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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.


(Novels for Students)

Good vs. Evil
The conflict between good and evil is the main theme of Tolkien's Hobbit. The good creatures strive for a peaceful existence, while the evil creatures cause suffering. In the novel, the quest to reclaim the treasure is considered a righteous cause. Even Bilbo, a gentle hobbit reluctant to get involved, is ultimately convinced to join the quest because he believes it to be a noble mission.

The wizard Gandalf also believes in a good cause. He is a wise and just being who wanders the realm improving the quality of life. A decent judge of character, he recognizes Bilbo's resourcefulness. Elrond, Beorn, and Bard are also examples of the many good and courageous beings who live in Middle-earth.

Evil creatures constantly threaten the forces of good. The mighty dragon Smaug destroys towns and kills their inhabitants. The goblins and Wargs are sneaky, cruel, and vicious. Horrible, enormous spiders lurk in the forests of Mirkwood, preying upon those who venture away from the main path.

There are shades of gray, as in real life. Good characters also can do bad things. For example, although most would consider stealing immoral, Bilbo is recruited as a thief. Thorin, a brave and honorable dwarf, is temporarily blinded by greed and he almost causes a war over the treasure before he redeems himself in the Battle of Five Armies. In any case, the conflict between good and evil is a major theme in the novel. Ultimately the virtuous are triumphant.

Fate and Chance
The roles of fate and chance are addressed in The Hobbit. While many of the events in the novel seem to occur by chance, especially Bilbo's discovery of the ring of power that grants him invisibility, the characters ostensibly are ruled by fate. For example, at the end of the book, Bilbo refers to the "prophecies of old songs" that turn out to be true. Gandalf replies:

Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?

In this passage Gandalf implies that fate partly determined the course of Bilbo's adventures.
While Tolkien did not ignore the importance of free will and chance in The Hobbit, he also recognized prophecy and fate as core elements of mythology. Thus, as a modern myth-maker, he worked these themes into the framework of his fantasies.

In the novel, friendship often results from peculiar alliances....

(The entire section is 1,182 words.)