Plot and Themes of J.R.R. Tolkien's Book The Hobbit

A Precursor to The Lord of the Rings

Photo copyright iStockphoto.com
Photo copyright iStockphoto.com

The Hobbit or There and Back Again was written by J.R.R. Tolkien as a children's book and was first published in Great Britain in 1937 by George Allen & Unwin. It was published just before the outbreak of WWII in Europe, and the book acts as a prologue of sorts for the great trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. While it was originally conceived as a book for children, it has been accepted as a great work of literature in its own right.

While The Hobbit was by no means the first fantasy novel, it was among the first to combine influences from multiple sources. Elements of the book draw from Norse mythology, classic fairy tales, Jewish literature, and the works of 19th century Victorian children's authors such as George MacDonald (author The Princess and the Goblin, among others). The book also experiments with a variety of literary techniques including forms of "epic" poetry and song.

Setting

The novel takes place in the fictional land of Middle Earth, a complex fantasy world which Tolkien developed in detail. The book contains carefully drawn maps showing various parts of Middle Earth including the peaceful and fertile Shire, the Mines of Moria, the Lonely Mountain, and Mirkwood Forest. Each area of Middle Earth has its own history, characters, qualities, and significance.

Main Characters

The characters in The Hobbit include a wide range of fantasy creatures, most drawn from classical fairy tales and mythology.

The Hobbits themselves, however, are Tolkien's own creations. Small, home-loving people, Hobbits are also called "halflings." They are very similar to small human beings except for their very large feet. Some of the main characters in the book include:

  • Bilbo Baggins, a quiet, unassuming Hobbit and the protagonist of the story.
  • Gandalf, a wizard who initiates Bilbo’s journey with the dwarves. Gandalf causes Bilbo to set aside his reputation for cautious respectability to go on an adventure that will change the Hobbit forever.
  • Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of a group of 13 dwarves who wish to recover a treasure horde stolen by a dragon.
  • Elrond, a wise leader of the elves.
  • Gollum, a once-human creature who found and is governed by a great ring of power.
  • Smaug, the dragon and antagonist of the story.

Plot and Storyline

The story of The Hobbit begins in the Shire, land of the Hobbits. The Shire is similar to a pastoral English countryside, and the Hobbits are represented as quiet, agricultural people who shun adventure and travel. Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of the story, is surprised to find himself hosting a group of dwarves and the great wizard, Gandalf. The group has decided that now is the right time to journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they will retake the dwarves' treasure from the dragon, Smaug. They have nominated Bilbo to join the expedition as their "burglar."

Though initially reluctant, Bilbo agrees to join the group, and they head off far from the Shire into the increasingly dangerous sections of Middle Earth.

Along the journey, Bilbo and his company meet up with a wide range of creatures both beautiful and terrible. As he is tested, Bilbo discovers his own inner strength, loyalty, and cunning. Each chapter involves an interaction with a new set of characters and challenges:

  • The group is captured by trolls and nearly eaten, but are saved when sunlight strikes the trolls and they are turned to stone.
  • Gandalf leads the group to the Elven settlement of Rivendell where they meet the Elvish leader, Elrond.
  • The group is caught by goblins and driven deep underground. Although Gandalf rescues them, Bilbo gets separated from the others as they flee the goblins. Lost in the goblin tunnels, he stumbles across a mysterious ring and then encounters Gollum, who engages him in a game of riddles. As a reward for solving all riddles Gollum will show him the path out of the tunnels, but if Bilbo fails, his life will be forfeit. With the help of the ring, which confers invisibility, Bilbo escapes and rejoins the dwarves, improving his reputation with them. The goblins and Wargs give chase, but the company is saved by eagles.
  • The company enters the black forest of Mirkwood without Gandalf. In Mirkwood, Bilbo first saves the dwarves from giant spiders and then from the dungeons of the Wood-elves. Nearing the Lonely Mountain, the travelers are welcomed by the human inhabitants of Lake-town, who hope the dwarves will fulfill prophecies of Smaug's demise.
  • The expedition travels to the Lonely Mountain and finds the secret door; Bilbo scouts the dragon's lair, stealing a great cup and learning of a weakness in Smaug's armor. The enraged dragon, deducing that Lake-town has aided the intruder, sets out to destroy the town. A thrush has overheard Bilbo's report of Smaug's vulnerability and reports it to Lake-town defender Bard. His arrow finds the chink and slays the dragon.
  • When the dwarves take possession of the mountain, Bilbo finds the Arkenstone, an heirloom of Thorin's dynasty, and hides it away. The Wood-elves and Lake-men besiege the mountain and request compensation for their aid, reparations for Lake-town's destruction, and settlement of old claims on the treasure. Thorin refuses and, having summoned his kin from the Iron Hills, reinforces his position. Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone to head off a war, but Thorin is intransigent. He banishes Bilbo, and battle seems inevitable.
  • Gandalf reappears to warn all of an approaching army of goblins and Wargs. The dwarves, men and elves band together, but only with the timely arrival of the eagles and Beorn do they win the climactic Battle of Five Armies. Thorin is fatally wounded and reconciles with Bilbo before he dies. Bilbo accepts only a small portion of his share of the treasure, having no want or need for more, but still returns home a very wealthy hobbit.

    Themes

    The Hobbit is a simple tale when compared to Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. It does, however contain several themes:

    • It explores the process by which an untested individual develops the insight and skills to become a leader;
    • It guides the reader to question the value of wealth as opposed to peace and contentment;
    • It builds on Tolkien's personal experience in World War I to consider the question of whether victory, though desirable, is worth the price of war.