There Be Spoilers
Especially if you haven’t read the book, but also if you haven’t seen the Desolation of Smaug. You have been warned.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I’m glad this question was asked. I will confess now that Bilbo is not my favorite character in The Hobbit. I don’t particularly like the Bilbo from the last third of the book, I have a better opinion of Bilbo in the films, and that’s thanks to Martin Freeman.
In the book Bilbo has absolutely no understanding of what the Arkenstone means to Thorin and the dwarves. It’s not just a pretty, sparkling, stone, as he thinks, but represents everything the dwarves lost when Smaug drove them out of their home, leaving them destitute and homeless. The Arkenstone is also Thorin’s scepter, the badge of kingship. And it’s a memento from his grandfather, a family heirloom.
Bilbo finds the stone quite by accident, he's not tasked with searching for it as in the film. He sees the stone and knows right away it has to be the one the dwarves are talking about:
“Now I am a burglar indeed” thought he, “But I suppose I must tell the dwarves about it – some time. They did say I could pick and choose my own share; and I think I would choose this, if they took all the rest.”
Meanwhile the dwarves are showering Bilbo with gifts, among them the coat of mithril that Frodo will wear in LOTR. All this time Thorin is silently looking for the Arkenstone and worrying about it. And all this time Bilbo has the Arkenstone in his pocket and knows he does, and still he says nothing.
But of course, anyone but Bilbo would understand that the dwarves didn’t mean he should take the Arkenstone as his share, not only because it represents the royal house of Durin, but because it has great sentimental and personal meaning for Thorin and for all the dwarves.
Yes, some may say Thorin by this point had become even more stubborn and set in his ways, determined not to share any of “his” treasure with anyone he deemed undeserving. So if this is what was worrying Bilbo, why didn’t he give the Arkenstone to Balin, who he liked and trusted by this point in the journey, and who always looked out for him. There’s certainly an opportunity for Bilbo to do so, because at one point in the book he and Balin go off alone. Why didn’t he do so? I don’t think it had anything to do with Thorin’s increasing intransigence, it all had to do with Bilbo also coveting the Arkenstone.
Bilbo was wrong to keep it from the dwarves. The Arkenstone was not his to keep, it belonged to the Heirs of Durin and to all the dwarves.
Now I imagine some of you or most of you think that Thorin was just terrible for not offering to give money right away to the survivors of Smaug's wrath and the poor victims of Laketown. But who really is responsible for Smaug wanting to take revenge on the town? Bilbo is. When he chats with Smaug when first meeting him, Bilbo describes himself as “barrel-rider” thus giving away to the dragon that the men of Laketown helped him and dwarves reach Erebor.
The worse thing Bilbo does is not that he keeps the Arkenstone from Thorin. To my mind and heart the unforgivable thing that he does is betray his friends and adopted brother dwarves by giving the Arkenstone to the armed camp outside the mountain, and the dreaded Elves. At this point in the story the dwarves have fully taken Bilbo in as one of their own, and Thorin certainly praises him at every turn and relies on him. Bilbo secretly leaving Erebor and giving the Arkenstone so Bard and the others can use it against Thorin is a clear betrayal of friendship and loyalty.
I can understand Bilbo wanting to avoid a conflict, and feeling trapped by Thorin’s unwillingness to compromise. Maybe in some misguided way he thought he was helping the dwarves. I do agree with Bilbo that the people of Laketown deserved assistance for their suffering and that Thorin was wrong. But Bard and the elves were wrong also to show up armed to the teeth instead of coming unarmed in friendship to the dwarves. Bilbo could have left the mountain and joined Bard if he didn’t believe in the dwarves anymore, or try to find Gandalf and ask him to help stop the violence. He had other choices. Bilbo really accomplished nothing by keeping the Arkenstone from Thorin and may have made matters worse. By his actions Bilbo certainly didn’t bring peace and reconciliation.
I really think Thorin was too forgiving towards Bilbo at the very end. I agree with Thorin earlier when he says to Bilbo: “What have you to say, you descendant of rats?”
In summary, I disagree with every action Bilbo takes with the Arkenstone, from the moment he finds it, to keeping it from Thorin and the others, to giving it to Bard and the Elvenking to blackmail Thorin.
Now, to deal briefly with the changes in the film. The more I think about it, the more I believe that either Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, or Philippa Boyens must agree with me a little about Bilbo doing wrong. Why do I think so? Because in film 2, at the end, Smaug gives Bilbo a much better reason, a reason based on friendship and caring that is not in the book, to keep the Arkenstone from Thorin.
I’m curious to see what will happen in Hobbit 3.
(J.R.R. Tolkien meant for Bilbo to be the hero I suppose? I suppose we disagree)
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