Teaching with Tolkien: Invite Your Students (and Campus Community) to ‘Bilbo Up’!

Cassandra Bausman (Trine University) shares two assignments and a reflection on teaching Tolkien's novel The Hobbit. The first asks students to think about "Bilboing up!", Bausman's term for facing daunting challenges. Students then reflect on what this phrase means to them. The second vector asks participants to pair their favorite quote from the novel and a brief reflection on it with a foot selfie, an innovative approach to inhabiting the text. Bausman also includes examples of student work. 


Teaching with Tolkien:

Invite Your Students (and Campus Community) to ‘Bilbo Up’!

Cassandra Bausman, Trine University

Hobbit 1_2.jpg



In the aftermath of a 2014 Reddit AMA, fantasy writer Pat Rothfuss explained his devotion to charity work by associating the necessity and responsibility of giving back to Bilbo’s famous journey in the fantasy classic The Hobbit.


*warning: this initial blog post includes strong language which you may or may not wish to carry over into your institutional settings. For some students, it serves as an extra point of identification and natural connection, for other students or institutions it may be a barrier.


“That’s why I do all the charity work. Because the world isn’t as good as I want it to be.

We all feel this way sometimes. Because honestly, the world is a fucking mess. It’s full of dragons, and none of us are as powerful or cool as we’d like to be. And that sucks.

But when you’re confronted with that fact, you can either crawl into a hole and quit, or you can get out there, take off your shoes, and Bilbo it up. The work I do with various charities is my attempt to Bilbo the fuck up.”



In the spirit of this heartfelt metaphorizing of one of the great classics of literature—and, indeed, this excellent verb-ing of one of its most iconic characters—I designed a writing assignment inviting students to attempt the same identification and reflection. (And, finding it a resounding success, I also designed a shorter, more visual community activity for the non-traditional classroom [book clubs, dorms, English clubs, libraries, literacy initiatives, or, in my case, a Writing Center]). Both versions are shared below.


Objective and Philosophy:

When it comes to teaching literature, especially in a general education setting for non-majors and, perhaps, non- or reluctant readers, reader response and personal reflection can be an excellent entry into engagement. If you can make students consider how reading matters to them personally, they’re better positioned to understand and discuss why literature matters and has power culturally and collectively. If done early in a semester, it’s also a great way to build personal relationships (you with students and students amongst themselves).


Similarly, in a community setting, the importance of the arts and the humanities can often feel whelmed over by job-training and field specializations, making it doubly necessary to remind a campus community of how literature impacts and informs our lives.


Thus, a reflective, personal examination of The Hobbit’s profound lessons (which may well account for its continued popularity and resonance with readers of all ages in addition to its adventurous journey) can generate particularly good, importantly genuine and thoughtful work.


Version 1: Essay Assignment Description

This is the classic/traditional implementation of this concept: a literary essay suitable for general education students/students at any level of expertise or familiarity with literary analysis.


This assignment can be easily tweaked for your goals in the classroom or level of your students. It’s possible to assign it as an informal reflection focusing on exploring a personal connection to a character or event, or, for a beefier take that can also require students to begin practicing their integration of quotations and close textual work, to additionally require the inclusion of some close reading passages or direct citations from the text. Ideally, this assignment is adaptable for any audience at any level of literary training!


The Assignment:

“Bilbo Up”


Check out Patrick Rothfuss’s blog entry on ‘Bilbo-ing Up,’ where he usefully ‘verbs’ Bilbo. (http://blog.patrickrothfuss.com/2014/01/concerning-cake-bilbo-baggins-an...)


Then, think about the aptness of this phrase in the context of not only what you understand The Hobbit to be about (and Bilbo’s character and journey to be about), but all that this phrase can signify when applied elsewhere as an axiom, particularly in its ability to speak to or reflect upon our actions and motivations in our own world.


Is the need to “Bilbo Up” about the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone, of leaving the easy comforts of home for an adventure? Is it about joining or participating in something larger than yourself? Or what? Dig into and explore the meaning of this phrase and all it might convey.


After interrogating what it means to take Bilbo’s journey, his lessons and decisions, as a concept, you will then ultimately extend your discussion to think about what it would mean to or for you to personally “Bilbo (the f*ck) Up” in this written personal reflection (which also begins to combine literary analysis).


Is Bilbo a character from whom you feel you personally have learned something? What has this character taught you? What do you consider some of this character’s most representative moments in the novel, and how do these moments shed light on the character’s convictions and beliefs, and how might that correspond with or challenge your own? What is it about his virtues or failings, powers, limitations or experiences that would induce you to reach for them within yourself or pass them on to others?


Fill in Due Date:, Length:, Additional requirements if you wish to specify/quantify analysis expectations or quotation integration or citation practices, etc.


Version 2: Community Engagement/Outreach Exercise

Those of you who operate outside the traditional classroom or who work with and inspire student reading-and-writing in ways that don’t involve assigning formal essays might also enjoy an additional minimal-word-count variant.


This version modifies the same concept to allow students (or faculty, staff, and other interested community members) to engage with the same “Bilbo Up!” rallying call through a much smaller commitment than a sustained personal essay.  A bite-sized approach, or literary analysis-lite, this adaptation focuses on emphasizing the participant’s connection to Tolkien’s words with a quick quote + picture and, thus, succeeds in demonstrating literature’s potent staying power, its ability to move and mean—an important lesson which, here, comes from the mouths of friends and peers rather than professorial talking heads!


It also has the added option of being highly visual and visible, which is always welcome in climates in which we must increasingly argue for the value of the humanities. Indeed, if the goal is to capture the community’s engagement with a shared, mythic story as we all “Bilbo Up” in our different ways as we go about our daily lives, the foot selfies this version hinges upon (yes, foot selfies, you read that right, read on to the assignment details!), while untraditional and perhaps jarringly strange as a college-literary approach, prove golden. May the literary selfie prove a new analytic trend!


Sharing one’s reactions to literature or sharing quotations you find meaningful is already a deeply personal, fairly intimate act and that, coupled with the foot-selfies this asks for (yes, unorthodox, but perhaps the more arresting and impactful for it), results in really special, unique work. Indeed, the self-portraiture aspect which results is particularly powerful—uniting the submissions together as a sort of art gallery underscores the commonalities readers share and that texts can solicit while also reveling in the differences of reader response and points of greatest resonance. Taken collectively, these quick responses are a celebration of both the individuality and communal nature of textual interpretation and can stand as an impressive statement to the community that there is no one right way to read or find meaning in a text.


The Assignment/Community Call:


Calling all Tolkienistas!


In celebration of International Tolkien Reading Day (or WHATEVER REASON), the ORGANIZATION invites you to participate in an event to help celebrate the words and worlds of a literary giant.


J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are renowned across the globe for their lasting appeal and impact on the popular imaginary.  A major figure of fantasy literature, his influence has cast a long shadow. Everyone can identify with his humble hobbits, with the hero who steps out his door into a much wider world and into an adventure beyond the imaginings of his comfortable armchair, well-trod walking paths, and favorite stories. Indeed, “Bilbo Up!” can be used as a rallying call, an exhortation to face your dragons, get out of your comfort zone, and grow fiercer and bolder than usual. (All, of course, without forgetting the values of good food, comfort and cheer, the loyalty and kinship of friends and family, and the peace and beauty of a green and growing land.)  Tolkien teaches us that courage can be found in the most unlikely of places, that even the smallest person can change the course of the future; he tells us that dragons can be defeated and that evil can be overcome, and reminds us that all good actions, whether great or small, have impact and meaning.


During the TIMEFRAME, we will commemorate his contribution with a special community event.


In honor of Professor Tolkien, students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to share their Middle-Earth connections and submit, by DEADLINE

1)         Your favorite Tolkien quote with

2)         A brief explanation of or reflection on why this quote is your favorite or why you find it so meaningful, powerful, or compelling.

3)         And, finally, a picture of your own feet out on their own, unique adventure as we all “Bilbo Up!”


Please share widely, and join in on the fun! Send your quotes and (Proud-)feet portraits in to @ADDRESS and be sure to Like and Follow YOUR ORGANIZATION on SOCIAL MEDIA/whatever means of student engagement you have and wish to plug.


If soliciting responses from a community at large, you should also consider sending out additional promotional materials (emails, posters, etc. We created some asking “have you Bilboed up yet?” and yelling “we want your feet” for example).


Either way, I’ve had tremendous success with this take on Tolkien—students tend to exceed expectations and surprise you with the depth of personal connection (with the bonus of such a task being hugely revealing of personality). Both versions, for me, manage to achieve that important assignment balance: both fairly fun and able to capture the imagination and inspiration of students while still easily achieving learning objectives and succeeding in educational merit both specific (literary analysis, thematic distillation, quotation integration, etc.) and broad (why does literature matter anyway, and why must we study it?).


Sample Work (Shared with Permission)


Version 1:

A sample student reflective essay (from one of my gen ed lit courses focusing on a heroes and villains fantasy-friendly subheading):


The Hobbit is an adventure story following the journey of a simple hobbit, Mr. Bilbo Baggins.  Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely traveling any farther than his pantry or cellar. He is a respectable hobbit who is a home lover, a pipe smoker, and not the least bit interested in adventure. Or that’s how he likes it to appear to his fellow hobbits, for Bilbo has an inherent interest in adventures.  As The Hobbit begins, Bilbo is suddenly handed what may be the greatest opportunity of his life when Gandalf and his dwarves walk into Bilbo’s kitchen and invite him on an adventure filled with treasure and dragons. Resistant and hesitant, Bilbo goes on a life altering journey, similar to the journey I took leaving my home in Virginia to play softball for the University of Iowa while earning a degree.

In my opinion, to “Bilbo Up” means to man up and get big; to put your fears away and tackle the task in front of you. You may not like the steps you need to take and the journey may scare you, but in the long run you know it is what is best for the collective group. Bilbo was pushed to join a group of explorers, consisting of dwarves and a wizard, to accomplish a great feat that none of them could have achieved alone. Their goal was to come back with treasure, which wouldn’t have been possible if each of them didn’t buy into the mission at hand. This type of heroism is selfless because it is so much about collaboration and cooperation.  Similar to the journey Bilbo took, my team and I have embarked on a journey of our own (season) with a goal we wish to obtain (winning a Big Ten Championship). Currently we are also like Thorin and Company, and need to learn the lessons Bilbo offers in collaboration and cooperation.  We are struggling as a collective whole and not coming out victorious as many times as we would like because every teammate has not bought into and fully committed to the mission at hand. They have not made the necessary sacrifices to be successful and do not fully believe we can accomplish our goal.

To “Bilbo Up” to me also means that an individual must sacrifice something to accomplish a goal that will better the collective group. Readers might more often think about Bilbo gaining so much through his journey; he gains riches, respect as a burglar and adventurer, etc. Yet, Bilbo is truly a hero because of what he is willing to sacrifice. He leaves the comfort and security of his home and goes on a journey he knows he may not return from, which implies he is willing to sacrifice everything he has, and even his life. Finally, when Bilbo returns home things have changed. He is no longer the respectable hobbit he once was, he has changed and grown from his journey but lost his credible name as a hobbit in embracing new values and experiences.

I have learned so much from the character of Bilbo and admire him more than I thought possible of a literary character. I connected so well to Bilbo because we are very similar. Like Bilbo, I would much rather stay at home than go out, and if I didn’t have to go into an unfamiliar situation, I wouldn’t. He showed me that you can embark on a journey, no matter how uncomfortable, and come out changed for the better. You can push through adversity and prove everyone wrong. One of the most admirable moments I thought Bilbo had was when he took the Arkenstone to the Lake Men and Wood Elves as a peace offering, going behind Thorin’s back to save the lives that would be lost if war broke out. Bilbo was willing to sacrifice certain friendships and riches to do what he thought was best for everyone. I admire Bilbo’s constant, emerging selflessness. On many occasions he could have run away and saved himself, or turned back or gone home, but instead he always stayed to save his friends. Bilbo is a true team player and leader.  If the members of my team, myself included, could learn to be as selfless as Bilbo we would be much more successful and more likely to accomplish our goal. Furthermore, the themes from The Hobbit are not for a sole reader but should send a collective inspirational message to all of society. The war scene in particular shows that with a collective effort so many more things might be possible or could be accomplished for the collective good. As Thorin echoes on his death bed, if more of us shared Bilbo’s values and acted as he does, “it would be a merrier world” (195). If we worked as a team, we could accomplish so much more. If people started “Bilboing up” more and more people would follow that lead, which could lead to positive progression for our world. 

Another infamous moment of The Hobbit that resonated with me personally was when Bilbo first comes face to face with Gollum. Gollum is a disgusting, slimy monster who speaks to himself in third person, which makes him even creepier. Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is his first life and death encounter in the novel where he must fend for himself entirely on his own. The audience is able to see Bilbo coming out of his shell and “Bilbo-ing Up” in order to survive.  He manages in unlikely hero fashion, besting Gollum not with his physical strength but with his mind.  This scene gave me a sense of hope in knowing that anyone can become a hero in some form or fashion. When pushed outside of his comfort zone, Bilbo used the skills he had with riddles and was resourceful in using the ring to escape Gollum. Sometimes a person has to accept the skills and resources they have been dealt. Bilbo trusted in himself and his knowledge to be enough. He relied on himself, and only what he had in the moment, which is a very powerful and honorable type of heroism. Also, Bilbo is merciful and lets Gollum live when he could have easily killed this monster. This is an infamous scene for a reason; it can inspire readers to believe anyone is capable of being a hero. Similar to how people often envision the typical hero (strong, red cape, etc.), I find that people often think the leaders of sport teams are always the all-stars. Truth be told, leaders come in all shapes, just like heroes, as Bilbo’s story demonstrates. A great leader is often the teammate who hustles the most and pushes their fellow teammates to be better. They care about the collective whole more than themselves; they are selfless, just like Bilbo.

The Hobbit is a timeless tale because it relates to the common person. Bilbo is a well-respected hobbit, who enjoys his time at home and a good smoke, but with a little push he seeks an adventure he never could have dreamed possible. Not only does he achieve the end result (treasure and the defeat of the dragon), he comes out of this journey as an unexpected, selfless hero.  This was not an easy or comfortable task for Bilbo. He had to sacrifice the comfort and safety of his home, and trust in the leadership of Gandalf and the friendship of dwarves to help him reach his goal. Similar to Bilbo, I was nervous to leave home and travel half way around the country to play softball, but with the push from my coaches and parents I made the trip and haven’t looked back since. Do I miss home and wish for summer? Absolutely, but I know this journey has helped me grow as a person and mature into the adult I am turning into. I also must embark on a journey with each new season. Each weekend my team faces new opponents, like Bilbo faced different obstacles, and we must trust in the leadership of our coaches and believe and trust in our teammates to come out successful. By going out of our comfort zones and playing some of the best teams in the country, our team is growing and maturing as one to (hopefully) accomplish our end goal and claim the ultimate treasure, a Big Ten championship.  Bilbo has inspired me to tackle each weekend of games with confidence and accept that I may be uncomfortable at times but can still come out successful and prove to be the unlikely freshman leader.  


Version 2:

A sampling of foot-selfies+quote explications (from my Writing Center):

Hobbit 2_0.jpgHobbit 3_0.jpg

Hobbit 4_0.jpgHobbit 5_0.jpg

Hobbit 6_0.jpg

Hobbit 7_0.jpgHobbit 8_0.jpg

Hobbit 9_0.jpgHobbit 10_0.jpg



Introductory description: Katherine E. Bishop, Miyazaki International College, Japan

Course content: Cassandra Bausman, Trine University 

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.