Although many people read The Hobbit only as a precursor to Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (1968 as omnibus; original volumes The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954; The Two Towers, 1955; and The Return of the King, 1955), the earlier book deserves discussion for its own considerable merits. The third edition, revised from the original, is considered the standard.
Tolkien is one of the preeminent fantasy writers of the twentieth century. For many readers, his books provide the standards by which to judge all other fantasy. Tolkien’s success lies in his ability to “sub-create,” a process he defines in his essay “On Fairy Stories” as the artist’s ability to create a “Secondary World” that follows consistent internal rules. By describing in depth the peoples, geography, and history of his invented world, Tolkien offers an imaginary world so vividly portrayed in its complexity that readers do not so much suspend disbelief while reading as much as simply believe in Middle-earth.
One component of Tolkien’s success as a sub-creator is his profound knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature. He freely borrows its trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves, and dragons, as well as the quest motif. The quest is an archetypal pattern of fantasy literature present in fairy tales, romances, and epics; it provides structure for both the plot and character development in The Hobbit. Quest stories depict people, most often young, who leave home in search of some object. On the journey the protagonists pass a series of tests, often encountering evil and attempting to destroy it. At the end, the heroes return home fundamentally altered, with their identities reshaped.
Bilbo is a model quest hero. Readers easily identify with him. At the beginning of his travels he is not particularly imaginative, brave, or competent, but he develops these qualities as events demand them of him. Leaving his quiet, unchallenging home for the quest forces Bilbo to grow psychologically during his travels. One fundamental characteristic never changes: He remains good-hearted throughout the story, and much of his success comes from his best qualities of loyalty, perseverance, kindness, and unselfishness. In contrast with Bilbo, the dwarves, elves, and men lack these qualities; their greed over the dragon’s treasure causes the clash among them that precedes the Battle of Five Armies.
The Hobbit has a reputation as a children’s book, but it appeals to a broader audience because it is simultaneously amusing and serious. It deals with important themes in a humorous narrative style. The narrator is intrusive, addressing his audience directly to comment on the action or give information, a trait that younger readers enjoy but that some older readers may occasionally find tiresome. The novel reads aloud well to children, partly because of Tolkien’s use of comic verse and onomatopoeic words.
The Lord of the Rings, the trilogy sequel to The Hobbit, differs vastly in its epic scope and thus is appropriate for adult readers rather than children. It tells the story of Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, who must destroy the Ring of Power of Sauron, the Dark Lord. It explores the same themes of heroism and conflict between good and evil that are present in The Hobbit, but in far greater complexity and intricacy of detail. Although critics frequently favor the epic over its precursor, the two differ so much in aim that comparisons are unfair. The Hobbit furnishes an incomparable introduction to The Lord of the Rings, and its readers often wish to go on to the trilogy, but The Hobbit can stand alone as a rich fantasy experience.