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.

Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 Old English epic. Tolkien’s emphasis on the story of man versus monstrous creatures, or man versus the forces of nature, rather than on the story of man versus man (a more tragic structure), may also be inspired by Beowulf, in which the central conflict involves the hero’s fight against great monsters. As in Beowulf, the monsters Bilbo faces may stand for the intractable force of fate, as well as the destructive forces of war and natural disaster.

Finally, because The Hobbit was written after Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier in World War I, it can also be read as an anti-war parable. Like Tolkien, Bilbo is uprooted from his peaceful, bucolic childhood home and cast into a harsh, often violent world. Throughout, Tolkien contrasts the peaceful and beautiful world of home—where “swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers”—with the violent and ugly world of the lands beyond. One might look particularly at the description of the goblins’ love of violence, which seems to parallel and perhaps even presage the destructiveness of modern warfare:

It is not unlikely that [the goblins] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.

Ultimately, however, any allegorical reading of The Hobbit should be considered a partial reading, not least because Tolkien noted that the novel is not specifically an allegory. Rather, the novel offers a number of rich possibilities for readers who wish to draw on history or other works of literature in their analysis.

The Plot

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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.

Historical Context

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Pre-World War II England

When The Hobbit was published in 1937, Europe was in turmoil. The German dictator Adolf Hitler made no secret of his plan to expand German territory and rid his country of certain minorities, in particular the Jewish people. Many English politicians, including Winston Churchill recognized the potential danger of Hitler's regime. However, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to avoid conflict with Hitler. In March 1938, Hitler's forces annexed Austria and created a crisis throughout Europe.

Chamberlain's controversial response was a policy of "appeasement," which allowed Hitler certain territories like Austria. He signed the Munich Pact with Hitler after the Austrian annexation to avoid war and proclaimed, "I believe it is peace in our time." A month later, Germany occupied the Czech Sudetenland. Yet when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Chamberlain was forced to resign in May, 1940; Churchill took over and led the country through the difficult years of World War II.

With the start of World War II, constant air raids and threats of invasion from the European continent endangered the English. Meanwhile, English casualties mounted and the German forces (as well as Benito Mussolini's Italian army) gained much ground early in the war. Tolkien believed that fantasy literature comforted people in such anxious and difficult times, and certainly The Hobbit serves as an excellent example of escapist literature.

Oxford University and the Inklings

Oxford University is the oldest English-speaking university in the world. Since 1096 teaching has existed at Oxford in some form. The university is comprised of thirty-nine independent, self-governing colleges, including Exeter College, which Tolkien entered in 1911.

At Oxford, Tolkien studied the classics, including Greek and Roman languages, literature, art, history, and philosophy, as well as modern languages, literature, and philosophy. He was awarded a degree with first-class honors in English Language and Literature just before he left for France to fight in World War I.

After the war Tolkien returned to Oxford to work as a teacher and tutor for the English School. Over the next several years, he established a reputation as a brilliant philologist and linguist. From the mid-1930s until 1962, Tolkien was part of an informal literary club at Oxford known as the Inklings. The group included several famous English writers, poets, essayists, and critics of the time, including Tolkien's close friend C. S. Lewis as well as Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams.

The Inklings would read and discuss their writings with each other. Many of the members encouraged Tolkien to publish The Hobbit. Tolkien also read most of The Lord of the Rings to the group years before it was published. The Inklings dissolved when Lewis became ill in 1962 and died the following year.

Setting

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The story begins and ends in The Shire, in the Village of Hobbiton, a completely imaginary place which resembles a medieval English country village unspoiled by modern inventions. In one major way Hobbiton differs from a real world village, even one in the Middle Ages: it is inhabited by hobbits, creatures about three feet tall who prefer to live in hobbit-holes rather than in houses above ground. Although Tolkien does not use the name Middle-earth in The Hobbit, in The Lord of the Rings he places the world of Bilbo's quest in this realm. Physically, Middle-earth resembles modern earth, with its terrain, seasons, and natural beauty. It is the inhabitants of Middle-earth who add a touch of unreality. In making a world in which Bilbo and his dwarf companions can conduct their quest, Tolkien assumes the creative rights which his essay "On Fairy-stories" grants to a story-maker: the right to be free with Nature and use the real world as a basis from which to fashion something new, with its own inner consistency.

Literary Style

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Fantasy and Mythology

The Hobbit is considered a masterpiece of fantasy. There is often a tendency among scholars of literature to deride genres such as fantasy and science fiction; however, Tolkien's books are so imaginative and brilliantly conceived that he has earned a great deal of critical respect.

Tolkien's imaginary world was derived from mythology. He believed that myth was a tool that cultures use to build bridges of understanding between generations.

Although Tolkien invented hobbits, most of the creatures that populate Middle-earth were borrowed from the myths of other cultures. Beings akin to The Hobbit's dwarves, elves, and trolls, as well as Smaug the dragon, can be found in many ancient legends and myths. In addition, magic and magical objects are incorporated within the plot of the story, as in so many other fantastic tales. The quest motif advances the narrative, as it does in Arthurian legend. Virtue, embodied in the heroism and humility of the characters, is ultimately triumphant as it is in most classic mythology.

Narration

The story is told in the third person, mostly from Bilbo's point of view. However, the narrator acts as a storyteller familiar with the history, geography, language, and demographics of Middle-earth. The telling is informal, as if it were a campfire or bedtime story.

The narrator also knows how the story is going to end and functions as a link between Middle-earth and the present.

Setting

The Hobbit is set in the enchanted realm of Middle-earth, which has a topography much like that of Earth, with forests, rivers, mountains, etc. Tolkien wanted the world of the novel to be somewhat familiar to readers. Thus, he drew from his childhood experiences—particularly those of his hometown of Sarehole, which inspired the Shire of the hobbits—to construct some of the geographies of Middle-earth. His memories of a climbing expedition in the Swiss Alps during his youth inspired the Misty Mountains.

Humor

Although much of The Hobbit is dark, humor is often used to break up the tension. Bilbo's meek and fussy behavior in the beginning of the novel is one example. The dwarves, as they clean up the mess they have made in Bilbo's hobbit-hole, sing a song about breaking plates, because "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates…."

There is humor in even the most dangerous situations. The scenes when Bilbo is threatened by Gollum, or when he flatters Smaug, are good examples.

Literary Qualities

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Tolkien's prose style tries to approximate the spoken word. He uses a variety of devices to achieve this storyteller's style: parenthetical and exclamatory remarks, direct address to the reader (or listener), first-person comments by the narrator, rhetorical questions, interruptions of the narrative, and sentence fragments which suggest enlarged parenthetical explanations. The narrator's highly descriptive style conveys vivid pictures of Bilbo, his hobbithole, and Gandalf. The descriptions emphasize physical details such as color, shape, and size. "Frequently the accumulation of detail creates a comic effect, such as the arrival of the dwarves—in stages—in Bilbo's parlor and later on Beorn's porch. The rhetorical techniques used to convey an oral prose style continue throughout the book, but become less obtrusive as the story develops.

Children as well as more mature readers can enjoy Tolkien's habit of playing with language. Riddles and riddling names brighten the scenes in which Bilbo confronts Gollum and Smaug, and the superlatives and formal inversions with which Bilbo flatters Smaug seem appropriate for one who has guarded immense treasure for two hundred years. Bilbo and the narrator occasionally make up words (for example, "confusticate"), but their usual speech provides a standard against which that of other characters can be analyzed. The trolls, for example, indicate their crudity and ignorance by their Cockney-like speech. Gollum's hissing sounds, accentuated by strange plurals like "eggses" and "pocketses"' contribute to his unpleasantness, and his habit of referring to himself as "we" raises questions about his mental state. Thorin and Gandalf command a highly oratorical style when the occasion demands it, but among friends Gandalf delights in colloquial word play.

The narrative flows swiftly from one incident to the next, as each adventure moves the action deeper into the fantasy world. The matter-of-fact opening statement, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," invites the reader immediately into an unfamiliar secondary world filled with familiar primary world objects: a brass doorknob (in a round door), a hallway, panelled walls, tiled and carpeted floors, and the usual assortment of rooms for sleeping, bathing, eating, and entertaining—all of them underground. Once Bilbo's unusual traits have been described (especially his size, his beardless face, and his furry feet), his reactions to Gandalf and the dwarves establish him as a relatively normal "person." Although the dwarves have a strange story to tell, it is at this point only a story within a story. As the adventures continue, the reader sees the repulsive trolls and noble elves through Bilbo's eyes.

With each appearance of a new character or group, the more fantastic elements stand out, but with each succeeding appearance the strangeness diminishes and actions can be anticipated. Elves, good though they may be, traditionally dislike dwarves; goblins are ugly and cruel by themselves, but in alliance with wolves they become more convincingly evil in their ugliness; and the giant eagles, who have twice airlifted the travelers out of danger, cause no surprise when they join the allied armies in the final battle against the goblins and wargs. Gollum himself does not reappear in this book after Bilbo leaves him, but his ring becomes a magical talisman. Although Tolkien has not yet created in The Hobbit a world as fully integrated as the Middle-earth of his trilogy, he has made a world in which all creatures act in accord with the natures their creator has given them.

Commentary

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J. R. R. Tolkien, a devoted and believing Roman Catholic, did not avoid giving his works a moral dimension; he most surely would have been bored by fictions that lacked one. It is not difficult, therefore, to find that in The Hobbit, characters make choices that count, that they are held accountable for their behavior, that the good characters value mercy, and that a benevolent providence shapes the characters’ ends.

Bilbo’s kindness in sparing Gollum can only be fully appreciated in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew and the trilogy’s protagonist, will even more explicitly pity Gollum, an act which indirectly saves Frodo’s own life. Bilbo rejects the temptation of the dragon’s treasure, an act which keeps him safe in the final battle. By contrast, Thorin’s refusal to compromise leads eventually to his death. One can also better understand the real heroism of Bilbo at the start of The Lord of the Rings: Of all the characters in either story, only Bilbo freely surrenders the ring to another in a peaceful situation after calm reflection.

Tolkien’s heroes always have significant moral choices to make: They always value mercy over power or possessions. They pass the test. If they are rescued in the final, almost hopeless crisis, that providential intervention comes with a sense of justice, a sense that life is not meaningless or hostile to human values. One could forcefully argue that the hobbits are Tolkien’s parable of the theme that the meek shall indeed inherit the earth.

Social Sensitivity

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Although there is violence in several sections of The Hobbit, it does not become central to the plot. Both the trolls and the giant spiders talk of eating the dwarves, but no reader expects them to succeed. The emphasis is on the comic aspects of the two rescue scenes. Tolkien's sense of poetic justice turns the quarrelsome trolls to stone and has the stinging spiders wounded by Bilbo's newly named sword, Sting. In the first attack by the goblins the magic of Gandalf s wand and sword take priority over the killing of goblins. In relating the final conflict with the goblins, the great Battle of Five Armies, the narrator calls it "a terrible battle," the "most dreadful of Bilbo's experiences," but he does not show much of the fighting before Bilbo himself is knocked unconscious by a falling stone.

In most fantasy tales, the forces of good and evil are expected to enter into physical as well as psychological conflict. Some amount of violence is, therefore, essential to the plot, but the author does not overdevelop this element. The three heroes of the book—Bilbo, Gandalf, and Bard—all stand out in their efforts to prevent internal fighting among the groups that represent the "good": dwarves, elves, and men. At the end the alliance of the forces of good in mutual support allows them to defeat the forces of evil.

Compare and Contrast

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Late 1930s: Hitler occupies Austria and the Czech Sudetenland in 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain adopts his controversial "appeasement" policy in an effort to mollify Hitler. The strategy is doomed when Hitler's aggression leads Germany to invade Poland on September 1,1939. Two days later Great Britain and France declare war on Germany.

Today: The European Economic Community (EEC) is an economic powerhouse. A new European currency, the Euro, is issued. However, political events threaten economic progress for Europe as the conflict in Yugoslavia wreaks havoc in the Balkans. Also, Serbian aggression in Kosovo leads to the NATO bombing of Belgrade.

Late 1930s: In South Africa, Tolkien's birthplace, the Native Laws Amendment Act is passed. This law extends the long-established system of pass laws, which require blacks to carry special papers to stay in the cities. This law is only one in a series over many years establishing the apartheid (apartness) system in South Africa.

Today: Nelson Mandela retires as President of South Africa. Imprisoned in 1961 for protesting the apartheid system, he was freed in 1988 and elected president of South Africa. Apartheid has been dismantled for many years, yet the effects of the policy are still evident throughout South African society.

Late 1930s: With the advent of World War II military production provides a spark for American manufacturing and industrial production. As a result, the United States begins to reverse the economic collapse of the Great Depression.

Today: The economies of the United States and Europe are strong. Due to the government's efforts to adopt a more democratic system, the Russian economy experiences a difficult transition. Japan suffers from a recession because of various factors, including a banking crisis.

Media Adaptations

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The Hobbit was adapted into an animated film for television by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin in 1978. The film features the voices of Orson Bean as Bilbo, John Huston as Gandalf, and Richard Boone as Smaug. It is available on videotape.

There are several audiotape versions of The Hobbit, including a 1992 BBC adaptation from Bantam Doubleday.

For Further Reference

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Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. In this definitive biography Carpenter succeeds in tracing many influences that affected Tolkien's writing while avoiding, as much as possible, literary judgments about that writing. Carpenter's focus is biography, not literary criticism.

Crabbe, Kathryn F. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. In the second chapter, "The Quest as Fairy Tale: The Hobbit," Crabbe considers the book from the standpoint of language, narrative voice, fairy-tale conventions, and the characterization of Bilbo.

Day, David. A Tolkien Bestiary. New York: Ballantine, 1979. The index is often needed to locate items that can be listed under different names in this illustrated glossary of places and creatures in Middle-earth.

Fonstad, Karen Wynn. The Atlas of Middle- earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. In the section on The Hobbit, the brief speculative chronology and maps of the journey and of several battles may help readers to visualize the progression of the narrative.

Rogers, Deborah Webster, and Ivor A. Rogers. J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Twayne, 1980. The authors trace Tolkien's biography and literary backgrounds. A full chapter focuses on The Hobbit.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1981. Includes "On Fairy-stories."

Tyler, J. E. A. The New Tolkien Companion. New York: St. Martin's, 1979. This is a good "guide" to characters and places in Tolkien's Middle-earth stories. It is arranged alphabetically, with notes at the end of each letter section.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Peter Beagle, in an introduction to The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Anne Eaton, in the New York Times, March 13, 1938, p. 12.

Daniel Grotta, in J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, Running Press, 1976, pp. 85-105.

Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1937, p. 714.

For Further Study

David Day, in A Tolkien Bestiary, Random House, 1998, 286 p.

Surveys the beasts, deities, and other creatures that exist in Middle-earth.

Karen Wynn Fonstad, in The Atlas of Middle-earth, Houghton Mifflin, 1991, 210 p.

Detailed maps of Middle-earth, including war and other thematic maps.

Robert Foster, in A Guide to Middle-earth, Ballantine Books, 1974, 291 p.

A directory to all the proper names appearing in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and The Road Goes Ever On.

Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, in Tolkien and the Critics, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, 296 p.

A collection of essays analyzing Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, including contributions from C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden.

Paul H. Kocher, in Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973, 247 p. A comprehensive study of Tolkien's major works.

J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, Inc., 1974, 200 p.

Contains some of Tolkien's lesser-known fiction and poetry.

Bibliography

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Green, William H. “The Four-Part Structure of Bilbo’s Education,” in Children’s Literature. VIII (1979), pp. 133-140.

Lee, Stuart D, and Elizabeth Solopova. The Keys of Middle-Earth. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. A handy portal into Tolkien’s medieval sources, featuring modern translations of the original texts.

Nitzsche, J. C. “The King Under the Mountain: Tolkien’s Hobbit,” in North Dakota Quarterly. XLVII (Winter, 1979), pp. 5-18.

Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-Earth, 1983.

West, Richard C. Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist, 1981.

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