Despite having appeared only marginally in Tolkien’s most well-known book, The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins remains perhaps the single most well-known and recognizable character in JRR Tolkien’s writings (with Gandalf forming the only real competition).
Why? What makes Bilbo so memorable? What does he have that Aragorn, or Samwise, or even Frodo himself does not possess?
This is not a simple question to tackle. Frodo and Gandalf have gotten more exposure, both through the larger epic, The Lord of the Rings, and through Peter Jackson’s hit movies. Other characters certainly have as large, or larger, roles in the overall tales.
I believe the reasons for Bilbo’s popularity are multi-fold. For most of us, Bilbo Baggins is the very first character we encounter in a JRR Tolkien book. A large percentage of readers of The Lord of the Rings have first read, or at least have a general acquaintance with, The Hobbit.
This means that those readers already possess an attachment to Bilbo (and in some respects, Gandalf as well) that they must yet develop for the newer characters (Frodo, Samwise, Aragorn…).
More than that, Bilbo is not only the first Tolkien character many of us encounter, but also the first hobbit. Hobbits were Tolkien’s creation, and have become perhaps the most beloved literary creation of the past century. Hobbits gave Tolkien’s writings a rustic charm, a sort of genteel, comfort loving simple-mindedness that most readers could immediately identify with.
And Bilbo, in many ways, exemplifies the qualities of a hobbit. Sure, he does some things that no self-respecting hobbit would consider, such as going off on adventures, carrying a sword, and in general entangling himself with the troublesome and foreign ways of the outside (heroic) world.
But when we first meet Bilbo he possesses all the qualities of upstanding hobbitness…a love of comfort; a mistrust of strangers and the outside world; a particular dislike for the very word “adventure”; a rustic, easy life.
He soon denies all of that. “Something Tookish woke up inside him” as Tolkien writes, “and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls…and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick” (TH pg. 22).
In many ways, Bilbo Baggins reflects our own modern lives, and our often fond wishes for some “adventure” of our own. Most of us live in some degree of comfort, if not to the extreme of the hobbits, and go about our mundane lives with quiet efficiency. Occasionally, we may dream about exploration, risk-taking, adventure, all of those pulse-quickening things which have no place in our day-to-day lives.
In Bilbo’s case, these ideas literally show up on his doorstep. And he makes the decision that most of us would love to make, but most likely would not. He decides to go.
Indeed, we all like to think of ourselves in very much the way Gandalf describes Bilbo, “There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself” (TH pg. 25).
Contrast this with Frodo, whom we first meet in Book 1 of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo’s nephew is more thoughtful, more melancholy, less humorous.
Much of this difference rests in the tale itself. The Lord of the Rings is a much more serious story than The Hobbit. The very fate of Middle-earth hangs in the balance.
This, I think, does not detract from Frodo as a character. But it does make him less immediately loveable, more guarded.
Frodo leaves his quiet hobbit existence only because he does not have any choice in the matter. He is being searched for; he possesses the ultimate weapon the enemy; he is endangered. Duty propels Frodo. He does not make the free-will choice to abandon his mundane life that Bilbo makes. And that seems an important distinction.
Bilbo Baggins is, in many ways, more human than the “humans” in the books. He retains his love of comfort…but he also comes to love adventure, exploration, songs, poetry, stories, and beauty. These are all very human interests.
Finally, I believe that Bilbo Baggins becomes the most relatable character in the book. Despite his personal peculiarity, his entirely separate race of being, I think readers can see much of themselves in Bilbo that they cannot entirely see in Tolkien’s other characters.
Bilbo gave Tolkien a way to “mediate” his heroic world with a more modern sensibility…with modern middle class life. Bilbo possesses all the qualities of that middle class.
The very uniqueness and strangeness of Tolkien’s writings have helped to make them some of the most loved of our time. But at the same time, it is catching a glimpse of ourselves therein, amongst all that strangeness, that creates the most lasting impression.