Epics Throughout the Ages:
The Odyssey and The Hobbit by Teresa Grub
Lutheran High School
The classic Greek epic, The Odyssey, is as well-known as it is wonderful. The massive battles, historical details, mythological lore and lofty language make it an easy and thrilling read despite the vocabulary. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, also known as J.R.R. Tolkien, has also created a work of art with mastery and skill. The artistic languages, beautiful maps and fantastic imagery makes his book, The Hobbit, a must read. Although some may claim that Tolkien’s work cannot compare to that of the epic poet Homer, after careful examination, it is clear how similar they are. Both epic stories include drama, conflict, one-dimensional and complex characters, as well as battles, and elements of comedy and tragedy. Despite the immense difference in the eras of their writing, The Hobbit and The Odyssey have more in common than one might think at first glance.
The first common factor is the style in which both epics were written. Despite the authors’ differing backgrounds and time periods, their writing styles were not all that different. Both authors used exquisite syntax to accurately depict the images they were trying to convey; this is proven by how many different readers picture virtually the exact same scene in their heads. It is clear that every word in every line of both books was written as deliberately and as thoughtfully as possible for the benefit of the reader’s imagination. Both authors also show journeys of heroes facing seemingly unbeatable trials and overcoming them triumphantly to return home safely. As nearly all pieces of literature do, these books also teach valuable lessons that can be applied to everyday life for the improvement of the reader’s character.
There are, of course, several differences within the books as well. Although The Hobbit is written almost entirely chronologically, in The Odyssey, much of the story is relayed by Odysseus after the events took place: a noticeable rift in the commonality of the writing styles. Although The Hobbit is presented as the purely fictional project of a clever professor’s mind, The Odyssey is presented as a historical account, including the intervention of various deities. Another main difference that makes its presence known is the type of hero exhibited in the stories: while Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit is quite an unlikely hero, Odysseus is a warrior king well-seasoned in battle. None the less, both face tough trials and tribulations on their “little” journeys.
In The Hobbit, a highly symbolic character, Gandalf the wizard, almost forces Bilbo Baggins on the journey to defeat the treacherous dragon, Smaug. He succeeds by preying on his hospitality – when twelve gruff dwarves appear at his door, what could he do but feed and entertain them for a time, after all he was a hobbit of good manners (Tolkien 7-10). Of course this seemingly-impromptu meeting was arranged by Gandalf who told all the dwarves attending the escapade to meet at Bilbo’s house (Tolkien 10). After arriving, he then promptly introduces Baggins as the thief they have been lacking in their strange group and “invites” Baggins to come along for the ride (Tolkien 19).
In The Odyssey, the main character Odysseus was not as much leaving on a journey as he was returning from one. Odysseus, after fighting in the Trojan War on behalf of the Greeks, chose not to make a sacrifice to Poseidon, god of the sea, and suffers the consequences (Homer 11). The journey of this hero was to return home from the battle, he had no intention of starting new ones, but before he would see his wife again, he would encounter two deceitful sorceresses, fight cyclopses, steer through Scylla, the whirlpool, and successfully get past the entrancing sirens.
The journeys of both heroes were soon to be riddled with trials and tribulations. Bilbo Baggins and group immediately run into trouble: three hungry trolls. The trolls discover the whereabouts of the motley crew and catch all but Gandalf, who had previously disappeared as wizards tend to do (Tolkien 39). The grey-bearded leader comes to the rescue, outwitting the trolls into arguing until the sun came up at which point they turned to stone (Tolkien 39-41). After surviving the horrid ordeal, there would be little rest for the small adventurers. After a short stay in the elven haven of Rivendell, the group quickly faces the physical demands of the Misty Mountains (Tolkien 55). As if that were not enough, they seek shelter from a storm in a nearby cave only to be ambushed and taken captive by goblin hordes (Tolkien 59-64). As usual, Gandalf finds a way to avoid capture only to return to save the dwarves and hobbit (Tolkien 59, 64). With no food and no ponies, the group pushes onward to escape the malicious goblins at their backs; after fighting off more devious wretches, Bilbo manages to hit his head on a rock and fall unconscious (Tolkien 65, 67). Turn after turn, it seems as if this group of treasure hunters will never make it to their great battle.
Odysseus was not faring much better. After his men are killed by Athena’s wrath he is kidnapped by a witch, Calypso. Eight years later, due to Athena’s pleads, Zeus orders Calypso to let him go, and so he is finally able to begin his journey home, but a safe, uneventful journey would apparently be just too easy for the war-hero (Homer 11, 64). On the eighteenth day of leaving Calypso’s island, Poseidon, once again, stirs up trouble for the noble warrior; he makes such a storm that the goddess Ino had to give Odysseus a veil to keep him from drowning (Homer 67-69). Upon receiving the enchanted veil, he swam for two days and two nights towards land, a miraculous feat even for a physically fit hero (Homer 69). With the help of Athena, he somehow made it to land only to find more trouble soon awaiting him (Homer 70).
Bilbo, after falling unconscious when Dori the dwarf was taken, wakes up to find himself alone and terrified in the damp, dark cold of the cave (Tolkien 67-68). As he crawls and gropes his way about the tunnel, hoping he is going the right way, his hand finds something – or rather, something finds his hand – a small piece of cold metal was the seemingly innocent prize. Without another thought, Bilbo shoves the ring into his breast-pocket and continues his search for an exit (Tolkien 68). Remembering next to nothing prior to the fall, and having no comfort but his elvish blade, he decides to push on (Tolkien 69). Soon, the silly little hobbit finds a rather disgusting, creepy little creature in the dark: Gollum, and without wasting much time, launches into a riddle contest with the devious stranger (Tolkien 72-73). After losing to Bilbo’s “What have I got in my pocket?” riddle, Gollum tries to find the ring, which, ironically, was the answer, in order to become invisible by wearing it and make Bilbo into lunch (Tolkien 79, 81). The wicked creature unwittingly allows Bilbo to overhear the magic ring’s uses as well as leads him to an exit – one of the downsides to schizophrenia (Tolkien 83-86). Mr. Baggins still has more troubles – after leaping over Gollum, narrowly missing a fatal blow, and running through the tunnels he finally reaches the end only to find a horde of goblins almost waiting for him. He puts the ring on and narrowly escapes death yet again; so narrowly, in fact, that the confused goblins were left holding his brass coat buttons (Tolkien 87-90).
Odysseus’s troubles are equally miserable. After finally making it to land, his fortune seems to be looking up, but alas, that would not make good writing. Athena, saves Odysseus’ life by preying on a princess’ desire to get married (Homer, 72-78). After Princess Nausicaa gets Odysseus presentable, he meets the rulers of Phaiacia and recounts his tale for them; all seems to be going well, as he has finally run into some normal people and is well received; Nausicaa’s father even said he wished Odysseus could stay and marry her, but, fortunately, also said that he would never force Odysseus to stay against his will (Homer 85-86, 87). Finally things seem to be looking up for Odysseus, he was a bit worried when Nausicaa became attracted to him, but King Alcinoos has given him a ship and oarsmen – finally, he can get back home with no delay... or so it seems (Homer 89).
After he escapes from still more goblins, the unlucky hobbit discovers that he has no idea where he is. Somehow, he had managed to get to the other side of the Misty Mountains (Tolkien 91). After bumbling around the unknown terrain, Bilbo somehow finds Gandalf and gang and uses the ring to gain some respect as a “burglar” (Tolkien 93). After the bunch regroups, they trudge on with tired limbs and empty stomachs – understandable as they had not eaten in two days. As if this were not bad enough, they hear a recognizable howl on the wind: wolves. Upon Gandalf’s orders, everyone instantaneously climbs a tree to avoid “death by warg”; Bilbo and Dori barely making it (Tolkien 99-100). As this danger was apparently lacking, as the wild wargs guard the trees, Gandalf, understanding their language, learns that the wargs are present to meet the goblins for a raid! (Tolkien 101-102). The nasty little goblins appear and attack, setting fire to the trees, but the Lord of the Eagles and his subordinates come to the heroes’ aid, picking them up and flying them to safety (Tolkien 107). After being saved by the eagles and having a small meal, the group appears to be safe…for the moment.
Odysseus again recounts his tale, from the Trojan War to his captures by Calypso and Circe (Homer 100). After he and his men had a tough battle with the ocean, they found land on the island of the lotus-eaters; Odysseus sent some of his men as messengers to the native people of the unknown island. The messengers were welcomed, and after having eaten the lotus food, no longer wished to go home but to stay and eat the strange plant for the rest of their days. After Odysseus brought them back by force, they (begrudgingly) sailed on (Homer 102). Next, Odysseus describes the second island they reached: the island of Cyclopians – one eyed savages with no discernable laws. Odysseus fooled the Cyclops he first encountered, but the lives of two of his men, soon to be six, were swiftly taken to feed the Cyclops’ hunger (Homer 105-106). Odysseus once again used his wit to defeat the atrocity, after telling the Cyclops his name is “Noman” and waiting until he slept, “Noman” drove a spike into his one eye; the cleverness and humor is in the fact that when all the other Cyclopians asked who had committed the crime, he responded “Noman is killing me by craft…”, the other Cyclopians therefore believed that no one was hurting Polyphemos (Homer 107-108). Once again, brains beat brute strength. Later, Odysseus again outwitted the monster by tying his men to sheep and himself to a ram, escaping in the morning when the hideous beast let his flocks out to pasture (Homer 108-110). But alas, a bit of gloating did a lot of harm when Odysseus told Polyphemos his real name; the Cyclops prayed to his father, Poseidon, to keep Odysseus from his home, or to at least let him arrive miserable, alone, and in another man’s ship after much toil (Homer 111).Clearly the prayer worked as Odysseus has lost his men and suffered much toil and misery and has yet to see his island-home.
Arguably the most common theme found throughout both marvelous reads is the immense futility of the heroes’ efforts: if it is not one thing, it is another. It seems as if turn after turn, every effort proves more and more pointless; once they finally overcome the obstacle, with immense struggle, before they can so much as pat themselves on the back, a new challenge arises, even harder than the last. Bilbo gets caught in a storm and finds shelter only to be captured by goblins; escapes only to get lost, finds the group only to get caught up a burning tree surrounded by goblins and wargs. Odysseus had his fair share of this too. For these heroes, each victory leads to another unspeakable danger, dramatic irony at its best. It is so disheartening that it is almost comedic – try as they might, Bilbo and Odysseus simply can not catch a break.
A certain foolish hobbit forgot where he was for a moment, believing that he was at, much more pleasant, Bag-End. But alas, he was not. He was, in fact, at the home of the eagles with the dwarves and Gandalf with nothing to eat but cold mutton and rabbit – a rather rude awakening (Tolkien 112). After being dropped off by the eagles and saying their good-byes, the group feels more encouraged – that is, until Gandalf says he is leaving (Tolkien 114). The now even more disheartened group begs Gandalf to stay, but he insists. Gandalf explains that he is to introduce the group to Beorn, a hot-tempered but useful shapeshifter that lives upon the mountainside (Tolkien 115, 116). Due to Gandalf’s cleverness, the fifteen-man group is able to befriend the mountain man and receive food and lodging. (Tolkien 125-132). When Gandalf leaves as promised, the moral quickly shifts into a downwards spiral (Tolkien 138). It seems that for this group of adventurers there is nothing but more trouble ahead; they were entering the dangers of Mirkwood Forest and without their trusty guide and leader (Tolkien 138).
Still retelling the tales of what occurred before he arrived in Alcinoos’ kingdom; Odysseus explains the toils, trials, and tribulations that plagued his journey. The next island Odysseus and his crew landed on was that of Aiola, a floating island inhabited by Aiolos Hippotades, a friend of the gods (Homer 112). After relishing life in luxury for a month, Odysseus and crew decide to head for home yet again. Aiolos, the controller of the winds, gave Odysseus the east wind in a bag so that they could get home safer; after nine days and nights of sailing, they could see Ithaca, but the crew, thinking there was money in the bag, stupidly opened it, releasing the east wind and blowing them all far from home yet again (Homer 112-113). After seeking help again from Aiolos and being turned away, Odysseus and his foolish crew sailed on to the stronghold of Lamos, Laistrygonian Teleyplyos, the land of herdsmen (Homer 113). There, Odysseus sent three men as scouts and messengers to see what the natives were like. Apparently they were giants; after they ate one messenger, the other two ran back to the ships where everyone rowed away as fast as they could for fear of death (Homer 114). If that were not enough, after narrowly escaping with their lives, all the ships but Odysseus’ were lost due to treacherous rocks (Homer 114). Next, Odysseus accounts, they sailed to Aiaia, the island of Circe, a deceitful goddess. After several of Odysseus’ scouts were turned into pigs by way of Circe’s poisoned food, Eurylochos, the only human scout left, told the others the dismal fate of his unhappy comrades (Homer 115-117). After hearing the story, Odysseus quickly went to the house of Circe, and is met and aided by the god Hermes himself; Hermes gave Odysseus a charm that would foil Circe’s evil plans and told Odysseus how to defeat her (Homer 118). Through the use of the magic charm, a solemn vow, some threatening, and a small guilt trip, Odysseus was able to convince Circe turn his companions back into humans (Homer 118-120). Odysseus went back to the ship and brought all the men but Eurylochos back to Circe’s house for some food and much needed bathing. After spending one year in the lap of luxury with Circe, Odysseus and his men decided to go home with the help Circe promised. Unfortunately, Circe told them that they must first travel to Hades to see the, now dead, blind Theban seer, Teiresias, and described a long, intricate process of how to do so (Homer 121-122). Without much delay, the even more-disheartened group headed back to the ship to go to Hades, the land of the dead (Homer 122). To get back to Ithaca, the group must see a dead seer so they know where they are going. Yet another seemingly impossible task they must complete before they can even have hope of returning home.
The dwarves and hobbit are not faring much better than brave Odysseus. In the depths of Mirkwood Forest, the strange little group was running low on food and water with no edible or drinkable thing in sight, not to mention Gandalf was long gone (Tolkien 140-142, 138). After somehow managing to cross the black river, certain unfortunate events led to a waterlogged dwarf and a distinct lack of arrows to go with Beorn’s bows (Tolkien 142-146). Carrying their fat friend and low on food, the unlucky bunch continues on its journey, finally coming to an area slightly less gloomy and depressing than the last. Soon, to survey the area, Bilbo is pushed up a tree only to find that there is no visible end to the forest in any direction (Tolkien 147-149). Soon morale plummets, arguments erupt and things keep getting worse and worse until Balin spots light in the forest; so, completely disregarding Gandalf’s orders to stay on the path, they run in search of the source, finding a ring of elves feasting (Tolkien 151-152). The nearly starving group of treasure-hunters eagerly enter the clearing, but the moment, they do, all the lights go out and the darkness is so overwhelming that they can not even find each other – they are even worse off now than before (Tolkien 152). After two more rounds of “lets catch the elves” and getting separated, Bilbo hears the dwarves’ calls get fainter and fainter – he is lost again (Tolkien 151-155). Bilbo tries to calm himself down and manages to doze off for a moment, only to wake up to find a giant spider wrapping him up in his web! The great spider comes at Bilbo, trying to poison him, but Bilbo remembers his sword, and (for once) uses it appropriately. After a long, tiring battle, Bilbo vanquishes his furry foe. After naming the blade “Sting”, Bilbo puts on the ring and quietly scurries off to find his friends (Tolkien 154-155). Silent and invisible, the small hobbit finds several giant spiders talking about what to do with several "somethings" – “somethings” being dwarves (Tolkien 156-157). Thinking quickly (very quickly for a hobbit) Bilbo deftly and accurately throws stones at the spiders and webs. After careful baiting and rock-throwing by the burglar, the arachnid battle ensues, but using the ring, clever strategy and good leadership, the dwarves and hobbit win and escape with their lives intact (Tolkien 163-165). Bilbo tells the story of how he came by the ring, as he must for he revealed its uses, and the dwarves are delighted – that is until they realize that Thorin is missing (Tolkien 165-167). Yet another trouble has befallen the group. Though the group did not know it, Thorin had been captured by the Wood Elves and was now at their mercy (Tolkien 167). After a gruff interrogation, Thorin is thrown into a holding cell until he is “ready” to explain why he is in the forest (Tolkien 169). The poor group has faced so much peril and is now completely leaderless.
Odysseus, still retelling the events of his journey to King Alcinoos of Phaiacia, explains that the next piece of the adventure is the journey to the land of the dead – Hades. Odysseus and his crew sailed, aided by Circe’s wind, to the mythical region where only the dead walked; they first reached the end of the world, the city of Cimmerian, and made grotesque sacrifices to the dead and made promises to Teiresias (Homer 124-125). Teiresias told Odysseus how it is he should go home, and warned him against the slaughter of Helios’ sheep; after speaking to Teiresias, Odysseus saw his beloved mother and talked with her, asking questions of home and of Penelope; after learning of the suitors and Telemachos and Penelope’s loyalty, Odysseus decided to make preparations to depart the edge of the earth (Homer 126-130). There the listeners of the tale stop Odysseus to exalt him and ask when he should like to return home to Ithaca. Odysseus decides that he should like to stay for a year, so that he may be sent off properly to return properly with many gifts and luxuries (Homer 131). Odysseus resumes his tale. Next Odysseus saw and spoke to the ghosts of several of his war-buddies and other famous figures (Homer 132-135). After talking to the ghosts he recognized, Odysseus and his crew went back to the boat and cast off (Homer 137).
Lost, tired, nearly dying of both hunger and thirst, and completely void of any leadership, the treasure hunting crew is easily captured by wood elves (Tolkien 171). Bilbo, while using the ring, manages to avoid imprisonment and follows the elvish captors to the underground keep of the King of Mirkwood (Tolkien 171-173). After spending a few days cleverly surveying the area, a certain invisible hobbit devises a plan of escape. After acquiring the jailer’s keys Bilbo Baggins quickly releases his companions and explains the bizarre plan: hiding in barrels and going out through the river (Tolkien 177-180). Soon all the dwarves, Thorin included, are packed into barrels and shoved down the stream by ignorant servant elves, but Bilbo had no barrel and barely made it out, grabbing onto a dwarf’s barrel and holding on for dear life – invisible or not, hobbits can drown too (Tolkien 181-184). Narrowly getting passed the check-point with the raftmen, the dwarves are pushed on and the hobbit follows after (Tolkien 188). After several more days of no food and little air, the group finally comes to a stop and gets out of the barrels (Tolkien 189-194). Finally, and after much toil, the group makes it to Lake-town and Thorin uses his royal bloodline to see the master of the town (Tolkien 194-196). But even then, the elvish raftsmen are present in the halls of the Master of Lake-town and immediately identify the vagabonds as escaped prisoners; but as Lake-town is not in elvish territory, the adventurers are finally given food to eat, liquor to drink and beds to sleep in (Tolkien 196-198). After a fortnight’s rest, the group leaves the shores of Lake-town with horses, ponies and boats at their disposal; finally something good has happened, but an easy journey is not in the cards for Bilbo and friends (Tolkien 200).
Odysseus explains that after leaving the land of the dead, he and his crew headed back to Circe’s island, Aiaia. There Circe greeted them with a feast and honestly told them how they could go home, but it is another perilous journey that lay ahead of them. First, they would have to get passed the entrancing sirens who bewitch sailors with their songs (Homer 138-139). After getting passed the sirens, Odysseus would have to sacrifice six of his men in order for the rest to pass the six-headed Scylla, for the other option was Charybdis who spelled death with no loophole (Homer 139-140). Next, Circe said, would be the island of Thrinacia, where Helios keeps his sheep; the beautiful goddess warned Odysseus not to let anything happen to the herds or Helios’ two daughters, the shepherds, or he would be lucky to go back to Ithaca at all and completely alone (Homer 140). Odysseus and crew left the island of Aiaia and set sail. They quickly encountered the sirens, who attempted to lure the sailors in with their glorious songs only to be thwarted by an ancient form of earplugs. Soon Odysseus and crew came face to face with a major problem: Scylla. Before Odysseus could save them, his six strongest men are taken by the six-headed sea beast (Homer142-143). Soon they reach the island of Helios, the island both Teiresias and Circe forbade entry to, and, despite the obvious danger, Eurylochos convinced the crew that they deserved to land there and after swearing not to touch the immortal’s sheep or cattle, they landed on the island of Thrinacia (Homer 144-145). Unfortunately, while Odysseus was away praying for safety, the fool-hearty Eurylochos convinced the men to eat the cattle. They did, which resulted in Zeus destroying their ship at the request of Helios (Homer 145-146). Floating shipless atop the sea, Odysseus soon found himself clinging to a fig tree over Charybdis for dear life. By careful timing and good luck, Odysseus was able to escape Charybdis and Scylla yet again (Homer 146). From that place he drifted to Calypso’s island where, as it has been previously stated, he lingered captured for eight years (Homer 147, 64). Odysseus finishes his tale there and King Alcinoos is pleased. Alcinoos then sends Odysseus homewards with a blessing and a ship. However, Poseidon is still angry and plots ways to stop Odysseus’ return in luxury (Homer 150-151).
After several days of hard rowing against the flow of the river, the group met up with the ponies that had been sent to meet them for their use up the lonely mountain. Balin, Fili, Kili and Bilbo are sent to survey the area for any signs of Smaug, and, unfortunately, they find them (Tolkien 204). After days of searching and toiling, Bilbo, Fili and Kili finally find the secret entrance to the dragon’s keep (Tolkien 205). After finding the hidden door, the now excited crew hikes up the narrow, rocky path towards the lair of the dragon Smaug. Several days and morale crashes later, Bilbo finally figures out how the door works; they open it and cautiously enter the unknown territory (Tolkien 206-212). Quickly, the dwarves decide that exploring the dark, scary, unknown tunnel leading downwards is the burglar’s job, so Bilbo marches down the stairs into danger (Tolkien 213). As Bilbo descends the stairs towards a gloomy red light, he again realizes that he has no use for treasure and wishes to be instantly transported home. No such luck. At the end of the tunnel, Bilbo sees that the red glow is coming from none other than the sleeping dragon, Smaug (Tolkien 213-215). Upon seeing the glory of the dragon’s hoarded jewels and assortment of other shiny things, Bilbo instantly understands the dwarves’ quest for its retrieval and is grateful to have a share of it. Quietly, the hobbit steals across the floor under Smaug and retrieves a goblet to bring back to the dwarves (Tolkien 216). The dwarves are both surprised and delighted to see their burglar alive and even more delighted about the goblet – that is until Smaug wakes up and notices the distinct lack of a jeweled cup (Tolkien 217). As the frightened dwarves and hobbit hear the angry cries of the great beast, they hurry into the tunnel for safety but then, to make matters even worse, they realize Bombur and Bifur are still down in the valley with the ponies. Thorin and company barely manage to save the two before Smaug comes flying out of his lair and descends upon the ponies – chasing them until he was out of sight (Tolkien 218-219). Soon, moderately safe and adequately fed, Bilbo offers to go see if Smaug has a weakness, expecting him to be napping once again; the crafty creature was in stead showing his wiles by feigning sleep. Soon Smaug talks to Bilbo to intimidate him and explain the logical flaws in stealing the treasure (Tolkien 220-225). Using cleverness, treachery and flattery, Bilbo is able to see the underbelly of the dragon and takes note of a discernable hole in his armor – a vital weakness (Tolkien 226-227). After discussing the conversation and explaining shares and transport, the dwarves and hobbit feel uneasy. Thorin makes them shut the door and not a moment too soon; instantaneously, Smaug attacks the entrance to the tunnel, destroying it and unknowingly trapping the treasure-hunters in the tunnel. After destroying the entryway to his heart’s content, Smaug flies off to destroy the men at Lake-town who aided the thief that stole his cup (Tolkien 228-232). Meanwhile, the dwarves accompanied by hobbit scurry down the tunnel in hopes of better air; they arrive in Smaug’s lair to discover that he is no longer home. They fan out to explore the lair and assess the treasure, but Bilbo finds and pockets the one thing that he could possibly be denied – the legendary Arkenstone (Tolkien 234-238). The dwarves give Bilbo a shirt of mithril, which is essentially chain-mail at its best, and hurry about to find an escape from the lair (Tolkien 240). While the dragon is away the dwarves go in search of the old watch tower, the best spot to be, as Thorin remembers the layout of the halls (Tolkien 241-246).
During this time, Smaug is besieging Lake-town, killing all he can and rather enjoying the sport he makes of it. Amidst the chaos and people abandoning their beloved homes and running for their lives, a group of archers led by Bard, a descendant of the house of Dale, held their ground (Tolkien 247-249). The old thrush that overheard Bilbo’s conversation landed upon Bard’s shoulder, and as he was of the house of Dale, he understood its tongue. It told him the dragon’s weakness and with his trusty black arrow and courage Bard fired. Bard brought down the great dragon, who fell on the town and met his end (Tolkien 250-251). The people wish to make Bard their king, but the cowardly soon to be ex-master of the town turns their hatred from him to the dwarves, but Bard eagerly defends them and thinks of the treasure (Tolkien 252-254). Assuming the dwarves and hobbit dead, the men of lake-town and much of the Elvenking’s array armed themselves and headed to the mountain to seek the legendary wealth of Thror (Tolkien 254-256). Word by way of thrush to raven to dwarf reaches the dwarves that Smaug is dead and that many come in search of the immense wealth hidden in the mountain; and also to trust only Bard not the Master of Lake-town (Tolkien 257-260). Soon the armies of Lake-town and Mirkwood forest arrive at the gates of the mountain to talk to Thorin, the rightful heir of the mountain. Because Thorin refuses to give any treasure to Bard until the elves leave, they are officially announced as foes of the Lake-town men and are “besieged”; the men tell Thorin that this means that they can and must stay where they are and can eat only that which they have – a dire situation even after the literal death of the largest problem (Tolkien 262-267). Cleverly sneaking out of the mountain fortress, Bilbo Baggins sneaks across the countryside and down the camps of the “enemies” where he gives Bard the Arkenstone to use as a bargaining chip with Thorin (Tolkien 270-273). On his way back to the gate, Bilbo runs into Gandalf who responds with his typical “all in good time” answer to everything (Tolkien 274). All seems to be well, but this is before Thorin discovers Bilbo’s late night adventure.
When Bard comes back for more negotiations, bearing the Arkenstone of Thrain, Thorin is less than pleased. After a few choice insults and angry actions both verbal and physical, Bilbo is sent down to the men and elves by an utterly furious King Under the Mountain (Tolkien 275-276). Tensions escalate when Thorin’s reinforcements arrive, demanding to pass to the mountain (Tolkien 279-280). Just before a battle ensued between the dwarves and the men and allied elves, Gandalf appears between them shouting of the goblin armies riding wargs that are rapidly approaching. The Battle of Five Armies is about to begin. The men, elves and dwarves of Bard, The Elven King and Dain, Thorin’s relative, soon battle against the goblin army and the army of the wild wolves. Soon Thorin and company join the fight, commencing in an epic battle that would be spoken of for ages to come (Tolkien 281-285). The battle takes a turn for the worst and all seems to be lost but then Bilbo spies the eagles! The eagles come to join the fight, against the goblins of course, but as usual, a rock finds its way to the back of Bilbo’s head and he falls unconscious (Tolkien 286-287). Bilbo awakens to find himself invisible and the battle over. A soldier finds him and they hurry off to see Gandalf (Tolkien 288-289). After sharing some touching reconciliation moments with the now-dying King Under the Mountain, Bilbo goes off in search of answers from Gandalf. Fili and Kili had died defending Thorin, who was buried with the Arkenstone and Orcrist, his elvish blade (Tolkien 290-293). Soon, it comes to be time for the little burglar to head home. He says his tearful goodbyes to his comrades both alive and dead, and taking only two small chests of treasure and his mithril, packs up a pony and leaves (Tolkien 293-296). Few troubles await Bilbo on his journey home, as he isaccompanied by Beorn and Gandalf for most of the way. After a brief stop in his beloved Rivendell, the hobbit resumes his journey homeward (Tolkien 297-301). Upon arriving at his even more beloved Bag End, he discovers that he is presumed dead and that his relatives are auctioning off his house (Tolkien 303). After a bit of contented peace, Gandalf and Balin come for a visit, and after reminiscing for a moment, Bilbo is left to his peace, and book-writing (Tolkien 304-305).
Odysseus appears to finally be going home safely, but Poseidon Earthshaker has another plan in store for the war-hero. Odysseus wakes up on the shores of Ithaca, but knows them not as home as Athena has made it look unfamiliar (Homer 152). Athena convinces him that he is, in fact, home. She then tells Odysseus of the murderous plots of his wife’s suitors and disguises him so he will not be recognized; she instructs him to seek out one of his loyal retainers: the pig farmer (Homer 154-156). Odysseus meets with the pigherder and has a nice meal before heading off towards his house (Homer 157-168). Meanwhile, Athena is urging Telemachos to return home from Lacedaimon and after a quick visit with King Menelaos and Queen Helen, Telemachos does so. (Homer 169-173, 173-180). In the morning, Telemachos, at the urgings of Athena, visits the swineherder with whom his father is staying. Not knowing who Odysseus was, Telemachos enlightens him on the current situation at his ancestral home (Homer 181-184). Athena takes off Odysseus’ disguise and bids him to explain the situation to his son. Telemachos and Odysseus enjoy a tearful reunion then discuss the plan for dispatching the suitors (Homer 184-188). Meanwhile, a plot to kill Telemachos is afoot and Penelope is less than pleased; after a quick reproach, Penelope retires for the evening (Homer 188-190). Telemachos returns home in the morning to a very happy mother, and recounts his journey for her, minus a few choice details concerning his father (Homer 191-192). She is displeased to hear that he found no news of his father while abroad, but a seer chimes in, saying that Odysseus is already present in Ithaca (Homer 193-194). During this time, the swineherder is bringing Odysseus into town (Homer 194-196). Odysseus meets up with Telemachos at their house, where Altinoos, a particularly evil suitor, tries to throw Odysseus out (Homer 197-201). Penelope interrogates Odysseus on the whereabouts of himself and he deftly avoids revealing himself and is treated as an honored guest (Homer 213-218). Odysseus’ cover is almost destroyed when his old nanny recognizes him by an old scar, but she remains loyal to him and says nothing (Homer 219). Days pass and Penelope announces an archery contest to be competed with Odysseus’ old bow that none but he could bend (Homer 235). Several men try and fail to bend Odysseus’ bow (Homer 236-238). Finally, Odysseus takes up his bow and Telemachos joins him for the slaughter of the wooers; he casts off his rags and kills Altinoos in particular (Homer 243-244). Several suitors fight back, but the great Odysseus is too much for them; he and Telemachos kill every last suitor (Homer 244-252). After several tests, Penelope is reunited with her beloved husband, finally believing that he is actually Odysseus (Homer 253-257). Odysseus explains that he has one more task to do and he and Penelope catch up on each other’ s lives (Homer 258-260). After several more days and preparations, Odysseus has his much needed reunion with his father, Laertes (Homer 267).
It is plain to see that there are many applicable comparisons to be made between the two epics, but there are many differences as well. The first and most obvious difference is in the era of their writing; although J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his book in the late twentieth century, the poet Homer wrote the Odyssey centuries beforehand. The next most obvious difference is in that the main character heroes, Bilbo and Odysseus, are very different. Despite both possessing noble qualities and neither lacking in courage, their opinions on their quests differed. Odysseus said he would endure as many more toils to see his wife again as necessary as he had already faced so many that one more would seem miniscule in hindsight (Homer 66). But Bilbo Baggins, although at one time offended to be thought running away, often wished to go home and forget the journey (Tolkien 174, 221). Odysseus also wished to go home as that was the goal of his journey, but he eagerly refuses to create a new home on many beautiful islands with several beautiful women. Whether out of foolish stubbornness or blind pride, Odysseus never flinched or wished to stop his journey although he did deem several year-long stops acceptable. The furry-toed hobbit had a different opinion and said “I wish now only to be in my armchair” (Tolkien 296). This is unfair as the goals of the heroes’ journeys were different, but just the same, Odysseus was far more sturdy, battle-ready, and all around less whiny. Odysseus is the likely hero, the one Greek little boys want to be like when they grow up; Bilbo Baggins is the unlikely hero, created to inspire the reader to enjoy life and have adventures he/she currently only dreams about. The other main differences are in the method the stories are told and in their purposes.
One difference in the stories is in the types of characters and their flaws. Odysseus, the likely hero, has only one flaw that is mentioned – pride, which likely did not seem like much of a flaw to Homer and the other Ancient Greeks. Bilbo, however, is the unlikely hero, the common man. His flaws are almost flaunted as tribulations in themselves: he is often clumsy, not all that bright, and tends to show a steady bit of cowardice throughout the book. However, Bilbo seems to be more heroic than Odysseus in the sense that although he was not the well-seasoned veteran that Odysseus was, he fought as hard as he could and overcame his major character flaws in order to meet his goal. By characterizing Odysseus as what seemed to be nearly perfect to him, Homer takes some heroism away from Odysseus. By not showing more flaws, it seems as if Odysseus had only to deal with unlikely and terrible circumstances brought on by things mostly out of his control, never having to confront his own flaws. Although casting Odysseus as the perfect hero may have worked in the short term, denying flaws de-humanizes the character making him less personable. This makes Bilbo a more useful heroic role model.
One large difference in the books is in the main characters: how they survive and what they use to do so. Odysseus uses his wits, intelligence, and strategic brilliance that he acquired in the military whereas Baggins seems to only survive based on sheer dumb-luck. That and on account of having a wizard for a friend. This one seemingly-minor difference leads to several others: Odysseus, though he has the aid of certain gods, accomplishes his great tasks almost entirely on his own – his personal worth carries him; but for Bilbo, it seems that lucky coincidence after lucky coincidence allows him to remain amongst the living.
The difference in the manner of victories between the characters leads to a bigger literary difference within the purposes of the stories. The Odyssey, with such emphasis on the gods as facts and the worth of man is written as more of a legend to be taken for history and a story to immortalize a favorite hero by showing his triumphs over seemingly-unbeatable tasks while showing almost no flaws. The Hobbit shows a much different purpose. Bilbo survives based on no worth of his own – his only “brownie points” come from having good intentions. One of the many Christian undertones in The Hobbit is present in the mere success of Bilbo – he survived and prevailed through many dangers, toils, and snares because he was meant to for the good of Middle Earth. The character Gandalf, the guardian of several people in Tolkien books, puts it very eloquently “And why should they [the prophecies] not prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”. The success of Odysseus hinged on his own spectacular human worth, but the success of Bilbo hinged on doing that which he was meant to do in accordance with the Christian themes and purpose found in The Hobbit. This “everything happens for a reason” theme is clearly missing in The Odyssey.
When Bilbo Baggins finally returns home to Bag End, he discovers that nothing had really changed since he had left. After thinking and clearing his mind, he decides to write a book, “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale By Bilbo Baggins”. In some way, writing the book was probably his vain attempt at reliving the action and finding the same amount of excitement in his once again quiet, simple life where his biggest trouble was deciding what he should have for lunch. Soon, the only things to remind him that his journey had actually occurred were the glares from the neighbors, his book, and a little piece of metal in his breast pocket. Upon reading later books by J.R.R. Tolkien, one can find that Bilbo eventually went back to Rivendell in search of peace with the elves, and then left with them traveling to the West; and that small piece of jewelry caused more trouble than it was worth.
When Odysseus returns home, he has a much different experience than Bilbo; after killing every last one of his wife’s suitors with his son, Odysseus is able to find peace without more misadventures interrupting his life. He is able to reacquaint himself with his land and countrymen of Ithaca, his beautiful wife Penelope, and his beloved son Telemachos. It is likely that it was due to these attachments that Odysseus was able to find rest without longfully wishing for the “good old days” that Bilbo Baggins did.
It is plain to see, that despite many large differences, the writing of epics has not changed much. Whether written hundreds of years ago by a Greek poet, or in 1937 by an African-born Englishman, the commonalities are staggering. Though differences in undertones, types of heroes, and other such trivial matters exist, with long, drawn-out struggles and memorable characters, both classics are remarkable examples of epics and the lack of major change in the art form.
Homer, and W. H. D. Rouse. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1999. 1-299.
Fonstad, Karen W. The Atlas of Middle-Earth. Revised ed. Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979. 1-190.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Revised ed. Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982. 1-305.