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Character development in The Hobbit
Alex Lewis

Alex Lewis. Character development in The Hobbit. 2010

In something that seems as uncomplicated as The Hobbit as opposed to Lord of the Rings, the reader might not expect to find transformation in the characters, but it does exist. It comes in three distinct examples in The Hobbit.
The first - and very literal - transformation of a character is Beorn. He is what Gandalf describes as a ‘skin changer’. Bilbo mistakes that as being someone who deals in furs, but Gandalf puts him right. Beorn can turn himself into a bear. At Beorn’s house Bilbo hears the bears gathering at night, but it is only later as they head towards the borders of Mirkwood when he glimpses the bear shadowing them on their journey. Finally Beorn makes his decisive appearance at the Battle of the Five Armies, when as a terrifically large bear he crashes into the middle of the goblin army and attacks the bodyguard of Bolg, and tears Bolg himself into pieces. It is said that no weapon can bite him when he arrives, and his intervention brings about the defeat of the goblin forces. Beorn travels back West with Bilbo and Gandalf and they spend Yule at his house, and move on after that. Beorn is said to become the leader of the men east of the Misty Mountains, whom the Dwarves refer to as Beornings.

Secondly there is Bilbo Baggins. At the start of the adventure at the unexpected party, he is a frightened timid stay at home type who really didn’t want to go on an adventure - nasty uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner! as he put it. He plays only a minor role in saving the Dwarves from the three trolls, but is given an elven blade from the cavern of the trolls. Under the Misty Mountains Bilbo is separated from the others and finds a magic ring that can make him disappear, and manages to outwit the creature Gollum and find his way out to the eastern side of the mountains. He grows in stature after they enter Mirkwood and he fights the spiders to free the Dwarves, and then hiding in the Elf kings’ caverns, finds a way to release the Dwarves and all of them escape. In the Lonely Mountain Bilbo becomes almost their leader, scouting ahead and talking with the dragon - finding the worm’s weak spot, which leads eventually to the death of Smaug. He tries single handedly to stop the battle between the Forest Elves and Men of Laketown and the Dwarves by giving the Arkenstone which he found and kept to the Men and Elves to use as a bargaining chip with Thorin and his company. He fails in that, but he is honoured for at least trying to prevent war. As they approach Hobbiton, Bilbo breaks into poetry, and Gandalf says Mister Baggins you have changed - you are not the Hobbit you once were. Indeed he is not. As the narrator tells us, he has lost his reputation in his own land, but he has gained the friendship of Elves and Dwarves and grown as a person. No longer is he a provincial small minded individual, but someone who has seen the world.

Finally there is Thorin Oakenshield. His transformation is from a single minded desire to wrest his family’s treasure and home back from the dragon Smaug, and a love of gold and such things into an understanding of the worth of Bilbo’s people - even if it is a deathbed conversion. There was more wisdom in the likes of Bilbo who loved good food and laughter than in the avarice of his own folk, he avows before he dies. He realised before the end that you could not take wealth with you when you died. He had grown and gained wisdom too.

That Tolkien gives us three clear examples of different ways of transformation is a testament to the subtlety of even his children’s story The Hobbit.

One might suggest perhaps that this is pure chance, but in comparison with these characters who change, there is the seemingly unchanging character of Gandalf. When Bilbo sees the wizard again at the Battle of the Five Armies, he speaks and acts just as if he were still in Bag End at the Unexpected Party. He jokes with Bilbo much as he did on his doorstep, seeming more like his headmaster, telling him ‘Well done!’ and asking that Thorin not mistreat his burglar - reminding the Dwarf of the agreement drawn up with Bilbo at Bag End at the start of the story. One can also say that the singing Elves in Rivendell have not changed - Tolkien makes that point as Bilbo returns on his way home. Nor do the other Dwarves seem to change - the development appears to be restricted to Thorin Oakenshield.

To underline how important character development was to Tolkien in The Hobbit, go to the start of ‘The New Hobbit’ or Hobbit sequel as it was first envisaged - The Lord of the Rings. There is much talk of Bilbo looking ‘well preserved’ and ‘unchanged’. It is Gandalf now who seems to Frodo’s eyes to be older and wearier. The magic ring that allowed Bilbo to be invisible is not only able to make the wearer uniquely visible to its maker, and as is remarked by Frodo, Bilbo went to find a treasure and he was going to try and get rid of one. In a sense, Lord of the Rings turns the expectations of The Hobbit on their head - but starts off with the strange fact that a character who had undergone such massive changes within the year he was away with Thorin and Company is now essentially the same as he was almost eighty years before.

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