Two EW writers debate the protagonists' merits

By Christian Holub and Devan Coggan
September 20, 2017 at 03:24 PM EDT
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This week marks the 80th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit — the book that started it all. The Lord of the Rings may have been more epic and The Silmarillion more cosmically psychedelic, but The Hobbit was first. Right there in the title, it introduced Tolkien’s single greatest contribution to fantasy literature. Before him, fantasy had mostly revolved around valiant heroes: Kings, knights, wizards. Tolkien changed that up by focusing his stories on hobbits, little people who prefer the peace and quiet of country life but are nevertheless repeatedly drawn into struggles over the fate of the world.

There are two main hobbits in Tolkien’s legendarium: Bilbo Baggins, the original in The Hobbit, and his nephew Frodo Baggins, who takes over the action for The Lord of the Rings. In honor of this hobbit-versary, EW writers Devan Coggan and Christian Holub debate which protagonist is actually the best lord of the ring.

The case for Bilbo

Picking the best hobbit of all time is hard, if only because there are so many eligible choices. You could make a case for Bullroarer Took, who defeated a goblin invasion by knocking the leader Golfimbul’s head off with a club (while simultaneously inventing the game of golf). Samwise Gamgee is also an excellent choice, as illustrated by his loyalty, determination, and undying love for PO-TAY-TOES. Frodo Baggins is another solid option, seeing as he, oh, I don’t know, carried the Ring of Power all the way to Mordor and threw it into the fires of Mount Doom. You know, casual.

But ultimately, there can only be one winner in the battle of the hobbits, and the undisputed champ has to be the original, the O.G., the bravest little hobbit of them all: Bilbo Baggins.

Not only did Tolkien’s beloved 1937 novel introduce us to the very concept of a hobbit, but it also gave us Bilbo Baggins, one of the greatest heroes of fantasy literature. The titular protagonist of The Hobbit truly redefined what a hero could be. He wasn’t the wizard with a whole bag of magic tricks up his sleeve, or the heroic dwarf on a quest to regain his lost kingdom. No, he was a small, ordinary person who repeatedly and consistently decided to do the right thing and help his friends.

That’s the central theme of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — a small, insignificant person choosing bravery in the face of adversity — but Bilbo did it first (and best). He outsmarted a trio of trolls! He crept into a dragon’s lair to steal the Arkenstone from right under his nose! And of course, he out-riddled Gollum in one of literature’s greatest and most masterful scenes.

He’s also one of the best parts of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Regardless of your opinion on the films, there’s no denying that Martin Freeman makes one hell of a Bilbo. After all, he is the premier British actor you cast when you have a character who is thrust into an unbelievable adventure when all he wants to do is go home and have a nice cup of tea, dammit. (See: Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.)

It’s hard to compare Bilbo with his ringbearing nephew Frodo because their quests are each so different: The Hobbit is more of an adventure story, whereas The Lord of the Rings is a larger, sweeping epic about the very nature of good and evil. Frodo’s quest is undeniably bigger and more important, and he faces circumstances that Bilbo couldn’t even imagine. But while Frodo feels like a character in a myth — an innocent hero struggling against corruption — Bilbo feels the most human.

Frodo is driven by a desire to do the right thing and save the world, but Bilbo is driven by a far more relatable thirst for adventure. While Frodo is selfless and noble, Bilbo has to do a little more personal growth. The Bilbo who returns to Bag End in the end is a very different hobbit than the one who originally set out with Gandalf and 13 dwarves. Over the course of his adventure, Bilbo finds a courage, ingenuity, and selflessness within himself. What more could you want from a heroic character arc?

In conclusion, I leave you with Leonard Nimoy’s psychedelic ode to Bilbo Baggins, the “bravest little hobbit of them all.” Who are we to disagree? — Devan Coggan

The case for Frodo

Those are all good points about Bilbo! I think you actually hit on why those Hobbit movies didn’t work. Bilbo is a small ordinary hero with everyday virtues, and Martin Freeman is a subtle character actor who can communicate a lot of personality with something as simple as an eye-roll or shoulder shrug. Unfortunately, both of those things got lost in the dizzying CGI slugfest of a big-screen blockbuster fantasy trilogy.

Peter Jackson’s movies didn’t serve Bilbo’s nephew very well either, of course. As I set out to prove to you why Frodo Baggins is actually the greatest hobbit of all time, I’m well aware that I’ve got my work cut out for me here. People mostly seem to hate Frodo, especially since the movies came out. All credit to Elijah Wood, but he fell down and flailed helplessly a few too many times for viewers — enamored with the heroism of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas — to take much notice of those films’ actual hero. After all, Frodo was not made for fighting, and each time he ends up in one (against the Witch-King, Shelob, and Gollum) he gets horrendously maimed for life.

But only Frodo Baggins could have carried the One Ring all the way to Mount Doom, and it was only because of Frodo that the Ring was finally destroyed in that volcanic fire. Frodo didn’t ask for the Ring or the terrible burden of carrying it, but he accepted it anyway — partially because he knew no one else would. Only a selfless act of sacrifice could have stopped the angry impasse at the Council of Elrond and started the Ring on its journey in the first place, at a time when more traditionally heroic characters like Boromir and Aragorn were busy with in-fighting and selfish power politics. Say it for those guys, though, that they immediately recognize the gravity of Frodo’s sacrifice and dedicate themselves to helping his quest. Even after the Fellowship has been sundered, his selfless example serves as an inspiration to all the forces battling Sauron, even the ones who never met him. For Frodo!

It must be said, of course, that once Frodo finally makes it to Mount Doom, he fails to throw the Ring in as promised. Instead, he finally submits to months of relentless pressure and tries to take the Ring for himself. That could have been the end of everything, but it wasn’t. Instead, the Ring did make it into the Crack of Doom, bringing an end to Sauron and all his works. It is Gollum who takes the Ring on the final leg of its journey, but it is Frodo who made that possible, by never wavering in his empathy for the fallen creature. Whereas most people see Gollum as a monster or an annoyance, Frodo sees Gollum as a fellow traveler who is oppressed by the Ring, but has fewer friends to help him deal with it. Frodo decides to be that friend, and it is his dedication to helping Gollum rather than killing him that makes that final victory possible. I suppose I must acknowledge that Bilbo started this trend of sparing Gollum, as Frodo and Gandalf discuss in Moria, but since Frodo did it repeatedly under much higher stakes, I think he’s got the edge.

Everyone has a part to play in fighting evil — that’s why there are nine people in the Fellowship of the Ring. But while few of us are capable of fighting Balrogs or surfing down stairs while sniping bad guys with arrows, we can all show mercy and forgiveness to our fellow people.

That’s why I love Frodo so much, and why I think he’s the greatest Hobbit of all. He helped save the world from unimaginable evil, and he did it not through strength or power, but through grace. For Frodo, indeed. — Christian Holub