J. R. R. Tolkien
For Further Study
J. R. R. Tolkien's fantastic novel The Hobbit; or There and Back Again was first published in 1937. The enchanting story of tiny, furry-footed Bilbo Baggins and his adventures in Middle-earth ultimately served as the prelude to Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings, which was published in three volumes during the 1950s. These novels are perhaps the most beloved works of fantasy in the twentieth century.
An eminent Oxford philologist, Tolkien's translation of ancient myths inspired him to create a world of his own, known as Middle-earth. He spent a great deal of his life developing his own language and mythology for this imaginary realm.
Although the The Hobbit garnered favorable reviews on its publication, it wasn't initially a commercial success. However, the novel became extremely popular over the years, eventually selling over one million copies in the United States alone.
Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 3, 1892. His father, Arthur, was an Englishman who had left the Birmingham branch of Lloyds Bank to work for the Bank of Africa. Tolkien and his younger brother were sickly children. Hoping to improve her sons' health, Tolkien's mother, Mabel, took the boys to England in 1895. Arthur remained in Africa to work until his sons sufficiently recovered or he could find a position back in England. Unfortunately, only a few months later, Arthur died of acute peritonitis. Mabel and the boys remained in England.
Tolkien was interested in languages at an early age. His mother began teaching him Latin and Greek when he was seven years old. He also inherited his mother's love for nature and the Catholic church. In 1903 Tolkien won a scholarship to the prestigious King Edward VI School in Birmingham, where his studies included not only the mandatory Latin and Greek, but also Welsh, Old and Middle English, and Old Norse. Tragically, his mother died of diabetes when he was only twelve. A Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan, cared for the Tolkien brothers after Mabel's death.
At sixteen Tolkien met his future wife, Edith Mary Bratt. Later, his burgeoning love of languages led him to pursue a degree in comparative philology at Exeter College, Oxford University, in 1911. He graduated with honors in 1915, and one year later, he and Bratt married. Shortly after, Tolkien was commissioned a second lieutenant in the English army and left his new bride to fight in World War I. Enclosed in the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien contracted a severe case of trench fever and had to be evacuated in 1916.
After returning from the war, Tolkien spent the next several decades building a reputation as a noted scholar and professor at Oxford. He published several esteemed essays, including "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936) and "On Fairy Stories" (1947). Along with C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, he was an important member of the literary group "The Inklings."
The Hobbit; or There and Back Again was published in 1937 to favorable reviews. It took Tolkien seventeen years before the hobbits returned in The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy consisting of The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the Ring (1955). Although Tolkien's bibliography contains many great works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings represent the heart of his literary accomplishments. He produced few writings after the success of his 1950s masterpiece. Tolkien died from complications resulting from a bleeding gastric ulcer and a chest infection on September 2, 1973, in Bournemouth, England. However, several of his works were published posthumously, including The Silmarillion (1977). Tolkien's work continues to be popular with readers and critics alike.
The Beginning of the Quest
The Hobbit is set in the imaginary world of Middle-earth. The unidentified narrator begins the tale with a description of hobbits:
They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards…. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).
The main character, Bilbo Baggins, is a fifty-year-old hobbit living a quiet, comfortable life. This situation is changed by Gandalf, a mysterious wizard, who is looking for someone to go on an adventure with him. Bilbo wants no part of any adventures and quickly excuses himself to go back into his hobbit-hole. Gandalf, secretly amused, scratches a sign into Bilbo's door as it closes.
The next day, Gandalf and a band of thirteen dwarves visit Bilbo. Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, tries to recruit the reluctant hobbit to help recover his father's treasure from the wicked dragon, Smaug. Aided by a map, the group plans to cross the Misty Mountains and the Mirkwood Forest to reach Smaug's hideout. Bilbo is promised a share of the treasure if he will help them. Bilbo eventually concedes.
Along the way, it begins to rain and the group of adventurers lose a large amount of food when one of their ponies, which becomes frightened, jumps into the river. When Bilbo is sent to investigate a light on the side of the road, he finds three trolls sitting by a fire. Bilbo is caught trying to pick one of their pockets, but later escapes into the woods when the trolls begin to argue. The rest of the dwarves are captured as they approach the fire.
Gandalf cleverly uses his magic to cause the trolls to fight amongst themselves. Losing track of time, the trolls turn to stone at dawn. Bilbo and the dwarves search the cave of the trolls, where they discover some food and coins to help them on their journey. Gandalf and Thorin find two jeweled swords, and Bilbo takes a small blade for himself.
After a brief rest, the adventurers continue their journey toward the mountains. Upon reaching the valley of Rivendell, they are greeted by singing elves. They stop at the Last Homely House, where Elrond, chief of the elves, resides. Elrond identifies the blades carried by Gandalf and Thorin; they are magical, powerful goblin-killers. Elrond, also familiar with the runes on Thorin's map, finds a clue regarding an entrance to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug resides with the treasure. The travelers rest for two weeks before heading into the mountains.
The Misty Mountains
The adventurers are trapped on a narrow pass high in the mountains. As a storm begins, they see stone giants playing with boulders in the pouring rain. Frightened, the dwarves hide in a nearby cave. However, a passage opens in the rear of the cavern, though which goblins enter and abduct them. In the confusion, the dwarves are separated from Gandalf.
Bilbo and the dwarves are brought before the Great Goblin, who is infuriated when he recognizes Thorin's sword. The Great Goblin is ready to execute them. Suddenly, the torches are extinguished, and Gandalf murders the Goblin king. The adventurers flee, fighting off goblins as they escape. They each take turns carrying Bilbo on their backs because he cannot keep up. Bilbo is eventually knocked unconscious.
When Bilbo regains consciousness, he is alone in the cave. Groping through the darkness, he finds a ring on the cavern floor and pockets it. He also discovers that his blade is magical; it glows dimly in the darkness. He wanders to an underground lake, where a slimy, lizard-like creature called Gollum lives. Gollum and Bilbo trade riddles. If Bilbo wins, Gollum agrees to show him the way out. If he loses, Bilbo becomes Gollum's dinner.
After a series of riddles, Bilbo cleverly stumps Gollum by asking him to guess what he has in his pocket. He does not realize that the ring belongs to Gollum and that it has the power to make its wearer invisible. Gollum cannot guess, and when he goes to fetch his ring, he realizes the answer to Bilbo's riddle. Enraged, he chases Bilbo, but Bilbo slips on the ring, becomes invisible, and sneaks out of the cave.
Bilbo finds Gandalf and the dwarves and surprises them with his sudden appearance. He earns their respect when he tells them the story of his encounter with Gollum and of his escape, but he keeps the secret of the ring to himself. The group travels through a wooded area and, as the sun begins to set, they arrive at a clearing. Frightened by the howls of wolves, they climb up trees to hide.
The Wargs, evil wolves allied with the goblins, appear in the clearing. Gandalf magically lights pine cones on fire and launches them at the Wargs, setting many aflame. However, the goblins appear and build fires at the base of the trees. Meanwhile, the Lord of the Eagles hears the commotion and brings his minions to the rescue. The flock of eagles carries the group to safety.
Gandalf informs his band that he will accompany them to one final destination before they reach the great forest of Mirkwood. He introduces them to Beorn, an enormous shape-shifter of great strength who has the ability to communicate with animals and change into a bear. Beorn provides food for the weary travelers and allows them to rest in his home. He sends them on their way with ponies, food, and water for their journey through the forest, and warns them to keep to the path.
The Forest of Mirkwood
The adventurers leave Gandalf and travel through the forest for several days and nights, slowly exhausting their food and water supply. One night, they see many fires off the path. Hungry, they ignore Beorn's warning and heard for the warm glow of the forest's campfires.
As they approach, everything goes dark. Bilbo falls into an enchanted slumber and giant spiders seize the rest of his comrades. Bilbo recovers and uses his ring to trick the spiders and to release his friends from the webs. A terrific battle ensues and the adventurers escape, only to notice that Thorin is missing.
The next day, the group—except for Bilbo, who wears his ring—is captured by wood elves and brought before their king. The king imprisons the dwarves in his dungeon because they refuse to tell him any information about their mission. Bilbo, discovering that Thorin is also a captive, filches keys from a drunken guard and frees the dwarves. They escape to Long Lake by hiding in barrels used to move goods up and down the river to the town of Esgaroth.
Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies
The group stops in Esgaroth, a town built in the middle of Long Lake and inhabited by men. Thorin, whose grandfather was once a king allied with the townsmen's ancestors, is greeted warmly. The adventurers are provided food and ponies, and continue their journey by water toward the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug the dragon resides. Once they arrive, they discover a secret opening. Bilbo sneaks into the dragon's lair, steals a cup, and brings it back to the dwarves to prove his worth as a burglar.
The disturbed dragon leaves his lair to find the thief. Bilbo and the dwarves take cover, but they are unable to save their pack animals. Smaug devours the ponies and returns to his lair. Bilbo agrees to sneak back into Smaug's lair for further investigation. Bilbo, now invisible, intrigues the dragon with flattery and riddles. He discovers that Smaug has a weak point in his breast. After Bilbo flees the lair, Smaug leaves and attacks the town of Esgaroth. The adventurers enter the unguarded cave and locate the stolen treasure. Bilbo finds the Arkenstone of Thrain, the great jewel of the dwarves.
Meanwhile, Smaug sets Esgaroth on fire. Bard, a human, finds Smaug's weak point and shoots an arrow into the dragon's heart, killing him. Upon learning of the dragon's death, the King of the Wood Elves and his army join the humans and together they set off for the Lonely Mountain to claim the treasure.
A raven informs Thorin that Smaug is dead and that the humans and the elves are coming for the treasure. The dwarves fortify the only open entrance to the mountain. Thorin sends the raven to fetch his cousin's army. The men and elves arrive and demand a share of the treasure; Thorin refuses. The men and elves decide to camp around the mountain, but Bilbo sneaks out with the Arkenstone.
Hoping to avoid bloodshed, Bilbo gives Bard and the King of the Wood Elves the Arkenstone to use in bargaining with Thorin. They offer Bilbo sanctuary, but he is loyal to the dwarves and determined to rejoin them. On his way back, he is heartened to discover that Gandalf has returned and is camping with the men.
The next morning, the humans and elves show the Arkenstone to Thorin. When Bilbo admits that he gave the jewel to the men, Thorin accuses Bilbo of treachery and threatens to throw him off the mountain. Thorin releases Bilbo, but still refuses to share the treasure. Thorin's cousin Dain arrives.
An army of goblins and Wargs descends upon both warring groups, however, and the two sides are compelled to join forces. Even Thorin overcomes his greed and bravely joins the fight. A fierce battle ensues, and the goblins appear to have the upper hand. However, Bilbo's spirits are lifted when he sees the Lord of the Eagles arriving with a huge flock. Bilbo is once again knocked unconscious when a rock hits his head.
The End of the Tale
Bilbo awakens to a deathly quiet until he hears a man calling for him. Bilbo removes his ring and is brought to a tent where Thorin lays dying. Thorin apologizes for treating Bilbo badly and commends the hobbit's wisdom and bravery. Bilbo weeps when Thorin dies; he also discovers that Beorn arrived after the eagles to help turn the tide of the battle. The hobbit accepts a share of the treasure and leaves with Gandalf and Beorn, heading for home.
The story ends with a short epilogue a few years later when Gandalf and the dwarf, Balin, visit Bilbo. Bilbo learns that the dwarves are content and prosperous, and that Bard has led many of the men of Esgaroth to rebuild Dale, a city destroyed by Smaug.
A short, peaceful hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is the protagonist of the novel. He considers himself a typical hobbit; that is, until Gandalf and the dwarves appear at his door. Although he initially hesitates, Bilbo joins the adventure to find the stolen treasure.
As the story progresses, Bilbo proves himself to be a clever burglar and resourceful companion. He proves his courage when he cuts the dwarves from the webs in Mirkwood and battles the spiders. He later frees the dwarves from the prison of the wood elves. His keen observation of Smaug ultimately reveals the dragon's weak point. One of his most valiant acts is giving the Arkenstone, Thorin's beloved jewel, to the men and elves in a bold attempt to avoid bloodshed. Out of loyalty he returns to the dwarves even though he knows he risks Thorin's wrath.
Balin is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin. Years later he visits Bilbo.
A courageous human, Bard slays the dragon. Afterward, he goes to the mountain to claim the treasure. He attempts to bargain fairly with Thorin, but the dwarf is blinded by greed. A war over the treasure is avoided only when the goblins attack. After the forces of good defeat the goblins, Bard rebuilds Dale and the city becomes prosperous under his leadership.
Beorn is a shape-shifter. A peaceful creature, he allows the band of adventurers to stay in his cabin. He helps turn the tide of the Battle of Five Armies when he appears and kills the goblin general. He also protects Gandalf and Bilbo on part of their journey home.
Bifur is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Bofur is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Bombur is one of Thorin's band of dwarves. He slips into the enchanted river in Mirkwood Forest and falls into a magical sleep, forcing the party to carry him along.
Dain is Thorin's cousin from the Iron Hills. Thorin sends a raven to summon Dain and his army to help defend the treasure under the Lonely Mountain from the men and elves after Smaug is slain, and Dain joins forces with the men to defeat the evil creatures. He is crowned King under the Mountain after Thorin dies in the Battle of Five Armies.
Dori is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Dwalin is a member of Thorin's band of dwarves.
Elrond is the master of the Last Homely House of Rivendell. He gives Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves sanctuary. A mix of elf and human, he is the peace-loving chieftain of all the elves in the valley. He identifies the swords carried by Gandalf and Thorin, and he is able to read the runes on Thorin's map.
Fili and his brother Kili are the youngest of the dwarves. He perishes defending Thorin during the Battle of Five Armies.
A mighty wizard, Gandalf convinces the dwarves to recruit Bilbo Baggins for the adventure to reclaim the treasure. Ageless and wise, he alone recognizes the potential greatness in Bilbo. Gandalf is also brave, as evidenced by his decapitation of the Great Goblin. He tends to appear at the most opportune moments and is familiar with all aspects of Middle-earth.
Gloin is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Goblins are evil creatures. After Gandalf slays the Great Goblin with a magical sword, the elves hunt down the adventurers. The goblin army almost defeats the forces of good in the Battle of Five Armies, but the Lord of the Eagles and Beorn turn the tide of the conflict. At the end of the story, most of the goblins in the region have been annihilated.
Gollum is a slimy, lizard-like creature living on a rock in the middle of a cold lake underneath the Misty Mountains. He possesses the powerful ring of invisibility. (How it came into his possession is revealed in Lord of the Rings). Bilbo accidentally discovers the ring and wins a war of riddles with Gollum. It is only when Gollum attacks Bilbo in a rage that the hobbit actually discovers the power of the ring. Bilbo leaves Gollum, pathetic and weeping over the loss of "his precious" ring, in the tunnels below the Misty Mountains.
Kili and his brother Fili, Thorin's nephews, are the youngest of the dwarves. He is killed defending his uncle during the Battle of Five Armies.
King of the Wood Elves
The King of the Wood Elves captures Thorin and the rest of the dwarves when they leave the beaten path in the forest of Mirkwood. He demands to know the purpose of their journey. Bilbo frees the dwarves before he can find out, but the King soon learns of their intentions after Smaug's demise. He gathers an army of elves to earn a piece of the treasure. He recognizes Bilbo's wisdom when the hobbit offers the Arkenstone.
- The Hobbit was adapted into an animated film for television by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin in 1978. The film features the voices of Orson Bean as Bilbo, John Huston as Gandalf, and Richard Boone as Smaug. It is available on videotape.
- There are several audiotape versions of The Hobbit, including a 1992 BBC adaptation from Bantam Doubleday.
Lord of the Eagles
The Lord of the Eagles leads his flock to save Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves when they are trapped in the trees by goblins and Wargs. Later, they join the humans, elves, and dwarves in the Battle of Five Armies to defeat the goblins. Dain rewards their efforts with golden collars.
Nori is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Thorin is the brave leader of a band of thirteen dwarves. His grandfather was the King under the Mountain until Smaug drove the dwarves away and destroyed the human city of Dale. At the start of the novel he seeks to reclaim the treasure of his ancestors and take his throne. When Smaug is finally defeated, Thorin's greed for the treasure, especially his lust for the Arkenstone, almost leads to a disastrous war with the humans and elves. He even banishes Bilbo from his camp when the hobbit gives away the Arkenstone. Thorin is redeemed when the goblins and Wargs attack in the Battle of Five Armies. He joins the humans and elves to fight the wicked creatures and dies from his wounds.
Oin is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Ori is one of the band of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin.
Smaug is a wicked, fire-breathing dragon. He is extremely powerful, intelligent, and cruel. Years before, he destroyed the peaceful, wealthy community of dwarves under the Lonely Mountain and the human city of Dale. The dwarves and humans were trading partners and enjoyed a friendly relationship. The human survivors built Esgaroth, a town in the middle of the Long Lake.
When Bilbo and the dwarves arrive at the Lonely Mountain, Smaug has been in hibernation for quite some time. Wearing the ring of invisibility, Bilbo awakens the evil monster; fortunately, he is clever enough to find Smaug's vulnerabilities. Later Smaug attacks Esgaroth and Bard kills the dragon.
Giant, intelligent spiders lurk in the forest of Mirkwood. Bilbo frees the dwarves from webs when he distracts the spiders; once free, the group slaughters the spiders.
The trolls are described as large, nasty, and strong. At one point, they capture the dwarves and plan to eat them. Gandalf saves the day by spreading dissension amongst the trolls; as a result, they argue until dawn and turn to stone.
The Wargs are evil wolves. They take part in the Battle of Five Armies.
Good vs. Evil
The conflict between good and evil is the main theme of Tolkien's Hobbit. The good creatures strive for a peaceful existence, while the evil creatures cause suffering. In the novel, the quest to reclaim the treasure is considered a righteous cause. Even Bilbo, a gentle hobbit reluctant to get involved, is ultimately convinced to join the quest because he believes it to be a noble mission.
The wizard Gandalf also believes in a good cause. He is a wise and just being who wanders the realm improving the quality of life. A decent judge of character, he recognizes Bilbo's resourcefulness. Elrond, Beorn, and Bard are also examples of the many good and courageous beings who live in Middle-earth.
Evil creatures constantly threaten the forces of good. The mighty dragon Smaug destroys towns and kills their inhabitants. The goblins and Wargs are sneaky, cruel, and vicious. Horrible, enormous spiders lurk in the forests of Mirkwood, preying upon those who venture away from the main path.
There are shades of gray, as in real life. Good characters also can do bad things. For example, although most would consider stealing immoral, Bilbo is recruited as a thief. Thorin, a brave and honorable dwarf, is temporarily blinded by greed and he almost causes a war over the treasure before he redeems himself in the Battle of Five Armies. In any case, the conflict between good and evil is a major theme in the novel. Ultimately the virtuous are triumphant.
Fate and Chance
The roles of fate and chance are addressed in The Hobbit. While many of the events in the novel seem to occur by chance, especially Bilbo's discovery of the ring of power that grants him invisibility, the characters ostensibly are ruled by fate. For example, at the end of the book, Bilbo refers to the "prophecies of old songs" that turn out to be true. Gandalf replies:
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?
In this passage Gandalf implies that fate partly determined the course of Bilbo's adventures.
While Tolkien did not ignore the importance of free will and chance in The Hobbit, he also recognized prophecy and fate as core elements of mythology. Thus, as a modern myth-maker, he worked these themes into the framework of his fantasies.
In the novel, friendship often results from peculiar alliances. At first, Bilbo and the dwarves do not trust each other: Bilbo finds the dwarves rude and coarse; the dwarves believe that Bilbo is timid and meek. Yet Bilbo eventually gains their respect with his cleverness, courage, and wisdom. He learns that the dwarves, however brusque and ill-mannered they may be, are loyal and brave friends. At the end of the novel Bilbo is officially made an "elf-friend."
Gandalf befriends any creature on the side of good, particularly hobbits, dwarves, and elves. He recruits Beorn, the mighty shape-shifter, as a valuable ally.
Even evil creatures have friends, as exemplified by the alliance between the goblins and Wargs.
In J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, Daniel Grotta quotes Tolkien, who once stated that the principle theme of his work was death:
If you really come down to any really large story that interests people and holds their attention for a considerable time, it is practically always a human story, and it is practically [always] about one thing all the time: death. The inevitability of death.
Although Tolkien was referring to his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, death is also an important theme in The Hobbit. The good characters in this novel risk death at almost every turn. They encounter incredibly vicious creatures such as trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders, and a fire-breathing dragon. They almost end up as meals for the giant spiders and trolls.
They also face such natural hazards as storms, treacherous mountain passes, and the seemingly endless forest of Mirkwood. They are often in danger of starvation. Fortunately, they have powerful allies like Gandalf and Beorn on their side. In addition, the adventurers also have magical items to aid them: the swords they take from the trolls and Bilbo's ring of power.
It is not until the end of the story that death claims any of the major characters. Thorin's nephews, Fili and Kili, are killed during the Battle of Five Armies. Thorin is mortally wounded during this battle.
War plays an important part in the climax of The Hobbit. When Thorin fortifies the Lonely Mountain after the death of Smaug, a war between the forces of good appears imminent. The men and elves are in a stalemate with Thorin's band over the treasure.
Topics for Further Study
- Tolkien composed songs and verses for the creatures of Middle-earth to sing. Choose an event from the novel, such as the Battle of Five Armies or Bilbo's fight with the spiders, and write a verse based on the event. Add music, prerecorded or original.
- Do some research into Norse or Greek mythology. What elements do the various myths share with the Middle-earth of The Hobbit?
- Explain what happens between Bard and the Master of Esgaroth after Smaug's death. Are there examples in contemporary world politics that reflect the dynamics of this situation?
- Using computer graphics, painting, sculpture, or another type of artistic media, create a character or scene from The Hobbit.
However, armies of goblins and Wargs attack the humans, elves, and dwarves camped at the mountain. Thorin overcomes his greed and the forces of good unite to fight evil in the Battle of the Five Armies. Although the losses are great, the forces of good are victorious with the help of Beorn and the Lord of the Eagles.
The end of the war signals the close of the novel. Most of the goblins and Wargs have been driven away. Thorin dies, and Dain is made King under the Mountain in Thorin's place. The treasure is divided to everyone's satisfaction. Bard rebuilds the city of Dale, and both Dale and Esgaroth prosper. Finally, Bilbo returns to the peace and quiet of his hobbit-hole.
Fantasy and Mythology
The Hobbit is considered a masterpiece of fantasy. There is often a tendency among scholars of literature to deride genres such as fantasy and science fiction; however, Tolkien's books are so imaginative and brilliantly conceived that he has earned a great deal of critical respect.
Tolkien's imaginary world was derived from mythology. He believed that myth was a tool that cultures use to build bridges of understanding between generations.
Although Tolkien invented hobbits, most of the creatures that populate Middle-earth were borrowed from the myths of other cultures. Beings akin to The Hobbit's dwarves, elves, and trolls, as well as Smaug the dragon, can be found in many ancient legends and myths. In addition, magic and magical objects are incorporated within the plot of the story, as in so many other fantastic tales. The quest motif advances the narrative, as it does in Arthurian legend. Virtue, embodied in the heroism and humility of the characters, is ultimately triumphant as it is in most classic mythology.
The story is told in the third person, mostly from Bilbo's point of view. However, the narrator acts as a storyteller familiar with the history, geography, language, and demographics of Middle-earth. The telling is informal, as if it were a campfire or bedtime story.
The narrator also knows how the story is going to end and functions as a link between Middle-earth and the present.
The Hobbit is set in the enchanted realm of Middle-earth, which has a topography much like that of Earth, with forests, rivers, mountains, etc. Tolkien wanted the world of the novel to be somewhat familiar to readers. Thus, he drew from his childhood experiences—particularly those of his hometown of Sarehole, which inspired the Shire of the hobbits—to construct some of the geographies of Middle-earth. His memories of a climbing expedition in the Swiss Alps during his youth inspired the Misty Mountains.
Although much of The Hobbit is dark, humor is often used to break up the tension. Bilbo's meek and fussy behavior in the beginning of the novel is one example. The dwarves, as they clean up the mess they have made in Bilbo's hobbit-hole, sing a song about breaking plates, because "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates…."
There is humor in even the most dangerous situations. The scenes when Bilbo is threatened by Gollum, or when he flatters Smaug, are good examples.
Pre-World War II England
When The Hobbit was published in 1937, Europe was in turmoil. The German dictator Adolf Hitler made no secret of his plan to expand German territory and rid his country of certain minorities, in particular the Jewish people. Many English politicians, including Winston Churchill, recognized the potential danger of Hitler's regime. However, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to avoid conflict with Hitler. In March 1938, Hitler's forces annexed Austria and created a crisis throughout Europe.
Chamberlain's controversial response was a policy of "appeasement," which allowed Hitler certain territories like Austria. He signed the Munich Pact with Hitler after the Austrian annexation to avoid war and proclaimed, "I believe it is peace in our time." A month later, Germany occupied the Czech Sudetenland. Yet when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Chamberlain was forced to resign in May, 1940; Churchill took over and led the country through the difficult years of World War II.
With the start of World War II, constant air raids and threats of invasion from the European continent endangered the English. Meanwhile, English casualties mounted and the German forces (as well as Benito Mussolini's Italian army) gained much ground early in the war. Tolkien believed that fantasy literature comforted people in such anxious and difficult times, and certainly The Hobbit serves as an excellent example of escapist literature.
Oxford University and the Inklings
Oxford University is the oldest English-speaking university in the world. Since 1096 teaching has existed at Oxford in some form. The university is comprised of thirty-nine independent, self-governing colleges, including Exeter College, which Tolkien entered in 1911.
At Oxford, Tolkien studied the classics, including Greek and Roman languages, literature, art, history, and philosophy, as well as modern languages, literature, and philosophy. He was awarded a degree with first-class honors in English Language and Literature just before he left for France to fight in World War I.
After the war Tolkien returned to Oxford to work as a teacher and tutor for the English School. Over the next several years, he established a reputation as a brilliant philologist and linguist. From the mid-1930s until 1962, Tolkien was part of an informal literary club at Oxford known as the Inklings. The group included several famous English writers, poets, essayists, and critics of the time, including Tolkien's close friend C. S. Lewis, as well as Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams.
Compare & Contrast
- Late 1930s: Hitler occupies Austria and the Czech Sudetenland in 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain adopts his controversial "appeasement" policy in an effort to mollify Hitler. The strategy is doomed when Hitler's aggression leads Germany to invade Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later Great Britain and France declare war on Germany.
Today: The European Economic Community (EEC) is an economic powerhouse. A new European currency, the Euro, is issued. However, political events threaten economic progress for Europe as the conflict in Yugoslavia wreaks havoc in the Balkans. Also, Serbian aggression in Kosovo leads to the NATO bombing of Belgrade.
- Late 1930s: In South Africa, Tolkien's birth place, the Native Laws Amendment Act is passed. This law extends the long-established system of pass laws, which require blacks to carry special papers to stay in the cities. This law is only one in a series over many years establishing the apartheid (apartness) system in South Africa.
Today: Nelson Mandela retires as President of South Africa. Imprisoned in 1961 for protesting the apartheid system, he was freed in 1988 and elected president of South Africa. Apartheid has been dismantled for many years, yet the effects of the policy are still evident throughout South African society.
- Late 1930s: With the advent of World War II, military production provides a spark for American manufacturing and industrial production. As a result, the United States begins to reverse the economic collapse of the Great Depression.
Today: The economies of the United States and Europe are strong. Due to the government's efforts to adopt a more democratic system, the Russian economy experiences a difficult transition. Japan suffers from a recession because of various factors, including a banking crisis.
The Inklings would read and discuss their writings with each other. Many of the members encouraged Tolkien to publish The Hobbit. Tolkien also read most of The Lord of the Rings to the group years before it was published. The Inklings dissolved when Lewis became ill in 1962 and died the following year.
Perhaps the most important critique of The Hobbit came from ten-year-old Raynor Unwin, the son of English publisher Sir Stanley Unwin. According to Daniel Grotta, in his biography J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, young Unwin earned between a shilling and a half-crown for reviewing children's literature. His assessment of The Hobbit is as follows:
Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and Wargs. At last they got to the lonely mountain: Smaug, the dragon who guards it, is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home—rich!
This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations. It is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Raynor Unwin said years later, "I wouldn't say my report was the best critique of The Hobbit that has been written, but it was good enough to ensure that it was published."
The Hobbit was published in 1937, and most reviewers concurred with Unwin's positive assessment. Although the book was primarily viewed as children's literature, several reviewers emphasized the book's appeal to older readers. A reviewer (believed to be C. S. Lewis) in the London Times Literary Supplement wrote, "It must be understood that this is a children's book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery."
In the New York Times, Anne T. Eaton asserted, "Boys and girls from 8 years on have already given The Hobbit an enthusiastic welcome, but this is a book with no age limits." Because Tolkien believed that mythology and fairy tales helped bridge the gap between generations, he would have been pleased with these assessments.
Despite the excellent reviews, The Hobbit was not initially a financial success for Tolkien. However, the commercial success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the 1950s also affected the sales of its predecessor. Tolkien lived to see The Hobbit sell over a million copies in the United States alone. It continues to be one of the best-selling fantasy titles in print.
Tolkien's work has generated a great deal of scholarly criticism, primarily concentrating on The Lord of the Rings. Much commentary focuses on the creation, history, and languages of Middle-earth. Several authors, including Edmund Fuller, have looked for allegory (characters or events used to represent things or abstract ideas to convey a message or teach a lesson) in Tolkien's work. However, the author vehemently denied the use of allegory in his books. In his introduction to the Ballantine edition of The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the reader. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purported domination of the author.
The Hobbit is first and foremost a grand adventure, a tale of good overcoming evil.
Akers is a freelance writer with an interest in fantasy literature. In the following essay, he examines the creative philosophy of Tolkien and the continuing influence of The Hobbit on contemporary fantasy literature and popular culture.
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is sometimes dismissed as a mere children's story by critics and readers, especially when compared to his Lord of the Rings. Obviously, The Lord of the Rings is a much more sophisticated and elaborate work than its predecessor.
However, as simple as the novel may seem, The Hobbit is an important work in its own right. Tolkien finally realized his vision of an imaginary world and history he had been creating for years before the book was published in 1937. More significantly, Tolkien established the groundwork of his theories on the creation—and usefulness—of mythology and fantasy in culture as he wrote The Hobbit. His work continues to serve as a bridge between cultures of the past and the present.
Tolkien often denied that he wrote The Hobbit only to entertain children. As one of his biographers, Daniel Grotta, maintains in J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, Tolkien's purpose in writing The Hobbit can be found in a statement he made about The Lord of the Rings: "In The Lord of the Rings, I have tried to modernize the myths and make them credible."
Tolkien knew the importance of mythology to language and culture. He believed that people needed myths to link them with the past, thus helping them cope with the uncertainties of the present and giving them hope for the future. Grotta makes an analogy between the roots of a plant and the myths of a culture to explain this concept:
In an era of unprecedented change, the links to the past are stretched to the breaking point, and a people without roots are likely to become, analogously, a people without branches or flowers. The roots of the past—mythology—are no longer acceptable in their traditional form and have to be recast in a more contemporary, relevant mode.
Therefore, Tolkien created a mythology that was accessible to people in the twentieth century. His most famous lecture, "On Fairy-Stories" (1947), detailed his thoughts on the importance of fantasy and mythology to culture. He noted that in a world filled with wars, poverty, and disease, people turned to fantasy for comfort. He used the powerful metaphor of a prisoner confined in jail to illustrate this longing for "far away and long ago." The wish to escape is reasonable in this context; similarly, the reader of fantasy literature wishes to escape to a better world.
In "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien also developed his theory of the "sub-creator." He believed that stories and myths, regardless of how fantastic, should contain components of the real world in order to help the reader "suspend disbelief." For example, the geography of Middle-earth is similar to that of the Earth with forests, rivers, and mountains. While there are strange races and amazing creatures, there are also humans and familiar animals such as horses and birds. These familiar elements allow the reader to accept, at least temporarily, the fantastic elements. Grotta explains the dynamics of sub-creation:
When a fantasy world is consistent with the real world—with variations and differences of course—the storyteller or mythmaker is less a creator than a sub-creator. He discovers rather than invents a never-never land that is at once similar to and unlike our own.
This concept explains the narrator's familiarity with Middle-earth in The Hobbit. The narrator is like a professor or historian who has discovered Bilbo's chronicle of his adventures, the Red Book of Westmarch. The narrator shares the evidence of this fantastic world with the reader.
Tolkien freely borrowed from the myths of the past. This practice made sense, not only because he was a scholar intimately familiar with ancient myths, but also because he was trying to link past and present. He was especially proficient at plundering Norse mythology. For example, the names of all the dwarves in The Hobbit were lifted directly from The Elder Edda, a group of poems from a thirteenth-century Icelandic text. The names of Gandalf and the forest of Mirkwood also came from Norse mythology.
Of course, Tolkien didn't limit himself to Norse mythology. The Hobbit also shares many of the characteristics of Arthurian legend. Gandalf plays a role similar to that of Merlin. The dwarves are on a quest, much like the Knights of the Round Table. There are powerful artifacts in both stories: the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend and the ring of power in The Hobbit. Tolkien was captivated by the dragons, or dragon-like beasts, that he found in the myths of many cultures; in fact, Smaug the dragon is one of his most fascinating creations.
Tolkien, along with Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, profoundly influenced contemporary fantasy. All of these authors used the elements of mythology in their works, and the fantasy, horror, and science-fiction writers of today are building from their strong foundation.
A study of the character of Beorn in The Hobbit demonstrates this continuity. Beorn is a shape-shifter, a man who can change into a bear. Tolkien was aware that shape-shifting creatures have been part of the mythology of many cultures. Several of the Greek gods changed form at will, and the Europeans of the Middle Ages feared vampires and werewolves. Beorn is essentially a good creature, but several contemporary writers have continued this thread of past mythology by using shape-shifters as villains.
For example, in Peter Straub's Ghost Story (1979) an evil shape-shifter seeks vengeance on a group of old men. The shape-shifter in Stephen King's It (1986) terrorizes a small town by taking the forms of various movie monsters.
Another element of myth that serves as a thread from ancient mythology to contemporary fantasy is the magical artifact. Perhaps the most famous of these items is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. The Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. The Knights of the Round Table searched for it to save King Arthur. There are several magical items in The Hobbit, the most obvious being the ring of power discovered by Bilbo in Gollum's lair. The adventurers also find three enchanted blades made by elves in the cave of the trolls.
There are many examples of magical items in contemporary fantasy as well. In Michael Moorcock's Elric (1970s) series, the albino elf Elric brandishes a mighty sword called Stormbringer. Elric has a symbiotic relationship with the sword, which is capable of stealing the souls of its victims. Another interesting example of a "magical" relic is in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (1980–83) series. The protagonist, Severian, is an apprentice torturer who finds the Claw of the Conciliator. The Claw is capable of healing people and even bringing them back from the dead.
The influence of Tolkien and his contemporaries on modern fantasy literature is obvious. However, there have also been some unexpected effects on popular culture. The phenomenon of the fantasy role-playing game is a perfect example. "Dungeons and Dragons" is probably the most popular of these games. Using fantasy literature and mythology as its basis, the game allows players to choose from a variety of races (human, dwarf, elf, etc.), classes (fighter, wizard, etc.), and "alignments" (good, neutral, or evil) to create characters. Each different type of character has various strengths and weaknesses. A referee, known as the Dungeon Master, designs adventures for the players using a number of resources, including manuals, maps, and charts. The outcome of each adventure is determined by the choices the players make and the roll of several different types of die. The game is limited only by the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players.
A quick study of the game's guidelines reveals Tolkien's influence. The "halfling" character race is blatantly patterned after Tolkien's hobbits. In the game, halflings perform best as thieves because of their ability to move silently, hide quickly, and sneak into tight spaces. Of course, these are the characteristics that prompt the dwarves in The Hobbit to recruit Bilbo Baggins.
"Dungeons and Dragons" was popular with teenagers and college students during the 1970s and 1980s; however, the game has received some bad press over the years due to some unfortunate incidents of players taking it to extremes. The popularity of "Dungeons and Dragons" has also decreased because of the increased availability of video, computer, and on-line fantasy games.
Tolkien's work, and fantasy literature in general, remains very popular. At this writing, plans for a live-action film version of The Lord of the Rings are underway. It seems as if the modern world still has a place in its heart for Tolkien's fantastic realm.
The most successful writers of fantasy have followed Tolkien's pattern: they discover their worlds rather than create them. In the 1973 introduction to The Hobbit, Peter S. Beagle wrote:
For in the end, it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien's considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it.
Tolkien died two months after Beagle's introduction was written. One hopes he had the chance to read it; he would have been pleased.
Source: Don Akers, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
C. W. Sullivan III
In the following essay, Sullivan considers The Hobbit in terms of its impact on children's literature.
When it was first published in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was an immediate success. Reviewers noted its ties to ancient northern European myths and legends, especially Beowulf and the Eddas, and praised it for its strong component of adventure, its humor, its imaginative scope, and its intelligent presentation. At least one reviewer asserted that the book was destined to become a classic of children's literature. Allen and Unwin, who published the book, must have agreed, for they were soon urging Tolkien—who really wanted to work on the mythological materials that would eventually be published, some years after his death, as The Silmarillion—to produce "another Hobbit." But history has denied The Hobbit the status it deserves as an important children's book. World War II, Tolkien's work on the Silmarillion materials, and the length to which The Lord of the Rings eventually grew—in addition to familial and professorial duties—prevented Tolkien from publishing his "next Hobbit" until 1953–1954. The Lord of the Rings then eclipsed The Hobbit; the sequel became the main work, and The Hobbit was relegated by many—critics and readers alike—to prequel status. In fact, the Ballantine paperback edition of The Hobbit announces, on the front cover, that this book is the "enchanting prelude to The Lord of the Rings." Instead of being recognized as a touchstone of children's literature, The Hobbit became an additional, but somewhat less important, part of a larger adult work.
What Do I Read Next?
- Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings is essential reading for those interested in Middle-earth. The novel contains three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1955), and The Return of the King (1955). It chronicles the adventures of Frodo, Bilbo's nephew, and his quest to destroy the ring of power discovered in The Hobbit.
- The Silmarillion (1977) was published after Tolkien's death. His son, Christopher, compiled the book from various fragments written before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It details the ancient history of Middle-earth.
- C. S. Lewis wrote a seven-volume children's fantasy series called The Chronicles of Narnia. The series follows the adventures of four children who discover a magical world of talking animals, witches, and dwarves behind a wardrobe in an old house. The first book published in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), is a good place to start.
- Daniel Grotta's J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth (1976) is a compelling account of Tolkien's life and works. Grotta discusses the influences on Tolkien's fiction and provides an in-depth analysis of his major works.
- Fritz Leiber wrote dozens of stories featuring his Fafhrd, a barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, a cynical thief. Their adventures in the world of Newhon are exciting and original. Ill Met in Lankhmar (1995) contains the first two collections of his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. It is a good introduction to the fascinating realm of Newhon.
- Author Michael Moorcock's Elric series is captivating for those readers interested in fantasy literature. The protagonist, Elric, is an evil elf whose sword, Stormbringer, steals souls. Elric of Melnibone (1972) is the first novel in the series.
In the mid-1960's, when Tolkien's books became a cultural (and also a counter-cultural) phenomenon, The Hobbit's status as a children's book was pushed even further into the background. The controversial Ace Books' paperback publication, followed by the highly-publicized and "authorized" editions from Ballantine Books, created a much larger interest in Tolkien's fiction than had previously existed. At that time, publishers were responding to a renewed interest by adults in fantasy literature by reissuing, in paperback, classics of fantasy by everyone from William Morris to Robert E. Howard; this fantasy-hungry market devoured Tolkien. That led to everything from college courses about Tolkien specifically and fantasy in general (which, in turn, resulted in an explosion of articles and books on Tolkien and fantasy), to the creation of a large group of adults with money to spend on Tolkien-related paraphernalia, and time to spend in Tolkien clubs or at Tolkien or fantasy conventions.
In and of itself, none of this activity is bad; but it has taken attention away from The Hobbit as a children's book. Most of the articles and books listed in Richard C. West's Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist deal with aspects of The Lord of the Rings or with aspects common to both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Few articles and no books deal solely with The Hobbit, and much of what does focus on The Hobbit concerns itself with identifying some of the ancient sources on which Tolkien drew. While those who have discussed The Hobbit in its own right have noted some of the aspects which suggest that it was aimed at young readers, very few have discussed it, first and foremost, as a children's book.
In Tolkien's World, Randel Helms deals with The Hobbit as a learning experience for its author, through which he prepared himself to write The Lord of the Rings:
Taken in and for itself, Tolkien's children's story deserves little serious, purely literary criticism. But we cannot take The Hobbit by itself, for it stands at the threshold of one of the most immense and satisfying imaginative creations of our time, The Lord of the Rings.
More recently, in Tolkien and the Silmarils, Helms has suggested that The Hobbit is important as a "mid-wife" to the birth of The Lord of the Rings out of The Silmarillion, commenting that "The Hobbit could be called The Silmarillion writ small." While this latter observation may increase the critical importance of The Hobbit, it does not bring us any closer to understanding it as a children's book. Helms does, however, recognize and enumerate three major characteristics which separate The Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings, and which also help to identify it as a children's book: intrusions by the narrator, a plot about growing up, and word or language play. These characteristics are not found only in The Hobbit, of course; as Lois Kuznets notes in "Tolkien and the Rhetoric of Childhood," they are a part of a general rhetoric found in various classics of children's literature.
There are more than three dozen incidents in The Hobbit of direct intrusion by the narrator—intrusions such as "I must say" or "I can tell you," in which the narrator refers to himself in the first person singular before going on to give the reader some information or to offer his own opinion on the events taking place, and other intrusions such as "that comes at the end of the tale" or "as you have heard," in which the narrator directs the reader's attention to some other events in the story. In addition, of course, there are various explanations of or comments on the story which any omniscient author might make, but which are written in the same tone as the more direct narrator intrusions and must, therefore, also be credited to the narrator.
As Jane Nitzsche points out in Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, the narrator's intrusions have "annoyed readers and critics" alike. And because Tolkien later repudiated the technique (by example in The Lord of the Rings as well as in interviews and in critical articles about writing fantasy), most of these annoyed critics and readers have passed over the narrator's intrusions as merely a way one writes for children or as the sort of flaw one often finds in an early work. A few critics, however, have suggested that the narrator's intrusions were not a mistake in narrative style—regardless of Tolkien's later comments. Nitzsche, for example, likens the narrator in The Hobbit to the narrator in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and suggests that Tolkien's narrator, like Chaucer's, is quite separate from the author and must be treated as another character in the novel. And Kuznets sees the narrator as someone who "promises protection and companionship even when one is reading alone."
But the sources for the narrator's intrusions may be quite different from the ones that these critics suggest. There are similar moralizing comments by the narrator of Beowulf, many of which occur in the digressions but are actually comments on actions in the main story. And in the main story itself, the narrator occasionally makes a direct evaluative comment. When Wiglaf finally comes to Beowulf's aid against the dragon, for example, the narrator says, "so should a man be / a thane in need" (lines 2708–2709). Even closer in narrative style to The Hobbit, however, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which there are numerous first person narrator intrusions. After describing some of Arthur's Christmas feast, for example, the narrator of that poem says, "Now will I of their service tell you no more, / for everyone well knows that no lack was there" (lines 103-131). It is possible, then, that Tolkien took his narrative pose not from other children's literature or from a sense of having to talk down to an imagined naive listener, but from two poems (and from other ancient and medieval works like them) with which he was very familiar, and in whose image he may well have been casting many aspects of The Hobbit. Tolkien's debt to Celtic and Scandinavian sources has been established in other matters and should certainly be considered here.
About the second major element which marks The Hobbit as a children's book, its plot about growing up, there is little debate. Every critic recognizes that Bilbo Baggins "grows up" as a result of his adventures, that he matures and accepts responsibilities toward the end of the novel which he could not have even imagined in the first chapter, and that by the last chapter it is a much more competent hobbit who returns to the Shire and puts things back into order there. The hobbit who left home without even a pocket handkerchief has become the friend of eagles and elves, has rescued his companions time and again, has faced and conquered his own doubts and fears, and has returned home with a magic ring and bags of gold. As Bilbo and Gandalf approach the Shire, Bilbo recites some new verses to "Roads Go Ever Ever On," and Gandalf comments, "Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were."
But there is some debate over how to analyze this plot. As already noted, Helms sees The Hobbit as Tolkien's learning experience and, like many other critics, comments on the close parallels between the episodic structures of both works, concluding that "The Lord of the Rings is The Hobbit writ large." In addition, of course, he notes the real and important differences between the two works, especially those which make one a children's book and the other a work for adults. Helms also offers a more or less tongue-in-cheek Freudian analysis of The Hobbit which, focusing on caves and swords and the like, reduces the story to a psychological ritual of emerging manhood. Timothy R. O'Neill, however, in The Individuated Hobbit, presents a serious Jungian analysis of Bilbo's journey as a journey into his own subconscious.
Most other critics, like Helms, have set up their discussions of The Hobbit to balance, if not directly preview, their discussions of The Lord of the Rings. Nitzsche discusses The Hobbit as a children's story, similar to but less complex than The Lord of the Rings, which she discusses as an epic. In One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien's Mythology, Anne Petty suggests that "the most profound and ominous elements of LOTR are quarried from [The Hobbit]," and she employs Propp's morphological analysis as a means of illustrating just how similar the two works are. And Katharyn Crabbe, in J.R.R. Tolkien, deals with The Hobbit as a fairy tale before dealing with The Lord of the Rings as legend and The Silmarillion as myth.
A third major characteristic of children's literature, word or language play, is an important part of The Hobbit, and it seems to me that it exists on at least three levels. On the most obvious and simplest level, there are the puns, sound effects, silly songs, and made-up words which have most annoyed the critics and which, quite probably, have most delighted the children. The broadest pun, perhaps, involves the beheading of the goblin king, Golfimbul, which not only won a battle but also, when the head went down a rabbit hole, began the game of golf.
Also on this level are the sound effects, from the ding-dong-a-ling-dang of Bilbo's doorbell in the Shire to the swish, smack! of the goblins' whips far under the Misty Mountains. At various points in The Hobbit, the reader encounters the songs of the goblins and the elves. All of these songs are so whimsical that they undercut the basic natures of the singers; that is, the reader finds the goblins less fearsome and the elves less wondrous after hearing their respective songs. (In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote much more serious songs and poetry.) And finally, there are words such as "con-fusticate" and "bebother," which Bilbo uses when he is annoyed with the dwarves. If nothing else, these words, songs, sounds, and puns should catch the ears of children and, perhaps, make them more attentive to all of Tolkien's words.
The second level of word or language play involves various traditional uses of language, much of which a child would recognize and be familiar with. The riddling contest between Bilbo and Gollum is probably Tolkien's most dramatic use of traditional language, and except for Bilbo's last riddle (which is not actually a riddle at all), all of them are traditional riddles, some of which a child might have already heard. Thus, Bilbo's riddling session with Gollum could catch the interest of children, and, by acquainting and re-acquainting them with traditional riddles which have variants in their own world, prepare them for the riddling Bilbo does with Smaug, a session in which the riddles belong primarily to Middle Earth and have no close variants in the child's world. Similarly, Tolkien's use of proverbs is both traditional and original. Proverbs such as "Third time pays all" have variants such as "Third time's the charm" in the reader's world; but Bilbo's proverbs, "Every worm has his weak spot" and "Never laugh at live dragons," while they are structured like familiar proverbs, belong essentially to Middle Earth.
Tolkien includes other language-based activities with which children would be familiar. Gandalf's mimicking of the trolls' voices to save Bilbo and the dwarves and Bilbo's name-calling to lure the spiders away from the dwarves are both activities which have their parallels in the child's world. And a child, much more than an adult, understands the effectiveness of mimicry and name-calling. Also, Tolkien's use of runic writing and maps would be familiar, at least in principle, to young readers. To be sure, most children are not familiar with runic writing as such, but they do invent various kinds of secret codes and maps which use otherwise meaningless symbols to stand for letters and which show the way to a secret camp. The concept of a secret runic writing or a special map, then, would not be all that strange to young readers.
The third level of word or language play in The Hobbit introduces the reader to some fairly sophisticated linguistic concepts. One such concept involves the nature of names as symbols. Bilbo is merely polite to the old man who appears in front of his hobbit hole in chapter one, but when that old man announces that "I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me" Bilbo becomes quite excited. It is the old man who has the power, but Bilbo reacts to the name, the symbol, more strongly than to the old man, the object for which the symbol stands. The symbol has aroused something in Bilbo that the object did or could not.
Other incidents involving names as symbols abound in The Hobbit. At one point, Bilbo asks Gandalf why Beorn calls an unusual geological formation a "Carrock;" Gandalf answers that Beorn "calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well." Rather than a symbol of meaning, the name is a point of reference, a way for someone—in this case, Beorn—to locate himself in his world. It is also, of course, a sign of ownership; giving something a name is an assertion of the right to give it a name. Tolkien also suggests that names can be relative. The swords found among the trolls' spoils are called Orcrist, "Goblin-cleaver," and Glamdring, "Foe-hammer," by the dwarves and the elves, but the goblins, against whom they were used, call them Biter and Beater.
Knowing the names of people, places, and things is important for more than merely functional reasons; Tolkien strongly suggests that, in addition to a knowledge of languages being power (as in the case of Elrond's knowing how to read the runes and, thereby, giving Bilbo and the dwarves the power to open the secret door), the languages themselves may be magical. Certainly there are magic spells, mostly Gandalf's, which open doors and make either friendly or destructive fire, but Tolkien does not stop there. He suggests that there is power inherent in language and that words, used effectively, can move people in ways they do not fully understand.
In the first chapter, for example, the dwarves sing about a dragon who killed dwarves to get their gold and harps, and about a quest to win back those treasures. The dwarves' song has a profound effect on Bilbo:
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.
And later in the book, when Bilbo is talking to Smaug, he feels "an uncomfortable desire … to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug." Bilbo has almost fallen under a "dragon-spell," and although Tolkien says no more about it, Smaug's language is an example of language which has power far beyond its denotative or connotative value. This language is magical.
Although these three characteristics—an intrusive narrator, a plot about growing up, and word or language play—may help identify a story as one aimed at a young reader, their presence alone does not identify it as a classic. But they can be a guide. I have dealt with the word or language play of The Hobbit in some detail to illustrate that Tolkien put a lot of care and craftsmanship into the writing, the actual language, of this book. This feature may, in fact, be the key to The Hobbit's stature. Tolkien was, after all, a philologist, and he knew the historical and cultural depths of words. Simonne d'Ardenne, Tolkien's student, friend, and colleague in philology, asserts that "Tolkien belonged to that very rare class of linguists, now becoming extinct, who like the Grimm brothers could understand and recapture the glamour of 'the word.'" In his essay, "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien himself said that it was "in Fairy Stories that I first divined the potency of words" and suggested that it is the power of language that creates the fantasy world. In other crit-ical works, especially "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale," he illustrated that a knowledge of the individual words themselves, in as much of their original and contextual meaning as we can establish, is invaluable to understanding a literary work as a whole. Thus, it comes as no surprise when Verlyn Flieger suggests, in the preface to Splintered Light:
Above all, he gives us back words, those tired old counters worn with use, and makes them new again in all their power, variety, and magic. He remembers for us what we have forgotten, that spell is both a noun and a verb, that it means incantation as well as the formation of a word by letters, and that to use it in either sense inevitably involves using it in both senses.
And because of Tolkien's language, the reader retains vivid pictures from The Hobbit long after the actual reading has been completed, pictures which make him always slightly dissatisfied with the renderings on the Tolkien calendars or the interpretations of various illustrators and animators. The reader draws his pictures directly from Tolkien's language, a language in which any word may be used in many senses simultaneously. Gandalf alerts us to this early in the book when he asks Bilbo what he means by "Good Morning!" "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?" And Bilbo replies that it is all of that and more.
Almost all fantasy writers and critics agree that it is its language upon which a fantasy novel stands or falls. In "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," Ursula LeGuin argues that the heroes of High Fantasy must speak as if they are from Elfland—and not from Poughkeepsie or Washington, D.C. The style is important, she continues, acknowledging Tolkien, "because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer's vision of the world … A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks here is the creator's voice. And every word counts."
When all of those words are woven together, they make a story. As a term of literary criticism, "story" has fallen on hard times. In "On Stories," C.S. Lewis suggests that critics have paid much more attention to literary works in which the story, "the series of imagined events," is there as a vehicle for something else—social criticism, for example—than they have to literary works "in which everything else is there for the sake of the story." This, it seems to me, strikes right to the heart of the critics' problems with The Hobbit; the novel is first and, perhaps, foremost a good story, and those who refuse to deal with it on that level—or who are ignorant of that level—have little recourse but to try to deal with the source materials, the psychological patterns, or the stirrings of an imagination which would not reach full fruition until The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit is a touchstone, finally, because it is a very good story, and it is a good story primarily because Tolkien was a philologist. This means, as I have already suggested, that Tolkien knew about words and knew how to choose them effectively. But he was also a philologist of his time, a time in which, as Flieger notes, "philology, mythology, and anthropology were coming to be seen as formed from the same matrix." And so The Hobbit, a children's book, reverberates with mythic and legendary resonances from its connections to Tolkien's own mythological creation, The Silmarillion, as well as from its connections to northern European, especially Scandinavian and Celtic, myths and legends. The novel opens with dwarves from The Elder Edda and a wizard close to druidic traditions, and it does not close until after the vanquishing of a dragon (certainly kin to the Midgard Serpent) right out of Beowulf.
But Tolkien was not merely borrowing materials from ancient sources, he was telling a traditional story. This, too, was a result, in part, of his being a philologist. As a philologist, Tolkien studied not only the ancient words, but also the documents in which they appeared—Beowulf, The Mabinogion, The Elder Edda, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the rest. He knew, from those studies, that the traditional story teller was less an inventor of new materials that a refiner of old ones. In The Celts, Gerhard Herm notes that, among many other materials, the Bards had to learn "all of the old stories circulating that the public invariably wished to hear again and again, in the same traditional form." Tolkien, then, took the traditional materials he knew and retold them as The Hobbit.
Tolkien's fiction, while written in the twentieth century, is more closely patterned after mythic and heroic narrative (in both content and style) than it is after more recent literatures. And judged as a traditional narrative, as a "good story" carefully crafted by a master of language, The Hobbit is clearly one of the classics of children's literature.
Source: C. W. Sullivan III, "J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: The Magic of Words," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Children's Literature Association, 1985, pp. 253-60.
In the following excerpt, Matthews discusses The Hobbit from a psychoanalytic perspective.
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has received very little serious critical attention other than as the precursor of The Lord of the Rings. It has usually been praised as a good introduction to the trilogy, and as a children's book, but anyone familiar with psychoanalysis cannot avoid being tantalized by recurrent themes and motifs in the three stories. Bilbo's story has surprising depths that can be plumbed by the reader who is receptive to psychoanalytic interpretations.
The central pattern of The Hobbit is, quite obviously, a quest. Like so many heroes before him, Bilbo sets out on a perilous journey, encounters and overcomes many obstacles (including a confrontation with a dragon) and returns victorious after he has restored a kingdom and righted ancient wrongs. However, this pattern is so commonplace in literature that it is not a very helpful signpost. But it may help in other ways.
Let us first look briefly at The Hobbit for its folk ingredients, that is, the common motifs or story elements which it shares with folk narratives. There are, of course, the creatures themselves: dwarves, elves, trolls, animal servants, helpful birds and, the most frequently recurring of all folk adversaries, the treasure-guarding dragon. There are magic objects in abundance: a ring of invisibility, secret entrances into the underworld, magic swords, and doors into mountains. Dreams foretell and taboos admonish, the violation of which could bring dire results.
There are tasks to be performed, riddles to solve, and foes to be outwitted or outfought. Folk motifs form the very warp and woof in the texture of this tale, which is not surprising since Tolkien, as a medievalist, is immersed in folk tradition, a tradition that gives substance not only to the best known epics but to most medieval narratives and to fairy tales.
In fact, it is probably its resemblance to what today's readers see as the nursery tale that has resulted in The Hobbit being relegated to elementary school shelves….
But even if The Hobbit is only a children's story, it should be analyzed more closely for deeper levels of meaning, for it is the kind of story that has provided the most profound insights into the human psyche….
Bilbo Baggins' journey [is] a metaphor for the individuation process, his quest … a search for maturity and wholeness, and his adventures … symbolically detailed rites of maturation….
… [At] the beginning of the tale, Bilbo's personality is out of balance and far from integrated. His masculinity, or one may say his Tookish aggressiveness, is being repressed so that he is clinging rather immaturely to a childish way of life. He has not even begun to realize his full potential. The womblike peace and security of his home is disturbed with the arrival of Gandalf, who may be seen as a projection of the Jungian archetype of the wise old man since he resembles the magic helper of countless stories….
At the outset of their adventure, Bilbo, like a typical young adolescent, is uncertain of his role, or persona, to use a Jungian term….
One of the most crucial incidents of the story takes place when Bilbo finds himself unconscious and separated from the dwarves within the mountain domain of the goblins. In this underground scene he must face an important trial; he must make a decision whose outcome will be a measure of his maturity…. With unprecedented courage he decides to face life rather than to withdraw from it. This decision marks an important step in his psychological journey.
The danger he decides to face at this time, of course, is Gollum, the vaguely sensed but monstrous inhabitant of the underground lake. The association of this adversary with water and the attention given to his long grasping fingers and voracious appetite suggest a similarity to Jung's Devouring-Mother archetype, that predatory monster which must be faced and slain by every individual in the depths of his unconscious if he is to develop as a self-reliant individual. The fact that the talisman is a ring is even more suggestive of Jungian symbology since the circle is a Jungian archetype of the self—the indicator of possible psychic wholeness. The psychological importance of this confrontation is further supported by the imagery of the womb and of rebirth which marks the details of Bilbo's escape….
Whether the spider with whom Bilbo battles is interpreted as a Jungian shadow figure, embodying evil, or as the Devouring-Mother facet of the anima is immaterial. The symbolism is clear without specific terms: a lone protagonist must free him-self from a menacing opponent that has the power to cripple him forever. With the aid of a miraculously acquired sword and a magic talisman, he is able to face the danger and overcome it….
From this point on, Bilbo has the self-esteem needed to fulfill his responsibilities as a mature and trustworthy leader. It is through his ingenuity that they escape from the dungeon prisons in the subterranean halls of the wood-elves. This last episode also reveals telling symbolic details in that the imprisonment is underground and the escape through a narrow outlet into the water is yet another birth image.
The climactic adventures of Bilbo are of course the episodes with Smaug, who, like the traditional dragon of folklore, has laid waste the land and is guarding a treasure. If viewed in the light of Jungian symbology, the contested treasure can be seen as the archetype of the self, of psychic wholeness. Thus this last series of events marks the final stages of Bilbo's quest of maturation….
A truly critical question arises in considering [the incident where Bilbo acquires the Arkenstone] and the remainder of the story. I have taught this work many times and am constantly hearing complaints of dissatisfaction from students who feel that the last part of the book is both puzzling and anticlimactic. Many report that they felt a real loss of interest while reading the final chapters. Why does Bilbo keep the Arkenstone without telling the dwarves and then use it as a pawn in dealing with their enemies? Why, they ask, did Tolkien have a rather uninteresting character, rather than Bilbo, kill Smaug? Why is Bilbo, the previous center of interest, knocked unconscious so that he is useless during the last Battle of Five Armies? Isn't it a fault in artistic structure to allow the protagonist to fade from the picture during episodes when the normal expectation would be to have him demonstrate even more impressive heroism?
Answers to these questions are clear if the story is interpreted as the psychological journey of Bilbo Baggins. It stands to reason that Tolkien does not have Bilbo kill the dragon because that would be more the deed of a savior or culture hero, such as St. George, or the Red Cross Knight, or Beowulf. The significance of this tale lies in fact in the very obviously anti-heroic manner in which Tolkien chooses to bring Bilbo's adventures to a conclusion. As a result, Bilbo emerges as a symbol of a very average individual, not as a figure of epic proportion. Bilbo has not found eternal glory, but, rather, the self-knowledge that a willingness to meet challenge is not necessarily incompatible with a love of home…. [At] the conclusion of his adventures Bilbo finds the greatest prize of all: a knowledge of his own identity. In maturing psychologically, he has learned to think for himself and to have the courage to follow a course he knows to be rightin spite of possible repercussions.
Source: Dorothy Matthews, "The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lob-dell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 29-42.
Peter Beagle, in an introduction to The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Anne Eaton, in the New York Times, March 13, 1938, p. 12.
Daniel Grotta, in J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, Running Press, 1976, pp. 85-105.
Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1937, p. 714.
David Day, in A Tolkien Bestiary, Random House, 1998, 286 p.
Surveys the beasts, deities, and other creatures that exist in Middle-earth.
Karen Wynn Fonstad, in The Atlas of Middle-earth, Houghton Mifflin, 1991, 210 p.
Detailed maps of Middle-earth, including war and other thematic maps.
Robert Foster, in A Guide to Middle-earth, Ballantine Books, 1974, 291 p.
A directory to all the proper names appearing in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and The Road Goes Ever On.
Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, in Tolkien and the Critics, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, 296 p.
A collection of essays analyzing Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, including contributions from C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden.
Paul H. Kocher, in Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973, 247 p.
A comprehensive study of Tolkien's major works.
J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, Inc., 1974, 200 p.
Contains some of Tolkien's lesser-known fiction and poetry.