Wise Words – The Bravery of Bilbo Baggins

“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward 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.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit


When I read The Hobbit as a teenager, this passage pulled me up short. I stopped and read it several times. I felt a bolt of truth run down my spine.  

In the scene, Bilbo Baggins crawls through a dark tunnel under the mountain just outside the lair of a terrible dragon. He can feel the monster’s heat filling the tunnel and hears its breath gurgling like a boiling cauldron. He is paralyzed with fear and almost turns back. But at that moment, he finds a courage inside himself he did not know he had and decides to move forward.

Bilbo and his compatriots were on a hero’s journey, fighting evil and trying to restore a world gone mad. And in a hero’s journey, the characters are transformed by facing the things they fear.  

Tolkien points to something elemental here. I remember this part of the book vividly. More than the battles or the goblins or the other wonderous features of Tolkien’s magical world, it is the inner decision of an insignificant person who is alone and at his most vulnerable. This moment, when we face a decision we can only make alone, is familiar to us all.  

I used to think the message of this scene was that everyone encounters one major moment that defines them as a hero. And maybe that is true in The Hobbit for the sake of good storytelling. But I have come to see that the reason this scene strikes me so deeply is that it describes a moment that repeats endlessly. Bilbo’s decision symbolizes all the moments of choice we face, large and small.  

Each time we meet a disquieting moment with awareness, we embark on a miniature version of the hero’s journey. We are given a chance to initiate a transformation by integrating the fears of our ego self (the learned habits of conditioning that protect us) with the love of our higher self (our deeper essence that knows who we truly are).

These small choice points spring up constantly:

  • When I reach for a snack, I can choose to examine whether I am hungry or just eating out of boredom or anxiety; 
  • When I hear a remark that sparks a flash of anger, I can choose to pause and see if I imagine a threat that is not real; 
  • When I reach the point in an argument where I want to walk out of the room, I can choose to breathe and see if what I am fighting for is worth defending; 
  • When I awake at night and play with a parade of worries, I can choose to ruminate on them, push them away or accept them as guests.  

These are the kinds of moments I face. What are yours? The flavor of our phantom dragons are personal. They differ for each of us but they all offer the chance to learn another piece about ourselves. This is how we grow.

Bilbo was changed after he met the dragon. He realized a deeper layer of who he was. He wasn’t assured of winning the external battles, but he knew he could face his fears, come what may.

Photo by Ludovic Charlet on Unsplash

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