Though the finding of the Ring, and the riddle contest with Gollum are arguably the most famous scenes of The Hobbit as well as “a turning point in [Bilbo’s] career,” they are actually secondary to the momentous events of the eighth chapter, “Flies and Spiders” (Hobbit 81). Up to this point in the tale, Bilbo has been barely more than a spectator, at most a catalyst in the action, but almost never what could be considered a true protagonist, a true participant in the action.
In the confrontation with the Trolls, Bilbo’s quiet sneaking is highlighted, but desiring to prove his worth he attempts to pick William’s pocket and so is captured. This, of course, leads to the capture of the dwarves, who are only saved by Gandalf’s return as Bilbo looks on.
On the Goblin’s front porch, Bilbo’s shriek upon seeing the crack opening in the wall warns Gandalf of the coming danger. Subsequently, in their escape through the tunnels, Bilbo must be carried or be left behind, which indeed he is.
“Riddles in the Dark” marks the first time Bilbo is left to his own devices, with no hope of reprieve by Gandalf or any of the dwarves. He is forced to rely on his own ingenuity. It should be noted that he succeeds both in the riddle contest and in finding a way out through his wit and cunning and no small amount of luck rather than through force of arms.
Yet, other than this singular moment, Bilbo’s role has largely been that of a catalyst. He doesn’t take part in the action, he precipitates it (dictionary.com). This is about to change.
On the eaves of Mirkwood, Gandalf parts ways with the company, leaving Bilbo “to look after [the] dwarves for [him]” (Hobbit 161). He reasserts his confidence in Bilbo, stating that he “has more about him than [they] guess,” and that they will discover his worth in the journey through the wood (Hobbit 160). The company sets off, swallowed by the gloom of Mirkwood.
Even before the character defining events which end the chapter, Bilbo is given a more active role in the company. First, at the magic stream, he proves instrumental in the sighting of the boat and in being Fili’s eyes for its retrieval. Again, as in the Troll episode, he is recognized for his natural skills, having “the sharpest eyes among them” (Hobbit 166). Furthermore, Bilbo saves the situation when, after pulling hard on the rope, the boat flies across the stream and risks floating away. Yes, he needs Balin’s help, but this is due to his stature, and does not lessen the importance of the deed.
As occurs on the front porch of Goblin Town, Bilbo is again the first to notice trouble, when after reaching the further shore, Bombur falls into the stream. Here, for a short time, he slips back into his spectator or catalyst role, at least in terms of his function in the company.
Time goes by, and food runs short and tempers high, when Bilbo is coerced up a tall tree to see the lay of the land. Though his later report may be deemed the cause of the desperation which leads to future events, on another level this deed marks a subtle turning point in Bilbo’s character. Hobbits do NOT like heights, hence their preference for homes of a single floor (Hobbit 3). The hobbits’ unease in the talan in Lothlorien demonstrates this common trait: they “do not like heights and do not sleep upstairs” (LotR 335). Even so, granted with some shoving and prodding, Bilbo scrambles up the tree, finding his way up above the canopy and ends up reveling in the sun, the breeze and the sight of butterflies. Though not stated as such, this journey, both up and down the tree, defines a great act of courage for the hobbit.
Immediately following Bilbo’s depressing observation of the endless expanse of trees, the company sees a fire off in the distance. The setup is basically identical to that in “Roast Mutton:” the company is in dire straits, desperate and alone, and sees in the fire a hope of food and warmth. They have a clear understanding of the danger, particularly now having the prior experience of the Trolls for reference. The sequence of events follows the same pattern, except in this case the company enter the light of the fire three times, and are left in enchanted darkness each time.
This leads to the dwarves’ capture by the spiders, and Bilbo’s first act of violence. Despairing of ever finding the dwarves in the dark, Bilbo decides to wait till morning. Dozing off, by chance he discovers he is being bound in spider web. He beats off the spider and kills it with two strokes of Sting (Hobbit 181). It is a desperate fight, marked more by quick reflexes than skill. Yet this fight “[makes] a great difference to Mr. Baggins;” suddenly he is “much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach” and seemingly without a second thought sets out to find the dwarves (Hobbit 181). However, it is important to note that this is self-defense, the opening attack is by the spider, not Bilbo. He is changed, yes, but is more because he is forced to. He is a hobbit and that means a decent soul. He does not seek violence, but being of tougher stuff uses the tools/talents necessary to save those for whom he is now the solitary hope of salvation.
Bilbo finds the spiders’ lair, and as with the trolls, stops to decipher some of their speech. Again, their argument is almost a perfect reflection of the Trolls’: which dwarf to eat first, if they’re alive and which is juiciest. Bilbo comes to the moment “when he must do something” (Hobbit 183). Instead of acting the hero, rushing in with sword high, Bilbo, wearing the Ring, returns to known talents: stone throwing. He throws quite a few stones, killing some, but mostly enraging the giant spiders.
As in his dealings with Gollum, though now under much more dire circumstances, Bilbo relies on his intellect to achieve his goals. He goads the spiders with song, calling them Attercop, Tomnoddy, fat and lazy. Incensed, the majority of the spiders run off in pursuit of the hobbit, allowing him to return to loose the dwarves.
Bilbo remains alone, and is forced into the position of leader, being the only member of the company still whole and un-befuddled. He fights off the spiders, instilling in them a “[mortal fear] of Sting” (Hobbit 191). He leads and the dwarves follow. They escape, solely through the ingenuity and new-found courage of Bilbo.
Bilbo’s transformation into the protagonist of the tale, rather than the observer/recorder is now complete. It is a process of growth which leads to greater and greater self-actualization as Bilbo’s goals and actions slowly become more his own and at times lead the movements of the company.
These two tests, the Trolls and the Spiders, elucidate the growth of the hobbit as a character. The first serves to set a baseline of Bilbo’s skill, his courage and his relationship with the Company. In that case, Bilbo enters into the task unwilling, forced to test himself and eager to prove himself worthy of the company. He is scorned by them, and disposable.
In the second case, Bilbo has become integral to the party. He has impressed them with his luck and sneaking skills finding them outside the goblin caves. He is their eyes and ears. Though unprepared and surprised by duty, Bilbo finds it thrust upon him and accepts it. This test, he takes upon himself, ready and willing to use his skills not to prove himself but to save others. It is an instinctual act, unforced, executed in the only manner he knows how, which reveals the true mettle of the hobbit.
(“Flies and Spiders” is an action packed chapter, full of much applicability. It has always been one of my favorites, and was the original hook which cemented Tolkien as my favorite author. As such, this is only the first of three planned posts. This post marks the most obvious and therefore easiest application, which I decided to knock off first before getting to the “interesting” stuff. Enjoy!)