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 ...

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