The Hobbit Analysis
by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit book cover
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The Hobbit Analysis

  • Although Tolkien intended The Hobbit to be read by a broad audience, the novel is often categorized as children's literature. This is due to its incorporation of fantastical elements, its use of song and poetry, and its light tone.
  • The Hobbit reflects the archetypal structures of classic hero's journeys, such as the Odyssey. Over the course of his journey, Bilbo grows in courage and character, faces monsters and other obstacles, and makes an Underworld-like descent.
  • The novel subtly reveals Tolkien's chief influences, including the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which Tolkien was an expert on, and the historical context of World War I, which Tolkien fought in.

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Analysis

Tolkien’s The Hobbit, written in 1937, was published at a time when fantasy stories, or fairy stories, were considered a lower art form than realistic fiction and often relegated to the genre of children’s literature. Tolkien himself insisted that The Hobbit is not children’s literature. Still, with its matter-of-fact, lighthearted, and conversational narrator—and its use of simple, often silly poems and songs—The Hobbit may quite easily be read as a children’s book, especially in comparison to Tolkien’s later, more sober trilogy The Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, The Hobbit’s themes are arguably just as sophisticated as those in the later trilogy, rendering it closer to adult fantasy and thus more continuous with the trilogy. Tolkien seemingly desired this sense of continuity after the trilogy was written, retroactively changing some scenes in The Hobbit to deepen its connection to the later books.

Other ambiguities in the text contribute to the uncertainty of its genre. Since the story includes many traditional quest elements, it can be read as an archetypal hero’s journey, as exemplified by the Odyssey. Such stories tend to have a “there and back again” structure, where the hero begins on his quest by setting out from a familiar, safe home and must travel through many dangerous lands and overcome difficult obstacles in order to return home. The many different creatures that Bilbo and company encounter, such as trolls, goblins, and Wargs, may be read as similar to the episodic obstacles Odysseus has to encounter. One archetypal obstacle is the katabasis, a trip to an Underworld that is often rendered as a brief death-like experience. In Bilbo’s case, one can read the trip to Mirkwood, and its sleep-inducing enchanted river, as a katabasis in which the river is an analogue of the River Lethe in Greek lore. Like Odysseus, Bilbo often gets around difficult obstacles through trickery, riddling, and deceit. Much as Odysseus tells the blind giant Polyphemus that he is “No one,” Bilbo, invisibly wearing the ring, introduces himself to Smaug as “he that walks unseen.” Bilbo gives other riddling answers to the dragon’s questions, refusing to reveal his true name or race.

Nevertheless, there are a few ways in which The Hobbit does not follow a traditional quest structure, and may be read instead rather as a Bildungsroman, a story of the growth and maturation of a person learning how to individuate himself through various stages of development. The protagonist, rather than starting out as a brave, noble, and heroic princely figure, is a simple and perhaps lowly individual. He has to come into his own and only gradually becomes a courageous hero and leader. In the case of The Hobbit, each episode marks a new stage in Bilbo’s development as an individual as he gains more self-reliance. Finally, when he returns home, he has developed a more adventurous and courageous approach to life, though he still loves the comforts of home.

The Hobbit has also often been read as inspired by Tolkien’s interest in Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon literature, especially by the Old English epic poem Beowulf . The style and structure of the story—the episodic quest, the confrontations with monsters, the interspersal of song and poetry—echoes the structure of that...

(The entire section is 4,436 words.)