Literary Qualities

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.

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, paneled 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.