J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)
Who are we to say that Superman really is a hero? He saves people, but only a certain group of people, most of them live in New York. What about the rest of us?! Wouldn’t a real hero save people everywhere, all over the globe? The real question is whether Superman really is a hero that saves, or a hero that promotes laziness? Fiction is one thing, superpowers and all that, but let us take time to note the real heroes. Heroes that work hard for all of humanity, rather than just New Yorkers. Peace keepers, Nobel Prize winners, doctors, nurses… So many hard working heroes toil away without appreciation. Fiction tends to examine the idea of Heroism very deeply. Teenage literature (comics) mostly leans towards the “super-powered” heroes. Individuals with outstanding physical qualities who use them to protect the innocent, weaker beings. Shakespeare’s heroes on the other hand are tragic heroes, they live and die a tragic life, nevertheless through greatness, they leave the world a better place. Beowulf, Illiad etc. Most Heroic literature presents the reader with a unique, often portentous character that stands out from the crowd. Hercules was a half-god, Achilles was the greatest of warriors, Theseus, Prometheus etc. Most of modern and classical fiction examines heroism in a special way, introducing super humans as super humans to the world. The more original, realistic works of fiction tend to present characters as simple humans who reach a level of divinity or greatness, not through some in-born trait, but through their deeds. A wonderful example of this would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit”. A very lazy, hedonistic creature called a hobbit tests his fate entering an adventure which forever alters his character. His journey towards the acquisition of courage is not a simple downward spiral, an exhibition of his in-born power, but a long and tortuous path that helps him build character. A very different conception of Heroism, than that of, for instance, the Greek heroes.
A Hero is commonly defined as: “A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Let’s examine whether Bilbo Baggins qualifies. Does he possess exceptional courage? Within the context of the development of his character, undoubtedly so. In fact, by showing the cowardly nature of the character, Tolkien manages to intensify the courageous qualities, later acquired by the hero. Rough and simple caricatures of monsters, superficial presentations of evil; orcs, ogres and other strange creatures are supplanted by the most human existential dread of change. Everyone is scared of change for one reason – we don’t know what’s gonna come next. After a dull and repetitive routine, Bilbo is faced with a fierce test of will, to share an adventure with several strangers, turning his life head to toes.
In terms of outstanding achievements. It is not the feats in isolation that we the readers find impressive, but their context. It is the flawed and weak character of the Hobbit, that sheds a fresh light on his heroism. At one instant, challenged by Gollum’s riddle Bilbo was faced with the likely possibility of death. This demonstrates not physical prowess, as in the case of classical heroes, but a more human, psychological determination and rectitude. At the end of the journey Bilbo resigns from his position of power, another instance of a stable will, but again, from a very human perspective. Giving up power is simultaneously an act of humbleness and courage, coupled with the weaker predispositions of the main character, these virtues are even more highlighted. Another act, demonstrating Bilbo as an unshakable ethical subject, was his self-sacrifice. Another encounter with death, but this time in the name of friendship.
Without a doubt, Bilbo qualifies for the dictionary definition of the Hero, resembling the Shakespearean heroes more than those of the Greeks.