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Bilbo Baggins: Burglar

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Wanted: Burglar, Lucky Number

In The Hobbit, Gandalf explains that Bilbo Baggins needs to be part of Thorin’s crew because the hobbit is a burglar. This declaration comes as a bit of a surprise to everyone, including Bilbo. He is, after all, a fussy, orderly, respectable hobbit who is esteemed by his neighbors and likes his home and his routines. A bit of needling his ego, however, gets him to consent to an adventure and burglary/treasure hunting (Tolkien 18). Wanting to be a skillful burglar, however, isn’t the same as actually being one. The dwarves are all skeptical as to Bilbo’s proficiency, especially when he proves inept and not only fails to steal anything from the trolls but also gets them captured and nearly eaten (34-42). His career as a burglar is off to a poor start, calling into question how he’ll ever manage to steal a dragon’s hoard.

Riddles in the Dark

In truth, Bilbo Baggins becomes a thief almost entirely by accident. When separated from his companions in the Misty Mountains, in a deep cavern, he finds and pockets a ring, unaware that it belongs to Gollum (64). Its presence in his pocket helps him inadvertently win the riddle game against Gollum, and when Gollum understands his sole and most precious possession is now in the hands of another, he cries out, “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins!” (73-4; 80). While not intentional, Bilbo has gone from mild-mannered hobbit to thief. It isn’t a daring heist, in any sense, but by taking someone else’s belongings for himself, Bilbo is now a robber.

Picture of Bilbo the barrel-rider done by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Picture of Bilbo the barrel-rider done by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Barrel-Rider

He begins to consider himself a burglar when the dwarves are held captive by the elves in Mirkwood. Using the magic of the ring to help remain out of sight, Bilbo thinks of his time hidden among the elves as “a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on, miserably burgling the same house day after day” (158). His thievery here is mostly for survival, and in being patient he watches and notes an opportunity to steal the keys and free his friends. Thorin is so shocked by Bilbo skillful sneaking and escape plan he admits, “A pretty fine burglar you make, it seems, when the time comes” (162). The dwarves have doubted him, but his affecting their escape makes them praise his burglary and ingenuity.

By this time, given his hardships, Bilbo also rationalizes his attitude toward stealing. The earlier, respectable Bilbo viewed thievery as wrong. By the time of his barrel-riding escape down the Forest River, though, “He no longer thought twice about picking up a supper uninvited if he got the chance, he had been obliged to do it for so long, and he knew now only too well what it was to be really hungry” (168). Stealing to survive does not weigh on Bilbo’s conscience as it might once have. In accord with all his prior thievery too, he doesn’t pilfer wealth or anything for strictly material gain. Because his circumstances afford him few opportunities Bilbo willingly steals to keep himself and his friends alive and free.

"Conversation with Smaug" by J. R. R. Tolkien

"Conversation with Smaug" by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Dragon and the Thief

When the dwarves make their plans known in Lake-town, the Master is skeptical. He does not believe a few dwarves will succeed in slaying the dragon Smaug where armies failed in the past. Instead, “he strongly suspected attempted burglary or something like it” (180). What he does not anticipate is that the burglar will be the unremarkable hobbit in their company. The dwarves, though, are quick to volunteer the hobbit for more danger (188, 191). Bilbo reminds them of all he’s done to save them already but agrees to play his part of burglar all the same, reflecting on how different he feels now from when he started the adventure (191-2). He successfully steals from Smaug’s hoard, remarking how he is truly a skilled burglar and would not to be mistaken for a grocer (194). Of course, Smaug becomes instantly aware of the burglary, his first thought being “Thieves!” (195). The most openly villainous characters like Gollum and Smaug are the ones to recognize and label Bilbo a thief, with the dragon doing it explicitly when confronting Bilbo. As he does not know Bilbo’s name or what a hobbit is, he repeatedly calls Bilbo “Thief” while they converse (199-209). By this time, Bilbo self-identifies with his larcenous career too. When the dwarves complain that the hobbit’s theft has enraged the dragon, he turns their criticism back on them:

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“What else do you suppose a burglar is to do?” asked Bilbo angrily. “I was not engaged to kill dragons, that is warrior’s work, but to steal treasure. I made the best beginning of it I could. Did you expect me to trot back with the whole hoard of Thror on my back? If there is any grumbling to be done, I think I might have a say.” (198)

Bilbo, for good reason, believes himself to be a burglar and dislikes the lack of gratitude shown by the very dwarves who didn’t trust in his larcenous abilities in the first place. He has done all they’ve asked of him and much more.

1/14th Share of the Treasure

Although he has taken on a career as a burglar, Bilbo’s moral compass and sense of fair play remain resolute. Tired of the stalemate and arguing about the dragon’s hoard in the aftermath of Smaug’s demise, Bilbo concocts a plan worthy of a thief. He steals the Arkenstone, the most valuable treasure in the hoard, counting it as his 1/14th share (241). Instead of slipping away and living in fabulous wealth, however, he surrenders the treasure to Bard and Thranduil, hoping Thorin will begrudgingly negotiate peace terms to have the Arkenstone returned (244). As Bilbo explains, “I may be a burglar—or so they say; personally I never really felt like one—but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less. I am going back now, and the dwarves can do what they like to me” (244). Though he has stolen and lied, Bilbo has remained a good person. While the dwarves have made fun of him for his lack of adventuring experience and longing for his nice, quiet home, his doing so shows that Bilbo values peace and friendship more than any amount of gold. He even returns to the dwarves to accept punishment, if necessary. Thorin, much like Gollum and Smaug, declares Bilbo a thief once he learns what the hobbit has done (247). It is not until he’s on his deathbed that Thorin repents his words and treatment of Bilbo, recognizing that the hobbit was correct and a true friend (258-9). Even with the treasure he’s awarded after the Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo says it’s far too much, and after giving much of it away, explains not only does he not know how he would have gotten all the treasure home but also does not know what he could have done with it (261). Despite being a burglar, Bilbo lacks greed and avarice, preferring instead to live well and contentedly.

Dust jacket from The Hobbit, based on a drawing by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Dust jacket from The Hobbit, based on a drawing by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Career Criminal

While everyone is doubtful from the start, Bilbo proves himself a skillful burglar who accomplishes much beyond imagining. More importantly, he also proves himself to be a virtuous and decent person with a grasp on what is good and valuable in life. Though he feared many times his adventure would end in his death, the only punishment Bilbo receives is the lowered opinion of his hobbit neighbors, which is an irony given that he is held in high esteem by elves, dwarves, wizards, and the people of Dale.

Source

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

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© 2022 Seth Tomko

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