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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.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A page from an early Beowulf manuscript. This work was among Tolkien's inspirations for The Hobbit. Published by Gale Cengage

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...

(The entire section is 3,348 words.)