Although it was written for J. R. R. Tolkien’s children, when The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again was published in 1937 by George Allen & Unwin, it immediately attracted an adult audience and an enthusiastic following. Like its titular character, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit would come in retrospect to seem a small and humble creation next to the sequel its popularity demanded, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Nonetheless, The Hobbit stands on its own merits at the intersection of storytelling, of literary creation and afterlife, and of one small person’s encounter with the wide world.
The novel’s garrulous storyteller enjoys accompanying his tale with amused commentary and asides in the mode of fairy-tale narrators. The text’s many poetic songs reflect the story’s original audience of children, as well as the medieval sagas at the heart of Tolkien’s influences. Within the story itself, many characters tell stories: the dwarves tell of Smaug’s coming and his conquest of their forefathers; the company’s adventures are told and retold to the various people who help them, such as Elrond, Beorn, and the Lake men; and, crucially, Bilbo initially tells the story of his encounter with Gollum, leaving out his finding of the ring. Later, Bilbo will retell the correct version of the story that sets off the events of The Lord of the Rings and affects the very fabric of Middle-earth. (In the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum acknowledged defeat, voluntarily gave Bilbo his ring, and showed him the exit from the labyrinth. It was only in subsequent editions that he was driven into a homicidal rage by the loss of his ring. The discrepancy between the first and subsequent editions of The Hobbit was deemed necessary to anticipate the events of The Lord of the Rings. The discrepancy was explained within the sequel as being the result of a lie told by Bilbo that was designed to establish his proper ownership of the ring.)
Often viewed as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, The Hobbit represents something more complex: an intertwining of Bilbo’s personal growth through experience and hardship with the ancient mode of the heroic quest. In the beginning, Bilbo is portrayed as an unlikely hero, and the actions that cause him to be recognized as a hero are fraught with moral ambiguity: He finds his treasure—the ring—by accident and lies to its keeper, Gollum; he rescues the dwarves from the spiders and the elves by engaging in deceptions; and he steals the Arkenstone out from under Thorin’s nose, a move that is forgivable only because the result he hopes for is peace. Finally, Bilbo achieves fame and gratitude, but only in foreign lands; among his own people, he is, in the end, merely tolerated.
Tolkien studied classics, comparative philology, and languages at Exeter College, Oxford University. His interests in linguistics and medieval literature would prove crucial components of The Hobbit. Influential texts for the novel included the Old English Beowulf (eighth-eleventh centuries), the Middle English Ancrene Wisse (early thirteenth century), and the Old Norse Elder Edda (ninth-eleventh centuries). The Hobbit at times reads like a prose version of these ancient works. Tolkien also drew upon events of his own life that lent profundity to, among others, Bilbo’s experience of the Battle of the Five Armies. After finishing his degree with honors in English Language and Literature in 1915, Tolkien served with the British Expeditionary Force in the Battle of the Somme during World War I, surviving the horrors of a war that so many of his friends would not.
The Hobbit is concerned with the battling aspects of many themes, among them loyalty and betrayal, appearance and deception, legitimacy and usurpation. Bilbo’s possession of the Arkenstone complicates his loyalty to the dwarves, and his encounter with Gollum leads him to deceive his friends when he omits the ring from his story. Bilbo also is not a burglar, but he does become one, making Gandalf’s early description of him more prescient than accurate. Questions of legitimacy are found in Thorin’s “rightful” claim to the throne, in Gollum’s “ownership” of the ring, and in Bard’s demand that the dwarves compensate the Lake men for the devastation visited upon them by the dragon.
Bilbo’s story as an unlikely protagonist caught up by the wild events of the world resembles that of The Hobbit itself. Perennially popular, it has often been overshadowed by the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings and considered merely as a prelude to this subsequent work. The Hobbit became synonymous with the fantasy novel as an institution, influenced authors such as Stephen R. Donaldson and Neil Gaiman, and inspired a new genre of role-playing games. Importantly, it generated an audience for such later works as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007), Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books (1983- ), and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000). A remarkable admixture of ancient literature and culture assembled by an author of singular imagination, wit, and sensibility, The Hobbit began it all.