Perhaps exactly how The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again came to be written will never be settled. J. R. R. Tolkien himself said that inspiration for the beginning of the story came to him one day when, in the midst of grading examinations, he found that a student had turned in a blank sheet of paper. On that sheet, Tolkien wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He said that names always suggested stories to him, and that he immediately wanted to find out what hobbits were. Tolkien’s children also recall hearing parts of the story told to them at bedtime; some version of The Hobbit, perhaps incomplete, was probably in existence before 1932, when it was seen by C. S. Lewis, then a fellow professor with Tolkien at Oxford.
Whatever the immediate spark, the story that resulted was a fresh version of an age-old plot, the quest. At the very start of the story, the reader learns what hobbits are: a smaller, shyer, home-loving race related to humans; a race living in a far-distant mythical past on a world both like and unlike Earth. The central character, the young hobbit Bilbo Baggins, seems typical of his people at the beginning, content to live a quiet and unexciting life in his cozy dwelling. From the beginning, however, the story sounds a note of mystery: Gandalf, a wizard whose powers are only hinted at, has seen in Bilbo a taste for adventure and a capacity for heroism.
Gandalf knows that the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield plans a return to the Lonely Mountain, the former home of his people. Long ago, the dwarves (Tolkien’s famous spelling of the plural form) had been driven from the mountain by a dragon who has converted it into a secure lair. What the dwarves need is a burglar, someone who can penetrate the lair and scout its defenses, and Gandalf (without informing Bilbo) tells Thorin that Bilbo is just the hobbit for the job. Thus, at the beginning of the story, Thorin and his band of followers show up at Bilbo’s hole and sweep him away on the quest.
Although Bilbo shows some initial reluctance, Gandalf had judged him rightly. Bilbo sets out with the dwarves and steps into a larger world. As the band travels to the Lonely Mountain, they encounter situations that increase in danger. They are threatened by trolls and captured by goblins. During the latter episode, Bilbo gains a crucial possession and meets an important character. While lost in the goblin caverns, Bilbo finds a ring and not long afterward encounters its owner. This character is Gollum, a loathsome, solitary figure, dwelling in darkness and ruled by his greed for a magical ring. Not knowing that he has lost the ring, Gollum regards Bilbo as an intruder and is ready to kill him when Bilbo challenges him to a game of riddles. With the ring in his possession, Bilbo is more than a match for Gollum and, in an act that will later be important, spares Gollum’s life and escapes from the caverns. The adventures continue, but now Bilbo is growing to fit his role. Thorin’s band is seized by giant spiders and imprisoned by elves, a race long suspicious of dwarves, but the dwarves are delivered from each of these dangers by Bilbo’s imagination and daring (qualities he himself had not suspected he possessed). Eventually, they reach their destination.
Once again, Bilbo proves equal to the task, and by now he is rather enjoying being a burglar. He single-handedly enters the mountain lair, manages to confuse the dragon, and escapes with a piece of treasure from the hoard, an act that leads directly to the climax of the story. Discovering the theft, the dragon suspects someone from Dale, a nearby town inhabited by humans, and he flies out to punish the thief. During the devastation that follows, Bard, a hero from the town, kills the dragon with an arrow. In the meantime, Thorin, Bilbo, and the band of dwarves reenter the mountain caves, and Thorin prepares to establish the seat of his kingdom there. As the climax approaches, forces are gathering to contest Thorin’s claim to the dragon’s treasure: The humans of Dale, the wood-elves from the forest of Mirkwood, and a reinforcing army of dwarves kindred to Thorin dispute who has a right to the treasure. This quarrel is postponed by the arrival of a force of wolves and goblins, and a general melee follows, one which Bilbo sees as the futile result of greed and in which he takes no direct part. Although the wolves and goblins are defeated, the victory costs Thorin his life. Before he dies, though, Thorin realizes that his greed has killed him and that the treasure is large enough to share. After the dwarves, elves, and humans have come to a friendly settlement, Bilbo returns home with the memories of his trip and with the ring.