Middle Earth has a curious habit of producing heroes from the most unlikely of sources: the Shire. A home for the homebody. Comforting to the comfort-loving. Yet two of the land’s great heroes were born therein, uncle and nehpew, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
But which of them should own the honor of being the greatest hero the Shire ever produced? Let’s look at the case for each.
Thorin Oakenshield hired him on as a burglar, at the suggestion of one Gandalf the Grey. Not an auspicious beginning for a hero, but not all endings match their beginnings. Chased out of his hobbit hole in search of adventure, he finds all he had hoped for and much that he hadn’t.
Pro: Defeats Gollum and makes off with the ring of invisibility (little did we know at the time). Finding the ring on the ground was luck, but the riddle contest was a battle of wits where Bilbo prevailed. A musing out loud turned into a dirty trick, but it worked.
Pro: Buying time for Gandalf to return and save the dwarfs from becoming a troll dinner.
Pro: Saving everyone from the spiders. Ring or no ring, it was a brave moment for a small warrior. He named a sword as a result, and that’s a pretty good line item for a heroic resume.
Pro: The jailbreak and subsequent barrel-based escape from the elves. He hid for weeks in the elven palace, remaining undetected and formulating the escape plan, then pulling it off.
Pro: Sneaks into an out of Smaug’s lair. He crosses words with the cantankerous old dragon, but gets the better in the end.
Con: He lies. A lot. This is excusable when dealing with dragons, but he lies to Gandalf about the ring (on more than one occasion) and to Thorin about the stone, and generally about his suitability as a burglar.
Con: He is indirectly responsible for the carnage in Laketown. While Smaug is truly the one responsible, Bilbo kicked a hornets’ nest and Laketown got the sting.
Con: In the Battle of the Five Armies, he was an onlooker. He neither stopped the friendly sides from coming to blows, nor joined when the orcs arrived. While he might not have changed anything, it was less than heroic to sit it out.
He inherited a ring. Simple enough on the face of it, but what a ring he inherited. It set about an adventure that would change the landscape of Middle Earth. But what role did Frodo really play?
Pro: He agrees to bear the One Ring not just once, but twice. He could have walked away in Rivendell, but chose to continue on with it to Mordor. Not all heroic deeds and misdeeds weigh the same, and this one is heavy indeed.
Pro: He gets out of the Shire. Considering they’re being pursued by ring wraiths, that’s no small feat. Once the hobbits get to Bree, they often have help at staying alive.
Pro: Escapes Boromir when he goes mad for the ring. Even though it involved wearing the ring, he kept the One Ring out of Boromir’s hands.
Pro: Spared Gollum. Mercy is a heroic trait, and Gollum repays Frodo’s kindness with both aid and treachery. But would they have gotten to Mt. Doom without the broken Smeagol’s help?
Con: He is a burden to his companions at times. From being wounded by a ring wraith’s sword to needing Sam’s help to walk up the slope of Mt. Doom, Frodo does not stand on his own at crucial times.
Con: He relies on others to do his fighting. Merry and Pippin take up arms, so it’s not impossible for a hobbit. His uncle Bilbo fought, though rarely and mainly with the aid of the ring’s concealment. But Frodo does not fight to defend the ring, but rather runs and hides, or waits for someone else to save him.
Con: He falters at the end. If not for Gollum’s obsession, Frodo might have slunk away with the ring. At the heart of the fiery mountain, he changed his mind. The ring’s nature is insidious, so this is understandable, but far from heroic.
What history would say is that Frodo is the greatest hero that hobbit-kind has ever known. But the historians weren’t there at the edge of Mt. Doom. And who would believe the tales of an eccentric old hobbit puffing himself up in books? There and Back Again is Bilbo’s story in his own hand.
But when you look at the deeds and motives, Bilbo is the heroic adventurer. Frodo, for all his heart and bravery, is the martyr, not the hero. He gives up his easy life in the Shire for the sake of the world, and much of him never comes back. He succeeds less through his own doing and more from a weary stubbornness and the skill and devotion of the various members of the Fellowship, most notably Sam. I have always felt that if it came down to it, if Frodo had succumbed, Sam could have taken the ring and finished the quest. He had every bit as much heart as Frodo, if not more. Samwise Gamgee might well have made an able comparison to Bilbo, but it is the elder Baggins who ought to go down as the greatest of hobbit heroes.