The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Although J. R. R. Tolkien drew extensively from northern European myths in developing various inhabitants of his imaginary world, Middle-earth, The Hobbit (subtitled Or, There and Back Again) focuses on a new race of beings he created. His hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins likes the snug comforts of home with no adventures to interrupt his ordinary life. The wizard Gandalf draws Bilbo out of this sheltered and complacent life by sending him on an adventure—a quest with the dwarf Thorin and his twelve companions to recover the treasure that the dragon Smaug stole. Gandalf employs Bilbo as the dwarves “burglar,” engaging him against his will to steal back Smaug’s hoard.
As the dwarves journey toward Smaug’s lair in the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo learns to live up to Gandalf’s expectations. He fails at first when he unsuccessfully tries to pick a troll’s pocket, and Gandalf has to rescue the group. When they are captured again, this time by goblins, Bilbo is separated from his companions and must rescue himself. He finds a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible and uses it to escape first from Gollum, a threatening creature he encounters, and then from the goblins. He rejoins the dwarves and Gandalf, who have also escaped. Wolves (called wargs) and goblins attack again, but the group is finally rescued by eagles and aided by Beorn, a man who can transform himself into a bear.
After Gandalf leaves the dwarves at the...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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.
(The entire section is 473 words.)
The story begins and ends in The Shire, in the Village of Hobbiton, a completely imaginary place which resembles a medieval English country village unspoiled by modern inventions. In one major way Hobbiton differs from a real world village, even one in the Middle Ages: it is inhabited by hobbits, creatures about three feet tall who prefer to live in hobbit-holes rather than in houses above ground. Although Tolkien does not use the name Middle-earth in The Hobbit, in The Lord of the Rings he places the world of Bilbo's quest in this realm. Physically, Middle-earth resembles modern earth, with its terrain, seasons, and natural beauty. It is the inhabitants of Middle-earth who add a touch of unreality. In making a world in which Bilbo and his dwarf companions can conduct their quest, Tolkien assumes the creative rights which his essay "On Fairy-stories" grants to a story-maker: the right to be free with Nature and use the real world as a basis from which to fashion something new, with its own inner consistency.
(The entire section is 173 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Tolkien's prose style tries to approximate the spoken word. He uses a variety of devices to achieve this storyteller's style: parenthetical and exclamatory remarks, direct address to the reader (or listener), first-person comments by the narrator, rhetorical questions, interruptions of the narrative, and sentence fragments which suggest enlarged parenthetical explanations. The narrator's highly descriptive style conveys vivid pictures of Bilbo, his hobbithole, and Gandalf. The descriptions emphasize physical details such as color, shape, and size. "Frequently the accumulation of detail creates a comic effect, such as the arrival of the dwarves—in stages—in Bilbo's parlor and later on Beorn's porch. The rhetorical techniques used to convey an oral prose style continue throughout the book, but become less obtrusive as the story develops.
Children as well as more mature readers can enjoy Tolkien's habit of playing with language. Riddles and riddling names brighten the scenes in which Bilbo confronts Gollum and Smaug, and the superlatives and formal inversions with which Bilbo flatters Smaug seem appropriate for one who has guarded immense treasure for two hundred years. Bilbo and the narrator occasionally make up words (for example, "confusticate"), but their usual speech provides a standard against which that of other characters can be analyzed. The trolls, for example, indicate their crudity and ignorance by their Cockney-like speech. Gollum's hissing...
(The entire section is 564 words.)
Although there is violence in several sections of The Hobbit, it does not become central to the plot. Both the trolls and the giant spiders talk of eating the dwarves, but no reader expects them to succeed. The emphasis is on the comic aspects of the two rescue scenes. Tolkien's sense of poetic justice turns the quarrelsome trolls to stone and has the stinging spiders wounded by Bilbo's newly named sword, Sting. In the first attack by the goblins the magic of Gandalf s wand and sword take priority over the killing of goblins. In relating the final conflict with the goblins, the great Battle of Five Armies, the narrator calls it "a terrible battle," the "most dreadful of Bilbo's experiences," but he does not show much of the fighting before Bilbo himself is knocked unconscious by a falling stone.
In most fantasy tales, the forces of good and evil are expected to enter into physical as well as psychological conflict. Some amount of violence is, therefore, essential to the plot, but the author does not overdevelop this element. The three heroes of the book—Bilbo, Gandalf, and Bard—all stand out in their efforts to prevent internal fighting among the groups that represent the "good": dwarves, elves, and men. At the end the alliance of the forces of good in mutual support allows them to defeat the forces of evil.
(The entire section is 231 words.)
Compare and 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 birthplace, 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
(The entire section is 277 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Early in the first chapter the narrator comments on Bilbo's parents. What is the significance of the references to his "Tookishness" in this chapter and later in the book? In what kinds of situations does Bilbo himself refer to his Took side?
2. The dwarves first hire Bilbo as their "burglar." In which situations does he fulfill this role? When do his burglarizing exploits bring on unpleasant consequences?
3. Gandalf s presence is important to the success of the quest, but he often leaves the travelers on other business. Why is his absence significant in the overall development of the plot?
4. The adventure with Beorn seems to delay the progress of the quest. In the chapter "Queer Lodgings" several happenings and pieces of information are relevant to later events. Why is the visit to Beorn significant?
5. The most obvious examples of magic in the world of The Hobbit are linked to Gandalf s fireworks and to Bilbo's magic ring. What are other examples of magic in the story? Which instances of magic are most essential to the success of the quest?
6. Smaug is presented as an enemy, but he is not portrayed as negatively as other beings that Bilbo and the dwarves have had to overcome. What are some of the traits that make Srnaug a more respectable enemy?
7. In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf says that the ways in which Bilbo obtained and used the ring affected the "hold" which the ring...
(The entire section is 376 words.)
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Consult a good dictionary for definitions of hero and heroism According to these definitions, to what extent is Bilbo a hero? Include in your response references to specific actions in the book.
2. Both Gandalf and Bard share with Bilbo the role of "hero," but in different ways. Why are they heroes? How is their heroism different from Bilbo's?
3. The dwarves share many traits. Some dwarves, however, have distinctive traits. Select four dwarves that stand out in some way and analyze both common and distinctive traits.
4. Bilbo is presented as a hobbit, and the reader never forgets this for long; but in many ways Bilbo's character reflects traits shared with humans. Analyze this blend of hobbit and human natures, including in your analysis examples for each trait you identify.
5. In his essay "On Fairy-stories" Tolkien says, "We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together . . . . In Faerie one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideout as a nightmare, but one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose that is yet sickeningly ugly." How does The Hobbit exemplify Tolkien's theory that in fairy stories evil is ugly and good is beautiful?
6. In "On Fairy-stories" Tolkien explained fantasy as the art of subcreation, the art of creating a Secondary World that has the inner consistency of reality necessary to produce Secondary Belief. It is the...
(The entire section is 261 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 111 words.)
Tolkien followed The Hobbit with a three-volume sequel, The Lord of the Rings. This trilogy is far more serious in tone and more complex in plot, drawing heavily on Tolkien's mythological inventions later published as The Silmarillion. In the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo leaves The Shire for Rivendell and passes the ring to his nephew Frodo. What was in The Hobbit only a ring of invisibility becomes an evil instrument of Sauron, the unnamed Necromancer to whom Gandalf refers in The Hobbit; the ring now has a long history of evil from its creation to its being found by Bilbo. Gandalf and Elrond, elf leader at Rivendell, organize the Fellowship to destroy the ring. The Two Towers and The Return of the King relate the quest of the Fellows, the destruction of the ring, and the eventual re-establishment of a kingdom in which justice and peace can reign. Another work that might appeal to Hobbit-lovers is Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham, a relatively short work that features the dragon Chrysophylax and the unwilling hero Giles. Both Farmer Giles of Ham and Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories" are available in The Tolkien Reader (1981). A video version of The Hobbit (ABC Video Enterprise, 1977) presents the story in animated cartoon form. The video is true to the basic plot, but it omits or truncates several scenes and does not convey the linguistic artistry of the text.
(The entire section is 236 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 56 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 274 words.)
For Further Reference
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. In this definitive biography Carpenter succeeds in tracing many influences that affected Tolkien's writing while avoiding, as much as possible, literary judgments about that writing. Carpenter's focus is biography, not literary criticism.
Crabbe, Kathryn F. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. In the second chapter, "The Quest as Fairy Tale: The Hobbit," Crabbe considers the book from the standpoint of language, narrative voice, fairy-tale conventions, and the characterization of Bilbo.
Day, David. A Tolkien Bestiary. New York: Ballantine, 1979. The index is often needed to locate items that can be listed under different names in this illustrated glossary of places and creatures in Middle-earth.
Fonstad, Karen Wynn. The Atlas of Middle- earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. In the section on The Hobbit, the brief speculative chronology and maps of the journey and of several battles may help readers to visualize the progression of the narrative.
Rogers, Deborah Webster, and Ivor A. Rogers. J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Twayne, 1980. The authors trace Tolkien's biography and literary backgrounds. A full chapter focuses on The Hobbit.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1981. Includes "On Fairy-stories."
Tyler, J. E. A. The...
(The entire section is 232 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
For Further Study
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...
(The entire section is 209 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Green, William H. “The Four-Part Structure of Bilbo’s Education,” in Children’s Literature. VIII (1979), pp. 133-140.
Lee, Stuart D, and Elizabeth Solopova. The Keys of Middle-Earth. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. A handy portal into Tolkien’s medieval sources, featuring modern translations of the original texts.
Nitzsche, J. C. “The King Under the Mountain: Tolkien’s Hobbit,” in North Dakota Quarterly. XLVII (Winter, 1979), pp. 5-18.
Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-Earth, 1983.
West, Richard C. Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist, 1981.
(The entire section is 78 words.)