Note: Those of you who have read my "Of Significance..." page may remember that The Hobbit is listed there, so this is (by far) not my first reading of the book.
Part 1 of this review is here.
It is of great interest to me that Tolkien is considered the "father of modern fantasy" when so much of modern fantasy has nothing to do with what or the way Tolkien wrote. While it's true that The Hobbit is a classic fantasy story, it is not classic in the sense that it uses all the normal conventions of fantasy. In fact, despite that many (most?) people would say that modern fantasy is largely based on Tolkien, you will find few to none of what we consider basic fantasy tropes in The Hobbit (or The Lord of the Rings).
One of the most common bits of fantasy literature is the young, male protagonist. Young often means teenager. Most often, probably. The last couple of decades have finally brought us a bevy of female protagonists, but, still, youth is the most common theme. Bilbo, however, is not young. He's not even what we would consider middle-aged. He's not quite "old," but he's definitely on his way. Definitely "established" and definitely set in his ways. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other piece of fantasy literature that's like that except The Lord of the Rings, because Frodo (and the other hobbits), also, is not young (something Peter Jackson conveniently forgot). [And it's not one of these things where hobbits are old but still young like elves can be, because hobbits are Tolkien's stand-ins for humans and age about the same way (when Bilbo is turning 111 in LotR, he is old, as in really old, as in ancient).] The closest other thing I can think of is Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, who is not old but is definitely not young.
The next piece is that this young protagonist is frequently (almost always) an orphan of some kind. Maybe, s/he has one of his/her parents, but the protagonist generally has lost at least one of them and almost always to some kind of violent circumstance. Maybe this is why the orphan princess is so common in Disney? Bilbo is definitely not an orphan. Which is not to say that his parents are alive, because they're not, but, then, he's 50, and there is no indication that they died of anything other than old age. Or, maybe, boredom.
Then there is the requisite prophecy about the protagonist. The list of fantasy literature which feature a prophecy would probably exceed my usual word count, so I'll just remind everyone of Harry Potter and how he fits all three of these so far. Even The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has a prophecy. The Hobbit contains no prophecy (neither does LotR). There is nothing "special" about Bilbo in that sense. He has not been chosen by fate to do what he does. This is a story about a hobbit that rises to the occasion. It's more like your boss at work needing a job done, choosing the person the boss thinks is most qualified, and that person choosing to do it.
And there is no "party" of adventurers. No, the dwarves don't count, because they're all interchangeable on the whole. And Gandalf abandons them half way through. So there's no wizard, no fighter, no ranger, no healer, none of that stuff we expect to find among the heroes band of followers. Just the burglar, and that's Bilbo.
Possibly the biggest break from convention is that Bilbo is not the valiant warrior that "saves the day" in the end. He does not slay the dragon, and he does not defeat the goblin army. He's not even conscious for most of that. Bilbo is a hero of another type, let's say a moral hero, which is so much more important and believable. Bilbo's bravest moment is when he walks down the tunnel to see the dragon. Not to fight the dragon, just to see him. I love that bit:
Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.And his most significant contribution to the end of the story is standing up against his friends when they are set on a wrong path. Neville Longbottom's stand against his friends and Dumbledore's rewarding of it very much reminded me of Bilbo handing the Arkenstone over to Bard.
Basically, despite what everyone says about "all fantasy" being based on Tolkien, almost no fantasy is based on Tolkien. What Tolkien did was original and, amazingly, remains original to this day. No one else has written a story like The Hobbit (and, although people have attempted stories like The Lord of the Rings, no one has succeeded), and I have to wonder if that's because the story becomes so much bigger in our minds after we read it. Bilbo becomes this larger than life hero that he's really not in the book, and that's, frankly, amazing. We remember him fighting the spiders and riddling with Gollum and the dragon, but we forget that it's Bard that kills the dragon and the Eagles that save the day in the Battle of Five Armies. It really is like what Gandalf tells him in the end:
You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.We don't tend to have characters like that in our fantasy. Our protagonists are huge, essential characters who have the fate of the world hanging on their shoulders, and Bilbo is not that kind of hero.
He's just a guy that learns that he's capable of more than he believes he is, and I think that's an important lesson to learn. And I love that we see that change through the pages of The Hobbit. He goes from being a guy that runs away from just the idea of an adventure, of anything different, to the guy that gets them all caught by trolls, to the guy that everyone depends upon. There's no unlocking of the secret, magical talent that only he possesses; there is only Bilbo learning to use the "gifts" that everyone is given. There is only Bilbo deciding to go instead of stay and to do instead of not. It is Tolkien telling us that there is a bit of the Tookish inside of all of us... if only we can wake it up.