The Hero's Journey in Tolkien's Hobbit, Part 2: Initiation
The "Departure" segment of Bilbo's journey is now complete, and he is entering into the "Initiation" stages of his development as a hero. In the Initiation phase of the hero's journey, the protagonist undergoes a series of various tests or tasks that are often dangerous, yet imperative to his or her transformation.
Stage 6: The Road of Trials
This is where The Hobbit, which was originally targeted at a younger audience than was The Lord of the Rings, gets a little chippy as far as trying to track Bilbo's progression down the Campbellian road of the hero, at least linearly. As stated in Part 1, Bilbo has undergone several important tests already. His first is outwitting the trolls at their camp, playing for time in order to keep them up for the sun to turn them to stone. Another, and most crucial, is his defeat of the giant spider in Mirkwood. This is when his transformation truly begins, as he has finally acts independently and reverts from his usual tendencies.
But the Road of Trials normally depicts the hero failing at one of these tests, which oftentimes results in the death of another lead character. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke rescues Lea from the Death Star, but Obi-wan is killed by Darth Vadar. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo elects the road through Moria, which presents the Fellowship with a series of trials and leads to Gandalf's "death". Yet Bilbo is not an executive member of his company. He is a follower through and through. And though a lead character does perish in the Battle of Five Armies, along with a couple other minor characters, it is not because of a choice Bilbo makes, or the result of a test he fails.
However, one prevalent theme throughout not only The Hobbit, but The Lord of the Rings as well, is when to deal out death and judgment. This theme involves the creature Gollum, who is blinded by his lust for the Ring that he holds dear. He proves a constant threat to Bilbo in The Hobbit, and also to Frodo later in The Lord of the Rings. There is a very distinct moment when Bilbo, who goes invisible by wearing the Ring, has the opportunity to kill Gollum once and for all, but declines the chance. To think that Gollum could have been omitted from the Legend of the Ring for good in that moment is intriguing, because that would have eliminated a lot of headaches for both Bilbo and Frodo. But I do not think Bilbo fails this test he was appointed. Though Gollum truly ended up with foul intentions in The Lord of the Rings, without him as their guide, Frodo and Sam might never have even made it through the Emen Muíl, let alone to Mordor.
Thus, though there are several suggestive moments that could be considered Bilbo's road of trials, there is no finite moment where a test he fails results in the loss of his mentor.
Stage 7: Meeting with the Goddess
At this stage of the hero's development, he or she experiences the power of a love that is completely binding and unconditional, similar to the bond between a child and its mother.
Obviously the only "Goddess"-like figure mentioned in The Hobbit is in fact the Lady Gladriel, whom Bilbo never actually meets. No, for Bilbo, I truly believe his "Goddess" fits snugly over his forefinger. The Ring, after all, is an accurate-enough symbollic representation of completeness. This process is in fact represented by the hero coming upon the person that he or she loves very profoundly, yet this "Goddess" figure often presents temptations to the hero that could potentially lead him or her to stray from their quest.
Stage 8: Woman as Temptress
As mentioned in Stage 7, the "Goddess" figure--or in this case, the Ring--presents the hero with temptations that could lead him or her to abandon or stray from their quest. This was explored very thoroughly in The Lord of the Rings, as the Ring began to have very powerful affects on Frodo, tempting him to slip it on his forefinger in the presence of the Ringwraiths and seemingly acting with a will of its own. In classic myths or legends, the concept of "woman" is generally used as a metaphor for life's physical or material temptations. In The Hobbit, the "woman"-as-temptress figure is completely material.
It does not have a negative effect on Bilbo, however. When held up to others that the Ring has affected throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings--like Frodo, and, more profoundly, Gollum--the Ring actually works to help Bilbo in most cases, and actually aid him on his quest. Granted, at this point in the grand scheme of things in Middle Earth, the Ring's power remains unknown. Bilbo does, however, take advantage of its ability to turn him invisible. Because it has the power to do this, Bilbo gains the confidence to engage in situations that he would otherwise let be. This is another segment where Bilbo's heroic path differs from those of classical heroes. He is able to subdue his "lust" for the tempting material object and only use it productively.
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Stage 9: Atonement with the Father
Initiation is inflicted upon the hero by whatever has claim to the ultimate power in his or her life. Normally, this character is a father or father-like figure whose power is paramount. This clash is the center-point of the journey. Every step the hero has walked to this point has led to this moment. This occurrs quite literally, for example, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when Luke battles Darth Vadar.
While Bilbo does not confront his father in the literal sense, he does encounter the dragon Smaug, to whose usurped lair of gold he and the dwarves embarked at the beginning of the tale. Smaug is all who stands in the way of the dwarves' ultimate goal of reclaiming their homeland and all their treasure with it. Again, Bilbo succeeds over a large villain using wit, whereas a warrior perhaps might have failed using brawn. Smaug guesses from Bilbo's riddles that he and his company are in league with the men of Laketown, and eventually sets off to that location where he will meet his doom.
Stage 10: Apotheosis
There are two ways of looking at this stage of The Hero's Journey. Someone has died a physical death and has divided from the body to dwell as a spirit. This is prevalent in classic myths and literature. Another way of interpreting this stage is a respite following a climactic scene before the hero sets off on his or her return.
Bilbo is knocked out for much of the Battle of Five Armies, and only comes to when the fight is over. By now Smaug is already dead, and his side has already won. But when he wakes he learns that Thorin has been mortally wounded, speaks to him before he dies. It is an unfortuante cap to the climax of The Hobbit, but Thorin's death signals, for the reader, at least, the end of the battle, and thus Bilbo's return trip home.
Stage 11: The Ultimate Boon
The hero has now completed the task he or she set out to accomplish. The goal is achieved, and his or her boon is received. Normally this is something of great worth, whether physical, spiritual, or material--something that suggests immortality, if not literally then definitely historically.
Bilbo's boon could in fact be several things. From his portion of the treasure, Bard awards Bilbo a handsome sum with which to return to Hobbiton. But the one thing Bilbo covets most above everything that he has found and won is undoubtedly his magic ring, which proved a pivotal component to his survival throughout his quest, as it helped him outlast Gollum, Smaug, and the Battle of Five Armies itself.
With the Initiation phase of Bilbo's journey complete, stay tuned for the final installment of this three-part analysis of The Hero's Journey in The Hobbit, in The Return.