The Idea of Heroism: “The Hobbit” and American Gods

Introduction

There is probably no more fruitful field for authors describing heroes than fantasy literature. In these stories, good usually fights against bad, the hero is opposed to the villain, and their encounters are so exciting that the reader is fully involved in the events of the book. Most often, the protagonist becomes the audience’s favourite, although the antagonist may sometimes steal the show. English literature is rich in heroic stories.

Some of the most famous are J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1991) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001). Each of these books has a different plot and characters, but they both have one thing in common: they depict true heroes who make the hero’s journey. These books have become popular with generations of readers.

Heroism and Heroes

Before considering heroes in the two books to be analysed, it is necessary to offer a definition of the hero and the idea of heroism. Heroic acts are ones that require extraordinary courage. Such boldness does not have to be represented only by violent fights or physical strength. Frequently, heroes are the characters that defend the weak even if they are not powerful themselves. In fairy tales, physical power is usually associated with heroism.

However, in the fantasy novels reviewed for this project, it is not their fortitude that makes the heroes what they are. Therefore it is necessary to contemplate the issue of whether heroism is possible and, if so, how. Also, it is necessary to discuss how one becomes a hero in fantasy literature. Finally, the question of how the hero’s journey contributes to this development requires analysis.

There can be no doubt that heroism is possible in people’s lives. More than that, it is frequently necessary: one needs to have faith in something good, noble, kind, and sincere. To become a hero in fantasy literature, the character does not need to fight with evil powers or shed blood for one’s native land. However, one does need to be wise, skilful, and true to one’s goals. In The Hobbit, the hero needs to travel a difficult route to his destination where he eventually defeats the villain not with his hands, but with the help of the ring that he has been carrying (Tolkien, 1991). In American Gods, the hero does not even have a route different from the antagonist (Gaiman, 2001). Thus his heroism lies in his willingness to leave the service of the villain, which he eventually does.

The hero’s journey plays a significant role in shaping the character’s heroism. By completing all stages of this journey, one can be acknowledged as a true role model, a person who should be admired and respected, and someone who is worth remembering for decades or even centuries. Probably the most exemplary element of the hero’s journey is the first one: the ordinary world (“The hero’s journey,” n. d.).

It is at this point that the hero is represented in opposition to other characters. Heroes are frequently regarded as strange or even weird merely because they notice extraordinary things in the world around them. Since other people cannot see these things, they may think that the hero is odd and even mock him or her. However, as it turns out, the true magic, the real kindness, and the genuine spirit of adventure are hidden in the hero’s unusual attitude to the world.

The Hero in The Hobbit

In The Hobbit, the hero is represented by the character of Bilbo Baggins, who does not seem very heroic at the beginning. Bilbo is not willing to go on an adventure when Gandalf invites him to do so (Tolkien, 1991). In addition, the hobbit is not courageous or strong. However, the absence of these features does not make Bilbo less of a hero in the meaning described in the previous section. Bilbo is a hero because he eventually decides to do something for the sake of his native land and friends. As Cooper (2002) remarks, Bilbo is the good that finally drives out the evil and returns to Middle Earth. Thus it is quite possible to regard Bilbo Baggins as the hero in The Hobbit.

One more special feature that helps to identify Bilbo’s character as heroic is the etymology of his name. As Day (2011) emphasises in his article, all titles and names in the book, starting with “the hobbit,” are “quintessentially English” (p. 114). Another aspect playing a crucial role in this case is Bilbo’s love for the Shire (Tolkien, 1991). This willingness to forget one’s own fears and apprehensions for the sake of a beloved land makes Bilbo a real hero.

Even if he is not able to confront the enemy without the support of Gandalf, dwarves, or other friends, Bilbo is a courageous hobbit. Even though he is small and may seem insignificant, he serves as an example for many readers. Even if he has some negative features such as stinginess and an inclination to keep something that does not belong to him, Bilbo is the real hero in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The Hero’s Journey of Bilbo Baggins

Whereas Tolkien’s novel is a depiction of a journey that the main character is making, there is also a vivid representation of the hero’s journey in the book. As Atherton (2014) mentions, on many occasions, Bilbo’s return home is the perspective or measure “by which he judges all the events that happen to him on his quest through the Wild” (p. 2). The first stage of the hero’s journey is the ordinary world (“The hero’s journey,” n.d.). For Bilbo, this is the calm life of the Shire, where he enjoys regular meals and friendly neighbours (Tolkien, 1991). The next stage, the call to adventure, is marked by the appearance of Gandalf, who invites Bilbo to take part in a trip. At this point, a direct invitation to participate in an adventure is made.

The third step in the hero’s journey is the refusal of the quest (“The hero’s journey,” n.d.). In The Hobbit, such a rejection occurs when Bilbo tells Gandalf that hobbits enjoy quiet and comfortable living and do not want to participate in any risky endeavours. “We don’t want any adventures here” and “I don’t want any adventures, thank you” are the answers Bilbo gives to Gandalf when he first hears the proposal (Tolkien, 1991, n.p.).

Fortunately for millions of Hobbit fans, the next step of the hero’s journey is accepting the call. Under pressure from Gandalf, the hero agrees to set out on an adventure, and the wizard becomes Bilbo’s mentor, or the personification of supernatural aid. Further, the hero begins the stage of entering the unknown, or crossing the first threshold. For Bilbo, this threshold is leaving the Shire (Tolkien, 1991). This step is rather important for the hero since it is the first time that he will leave his home for such a long time.

The next stage of the hero’s journey made by Bilbo is meeting his allies and enemies. His friends are the eagles, Beorn, the elves of Rivendell, and the humans of Lake Town (Tolkien, 1991). His rivals are no less numerous: the trolls, giant spiders, and Gollum all interfere with the hero’s plans (Tolkien, 1991). During his encounters with the villains, Bilbo finds the elvish dagger and the magical ring, which will be of great help in the later stages of his journey. The ring will also play the role of the hero’s talisman.

The farthest point in the hero’s journey is approaching the inmost cave. In Bilbo’s case, this is the literal cave in the Lonely Mountain where Smaug is keeping and guarding Thorin’s treasures (Tolkien, 1991). This is also the time for the supreme ordeal of the main character. In The Hobbit, the major suffering of the hero, when he faces death, is the Battle of Five Armies (Tolkien, 1991). The ordeal takes place at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. The final stage of the hero’s journey is the reward and the return home (“The hero’s journey,” n.d.). For Bilbo, the reward consists of treasures presented by the dwarves. Also, he receives the right to keep his elvish dagger and the ring. Bilbo’s completion of the hero’s journey supports the argument that he is a true hero.

The Hero in American Gods

Unlike Bilbo Baggins, Shadow, the main character of American Gods, has an appearance and character that are typical of heroes. The man is brave and courageous, and he seems strong enough to fight evil if needed. However, like Bilbo, Shadow is hesitant in the beginning and does not want to get engaged in the risky deal immediately (Gaiman, 2001). Despite this momentary weakness, all further actions of the main character leave no doubt that he is a true hero.

Not only Shadow’s efforts to stop his enemies’ destructive actions make him a hero. As Slabbert and Viljoen (2006) note, the main character’s journey of self-discovery strengthens the idea of heroism in the novel. Although Carroll (2012) expresses doubt concerning heroism in the story, this author’s arguments do not seem sufficient to reject the evidence offered by other scholars. Therefore, it is viable to conclude that Shadow is a real hero who is depicted in Gaiman’s (2001) book as a wise and courageous character.

The Hero’s Journey of Shadow

Like Bilbo in The Hobbit, Shadow fulfils the stages of the hero’s journey, which demonstrates his right to be considered a hero. The initial phase of the quest, the ordinary world, is represented by the prison (Gaiman, 2001). For Shadow, the prison is his usual locality and community, and he is not aware of what is happening in the world outside the walls in which he is kept. The second stage of the journey is the call to adventure (“The hero’s journey,” n.d.).

For the main character, this call happens when he is released from prison sooner than expected. His early discharge is associated with the death of Shadow’s wife in a car accident (Gaiman, 2001). The next step of the journey is his refusal of the call. In Shadow’s case, this rejection occurs when he encounters Mr. Wednesday on the plane. As soon as the two men meet, Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, which he declines. The refusal of the call is related to Shadow’s indignation at the fact that Mr. Wednesday knows too much about him.

Shadow begins the phase of crossing the threshold and entering the unknown when he realises that there are many gods around him, and when he can finally see them in their true shape. The next important step in the hero’s journey is concerned with allies, enemies, and tests. For Shadow, the first trial happens when Mr. Town mistakenly blames the death of his friends on Shadow (Gaiman, 2001). Mr. Town thus becomes Shadow’s enemy at this point in the journey.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ibis, Mr. Jacquel, Whiskey Jack, and Egyptian gods performing the duties of undertakers may be defined as Shadow’s friends. In addition to them, the hero’s allies are also represented by the idyllic town of Lakeside and the Native American beliefs and traditions (Gaiman, 2001). These friends and enemies all participate in important events of the hero’s journey.

Another crucial phase of the journey is entering the innermost cave. Shadow approaches this stage when he is captured by the new gods for a brief time and they force him to watch Mr. Wednesday being killed (Gaiman, 2001). The next stage, the supreme ordeal, begins when Shadow is tied to a tree and left there without any help. After some time, the ordeal is further heightened by Mr. Town stabbing Shadow in the throat and chest. This scene of suffering is an attempt to copy the transformation of Odin, which is the real name of Mr. Wednesday.

The last few stages of the hero’s journey are concerned with the road back home and resurrection. The return home is not actually performed by Shadow himself, but by his wife, Laura, who has been reincarnated (Gaiman, 2001). Laura takes a ride with Mr. Town to the place where the battle between two groups of gods took place. There she kills Mr. Town and takes the spear with which she will later kill herself. The final stage of the hero’s journey is the resurrection. Upon his death, Shadow is judged by Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis, who deem him good (Gaiman, 2001). The hero makes a choice to return to the world of the living, armed with the vast knowledge that he has gained during the journey. Because of the profound hero’s journey that Shadow has made, it is possible to deem him a true hero.

Conclusion

Fantasy literature is a genre in which heroism is frequently depicted. In the fight between good and evil or even in a character’s refusal to protect others, there is always a hidden element of heroism. Even if not identified as such at the beginning, the hero will eventually become known. Despite some critical arguments concerning heroism and heroes, it seems reasonable to conclude that they do exist. The analysis of two renowned novels — J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1991) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) — demonstrates that there is a hero in each of these books. A detailed scrutiny of the hero’s journey proves that both stories are concerned with heroism as the key message to the audience.

References

Atherton, M. (2014). There and back again: J. R. R. Tolkien and the origins of The Hobbit. New York, NY: I. B. Tauris.

Carroll, S. (2012). Imagined nation: Place and identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Extrapolation, 53(3), 307-326.

Cooper, S. (2002). There and back again: Tolkien reconsidered. Horn Book Magazine, 78(2), 143-150.

Day, D. (2011). The genesis of the Hobbit. Queen’s Quarterly, 118(1), 114-129.

Gaiman, N. (2001). American gods: A novel. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

The hero’s journey. (n.d.). Web.

Slabbert, M., & Viljoen, L. (2006). Sustaining the imaginative life: Mythology and fantasy in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Literator, 27(3), 135-155.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1991). The Hobbit, or There and back again. New York, NY: HarperCollins.