By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Hobbit is one of the biggest-selling books of all time. An estimated 100 million people have read Tolkien’s classic children’s novel since it was first published in 1937. The story of its origins, and Tolkien’s supposed invention of the word ‘hobbit’ (of which more below), are well-known. But how should we ‘read’ The Hobbit? What does the story mean?
Before we offer a textual analysis of Tolkien’s novel, it might be worth briefly summarising the plot.
The Hobbit: plot summary
Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit (a species of small creature which Tolkien invented) who lives in Bag End, in the rural loveliness of The Shire. The wizard Gandalf turns up one day, accompanied by thirteen dwarves, who are on a mission to reclaim their gold, as well as their kingdom, from beneath the Lonely Mountain. This land, which was once theirs, has been taken over by a fearsome dragon named Smaug.
Bilbo has been approached because they need a burglar: someone to break into Smaug’s cave so they can go in and defeat the dragon and recover their gold. Bilbo reluctantly agrees to accompany them. However, the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, is even more reluctantly than Bilbo to have the hobbit come along with them, because Bilbo is not a fighter as the dwarves are. However, the others persuade him, and they all set off together.
They travel to Rivendell, the home of the Elves, where Elrond gives them help with their map. But the gang are then caught by goblins while attempting to cross the Misty Mountains, and Gandalf has to rescue them. Bilbo, however, gets lost deep in the underground tunnels, and encounters Gollum, a mysterious creature whose magic ring Bilbo accidentally acquires.
The ring confers invisibility upon whoever wears it, and – to escape Gollum, having played a game of riddles with him – Bilbo uses the ring and finds his way out of the tunnels. He rejoins the dwarves and they once again have to flee the pursuing goblins. They are assisted by eagles and find their way safely to the house of Beorn, who can transform into a fearsome bear.
In the enchanted forest of Mirkwood, Bilbo uses his sword, Sting, to fight off giant spiders which attack them and ensnare the dwarves in webs. Nearing their destination, the gang are helped by the inhabitants of nearby Laketown, who want Smaug defeated as much as they do. Entering the mountain via a secret door, Bilbo finds Smaug’s lair and identifies a weakness in the dragon’s armour.
When Smaug notices him, he flies into a rage, realising that Laketown has helped Bilbo to find his cave; the dragon flies off to burn Laketown to the ground. Thanks to a thrush overhearing Bilbo’s account of Smaug’s weakness, and then flying to the town to tell them, a man named Bard is able to find Smaug’s weak spot and shoot and kill the dragon with an arrow, halting the destruction.
The dwarves are now able to regain their mountain, and Bilbo finds the Arkenstone, a stone precious to Thorin’s family. But he hides it rather than handing it over to Thorin. When the men of Laketown demand a cut of Smaug’s treasure to help repair their town, Thorin refuses, drawing on the surrounding armies of dwarves to defend his position.
Bilbo attempts to intercede, using the Arkenstone to bribe the Laketowners, but when Thorin finds out he sends Bilbo away, angered at having been betrayed by the hobbit.
With the help of the eagles and Beorn, the dwarves win the Battle of Five Armies. However, in the battle Thorin is mortally wounded. Before he dies, he forgives Bilbo. Bilbo returns home to his hobbit-hole, with a small cut of the treasure.
The Hobbit: analysis
We should, according to Tolkien, resist the urge to analyse The Hobbit as an allegory of any kind. Tolkien disliked allegory, and for this reason he wasn’t keen on his friend C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books (although Lewis denied that these were allegory, too).
In his preface to the second edition of the vast sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote that many people confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’, and this distinction is worth pondering. ‘Applicability’, to use Tolkien’s phrase, gives the reader freedom in how they interpret and analyse the story, whereas ‘allegory’ involves a very top-down ‘you should read X here as representing Y’ instruction from the author.
So if we read one of the most famous allegories in twentieth-century literature, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (which appeared just eight years after The Hobbit: we have analysed Orwell’s book here), as simply a tale about animals and their relationships with their human masters, we are missing something vital from the story.
With The Hobbit, we may detect possible meanings beneath the leafy Shire, the dragon guarding his gold, the novel’s quest motif, and many other details, but Tolkien refuses to prescribe one meaning that we’re meant to follow.
So it was with the great Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English epics which he admired and wrote about as part of his day job as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford. Grendel and the dragon in Beowulf may mean any number of things: their meaning is in the eye, and mind’s eye, of the reader or listener.
Of course, it helps with old epic poems like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that the identity of the author remains unknown to us, so even if they were intended as allegory, we have lost the ‘key’ that supposedly unlocks them.
But even though we know The Hobbit was written by someone who had first-hand experience of war (like many men of his generation, Tolkien had fought in the First World War) as the inevitability of another war was growing even more urgent, we should refuse to draw any clear line between real-world events and the work of imaginative fantasy which Tolkien wrote.
So, if not as allegory, how should we interpret this quest tale for a modern readership, which is clearly indebted to Germanic and Norse myths of the Middle and ‘Dark’ Ages? On a structural level we can be more confident. In his vast and brilliant study of plot structures, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker gives us two pointers which we might apply to The Hobbit: Tolkien’s tale is an example of both the ‘quest’ story and the ‘voyage and return’ narrative.
Indeed, Tolkien’s subtitle for The Hobbit, There and Back Again, even spells this out for us. Bilbo is the reluctant hero who must leave home – as in countless fairy tales – and go out on an adventure which will make him a wiser (and certainly richer) person.
In this connection, it’s worth stopping to analyse both the similarities between The Hobbit and many earlier folk tales and myths and the crucial ways in which Tolkien departs from these tropes and conventions. Vladimir Propp, in his influential work on the ‘morphology of the folk tale’, identified a number of plot details and character types which we find in various European fairy stories: a hero has to leave home, a hero is challenged to prove his heroic qualities, a hero is tricked by the villain, and so on; ending, of course, with the hero returning home and order being restored to the world.
Identifying many of Propp’s features in Tolkien’s novel helps to explain (or partly explain at least) why The Hobbit has become such a favourite novel among both young and old readers alike. There is something primal and mythic about its plot elements, as well as its local detail (dragons, treasure, giant eight-legged foes, shape-shifting bears, and the rest of it). Tolkien taps into the need for fireside tales told by travelling mythmongers and local bards which seems hard-wired into our brains.
With The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion it’s clear that Tolkien set out to create a full-blown mythology for England, drawing on its Germanic and Norse heritage, complete with fully developed languages like Elvish (Tolkien’s speciality was philology, or the study of languages). But with The Hobbit he was doing something less ambitious but no less mythic: creating a sort of modern-day fairy story.
And it is those elements of The Hobbit which depart from the traditional folk tale that make the novel something recognisably modern. The hero is not some wet-behind-the-ears youngster who needs to go out and find his way in the world: he is a middle-aged and perfectly settled creature of habit who has his life all sorted and only agrees to leave his comfortable hobbit-hole with the greatest reluctance.
He is not tricked by the villain but turns out to be the arch-trickster himself, outwitting Gollum and winning, for his efforts, the fated magic ring (another well-worn idea even when Tolkien used it: see the Ring of Gyges) that would become the centrepiece of The Lord of the Rings.
And, of course, Bilbo is knocked unconscious soon after the climactic Battle of the Five Armies begins. Here, perhaps, we might be permitted a smidgen of biographical analysis: Tolkien, having fought in and survived a mass industrial war which afforded little opportunity for old-fashioned heroism, seems to be commenting on the unheroic nature of war and adventure. You’re more likely to be the fellow zonked out on the ground during the battle than you are the warrior wielding the sword and winning the day.
Indeed, even the story’s other main hero, Thorin, doesn’t survive the battle. The Hobbit offers a very cautious and critical account of war, with the costs often outweighing any perceived benefits.
However, this is not to say that Bilbo fails as a ‘hero’: merely that Tolkien is at pains to highlight a quieter, more diplomatic kind of hero whose work goes on behind the scenes (Bilbo’s role as burglar scouting out Smaug’s lair). He tries to prevent the final battle by bargaining with the Laketown residents and Wood-Elves. Thorin is enraged by this, but he ends up paying an even higher price than his family’s precious Arkenstone, giving his own life in the course of the battle.
Contrary to popular belief, the word ‘hobbit’ did exist before The Hobbit. The famous story is that Tolkien, while marking some of his students’ exam papers in Oxford one day, came to a blank sheet which had not a single word written on it. Out of nowhere – or so it seemed – he had a flash of inspiration, and hastily scribbled down the sentence, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’
For all that Tolkien’s origin-story offers a delightful ‘Eureka’ moment for the novel’s (and word’s) conception, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. And ultimately, the strength of Tolkien’s novel lies not in its originality but in its superlative assembling of existing tropes and ideas into a story that offers a quiet commentary on the meaning of ‘heroism’ in the modern age.