly, slightly pointed ears, and feet so hairy they needed to be brushed. His name was Bilbo Baggins and he was a pipe-weed-smoking, food-obsessed homebody, of a breed of creature no one had ever heard of before: a hobbit. Bilbo and his woolly toes stepped out of The Hobbit or, There and Back Again, a fantasy novel about Bilbo’s adventures with a wizard named Gandalf and a pack of dwarves on a quest to steal back their gold from an evil dragon. It is hailed as one of the finest, most beloved classics of English children’s literature.
Bilbo’s creator, J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien, was a professor at the University of Oxford in England who was fascinated by invented languages, Norse myths and epic legends of dragons, dwarves and swashbuckling warriors like the Anglo Saxon prince, Beowulf. Tolkien would perform the classic poem about Beowulf aloud in his English Lit class, shouting, “Hwæt!” (Old English for “Yo!”) to begin the poem (and wake up his students.) Yet when Tolkien created his own hero, it wasn’t a monster-slaying prince or a hammer-wielding Norse god. Bilbo emerged from a single phrase formed in Tolkien’s mind while grading boring student exams: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Ten words that blossomed into his first novel, The Hobbit or, There and Back Again, published in September of 1937, followed in 1955 by The Lord of the Rings trilogy. All together the books sold hundreds of millions of copies the world over, launched a multi-billion dollar Oscar-winning movie franchise, and spawned a legion of fans devoted to this very day to arguing the fine points of “Tolkien legendarium”—the exquisite details of the imaginary worlds and languages in his books.
So what makes the little hobbit worthy of hero worship for 80 years and counting? Here is a smorgasbord of reasons Bilbo Baggins reigns supreme.
Size Isn’t Everything . . .
Beowulf, Prince of the Geats, is literally a towering figure with the strength of 30 men in one arm; Bilbo Baggins’ wood pipe is almost as big as he is. Trolls who consider eating Bilbo figure he wouldn’t make more than a mouthful. Bilbo’s ride is the littlest pony! But Tolkien, who described himself as a child who was “a rather puny, over-mothered, timid little creature,” valued brains over brawn. Bilbo Baggins was so quick on his fuzzy feet he could out-riddle Gollum the slimy villain of the dark, and outwit the ferocious dragon Smaug into revealing his fatal vulnerability. But first, Bilbo had to convince himself to actually get out the door, which is for many of us an act of courage in itself.
That First Courageous Step . . .
Legendary heroes like Beowulf and Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s roundtable who Tolkien also admired, set out on quests for adventure as easy as pie. They’re beefy, goal-oriented warriors in pursuit of glory, revenge, and/or eternal love. Bilbo’s primary goal at the beginning of The Hobbit is to have a post-breakfast snack. He tells Gandalf adventures are “Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” and he’d prefer to stay home in his cozy hobbit hole. Who wouldn’t?
Tolkien knew all too well what lurked outside the door. He didn’t rush to enlist when World War I started in 1914, but eventually served as a junior officer during the Battle of the Somme where over 19,000 British soldiers died in a single day. The campaign lasted months, claiming close to 1.5 million casualties including all but one of Tolkien’s close friends. It was there, in candlelit tents by the bloodied battlefields that Tolkien shut out the carnage by imagining a land called Middle-earth, the complex territory that years later his hobbit would explore.
Bilbo’s Elven Cool, Maaaan!
Sure, The Hobbit was nominated for a Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious British award for children’s literature. And the Queen of England named Tolkien a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in honor of his work. But in the realm of cool, the highest honor is to see one’s name in Rolling Stone. And so it came to pass as Bilbo, along with the entire Tolkien-universe, became entwined in the world of rock and roll. Led Zeppelin’s founder Jimmy Page was clearly a Tolkien fan as the 1971 “Misty Mountain Hop” references a key location in Bilbo’s adventure, and the band’s 1969 hit “Ramble On” and other songs pay homage to The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien had become a counter-culture hero in the 60s, whether he liked it or not (he did not), and Black Sabbath, Genesis and Rush also wrote songs paying tribute to the world of hobbits. Sales of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy skyrocketed in the 60s, and slogans like “Frodo Lives!” “Gandalf for President!” and “J.R.R. TOLKIEN is hobbit-forming” adorned t-shirts and subway walls. Some believed hobbits were analogous for “the little people” trying to revolt against the military industrial complex. Others insisted that the passion for pipe smoking in the books was for a different kind of weed than tobacco.
If that wasn’t cool enough, The Beatles briefly considered making a movie out of The Lord of the Rings with Paul as Frodo, John as Gollum, Ringo as Sam, and George as the Wizard Gandalf. Tolkien wasn’t interested. Thus, it was Bilbo, not Frodo whose name was first immortalized in a music video. In 1967, Leonard Nimoy, the actor playing another maverick breed of hero with pointy ears—Vulcan—on the brand new smash TV series Star Trek, ventured a little further into the entertainment frontier by trying out a singing career. To promote his new album, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space, Nimoy went on a variety show coiffed as Spock to the tips of his prosthetic ears and performed “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” Surrounded by girls also sporting rubber ears and dancing a kind of hobbity jig, Nimoy crooned about “Bilbo (Bilbo!), Bilbo Baggins, The bravest little hobbit of them all!”
Bilbo Baggins: Star of the Silver Screen
As nearly one billion ticket-buyers around the world are aware, “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” was just a bizarre taste of the cinematic glory to come. Tolkien refused to sell the film rights to his books until 1969 when he wanted to ensure that his family would be able to pay estate taxes after his death. Subsequently, an animated musical version of The Hobbit aired on U.S. television in 1977, followed by live action adaptations in the Soviet Union and Finland. But it was New Zealand director Peter Jackson who was destined to catapult The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into the stratosphere of gargantuan success.
Over 16 years, Jackson created three films from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, released from 2001-2003, and another three from The Hobbit, released from 2012-2014. The films garnered 17 Academy Awards, pioneered landmark digital special effects, grossed over 5 billion dollars in ticket sales, and boosted New Zealand’s economy as tourists flocked to see the sites where all the movies were filmed. At the heart of this glittering Tolkein-franchise galaxy, is our humble hairy-toed hero, Bilbo Baggins. Tony award-winning British actor Ian Holm played the older Bilbo in the films, but who could embody the fresh, young 50-year-old hobbit who crept into our hearts in that very first book—the Bilbo Baggins who started it all? Peter Jackson felt Martin Freeman, and only Martin Freeman, one of the stars of the British version of The Office, was born to play the part. "He is intelligent, funny, surprising and brave, exactly like Bilbo,” said Jackson when he announced the decision.
Freeman didn’t take home one of those 17 Oscars, but he did win Best Hero at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards, showing Batman, Iron Man, Catwoman, The Hulk, and Snow White who’s boss. The competition between Bilbo and Snow White was especially fierce, but ultimately, the 1.6 million plus fans of Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins ruled the day. Of course, it’s hard to lose when your fan base includes The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert, a rabid Tolkein devotee who went full out hobbit in 2014 when he dressed up as Bilbo, Gandalf, and Legolas for an Entertainment Weekly story, and hosted a Hobbit / Lord of the Rings film panel at Comic-Con. For Colbert, “Tolkien’s work has been a lifelong haven . . .truly a light in dark places when all other lights went out. For an awkward teenager, Middle-earth was a world I could escape to. Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth also gave me a world to escape to, but by the time his films came out, I was rich and famous and didn’t really want to escape my life anymore.”
Bilbo Baggins might be the world’s most triumphant nerd. His intelligence, good manners, and compassion—like allowing himself to feel empathy for Gollum instead of killing him—see him through. After all, as great leaders like FDR and Nelson Mandela pointed out, courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s pulling yourself together to do the right thing in spite of it. Tolkien once remarked, “I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” Bilbo Baggins inspires us to be one of them. May the hair on his toes never grow less.