Surely one reason for the success of The Hobbit is the skill with which Tolkien blends a mixture of elements long familiar from fairy tale, legend, and folklore with absolutely original elements. The characters are a good example of this technique: Thorin Oakenshield and his companions, as dwarves, are almost familiar figures; the characteristics that they exhibit—suspicion, a love of gems, skill at mining and delving—are the characteristics long associated with dwarves. Consider the dragon who guards the Lonely Mountain: Although Smaug is an especially acquisitive and cunning dragon, such are traits characteristic of the dragons of legend. The dwarves and the dragon—even a wizard such as Gandalf—place the reader in a familiar context and arouse in the reader’s mind the expectations consistent with stories of heroic fantasy. To this context, Tolkien adds original characters, ones who will not only fulfill but also exceed the reader’s expectations. Chief among these are the hobbits, Tolkien’s chief contribution to mythology and probably his most enduring one.
When Stanley Unwin was considering The Hobbit for publication, he took the normal step of sending the manuscript to a reader for evaluation; the reader, however, was unusual: It was his ten-year-old son, Rayner. That the hobbits—Bilbo in particular— caught Rayner’s imagination is no surprise: Bilbo’s small stature and relative youth make him a hero likable to children. The hobbits as a race enjoy comfort, eating, and drinking, and the pleasures of a secure home—all pleasures accessible to children. Their vices, too, tend to be those of children, chiefly greed and quarrelsomeness. Yet they act in adult affairs and in their actions can well represent something more: Tolkien later claimed that the limited imagination and great courage of the hobbits were traits of the ordinary Englishman, traits which he had the chance to observe under the stress of World War I.
Whether children or Tommies, the hobbits have a deeper dimension: They are capable of moral choices, and one of the most successful characters of the story is one who later proves to be of central importance, Gollum. When he appears, Gollum is so repellent a character that he seems at first to be another species entirely from the wholesome hobbits. As the reader hears his story, however, it becomes quite clear that Gollum’s vice, his overwhelming lust for his precious ring, is only a fault of the ordinary hobbit carried to the extreme.
One may see Bilbo and Gollum as a contrast: Both, perhaps, show a bit more daring than the ordinary hobbit, and both find themselves subjected to temptations outside the ordinary. Both are similar in this, too, that although their adventures in The Hobbit form a satisfying story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, that story will be seen from a more profound perspective in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). The depth of Gollum’s lust for the ring and the height of Bilbo’s heroism in renouncing it will be appreciated in their full dimensions only later when, with the maturity of years, the children who read The Hobbit will turn to its adult sequel.