#25 The Hobbit (There and Back Again), by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, better known by its abbreviated title The Hobbit, is a fantasy novel and children’s book by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature. Themes of personal growth and forms of heroism figure in the story. Along with conflict, these themes lead critics to cite Tolkien’s own experiences, and those of other writers who fought in World War I, as instrumental in shaping the story. The author’s scholarly knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literature and interest in fairy tales are also often noted as influences.
Set in a time “Between the Dawn of Fairy and the Dominion of Men”, The Hobbit follows the quest of home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins to win a share of the treasure guarded by the dragon, Smaug. Bilbo’s journey takes him from light-hearted, rural surroundings into darker, deeper territory. The story is told in the form of an episodic quest, and most chapters introduce a specific creature, or type of creature, of Tolkien’s Wilderland. By accepting the disreputable, romantic, fey and adventurous side of his nature (the “Tookish” side) and applying his wits and common sense, Bilbo develops a new level of maturity, competence and wisdom. The story reaches its climax in the Battle of Five Armies, where many of the characters and creatures from earlier chapters re-emerge to engage in conflict.
The development and maturation of the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, is central to the story. This journey of maturation, where Bilbo gains a clear sense of identity and confidence in the outside world, may be seen as a Bildungsroman rather than a traditional quest. The Jungian concept of individuation is also reflected through this theme of growing maturity and capability, with the author contrasting Bilbo’s personal growth against the arrested development of the dwarves. The analogue of the “underworld” and the hero returning from it with a boon (such as the ring, or Elvish blades) that benefits his society is seen to fit the mythic archetypes regarding initiation and male coming-of-age as described by Joseph Campbell. Jane Chance compares the development and growth of Bilbo against other characters to the concepts of just Kingship versus sinful kingship derived from the Ancrene Wisse (which Tolkien had written on in 1929) and a Christian understanding of Beowulf. Specific plot elements and features in The Hobbit that show similarities to Beowulf include Bilbo’s title thief, the underground path into the mountain, and Smaug’s personality which leads to the destruction of Laketown.
The overcoming of greed and selfishness has been seen as the central moral of the story. Whilst greed is a recurring theme in the novel, with many of the episodes stemming from one or more of the characters’ simple desire for food (be it trolls eating dwarves or dwarves eating Wood-elf fare) or a desire for beautiful objects, such as gold and jewels, it is only by the Arkenstone’s influence upon Thorin that greed, and its attendant vices “coveting” and “malignancy”, come fully to the fore in the story and provide the moral crux of the tale. Bilbo steals the Arkenstone—a most ancient relic of the dwarves—and attempts to ransom it to Thorin for peace. However, Thorin turns on the Hobbit as a traitor, disregarding all the promises and “at your services” he had previously bestowed. In the end Bilbo gives up the precious stone and most of his share of the treasure in order to help those in greater need. Tolkien also explores the motif of jewels that inspire intense greed which corrupts those that covet them in the Silmarillion, and there are connections between the words “Arkenstone” and “Silmaril” in Tolkien’s invented etymologies.
The Hobbit employs themes of animism. An important concept in anthropology and child development, animism is the idea that all things—including inanimate objects and natural events, such as storms or purses, as well as living things like animals and plants—possess human-like intelligence. John D. Rateliff calls this the “Doctor Dolittle Theme” in The History of the Hobbit, and cites the multitude of talking animals as indicative of this theme. These talking creatures include ravens, spiders and the dragon Smaug, alongside the anthropomorphic goblins and elves. Patrick Curry notes that animism is also found in Tolkien’s other works, and mentions the “roots of mountains” and “feet of trees” in The Hobbit as a linguistic shifting in level from the inanimate to animate. Tolkien saw the idea of animism as closely linked to the emergence of human language and myth: “…The first men to talk of ‘trees and stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings… To them the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf-patterned”.’
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was a bank manager. After his father’s death, four-year-old Ronald, his younger brother, and mother settled in Sarehole, a village in the West Midlands of England. Tolkien retained an idealized image of the Sarehole Mill, the old mill pool with its overhanging willow tree, a nearby tempting mushroom patch, and clusters of cottages-all of which later figured in his picture of Hobbiton. At this time young Ronald was already discovering two interests that were to shape his life: languages and stories about imaginative places. When his mother moved the family to Birmingham, the trains and factories created a much more forbidding atmosphere, one from which he later encouraged people to “escape” through imaginative literature.
In the fantasy world of Middle-earth, Tolkien has created many echoes of the “real” world. Familiar human traits, both good and bad, abound in the actions of the hobbits, elves, dwarves, goblins, wizards, necromancers, dragons, and other more unusual inhabitants of this world. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien states that one of the major values of stories about the Perilous Realm of Faerie is that such stories provide opportunities for regaining a clearer perspective on the real world. While the adventure story is an entertaining, well-constructed narrative, it is also an appreciation of the simple things in life-good and regular meals, comfortable homes, songs and traditions, and the joys of friendship. In The Hobbit an unlikely hero learns that courage, honesty, and imagination count far more than physical power.
Much of the evil that the forces of good must overcome in Middle-earth is embodied in fantastic beings: a dragon, trolls, goblins, and monstrous spiders. The kind of evil that they represent, especially greed and destructive malice, is, however, familiar to all readers, children or adults. The strongest lesson about the insidious nature of evil lies in the way in which a good dwarf, Thorin, yields to greed and almost destroys his friends. It is Bilbo’s willingness to give up the wealth to which he has a right, combined with his sense of responsibility for his friends, that keeps forces for good from destroying one another and allows them to unite against common enemies. Although Tolkien never implies that his fantasy world can be completely freed from evil, he shows clearly that good is attainable by the individual who really works for it, whether that individual is a strong character like the wizard Gandalf or a diminutive, timid hobbit like Bilbo Baggins.
The hero of The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who, at the age of 50, has never had an adventure and who asserts that no respectable hobbit wants adventures. An adventure, however, comes to him at the instigation of Gandalf, the wizard known to Bilbo only by his reputation for fireworks, great stories, and the ability to tempt young hobbits to try unusual things. The companions of Bilbo and Gandalf are thirteen dwarves, treasure-seekers who, following Gandalf’s advice, take Bilbo with them as their official burglar. Bilbo’s major assignment is to help them retrieve their ancestral treasures, long guarded by the dragon Smaug. The subtitle of the book, “There and Back Again,” suggests the cyclic nature of the quest as the underlying theme: Bilbo accomplishes his quest and returns home, but he is, as Gandalf tells him, a different hobbit than before.
As the quest takes Bilbo “There and Back Again,” two related themes develop: the nature of maturity and the nature of heroism. In the early stages of the book Bilbo seldom has an opportunity to make decisions for himself. He is forced by the requirements of hospitality to welcome Gandalf and the dwarves to his “unexpected party.” During their planning session he first let’s himself be drawn into the discussion because he resents the dwarves’ condescending remarks about his size and his ability. When he finds himself running to catch up to the dwarves, his major concern is that he has forgotten to take his pipe and his handkerchief. It is his desire to impress the dwarves that almost turns them into troll food and it is his physical limitations that lead to his encounter with Gollum.
Gollum’s nature and background are not related in this book, but in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf explains to Bilbo’s nephew (and to the reader) that Gollum’s family had been hobbits. By the time Bilbo meets him, however, Gollum has degenerated from his original happy, friendly nature into a repulsive creature of darkness. The riddle game is Gollum’s idea, but once Bilbo has accepted the suggestion he plays alertly, making the most of accidental advantages: solving the “time” riddle and creating the unorthodox “pocket” riddle. This alertness helps him to discover the secret of the ring of invisibility and to turn Gollum’s efforts to capture him into an escape route. His ability to think under pressure suggests that Bilbo is maturing, but two other traits emerge during the Gollum episode that give clearer evidence of Bilbo’s developing maturity and heroism: his pity for Gollum, which leads him to risk being caught rather than kill a defenseless enemy, and his decision to return to the goblins’ cave in search of his friends.
In the adventures with the goblins and wargs, with the eagles, and with Beorn the skin-changer, Bilbo is again relatively ineffective, but his wits and courage are both needed when he rescues the dwarves from the giant spiders of Mirkwood and later from the wood elves. At Esgaroth, where the first human characters figure in the story, Thorin briefly assumes leadership, claiming his title as “King under the Mountain” and obtaining from the Lake-men provisions and transportation for the last stages of the journey to Smaug’s Lonely Mountain.
When the companions reach Smaug’s cave, they are still without Gandalf, who left them before they entered Mirkwood. By this time the dwarves, even Thorin, have accepted Bilbo as their leader-and their risk-taker. He is the one who recognizes the significance of the thrush when they are trying to find the secret of the door. Once inside, he goes alone to investigate the tunnel and takes a gold cup from the sleeping Smaug. Showing courage and ingenuity, he returns to the angered dragon’s lair, flattering Smaug in order to discover his weak spot. After Smaug’s furious attack on the mountain side, the dwarves again turn to Bilbo to investigate the treasure chamber and to check on Smaug’s whereabouts. While the dwarves wait timidly in the tunnel, Bilbo plunges into the darkness, not yet certain that the treasure-guardian has left. During this solo investigation Bilbo finds and keeps the Arkenston, the family jewel that Thorin is eager to locate. Only when the dwarves are convinced that Smaug is no longer at home do they join Bilbo and move through the tunnels to find the main entrance, a passage down which Thorin is now willing to lead the way.
Smaug has been portrayed as a typical fairy-tale dragon: winged, breathing fire, obsessed first by love for his treasure and later by the desire for vengeance on the Lake-men, who, he thinks, are responsible for encouraging the dwarves to invade his premises. While Bilbo and the dwarves are exploring his cave, Smaug flies off to destroy Lake-town. At this point Tolkien introduces a human hero, Bard the dragon-slayer. Warned by the flaming approach of Smaug, Bard plans for defense, directing the filling of water buckets, the destruction of bridges, and the careful positioning of bowmen. Throughout Smaug’s swooping attacks, he encourages the Lakemen to keep up their steady defense and, when only one of his arrows remains, he calmly listens to the thrush who brings him news of Smaug’s armor-free spot and then carefully aims his arrow to kill Smaug. Bard has shown heroic traits during Smaug’s attack, and other aspects of his leadership emerge as he directs repairs on the village, sends to the wood elves for help, and organizes an expedition to the Lonely Mountain to claim part of the treasure as compensation for the destruction caused by Smaug.
The leadership roles of Bilbo, Bard, and Gandalf merge when Thorin refuses to share any of the treasure with the Lake-men or the elves. Bilbo takes the Arkenstone to Bard, suggesting that he use it to bring Thorin into a bargaining mood. In doing this, he sacrifices his own claims to part of the treasure and risks losing the friendship of the dwarves in pursuit of the greater good. Bard’s role is to unite the forces of men and elves, to arrange the treaty with Thorin, and to ensure that Thorin keeps his promise. Gandalf, who has arrived from other tasks, resumes his leadership role by uniting men, elves, and dwarves against their common enemies: goblins and wargs. Eventually, the forces of good conquer, even though Thorin dies after being reconciled with Bilbo.
Thorin’s dying words to Bilbo convey one of the underlying themes of Tolkien’s book, a theme that contributes to the appeal of the hero himself: “There is more in you of good than you know…If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Due to the book’s critical and financial success, Tolkien’s publishers requested a sequel. As work on The Lord of the Rings progressed, Tolkien made retrospective accommodations for it in one chapter of The Hobbit. These few but significant changes were integrated into the second edition. Further editions followed with minor emendations, including those reflecting Tolkien’s changing concept of the world into which Bilbo stumbled.
The work has never been out of print. Its ongoing legacy encompasses many adaptations for stage, screen, radio, board games and video games. Some of these adaptations have received critical recognition of their own, including a video game that won the Golden Joystick Award, a scenario of a war game that won an Origins Award, and an animated picture nominated for a Hugo Award.