How does Bilbo show leadership and courage in The Hobbit?

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Bilbo’s increase in confidence and courage is the defining aspect of his character arc. At the beginning of the novel, he is shut away content in his Hobbit hole, happy to remain separate and coddled from the rest of the world. In the movie, Bilbo chooses to join the dwarves...

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Bilbo’s increase in confidence and courage is the defining aspect of his character arc. At the beginning of the novel, he is shut away content in his Hobbit hole, happy to remain separate and coddled from the rest of the world. In the movie, Bilbo chooses to join the dwarves on their quest out of a sense for adventure. In the book, however, Bilbo wants nothing to do with them and only joins because he had been duped into signing a contract. Despite being on the adventure somewhat against his will, Bilbo still proves himself time and again, saving the dwarves from the spiders, the trolls, and a number of other dangers they encounter along the way. Bilbo’s character arc has even been cited as a sort of Christian metaphor for the growth of the soul, though how much Tolkien intended on this front is up for debate.

From a thematic standpoint, the ring of invisibility also plays into Bilbo’s brand of bravery. If Hobbits are the overlooked creatures of Middle Earth, then it is noteworthy that a ring which literally turns him invisible leads to so many of Bilbo’s most courageous moments. It is wrong to underestimate Bilbo. The world sees through him and looks over him—literally while he is wearing the ring—and yet, even people who look invisible to the outside world can display bravery in their own way.

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Bilbo's development throughout the novel The Hobbit is one of the biggest factors in the plot. He begins as rather cowardly and much more of a follower than leader. However, throughout the story, he shows more courage and leadership as time goes on.

For instance, he shows great courage during his confrontation with Gollum in the cave—standing his ground and conversing with him, when the creature was deadly—and when he was at the bottom of a mountain full of deadly goblins. He showed leadership when he rescued his friends from the spiders in the forest later (using the very ring he found in Gollum's cave).

At the climax of the novel, he shows leadership and courage by being the one to enter Smaug's lair. He goes in and confronts the giant dragon, stealing evidence of the beast's horde of riches. This leads to Thorin retrieving his family's treasure and the dwarves eventually succeeding in their quest.

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Arguably, Bilbo shows courage just by deciding to go on the quest in the first place. In Tolkien's mythos, hobbits are the everyman figures; they're homebodies who appreciate the good things in life (food, parties, etc.), and they don't really welcome change or uncertainty. For Bilbo, then, courage tends to be about pushing past his instinctive fears and reservations, and he does this throughout the novel—for instance, when he confronts the trolls in chapter 2, or (even more impressively) when he enters Smaug's lair in chapter 12. Bilbo is frightened enough in both instances to berate himself for ever agreeing to go on the quest, but his sense of duty and loyalty ultimately proves stronger than his fear.

With that said, the kind of courage and leadership Bilbo displays never quite map onto our conventional definitions of either. In literature—and especially in genres like fantasy or medieval romance—being a hero tends to mean being exceptional in some way (strength, power, wisdom, etc.). This, of course, is a better description of a character like Thorin than it is of Bilbo, and yet Tolkien portrays Thorin as deeply flawed (if still sympathetic). Thorin is brave and noble, and he generally observes a very strict behavioral code (think, for instance, of the formality of the contract he asks Bilbo to sign). Ultimately, however, he is much more susceptible to the corrupting influence of wealth than Bilbo. By contrast, Bilbo plays somewhat fast and loose with the rules; he's very good, for instance, at talking himself out of situations where a more traditional hero would fight (e.g., his interaction with the trolls, or the riddle game he plays with Gollum). This ability to think on his feet and bend the truth when necessary ultimately wins him the respect of the dwarves; by the time the group reaches the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo "has become the real leader in their adventure," with the dwarves looking to him for plans (chapter 12).

More even then cleverness, though, Tolkien suggests that it is Bilbo's humble and grounded sense of morality that makes him brave and a good leader. He steals the Arkenstone, for instance, not to keep it for himself but rather in an effort to prevent war (and save his newfound friends in the process). Thorin casts him out of the Lonely Mountain in response but ultimately acknowledges that Bilbo was in the right, suggesting that Bilbo's "courage" and "wisdom" spring in part from his valuing "food and cheer and song above hoarded gold" (chapter 18). Perhaps most significant, however, is Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum's life at a moment when it might have been safer or more prudent to kill him; although Gollum was blocking Bilbo's path out of the goblin tunnels, Bilbo's "pity" for Gollum prevented him from harming him (chapter 5). Tolkien's work was deeply influenced by his Christian worldview, so it is Bilbo's ability to show compassion, even at great risk or sacrifice to himself, that ultimately makes Bilbo a true hero.

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