Bilbo’s Luck

the-hobbit-artBilbo is originally chosen as the “lucky number,” so that Thorin and Company will not be an unlucky thirteen. During the course of the expedition, Gandalf remarks several times that Bilbo is extraordinarily lucky. Some of his luck seems to be the deserved reward for Bilbo’s courage and determination. For example, after attempting to find his own way out of the goblins’ tunnel, confronting Gollum, and evading the orc-guard, Bilbo certainly deserves to come out on the east side of the mountains. Similarly, after escaping from the spiders, the expedition needs the luck of being captured by the elves, especially since it turns out that their straying from the path was necessary, because the east end of the road was abandoned. Other lucky events, notably Bilbo’s finding of the troll’s key and the ring, are necessary to give Bilbo talismans that enable him to confront enemies who are larger, more powerful, and more numerous than himself. In general, then, Bilbo’s luck should be seen as a plot device that reinforces the theme of Bilbo’s growing self-awareness and self-confidence.

bilbo_baggins_by_teetotally-d57h1k0However, some of the fortunate events in The Hobbit seem to involve much more than one hobbit’s personal luck. Four events in particular should be considered. First is the expedition’s rescue from the burning fir trees by the Eagles at a point when even Gandalf expects to die. Second is the expedition’s arrival at the Side-door in one of the very few years when Durin’s Day occurs. Third, although Bilbo deserves the credit for discovering Smaug’s bare spot, the combination of the bare spot itself, the talking thrush, and a heroic descendant of Girion of Dale extends far beyond Bilbo’s own luck. Finally, after Bilbo’s attempt at mediation fails and Dain attacks Bard and the Elvenking, only the extraordinary event of the goblin attack restores moral harmony.

Where Bilbo’s personal luck is related to the uses of the fantasy presented by Bettelheim, the larger luck that surrounds him can best be explained, in Tolkien’s term, as a series of eucatastrophes that illustrate the workings of Providence. Gandalf’s final comments about prophecies and luck, ending with his comment that Bilbo is “only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all” (p. 305), are the closest Tolkien comes to disclosing this providential structure in The Hobbit. Bilbo’s joyous and pragmatic acceptance of this structure––his recognition that he is capable of great deeds but nonetheless dependent on the protection of God––is one of the two spiritual insights required of dwellers in Middle-earth. (The other, a selfless love of the Creator and the Creation, is usually measured in terms of “elvishness.” Bilbo, attracted to elves from the very beginning and eventually named elf-friend, achieves this insight very easily.)

bilbo_baggins_by_snowapples-d5qm581The proof of this providential pattern lies outside The Hobbit. The identity of the Eagles as messengers of God (as well as the significance of their coming out of the west in the Battle of Five Armies) is made clear in The Silmarillion; the importance of Bilbo’s decision not to kill Gollum is a major motif of The Lord of The Rings; and the geopolitical consequences of the death of Smaug are best explained in “The Quest of Erebor,” one of the fragments in Unfinished Tales. Yet the basic principle can be seen quite clearly within The Hobbit. Although on the surface it is stronger than good, evil always provides the means of its own defeat: Gollum’s ring aids Bilbo, and Smaug, in his arrogance, reveals his bare patch. Triumphing over evil requires not prowess but fortitude, humility, hope, and unshakable virtue. Gollum is corrupted by malice, and the dragon-spell turns Thorin’s pride to arrogance, deceit, and greed. But Bilbo and Bard, tutored by Gandalf, the Elvenking, and their own hearts, learn the true value of treasure and hatred, and joining together against evil, they destroy it.


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