Tolkien Tuesday: A Hobbit's Point of No Return
What is a story?
Really think about it. Why do we humans gravitate so strongly to storytelling?
You're here because you love telling them and experiencing them.
I'm here because I love stumbling through what works and doesn't work in stories, all while thinking of living in the Shire too often.
Stories capture the imagination like that. What can be so potent about them that I crave whatever delicious brew they were serving at The Golden Perch and want to wander the timeless paths of Lothlorien?
Characters, places, events that never happened are all constructed into our brains that take us out of reality for just a little bit.
I think all of that comes down to one word: change.
Story is about change. We latch on because we change our mindset for a brief period.
The characters in the books we read and movies we watch change. Sometimes it's for the betterment of themselves and society, and other times, well, not so much.
Without change, there is no story.
If the characters keep going on with their lives the same way as they always did without some kind of location, mindset, emotional, physical, spiritual change, then what the hell did we read the story for?
I think we love story because we love the idea of change rather than actually changing anything in our own lives.
Maybe that's a bit pessimistic, but people stay in terrible relationships, horrible jobs, and crappy apartments because they are afraid of change (sometimes with very good reasons).
Story allows us to see how the characters we love face change. It can give us some genuine real-world bravery too. Art inspires, and that's what storytelling is.
Change has a cost, though.
In a narrative, this moment is called the point of no return. If no scene in your story forces the character down a path that they can't turn back from, you are probably missing a scene that makes the whole story work.
I haven't talked about The Hobbit enough in these Tolkien Tuesdays posts. It's my favorite of Tolkien's work. It's a fast-paced read, and the worldbuilding is sprinkled in just right so that it adds to the story but doesn't get in the way of the action.
Bilbo is all of us, really. We want adventure but not adventure. The little hikes I take with my wife are adventure enough for me, thanks. Having to be a part of something that's a real adventurer where critical decisions must be made, that's different.
Reading that Bilbo has his favorite walks around his part of the Shire marked on his map instantly connects me to him. I understand that he's an everyman, er...everyhobbit?
Bilbo just wants to stay in his little Hobbit hole, drink ale, eat like 17 meals a day. That's all of us, right?
If we saw his day-to-day, it would get real boring, real fast.
Story is about change though, so sorry Bilbo, but your rice cakes and handkerchiefs are luxuries not afforded on an actual adventure.
The hero's journey should bring them face to face with a point of no return, and Bilbo gets a few along the way.
Bilbo encounters some super cockney trolls, deals with downpouring rain and no shelter, and already has had to tighten his belt, skipping second breakfast over and over again. After wishing he could stay with the elves in Rivendell, Bilbo has to hike up some of the most treacherous mountains in Middle Earth and gets captured by some goblins, as ya do.
It's his escape that actually brings him to a point of no return because a couple of things happen that force him down a path of change that cannot be stopped.
First, he gets the Ring in the tunnels of Goblin Town, and that object brings a fate upon him that he can't possibly understand yet. Even if we didn't know, as the audience, something magical has entered his very normal life, and now there's no turning back.
Gollum, of course, is kinda pissed he loses the Ring to Bilbo. Forever, Baggins is marked by the little phlegmy creature that causes a problem or two down the road for hobbits bearing that name. Can't take that back now.
Even the location plays into this point of no return. He is on the far side of the Misty Mountains, and going back is no longer an option. Home is really behind.
This is the point in the story that Bilbo has to start taking care of himself and the crew he rolls with. He is thrust into a part of the world that is totally alien to him. The people, creatures, topography are something that will challenge him every step of the way.
Now it's about seeing this quest through or die trying. That's a moment every character needs to face in a good story. Whatever will happen, “normal” life is forever changed.
Tolkien adds layers to this when they go through Mirkwood. The forest itself is another barrier from home.
Total darkness takes the group of adventurers as they lose themselves in the trees. Again, Bilbo finds himself utterly alone, and it feels even worse than the tunnels under the mountain. At least there he could only go two ways. Here, the forest sprawls out in all directions. What is a hobbit to do?
Plus there are spiders. I would have left those dwarves so fast if I had to face spiders. Sorry y'all, it's been fun!
Each progressive complication in the book takes Bilbo one step farther from the home he so desperately wishes he was back at. And I get it, all he wants is to be curled up by the fire safe and sound.
The purpose of the point of no return is to force a character to become a hero or not. Will this journey change them forever for the better, or will they give in to fear, desperation, and selfishness?
For Bilbo, he becomes greater than he could have ever imagined.
He saves the dwarves countless times, talks circles around a dragon, spots the weak point in said dragon, makes the wise and noble decisions to help bring peace between his friends and the other peoples of Middle Earth, and earns the everlasting respect of Gandalf (a kinda cool wizard).
What will your characters do when they cannot turn around?
Who will they become if given no option except to go headfirst into danger?
If they have an easy road back home, and they can stop what they are doing with no consequences, it's time to rethink their motivations and circumstances.
Make sure they reach a point where everything changes. The key is making it so that even if they do win and all their hopes are fulfilled, that they will return home a different kind of person.
Tolkien does this so well, both here in The Hobbit and at the end of Return of the King (but that's a Tolkien Tuesday for another day).
Bilbo always wanted to be back in his chair, safe in his living room. When he does get to go back, nothing is the same.
Yes, he is thought dead by other hobbits and the rumors and reputation he gains makes life very different for him.
Most importantly, he is a changed character. He may still love his chair at home but understands the world in a new way. There's a price that's paid for the peace he has in the Shire. Many don't have the luxury of home being given to them. Some have had to fight and die for it.
The great stories of adventure have a cost that is often forgotten, and Bilbo lived through that. And so he becomes a great storyteller himself. He wants to bring the adventure home to those who won't go out to see the world the way he did.
He wants to tell the story of change.
And that's what we do too, isn't it? We want to share the stories that allow the reader to see the changes that take place for our characters.
What will those characters do when there's no turning back? The audience cares because the real question they are asking is: “What will I do when I face change?”
Your story might be the answer.
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