Harry, Bilbo, and Their Rites of Passage
A Comparison of the Characters of Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit
Bravery is a quality that may be present in a person without that person knowing it. At least this is implicit in the message left by two authors, J.K. Rowling and J.R.R Tolkien. This essay will examine how Rowling and Tolkien put the characters of Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins through a series of adventures or tests that serve to develop the best of their character. Also, by using figures who clearly feel inadequate, and allowing for a gradual coming to terms with their mission and to grow into a role designed for them, both authors present characters who provide good modeling for their young readers.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry worries that he won’t fit in at Hogwarts, even thinking that he might not be sorted into a house: “A horrible thought struck Harry, as horrible thoughts always do when you’re very nervous. What if he wasn’t chosen at all? What if he just sat there with the hat over his eyes for ages, until Professor McGonagall jerked it off his head and said there had obviously been a mistake and he’d better get back on the train?” 1 This is a bit surprising, until we realize that the years spent with the Dursley family have deprived Harry of confidence that he should have had at this point. In fact, he has had Hagrid tell him, right after he informed Harry that he, Harry was a wizard, “an’ a thumpin’ good un, I’d say, once ye’ve been trained up a bit. With a mum and dad like yours, what else would yeh be?” 2 By the time the sorting has begun, Harry has heard reports from his new friend Ron Weasley, and a bossy girl, Hermione Granger, talking about Gryffindor as the house that would be the best to sort into. He also has had information about how Slytherin house is the worst to be in, as that is the House that “He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named” came from. It is significant, then, that Harry is worried about being sorted at all. Hagrid, when telling Harry a bit about the Houses, tells Harry that Hufflepuff House is considered to be “ a lot o’ duffers,” to which Harry replies, “ I bet I’m in Hufflepuff.” 3 However, by the time that sorting actually begins, Harry’s confidence is so low that he fears not being sorted at all! He apparently thinks that Hagrid has made a mistake, and that he does not belong in Hogwarts at all.
In contrast, Bilbo Baggins the hobbit tells Gandalf the wizard, “I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning!” 4 He is flustered, therefore, by a visit from thirteen dwarves and Gandalf, who are on a mission to retrieve treasure from The Lonely Mountain. Bilbo has no desire to join the dwarves, at first. Then, after the dwarves sing about their treasure, “something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountain, and hear the pine-trees, and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.” 5 Shortly thereafter, though, the Baggins side resurfaces, and Bilbo “had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out until all the dwarves had gone away.” 6 Both Harry and Bilbo are showing signs of nerves here – Harry because he is afraid he won’t be chosen, and Bilbo because he thinks he is going to be chosen and doesn’t want to be. Both of them have adventures that test their bravery and develop their character. Harry, in spite of his nerves, is sorted-into Gryffindor, the house known for courage. Shortly after his sorting, Harry looks up at the High Table and sees Hagrid, who “caught his eye, and gave him the thumbs up.” He also spots Albus Dumbledore sitting in the center of the High Table.7 Bilbo, in spite of shrieking, shaking, falling, and collapsing, is endorsed by Gandalf: “I have chosen Mr. Baggins, and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.” 8 These incidents are important, for Harry himself did not feel brave, and yet was sorted into Gryffindor, and Bilbo, terribly frightened, is chosen by Gandalf for a mission that will certainly require bravery at a crucial point.
Another contrast in the way that Harry and Bilbo function in their stories is that Harry has more emotional support from his friends. Ron, and later, Hermione, generally encourage Harry and/or try to keep him out of trouble. For example, Hermione’s efforts to stop Harry and Ron as they set out for the bogus duel with Draco Malfoy show that she wants to keep Harry out of trouble. She is also intelligent enough to figure out that it was a trick.9 Even though this event took place before Harry and Ron accepted Hermione as a friend, it is clear that she is acting in a way that she thinks would help them by trying to keep them out of trouble.
In The Hobbit, however, Bilbo is not close emotionally to the dwarves. He is constantly thinking of “his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!”10 True, Dori, one of the younger dwarves, is described as a “decent fellow” 11 who carries Bilbo on his back while the group are running from the goblins, and later helps Bilbo up the tree in which the others had climbed to avoid the wolves.12 However, it is clear that he and Bilbo (or any of the other dwarves) do not have the kind of friendship bond that exists between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The dwarves are rather flat characters: other than the slight difference in appearance which Tolkien gives them, they do not have much individual development during the course of the story.13 With a few exceptions, the dwarves all function at the same level: their focus is on getting to the Lonely Mountain, defeating Smaug the dragon, and getting back the treasure of their forefathers. Bilbo has no chance of having any of the dwarves become a close friend, as that is not how dwarves function. Harry is luckier than he realizes, in having two (even three, if we count Neville) friends to help him during his challenges at Hogwarts.
In contrast, Harry, Ron, and Hermione and also Neville Longbottom are presented as round characters with positive and negative aspects of their personalities revealed to the reader.14 Hermione is studious but bossy. She does want to help Harry, as long as he is not involved in breaking rules and losing points for Gryffindor. After the incident with the troll, however, her behavior becomes less extreme and Harry begins to appreciate her friendship: “Hermione had become a bit more relaxed about breaking rules since Harry and Ron had saved her from the mountain troll, and she was nicer for it.” 15 Ron is more of a slacker academically, but perhaps as the next to youngest in a family of accomplished siblings, that is to be expected. After all, what is left for him to prove? Anything he can do well has already been done by one of his older brothers. His main assets as a friend of Harry are his loyalty, normalcy, and offbeat sense of humor, which matches Harry’s. Neville is also interesting as a character, as he begins as a forgetful boy who can’t even keep track of his pet toad, and grows into someone who is willing to get into a fight with Crabbe and Goyle out of loyalty to Harry and Ron.16 His efforts to keep the trio from leaving the Gryffindor Common Room to go down the trap door are recognized as heroic by Dumbledore later at the end of the year feast.17 This support system is important to Harry’s development because even though he ultimately faces Voldemort alone, each of these three friends serve an important purpose on the night of that Harry defeats his nemesis a second time.
Another similarity in the characters of Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins is that each becomes owner of a magical device that induces invisibility. Harry receives his cloak of invisibility as a Christmas present, to the amazement of Ron, who recognizes its rarity.18 The possession of the cloak gives Harry the courage to investigate the restricted section of the Hogwarts library, after hours.
On the other hand, Bilbo is not exactly given the ring that provides him with invisibility--it finds him, waiting for him to find it in his pocket. His discovery of it in his pocket is what helps him defeat Gollum in the riddling contest. After Gollum hisses out to himself, “But it doesn’t know what the present can do. It’ll just keep it in its pocketses,” 19 Bilbo does figure out what the function of the ring is, and using it gives him the courage to leap over Gollum and then later to escape from the goblins in the cave.
Possession of these magical items allows Bilbo and Harry to accumulate more confidence, as usage of the ring and the cloak helps them perform deeds that they would not have even thought of doing normally. Then, as they find success in their actions, they grow to accept more responsibility through using these gifts. It’s also important to note here that as a rule, these magic possessions are either used for survival, as in Bilbo’s escape from Gollum and then the Goblins, or for helping others, as in Bilbo using the ring to help the dwarves escape from the spiders of Mirkwood, or Harry using his cloak to get Norbert up to the tower. In short, the ring and cloak help Bilbo and Harry grow to be more heroic characters.
Other than the companions and friends that Bilbo and Harry have to assist them in their adventures, Rowling and Tolkien also develop growth in their characters by having them face challenges with magical creatures.
One of the first adventures that Harry has at Hogwarts is with a troll: “Twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite gray, its great lumpy body like a boulder with its small head perched on top like a coconut. It had short legs thick as tree trunks with flat, horny feet.” 20 Likewise, Bilbo finds himself faced with three trolls: “But they were trolls. Even Bilbo, with his sheltered life, could see that: from the great heavy faces of them, and their size, and the shape of their legs, not to mention their language, which was not drawing room fashion, at all, at all.” 21 Bilbo’s trolls could talk while Harry’s was more of a grunter, but all were dangerous. Harry helps Ron save Hermione from the mountain troll, which is important, as Hermione becomes their friend as a result of this incident. Although Harry is not feeling particularly brave when he becomes involved in facing the troll, he does show courage in going to help Hermione and then distracting it from hurting her. This action presents a positive model for children, as it tells them that they do not have to feel brave before facing down a monstrous figure like a troll.
In contrast to Harry, Bilbo does not fare so well with his set of trolls, but perhaps that is somewhat the fault of the dwarves, who send him ahead without any assistance. Although Bilbo is discovered by the trolls, it is not until he has shown courage in trying to burgle one of their purses. His chagrin in not having been more help to the dwarves, and realizing what could have happened to them, are factors in helping him face future challenges.
Dragons and Ultimate Opponents
In Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid introduces Harry to many of the elements present in the wizarding world. When he takes Harry to Gringotts bank, one of the things he says to Harry is: “They say there’s dragons guardin’ the high-security vaults.” 22 This is later followed with the statement, “Crikey, I’d like a dragon.” 23 Not only does this exchange reveal some of Hagrid’s character to Harry, it also helps to make sense later, when Harry, Hermione, and Ron discover that Hagrid is attempting to hatch a dragon egg. Both Harry and Bilbo end up facing a dragon in these stories, but as with the case with the goblins, Harry’s dragon is not nearly as dangerous as the one Bilbo must face in The Hobbit.
Indeed, Norbert, the dragon hatchling of Hagrid’s is more of a nuisance and a potential danger than anything else, at least at first. While Norbert as a hatchling dragon primarily poses a problem with his illegal status, the rapid growth makes its presence in Hagrid’s hut more and more problematic. The trio have to worry about the fact that Hagrid is harboring an illegal dragon, and how to help him get rid of it. This task is a daunting one, as they need to work in secrecy lest they get caught and Hagrid found out. Also, as Norbert grows, he does become more dangerous to the students (and Hagrid, as Hermione points out to Hagrid that he lives “in a wooden house!” 24). In one instance, Ron finds out personally how Norbert is becoming increasingly dangerous:
“It bit me!” he said, showing them his hand, which was bandaged in a bloody handkerchief.
“I’m not going to be able to hold a quill for a week. I tell you, that dragon’s the most horrible animal I’ve ever met, but the way Hagrid goes on about it, you’d think it was a little fluffy bunny rabbit. When it bit me he told me off for frightening it. And when I left, he was singing it a lullaby.” 25
Here we see that Hagrid’s judgment is sometimes questionable,
particularly when it comes to dangerous creatures. Harry’s loyalty to Hagrid leads
to trouble, as he and Hermione are caught after getting Norbert to the Astronomy
tower. For Harry, his experience with a dragon is not precisely the climax of his
story; rather it is a significant point in the rising action. Harry and Hermione,
Neville and Draco are assigned detention in the
In contrast to Harry’s experience with Norbert, Bilbo’s experience with Smaug is the climax for him. Unlike Harry, who has Ron, Hermione (and Neville) trying to help him, Bilbo finds that he must face his dragon alone. One might think that the dwarves, being so keen to get back their treasure, would want to accompany Bilbo. However, when Bilbo asks, “Who is coming with me?” he finds the answer is no one. Only one dwarf, Balin, agrees to “come inside at least and perhaps a bit of the way too, ready to call for help if necessary.” 27 At this point, Tolkien says this about the dwarves:
There it is. Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.28
“If you don’t expect too much” – that tells us so much about the character of the dwarves, and Bilbo’s relationship with them. Apparently, getting one or more of them to come with Bilbo as he goes down into the lair of the dragon is too much to expect. This does seem just a bit odd, as the dragon is guarding the hoard of treasure that the dwarves claim is rightfully theirs, yet they are all willing to let little Bilbo go by himself down into the Dragon’s chamber. Well, Bilbo does go alone, which shows how much his character has grown in the time since he left his comfortable little hobbit hole. He proceeds down, closer and closer to the lair of Smaug, and then notices a red glow, steam, and the sound of a huge animal snoring.29 It is at this point that Bilbo stops to think. I imagine he is thinking seriously about whether he wants to proceed, or to turn back and tell the dwarves that he was not successful in getting to see Smaug – not a pleasant outlook either way. Tolkien writes here that “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did […] He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” 30 At this point, Bilbo does not collapse, as he did at home when he first knew that the dwarves wanted him to go on an adventure with them, and Thorin had mentioned that it might be a journey from which they might not return.31 Bilbo instead keeps going until he actually sees Smaug: “There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber.” 32 Bilbo’s first encounter with Smaug is not so bad, as the dragon was asleep (and a sleeping dragon is not the same as one fully awake and capable of roasting one with his fiery breath would be). Bilbo manages to select a cup that is small enough for him to carry out by himself; however, Smaug awakens shortly thereafter, notices the absence of the cup, and is enraged. He then flies out over the mountain in search of the thief.
The next time that Bilbo ventures down, he finds that Smaug is pretending to be asleep, and only Bilbo’s precaution of slipping on the ring of invisibility saves him. However, Smaug can still smell Bilbo, and begins to talk to him. At first, this ability to talk makes Smaug seem to be more charming, and less dangerous, as he leads Bilbo into a sort of riddling game.33 However, it is soon apparent that this charm actually makes Smaug more, not less dangerous, as Bilbo is in danger of succumbing to Smaug’s overwhelming personality. We get the distinct impression that had Smaug been able to see Bilbo, and cast his eyes upon him, he could indeed have gotten Bilbo to surrender himself. However, Bilbo manages to escape Smaug, but not without a parting verbal shot at Smaug, which resulted in Bilbo getting a reminder of just how dangerous Smaug really is, as he becomes singed by Smaug’s fiery breath as he is fleeing down the passage. As Bilbo said to himself, “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!” 34
Of course, there is still dénouement in The Hobbit that follows Bilbo’s nearly being roasted by Smaug, such as Smaug’s demise at the hands of the Lake-men, the filching of the Arkenstone by Bilbo, who later uses it to give to Elrond and Bard as a bargaining chip, and the final battle between the dwarves, elves, and men on one side and the goblins on the other, but the climax for Bilbo was his experience with Smaug. His return to Bag End, just in time to prevent his home being overtaken by the Sackville-Bagginses, is much more like an epilogue than anything else. More importantly plot wise, the fact of the Dragon being in control of the dwarves’ former home and their treasure is the raison d’être for the entire adventure. Bilbo’s change and growth over the time of the journey and adventures he shared with the dwarves prepared him for that confrontation. By the time Bilbo meets Smaug, he has been captured by trolls, escaped from them with help, escaped from the goblins and Gollum, with the added treasure of the magic ring in his pocket, accepted the hospitality of Beorn the Bear-man, rescued the dwarves from the spiders of Mirkwood, helped the dwarves escape from the elves via water tubs, so that he has been prepared to have his greatest adventure.
Like Bilbo, Harry Potter must go underground to face his most dangerous opponent. Unlike Bilbo, Harry does not know precisely what he will be facing when he enters the trapdoor. Bilbo at least knows that he will be facing a dragon, and as frightening a prospect as that is, he has the chance to prepare himself for that event. Harry, though, only thinks he knows what lies in wait for him, as at the time he decides to risk going through with his mission, he suspects that it is Professor Snape who is trying to get the Sorcerer’s Stone.35
It is during the climax that Harry’s friendships are their most important – Ron and Hermione give him aid in six of the eight trials he faces that night. Harry’s first obstacle, funnily enough, is not an enemy, but his friend, Neville Longbottom, who thinks that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are going to get into trouble and cost Gryffindor precious points.36 While Harry does not personally perform the spell which jinxes Neville, he directs Hermione to “do something,” and she therefore jinxes Neville with Petrificus Totalus, the full Body-Bind spell.37 Having to confront Neville is not an altogether auspicious beginning for their quest; however, the trio continue on their way, to the trap door.
Once they have eluded “Fluffy” and gotten through the trap door, they are confronted with the first obstacle of protection: Devil’s Snare. Luckily for Harry and Ron, Hermione, with some prompting from Ron, is able to figure out the spell that releases them from the deadly plant.38 As they proceed on their way, Harry notices that the passageway slopes downward, and he is “reminded of Gringotts. With an unpleasant jolt of the heart, he remembered the dragons said to be guarding vaults in the wizards’ bank. If they met a dragon, a fully-grown dragon—” 39 Here, Harry is, like Bilbo, having to confront his fear of facing a large, dangerous creature, yet find the courage to proceed in spite of that fear. Shortly thereafter, the trio finds the second obstacle-the winged keys. The trio act as a team here, and each one gets on one of the broomsticks which were so conveniently left there in the room. Harry directs Ron and Hermione after he has spotted the right key to the door, and with their assistance in closing in on the key, Harry is able to catch it, enabling them to use it in the keyhole and going on from there.40 The next chamber contains the giant chessboard, and they all have to take the part of chess pieces on the board. After some time of playing an increasingly dangerous game, Ron sacrifices himself so that Harry and Hermione can go on.41
When Harry and Hermione go through the next door, they first notice a “disgusting smell,” then they find “ flat on the floor in front of them, a troll even bigger than the one they had tackled, out cold with a bloody lump on its head.” 42 While Harry is glad that he didn’t have to face that troll, he does not think at this point that whoever was able to knock out the troll may be somewhere in one of the rooms they are approaching, and anyone with the ability to knock out a fully grown troll is extremely dangerous. Harry and Hermione get to the next door, and when they enter the room, they find “a table with seven different shaped bottles standing set in a line.” 43 This, apparently, is Snape’s protective obstacle, and Hermione is able to figure out the puzzle given with the bottles. It is Harry, however, who figures out that the smallest bottle, with a potion in it that would get them “through the black fire—toward the stone,” only has “enough there for one of us.” 44
After sending Hermione back to get help for Ron, and to summon Dumbledore, Harry proceeds to the final underground chamber, alone. To his surprise, the figure that is in that room, standing in front of the Mirror of Erised is not Snape, but instead is Professor Quirrell, who, it turns out, is serving as a parasitic host to Voldemort. In his confrontation with Quirrell/Voldemort, Harry is nervous, but by this time, he has been through enough challenges that he is able to muster his courage and lie to Quirrell about what he sees in the Mirror. His actions in fighting Quirrell so that the adult wizard will not be able to curse him come at a great physical price, but Harry proves himself at this point. He is no longer the nervous student who hardly believes he belongs at Hogwarts, but someone who has the courage to fight an adult wizard opponent in order to keep him from getting the stone that would enable Voldemort to come back.
Return of the Wizards
Both Tolkien and Rowling have a similar magical mentor in both of these books. In The Hobbit, it is Gandalf, and in Sorcerer’s Stone, it is Dumbledore. It seems as though in these books, at least part of the wizard’s job is to help prepare his protégé to be successful in meeting the challenges that lie ahead. However, both Bilbo and Harry have to face their most dangerous opponent alone. Bilbo has neither a dwarf to accompany him down into Smaug’s lair, nor Gandalf either, who somehow mysteriously disappeared several times from the group. He is not there, therefore, when Bilbo must confront Smaug. Likewise, in Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore provides the invisibility cloak and leeway to achieve. While Ron and Hermione do accompany Harry part of the way, and help him get through the challenges of Fluffy, Devil’s Snare, the keys, the giant wizard chess game, and potions, Harry has to face Quirrell/Voldemort alone.45
In both cases, it is as though after doing their best to prepare Bilbo and Harry for the most important challenge each would face, the wizard mentor left him to it. Similarly, each wizard reappears quickly after the test is over. (Dumbledore a bit more quickly than Gandalf, as he has to pull Harry off Quirrell).46 Both Gandalf and Dumbledore serve the furtherance of the plot as they fill in the blanks of the questions that Bilbo and Harry have.
By having Bilbo going through this series of adventures, in which he grows increasingly confident, Tolkien models through him for young readers who themselves may be feeling that they are not very brave or that they would not dare to have an adventure. A hobbit, after all, is very similar to a child in size, and thus easy for children to identify with. While most children will not have to deal with a troll or dragon in their lifetime, there are some nasty big people out there who must seem monstrous to them. By showing that a character like Bilbo can grow through his adventures, children (and other readers) can vicariously feel that they themselves have grown as well.
Harry Potter, of course, is a child, so children can readily identify with him and his adventures. Throughout his first year at Hogwarts, Harry faces a series of adventures, beginning with the mountain troll, which increase his confidence and help prepare him for the confrontation with Professor Quirrell/Voldemort in the underground chamber. By showing the growth in Harry, Rowling, like Tolkien, models for young readers, and by giving them such a character to identify with, helps them feel that they have accompanied Harry through his adventures.
Both Bilbo and Harry are changed at the end; Bilbo, although returning to Bag End, no longer cares about his respectability.47 Harry now is reassured that he does belong at Hogwarts, in Gryffindor House, and can look forward to returning for the next year.48 They have both been through a magical version of a rite of passage, and its effects will remain with them forever.
1. Rowling, 120.
2. Ibid., 51.
3. Ibid., 80.
4. Tolkien, 7.
5. Ibid., 15.
6. Ibid., 16.
7. Rowling, 122.
8. Tolkien, 19.
9. Rowling, 159.
10. Tolkien, 43.
11. Ibid., 92.
12. Ibid., 93.
13. Kennedy and Gioia, 92. These concepts are borrowed from E.M. Forster.
15. Rowling, 181.
16. Ibid., 224.
17. Ibid., 306.
18. Ibid., 201.
19. Tolkien, 78.
20. Rowling, 174.
21. Tolkien, 34.
22. Rowling, 64.
23. Ibid., 65.
24. Ibid., 233.
25. Ibid., 237.
26. Ibid., 257.
27. Tolkien, 192.
28. Ibid., 193.
29. Ibid., 214
30. Ibid., 215.
31. Ibid., 193-4.
32. Ibid., 199-200.
33. Ibid., 204.
34. Ibid., 243.
35. Rowling, 260 and 270. Harry’s suspicions of Snape remain consistent.
36. Ibid., 272.
37. Ibid., 273.
38. Ibid., 278.
40. Ibid., 279-81.
41. Ibid., 283.
42. Ibid., 284.
43. Ibid., 285-6.
44. Ibid., 286.
45. Tolkien, 270.
46. Rowling, 297.
47. Tolkien, 271.
48. Rowling, 301. This reaction of Harry’s is more implied than stated: “It seemed to Harry as though life would be back to normal next year, or as normal as it ever was at Hogwarts.”
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