Note: Contains plot points that some may consider spoilers.
When we first meet Bilbo, at the start of The Hobbit, the word wise does not jump to mind. Tom Shippey, in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, offers what might be the best summary of the Bilbo Baggins who begins the journey toward the Lonely Mountain: "Bilbo is something of a snob: not a terrible one, or he is prepared to offer a pipe to passing strangers, but certainly liable to draw a line between 'his sort' and other sorts." Shippey also notes something important about Bilbo's use of words: "It is obvious that much of what Bilbo says is socially coded to mean its opposite." For Tolkien, careful and truthful use of words is always a sign of wisdom, while the opposite is a sign of foolishness. Bilbo is something of a fool. But he is not a complete fool. Not yet. There are still seeds of wisdom within him, and some healthy but latent hobbit values and virtues, but they are being stifled.
It is Gandalf who comes along and rescues Bilbo from falling completely into foolishness. Bilbo is, to conclude Shippey's thoughts, in grave dangers of becoming like his cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses: "Gandalf means, however, to turn him back. … [He means] to move Bilbo from the one side, the snobbish side, to the other." Part of Gandalf's strategy is simply to set Bilbo on a journey with Thorin and the dwarves. He seems to do this both for the sake of the dwarves and for the sake of the hobbit. In any case, this journey gets Bilbo out of the Shire and exposes him to the wider world; it involves him in something bigger than himself; and it also puts him into "tight places" where he must rely on some latent hobbit wisdom, as when he finds himself all along under the Misty Mountains after the escape from the goblins. The narrator tells us, "Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people," explaining that "they have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago."
Gandalf's success is rescuing Bilbo and turning him from a path of foolishness to one of wisdom can be seen in what Bilbo becomes: a hobbit who is given honor and "grave respect" even in the house of Elrond by the very wisest of Middle-earth. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Bilbo's wisdom can be found in Thorin's dying words: "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in for measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." Thorin not only speaks directly of Bilbo's wisdom but adds the poignant comment that speaks of the wisdom within the hobbit's values—values that, by the end of the book, have broken through the veneer of snobbishness that had threatened to hide and eventually strangle those values.
There is one type of wisdom that Bilbo displays toward the end of the story that is particularly relevant to [our world today], and is also commended by Gandalf with a "Well done!"Bilbo has the wisdom to understand that no amount of treasure is worth warring for. This is a wisdom appreciated also by the elven king Thranduil, who, despite having perhaps too much desire for treasure himself, still announces, "Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for Gold." After all Bilbo went through to earn a portion of the dragon's treasure, he is willing to sacrifice his entire share in order to prevent a war pitting the dwarves against the elves and men. However "impossible" the situation had become, war, he thought, was not the answer. And so, at great personal risk, he enacts his plan to prevent the war. It is a wisdom that would lead to a merrier world.
Matthew Dickerson is a writer and professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont. This article is excerpted from his latest book, A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth (2012, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group).Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Materialis not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic formwithout written permission from Baker Publishing Group.