The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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 entrance to the forest of Mirkwood to pursue his own errand, Bilbo begins to lead the group, using his ring to save them from giant spiders and then from the dungeons of the Elvenking. When the dwarves arrive at the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo finds the secret door to Smaug’s lair, then arouses the dragons anger by stealing a cup. Seeking revenge, Smaug destroys nearby Lake-town, but he is killed by Bard the bowman, leader of the townsmen. Thorin refuses to share the treasure with the Lake-men and elves, despite their legitimate claim on part of it. Bilbo tries to prevent a war by offering Bard the Arkenstone, the fabulous gem Thorin values above all the rest of the hoard. Despite Bilbo’s efforts, the competing races are about to fight when they are attacked by goblins and wargs. Working together, the dwarves, elves, and men defeat the enemy, although Thorin is killed in the battle. Bilbo refuses a large reward, desiring instead simply to go home. The book ends on a comic note as Bilbo returns to find that he has lost his reputation as an unadventurous and thus respectable hobbit.