I’ve been entirely too negative lately. Granted, there is much to be negative about (waves towards the tire-fire that will soon engulf the US), but I need a break. So, instead of growling about the world, I want to spend some time with something I find completely good: the character of Bilbo Baggins.
In one of my Lit classes, I currently have assigned a paper in which my students need to select a hero (of any kind from anywhere, so long as it is a fictional person) and analyze the reasons they are considered heroic – what do they symbolize, to whom, and why? It usually generates a really interesting batch of papers (some good, some bad) that ideally gets my students to consider the underlying cultural and psychological forces behind the idea of heroism.
Now, if I were to write that paper myself, the hero I’d probably pick is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s) Bilbo Baggins.
Bilbo Baggins is the hero with whom I most identify in all of literature. He is, at heart, a man who craves adventure while, at the same time, realizing how insane that is. He knows what is really important – what really, ultimately matters – is a good home and good food, a warm bed, and one or two good friends. Adventure is inimical to these things. And yet he needs it anyway.
In this way, I see Bilbo as being the spiritual standard bearer of all of Geek Culture. Geeks are, of course, obsessed with adventure and excitement: they love stories of spaceships and dragons and daring do, and they spend hours pretending to be this hero or that heroine, battling the forces of evil. However, the vast, vast majority of them, if asked to give up the comforts of home to go traveling into the wilderness with a bunch of gung-ho survivalist types, would have a hard time agreeing.
And who can blame them, right? You can just imagine the conversation. This guy shows up at your door, possibly in the middle of the night. He claims to be an agent of some secret international organization. He has with him a bunch of bearded mountain men. He shows you a map. And he says this:
We need your help, (insert your name here), to overthrow a brutal Third World dictator and reclaim the resources he has pillaged from my friends here. We believe you have the skills. Sign here.
That’s crazy, guys. I wouldn’t sign that paper. But you know what? Just like Bilbo, I’d wake up the next day after the mountain men threw their rager and think to myself “did I dodge a bullet, or miss the greatest opportunity of my life?”
Because the thing that makes Bilbo a hero – the thing that separates him from me and you and just about every geek and homebody on the planet – is that he goes. He says yes (late, of course, but still yes). He goes for the whole damned way. What’s more, he becomes more and more important to the dwarves survival. Why? Because he’s a thinking man (err…hobbit). He’s clever. He retreats when he ought to and talks his way out of trouble. He’s smart. And for once, the smart guy – the good, ordinary guy without the bulging muscles – actually comes out on top. Because he’s good at riddles (a geeky pastime outside of some Anglo Saxon hall), because he’s friendly, and because he uses his head.
Bilbo doesn’t slay the dragon. Bilbo doesn’t smite the goblin army. Bilbo doesn’t become some incredible warrior. But he’s an essential part of the adventuring party – he saves their lives several times over – and he comes back having, just for once, lived the adventures he’s always dreamed about. And then, to kick it all off, he writes a book about it – you just don’t get much more nerdy than that. This is what makes Bilbo the quintessential geek-hero – the Sir Gawain of GenCon, the Paradigm of PAX.
Then, to top it all off, he goes on to be an awesome old guy. The guy who tells the stories at parties that enthrall all the kids. The guy who has mysterious sacks of gold in his cellar. The guy who everybody thinks is just a bit off. This, too, is a geek fantasy.
Every nerd wants to end up the mysterious elder statesman – the man who knows mysteries. The guy who can casually discuss that time he looked death in the eye but who, at the same time, isn’t some wacko down by the river. Not a soldier, not a prince or king or leader – just your friendly neighborhood bookworm with secret depths. The guy who stages the best parties at which he manages a prank they will talk about for the rest of time, all so he can go off and retire with his super-awesome friends in the distant mountains.
Everybody talks about how they want their letter from Hogwarts or their development of mutant powers and a visit from Professor X – both cool, granted – but I feel Bilbo’s life is the one I’d actually want. A guy who lives in what amounts to the world’s most comfortable book-nook and who, once long ago, was dragged off to adventure by his ears, had the time of his life, and lived the rest of his days in comfort, surrounded by friends. That’s the life, guys. That’s the goal.
Let’s all go forth and be Bilbos.