John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was a bank manager. After his father’s death, four-year-old Ronald, his younger brother, and mother settled in Sarehole, a village in the West Midlands of England. Tolkien retained an idealized image of the Sarehole Mill, the old mill pool with its overhanging willow tree, a nearby tempting mushroom patch, and clusters of cottages-all of which later figured in his picture of Hobbiton. At this time young Ronald was already discovering two interests that were to shape his life: languages and stories about imaginative places. When his mother moved the family to Birmingham, the trains and factories created a much more forbidding atmosphere, one from which he later encouraged people to “escape” through imaginative literature.
In the fantasy world of Middle-earth, Tolkien has created many echoes of the “real” world. Familiar human traits, both good and bad, abound in the actions of the hobbits, elves, dwarves, goblins, wizards, necromancers, dragons, and other more unusual inhabitants of this world. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien states that one of the major values of stories about the Perilous Realm of Faerie is that such stories provide opportunities for regaining a clearer perspective on the real world. While the adventure story is an entertaining, well-constructed narrative, it is also an appreciation of the simple things in life-good and regular meals, comfortable homes, songs and traditions, and the joys of friendship. In The Hobbit an unlikely hero learns that courage, honesty, and imagination count far more than physical power.
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.
The hero of The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who, at the age of 50, has never had an adventure and who asserts that no respectable hobbit wants adventures. An adventure, however, comes to him at the instigation of Gandalf, the wizard known to Bilbo only by his reputation for fireworks, great stories, and the ability to tempt young hobbits to try unusual things. The companions of Bilbo and Gandalf are thirteen dwarves, treasure-seekers who, following Gandalf’s advice, take Bilbo with them as their official burglar. Bilbo’s major assignment is to help them retrieve their ancestral treasures, long guarded by the dragon Smaug. The subtitle of the book, “There and Back Again,” suggests the cyclic nature of the quest as the underlying theme: Bilbo accomplishes his quest and returns home, but he is, as Gandalf tells him, a different hobbit than before.
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 hobbit-hole, 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.
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.
1. Early in the first chapter the narrator comments on Bilbo’s parents. What is the significance of the references to his “Tookishness” in this chapter and later in the book? In what kinds of situations does Bilbo himself refer to his Took side?
1. Consult a good dictionary for definitions of hero and heroism. According to these definitions, to what extent is Bilbo a hero? Include in your response references to specific actions in the book.
Tolkien followed The Hobbit with a three-volume sequel, The Lord of the Rings. This trilogy is far more serious in tone and more complex in plot, drawing heavily on Tolkien’s mythological inventions later published as The Silmarillion. In the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo leaves The Shire for Rivendell and passes the ring to his distant cousin Frodo. What was in The Hobbit only a ring of invisibility becomes an evil instrument of Sauron, the unnamed Necromancer to whom Gandalf refers in The Hobbit; the ring now has a long history of evil from its creation to its being found by Bilbo. Gandalf and Elrond, elf leader at Rivendell, organize the Fellowship to destroy the ring. The Two Towers and The Return of the King relate the quest of the Fellows, the destruction of the ring, and the eventual re-establishment of a kingdom in which justice and peace can reign. Another work that might appeal to Hobbit-lovers is Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, a relatively short work that features the dragon Chrysophylax and the unwilling hero Giles. Both Farmer Giles of Ham and Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories” are available in The Tolkien Reader (1981). A video version of The Hobbit (ABC Video Enterprise, 1977) presents the story in animated cartoon form. The video is true to the basic plot, but it omits or truncates several scenes and does not convey the linguistic artistry of the text.