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.
Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, the protagonist. Fifty years old when the story begins, Bilbo is respectable, unadventurous, and predictable. Forced into an unwanted role as burglar with Thorin’s expedition, Bilbo encounters a series of monsters and learns with growing self-reliance to use his luck and his wits, becoming the leader of the expedition. By discovering Smaug’s weak spot, Bilbo helps slay the dragon, though no one remembers his contribution. One year after setting out, Bilbo returns from his adventure a changed hobbit: No longer respectably predictable, he is a hero, with a true sense of his small but vital place in a wide world.
Gandalf, a wizard, almost a comic character, whose powers remain largely unrevealed. Gandalf chooses Bilbo to accompany the dwarves and travels with them in the early stages of their journey, rescuing them from the trolls, helping the dwarves escape the goblin tunnels, and introducing them to Elrond and Beorn. Gandalf leaves the company in Bilbo’s care before they enter Mirkwood, thus letting the hobbit grow into his role as self-reliant hero. The wizard reappears at the end of the quest, helping in the Battle of the Five Armies, and later accompanies Bilbo back to Hobbiton.
Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf, rightful heir to his grandfather Thror, last King under the Mountain, whose kingdom Smaug destroyed. Thorin is both proud and brave. He proposed the daring quest, but he is also stubborn and prone to greed: He refuses to share the dragon treasure and becomes estranged from Bilbo. In the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin makes a valiant last stand with his kinfolk, but the great dwarf falls, badly wounded. Lifted from the fray by Beorn, Thorin dies after praising Bilbo and is buried with honor.
Smaug, a greedy, strong dragon. Long ago, Smaug destroyed the town of Dale and the kingdom under the Lonely Mountain. He has accumulated a mountain of treasure, which he uses for a bed. Smaug seems invincible, but Bilbo discovers a soft spot on his left breast; this information enables Bard to slay Smaug during the dragon’s attack on Esgaroth.
Beorn, a skin-changer, sometimes a huge man and sometimes a great bear. Beorn, though suspicious, shelters Thorin and company after their escape from the goblins and Wargs. After confirming their story, Beorn offers the dwarves any help within his power. He appears as a bear in the Battle of the Five Armies and routs the goblins just when defeat seems certain.
Bard, a man of Esgaroth, grim of voice and face, the slayer of Smaug. Bard is descended from Girion, last Lord of Dale. After Smaug’s death, Bard helps the Elvenking besiege Thorin but joins with elves and dwarves in the Battle of the Five Armies. Later, Bard rebuilds a merry and prosperous Dale.
The old thrush
The old thrush, a bird whose forebears were friendly to the dwarves and to the men of Dale. The old thrush helps slay Smaug, carrying news of the dragon’s weak spot to Bard.
Elrond, the lord of Rivendell, where Thorin and company rest before crossing the Misty Mountains. Elrond is half-elven and is noble, wise, venerable, and kind. He finds the moon-letters on Thorin’s map, revealing information crucial to Thorin’s quest.
Gollum, a small, dark monster (named Sméagol and identified as a ruined hobbit in other books). Gollum is fond of fish and goblin meat, and his willingness to try hobbit gives Bilbo his first real trial. In the goblin tunnels where Gollum lives, Bilbo finds a ring, long possessed by Gollum, that makes its wearer invisible. Gollum engages Bilbo in a riddle contest, which the hobbit, by luck and not quite fairly, wins. Learning of the ring’s power from Gollum’s mutterings, Bilbo follows the monster to the goblins’ back door. Choosing fairness over prudence, he does not kill Gollum, but leaps over him to freedom.
The Elvenking, lord of the wood-elves. He imprisons the dwarves in his dungeon, whence they escape with Bilbo’s help. Thorin afterward bears a grudge against the Elvenking. After Smaug’s death, the Elvenking, who has a weakness for treasure, marches with an army toward the Lonely Mountain, turning aside to help the people of ruined Esgaroth. With Bard, he besieges Thorin but joins dwarves and men in the Battle of the Five Armies.
Dain son of Nain
Dain son of Nain, Thorin’s cousin. Dain leads an army of dwarves from the Iron Hills to aid Thorin against the Elvenking and Bard but joins elves and men in the Battle of the Five Armies. Dain, a generous dwarf, becomes King under the Mountain after Thorin’s death.