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I may only be 37 pages into "The Hobbit", re-reading it after 20+ years, but several things already confuse me. First of all, and this is what I'm mainly asking about, Bilbo is casually mentioned as some kind of skilled burglar/thief. And the hobbit doesn't seem to object to this at all. The narrator doesn't explain it in any way, unless I somehow missed it. Huh?

Why would this wealthy hobbit be a skilled burglar? That doesn't sound like the honest and upstanding hobbit citizen I thought that Bilbo was. Maybe it's purposely not explained because of some reveal later on in the book. If so, I have forgotten all about it, and don't really want it spoiled.

As a side-note, which doesn't deserve its own question, I was shocked by how quickly Tolkien has the "fellowship" leave not just Hobbiton but all of Hobbit land, which took forever in The Lord of the Rings. In this earlier book, it seems like hobbits are barely explained at all, with the story rushing away to far-out locations and adventures very quickly. I found this strange.

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    also, it was a big practical joke. Bilbo the staid and very respectable hobbit suddenly marked and going off on an adventure. the whole thing is set up to create tension within the story, to make it more interesting than just a party of dwarves, wizard and hobbit. the psychological aspects of it are quite funny as Bilbo is at first mystified and then eventually terrified enough that he has to let out a shriek. – flowerbug Oct 27 at 0:50
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I've always interpreted that as 'being stealthy', not as 'being good at stealing'. Hobbits are nimble creatures (they're even described as being able to seemingly disappear without a trace), especially compared to dwarves which are much louder.

There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.

(Chapter 1, An Unexpected Party)

Bilbo's value to the party is not being a good fighter; rather, he has a unique skill (which becomes even better after finding the Ring). A skill necessary for the dwarves' mission to succeed, because they can't take the object they're looking for,

the Arkenstone, in possession of the dragon Smaug

by brute force. Anyway, they all seem to understand that he's not a thief but an honorable person; this is what one of the dwarves says in Chapter 1:

“Yes, yes, but that was long ago,” said Gloin. “I was talking about you. And I assure you there is a mark on this door—the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that’s how it is usually read. You can say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It’s all the same to us.


As for your side-question, The Hobbit was written at a time when Tolkien's ideas about Middle Earth weren't as fleshed out yet. Also, it was intended as a children's book, so perhaps he didn't include much details on purpose and left it to his readers' imagination.

The journey to Rivendell was not without danger (see the trolls they meet in the second chapter) but it makes a lot of difference if you do it with thirteen battle-hardened adventurers and a (for a hobbit) experienced traveler versus four young, slightly naïve hobbits, even if they were halfway met by Strider/Aragorn. And Black Riders weren't a problem for Bilbo and the dwarves.

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    This has always been my understanding as well. I feel it’s best to interpret ‘burglar’ here in the same sense here as ‘thief’ is used as the name of a character archetype in role-playing games, namely one who is stealthy and has the skills needed for burglary/thievery without necessarily actually using those skills for such activities. – Austin Hemmelgarn Oct 25 at 20:03
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    Mind that the mark on the door was made by Gandalf who was also trying to talk Bilbo into the adventure when Bilbo still was refusing. Besides that, if I remember correctly, the dwarfs and Bilbo were riding, in addition to the lack of any need to hide. – Holger Oct 26 at 9:51
  • In addition, the safety in Middle-earth was going downhill at the time of the Lord of the Rings, so their journey was perilous from the beginning in LOTR. – Edheldil Oct 26 at 9:55
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    @Jarmund correct; even Tolkien used it as an alternative name: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobbit#Fictional_etymology – Glorfindel Oct 26 at 12:01
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    @Jarmund Halflings in D&D were based on Hobbits (and they were actually originally called Hobbits). – Herohtar Oct 26 at 18:39
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Good Master Thorin, I fear you have been misinformed by the wizard Gandalf. The wizard has prepared a plan for recapturing the dragon's horde without a hero, or even a great warrior (heroes are not to be found and warriors are all waring in distant lands). Gandalf promised you a burglar but gives you this timid gentlehobbit. But Gandalf says that Bilbo will be a burglar, and a fine one at that, when the time arrives.

Now then Master Thorin, you have a choice. You can take Gandalf the Grey at his word, and believe that this foolish hobbit has more about him than meets the eye. Or you can go without him in a party of 13 and have all the bad luck you can get.

Bilbo might not yet be a burglar, but he will be.

....

I do remember when first reading (or rather being read by my father) The Hobbit I too was disturbed by the description of Bilbo as a burglar. But it is clear from a perspective of 35 years or more, that this was just Gandalf's tricks or Gandalf's wisdom. You never can tell with wizards...

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    This was always my interpretation: Gandalf sold him as a burglar, to get Thorin &co. to take him. I don't remember ever believing he was a burglar, or particularly cut out to be one, other than – as a Hobbit – being able to move quietly. – TripeHound Oct 27 at 12:30
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How dare you suggest Gandalf chose the wrong man or the wrong house. That's right. Let us have no more argument. Gandalf has chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for you. If Gandalf says he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes.


Actual text:

"(...) I assure you there is a mark on this door-the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that's how it is usually read. You can say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It's all the same to us. Gandalf told us that there was a man of the sort in these parts looking for a Job at once, and that he had arranged for a meeting here this Wednesday tea-time."

"Of course there is a mark," said Gandalf. "I put it there myself. For very good reasons. You asked me to find the fourteenth man for your expedition, and I chose Mr. Baggins. Just let any one say I chose the wrong man or the wrong house, and you can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like, or go back to digging coal."

He scowled so angrily at Gloin that the dwarf huddled back in his chair; and when Bilbo tried to open his mouth to ask a question, he turned and frowned at him and stuck oat his bushy eyebrows, till Bilbo shut his mouth tight with a snap. "That's right," said Gandalf. "Let's have no more argument. 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.

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  • Yeah, I think these quotes get at the heart of it. Gandalf has decided Bilbo should come (for whatever reason), and calling him a burglar is how he sells it to the rest of the party. – Harabeck Oct 26 at 22:06
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You definitely missed something. The narrator, Bilbo, other hobbits, Gandalf and the dwarfs all have different opinions of Bilbo's propensity to burglary.

The Hobbit starts out as a children's tale which evolves into a larger fantasy novel. This shows in the structure of the novel, and reflects the history of the work. In a 1955 letter to W.H. Auden, Tolkien relates the genesis of The Hobbit:

All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror's Map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and was eventually published not because of my own children's enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough42), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at that time in the office of Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published.

42 Not any better I think than The Marvellous Land of Snergs, Wyke- Smith, Ernest Benn 1927. Seeing the date, I should say that this was probably an unconscious source-book for the Hobbits, not of anything else.

Children's tale or fantasy novel, The Hobbit has a reliable narrator. The narrator does choose to withhold information information and is not necessarily omniscient, much in the way that fairy tales often leave out some information, such as “[the villain] ran away and was never seen again”, to make it plausible that the narrator was a first-hand witness, but the narrator does not outright lie. (More on this, somewhat spoily, at the very end of this answer.)

The very first thing we learn about hobbits, in the opening paragraph, is that they are creatures of comfort.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

As for Bilbo himself, the narrator tells us that he is quite an honest, upstanding citizen. But if you read the third and fourth paragraph closely, you'll notice that Bilbo comes from a boring, respectable family, but he himself isn't exactly described as respectable:

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

(…) the mother of this hobbit - of Bilbo Baggins, that is - was the fabulous Belladonna Took, (…) once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. (…) Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Note how the narrator states that Bilbo's family was considered respectable, but not that Bilbo himself was, except by inference from his father's family. And the narrator states that Bilbo has a hidden adventurous streak that, until the events of the book, had never manifested himself.

Gandalf knows, or thinks, differently. Gandalf is a mysterious character who knows a lot. He is a wandering wizard and evidently more long-lived than normal people (even hobbits, for whom “fifty years old or so” is a young adult).

Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort I of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion. He had not been down that way under The Hill for ages and ages, not since his friend the Old Took died, in fact, and the hobbits had almost forgotten what he looked like. He had been away over The Hill and across The Water on business of his own since they were all small hobbit-boys and hobbit-girls.

Such a mysterious and impressive figure may well know something about Bilbo that Bilbo himself doesn't realize. Certainly, when Gandalf first broaches the subject of adventure, Bilbo is shocked by the idea. We don't know his exact thought process, so we don't know whether he is consciously or subconsciously tempted, but outwardly he is not at all tempted.

“(…) I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone.”

“I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins

The first occurrence of the word “burglar” in the book is in dialog from a dwarf, and we learn that it was Gandalf who described Bilbo as a burglar to the dwarfs.

This is what he heard, Gloin speaking: “Humph! (…). It is all very well for Gandalf to talk about this hobbit being fierce, but (…) I think it sounded more like fright than excitement! In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”

At this point, Bilbo's adventurous side erupts, but even still he does not endorse the appellation “burglar”.

Then Mr. Baggins turned the handle and went in. The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. (…)

“Pardon me,” he said, “if I have overheard words that you were saying. I don't pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but I think I am right in believing” (this is what he called being on his dignity) “that you think I am no good. I will show you. I have no signs on my door — it was painted a week ago —, and I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house. As soon as I saw your funny faces on the door-step, I had my doubts. But treat it as the right one. Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert. (…)”

Note how he might talk of fighting “wild Were-worms”, but in his mind the worst aspect of adventure he can imagine is to ”go without bed and breakfast“.

After some discussion, the wise, oracular figure (Gandalf) states:

“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.”

So no, Bilbo is not a skilled burglar, and he does not think of himself as suited for burglary in any way. If he has any predisposition for burglary, it's his nature as a hobbit. Hobbits are good at going about unnoticed. They're more inclined to sneaking away than to sneaking in, but they're good at sneaking.

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.


(The rest of this answer may be mildly spoily for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other works set in the same universe.)

Regarding the differences in how much harder the start of the journey is in The Lord of the Rings compared to The Hobbit, there are several reasons. There are multiple in-story reasons which are enough explanations in themselves.

One reason is that in The Lord of the Rings, there are villains actively hunting the party, whereas in The Hobbit, the only dangers are the ones encountered on the road. This forces the party in The Lord of the Rings to go off-road. Another reason is that in the decades between the two books, evil has spread around the world and the world is a more dangerous place than it used to.

In addition, there are out-of story reasons.

The Hobbit was originally not set in the same universe of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, at the time Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, the LOTR universe as we know it now was very different: Middle-earth was only what later became known as the First Age. The Lord of the Rings was Tolkien's effort to tie The Hobbit to the world he loved and make a marketable book out of it.

Not only is there a difference of tone between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — the latter book is more serious, more “adulty” — but

The story in The Lord of the Rings doesn't perfectly match the story in The Hobbit. The narrator in The Hobbit is reliable within the context of The Hobbit itself, but not in the context of Tolkien's legendarium as a whole. In fact, in The Lord of the Rings, we learn that the tale that Bilbo told of his adventures wasn't the truth. That tale was the original edition of The Hobbit, but what actually happened was the later editions of the book, tweaked to fit LOTR better. See 1 2 3

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As I was reading the book to my kids they said that Bilbo is like a kid but then grows up.

From a D&D perspective, you can think of Bilbo as being a level 1 rogue/thief. He starts off with little to no skill, nearly succeeding but eventually failing the saving throw when sneaking up on the trolls, wakes Gandalf up at the Orcs front door but gets caught, then gains the "bonus when worn by rogue class" ring, sneaks about in the forest elves' stronghold, etc etc. He's had the title of burglar thrust upon him and works to gain levels, eventually standing up to a dragon and getting the Arkenstone. Go Bilbo!

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