Critical Essays Major Themes


The Quest

The major theme of The Hobbit is the quest, one of the oldest themes in literature. As a scholar of ancient languages and literatures, Tolkien would have known the theme well through Greek and Norse myth and Old- and Middle-English poetry. The quest theme is central to the story of Beowulf, the Old-English epic about which Tolkien published an essay of lasting scholarly significance in 1937. The quest story best known to modern readers is probably the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, in which a knight ventures forth in search of a sacred cup (the Grail) that he brings back to restore power to his king and, thus, improve the welfare of the kingdom. The Grail story is an important sub-plot in the middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien edited with his friend E. V. Gordon and published in 1925. Given that a cup and the Grail are similar objects, it is interesting that it is a cup that Bilbo Baggins steals from the dragon's treasure when he first descends to Smaug's lair in Chapter 12.

The quest theme is related to two important features of The Hobbit and other works in which it occurs. The first of these is the journey plot structure. The protagonist or main character who embarks on a quest must physically go somewhere; his search involves travel, usually in a circular route such that he returns home with the object of his quest. The journey allows the main character to encounter various characters and circumstances that are unfamiliar and even threatening to him. Thus, novelty and suspense are built into the journey plot. Bilbo, for example, encounters Goblins, Wargs, elves, Gollum, and Smaug the dragon on his journey to help the dwarves retrieve their treasure, and he travels well beyond the hobbit-lands through Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains to the Lonely Mountain. Along the way, he escapes death several times, undergoes the privations of hunger and bad weather, and ultimately sees combat in the Battle of Five Armies. None of this would have been possible if he had stayed at home in the safety of his hobbit-hole. The structure of a journey plot is often described as episodic, meaning that the protagonist moves from scene to scene (or episode to episode) in a rather simple linear fashion; there is no complex interweaving of the various characters he meets throughout the story. This is generally true of The Hobbit: It is not until Chapter 15 that the various groups of creatures Bilbo encounters on his journey converge on the Lonely Mountain in what becomes the Battle of Five Armies.

The second important feature related to the quest theme is in the character development of the protagonist. In most quest stories, the physical journey serves as a metaphor for the personal growth of the questing character, for whom the quest is often the fulfillment of a personal destiny. As the protagonist travels physically farther from home, he develops psychologically and/or spiritually beyond the self he was when he started out. The episodes of the plot serve as trials and lessons to him, and when he finds the object of his quest, he also finds his authentic self. Bilbo, for example, begins his journey with the dwarves reluctantly, not at all sure that he is suited for it. Throughout much of the journey, he regrets his decision to join them and daydreams about the comforts of his own home that seem so attractive in comparison with the dramatic adventures he undergoes. In early episodes, when he is threatened with death, he must be rescued by Gandalf. As time goes on, however, Bilbo develops both ingenuity and courage, partly under the tutelage of Gandalf and partly through a combination of good luck and the exercise of his own will. It is apparently through luck that he finds the ring of invisibility in Gollum's cave, but its powers allow him, in the absence of Gandalf, to use his intelligence and courage to rescue the dwarves from the dungeon of the Elvenking and later take the Arkenstone to Bard in an attempt to prevent a war over the dragon's treasure. Bilbo is depicted as making sound ethical judgments and choosing to do good, as he does when he does not use the advantage of his sword and invisibility to kill Gollum. Like other quest heroes, Bilbo returns home at the end of his journey. In keeping with the tone of The Hobbit, however, his life is changed only subtly: He writes poetry and he lives somewhat eccentrically, more like his mother's family, the adventurous Tooks, than the Bagginses he so thoroughly resembled before.

Property and Community

Related to the quest theme is the theme of community, and in The Hobbit, you see the value of community especially in relation to property. The object of the quest hero's search is usually something that will improve the welfare of his community. In Arthurian legends like that of Gawain, for example, the kingdom has fallen to ruin and the king has become powerless. The Grail or sacred cup that Gawain brings back is meant to restore the power of the king and the welfare of the kingdom. In The Hobbit, there is a parallel in the disinherited situation of Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, who is no longer King under the Mountain like his grandfather and who has lost his birthright, the treasure trove, to Smaug the dragon. The town of Dale, once a thriving dwarf town, is in ruins; other stretches of landscape on the way to the Lonely Mountain are also described as desolate places where nothing can grow. Despite his dwarvish love for beautiful material things, Thorin does not want to reclaim the treasure only for himself; he wants it for the entire dwarf community so that their world can be restored to what it was under his ancestors, before the invasion of Smaug.

Smaug and Gollum represent the perverted use of property. They are monsters because isolation and selfishness such as theirs is evil. They do not recognize community; there are no other creatures like them. Smaug makes his home in the Lonely Mountain, and Gollum is so self-centered he does not even know the word for "you." They are vehemently opposed to sharing; indeed, they would rather kill than share what they possess, whether it be Gollum's ring of invisibility or Smaug's treasure trove. Smaug makes no use at all of the treasure trove; he only sits on top of it and sleeps. Ironically, Smaug is killed himself as he wages war in defense of his treasure. (Gollum, too, dies in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as he finally reclaims his prized possession, the ring of invisibility.)

But other characters possess lesser versions of Smaug's and Gollum's flaws. The Master of Lake-town, who is given a share of the treasure trove after the Battle of Five Armies, becomes corrupted by the wealth. He does not share it to rebuild the town devastated by Smaug and he is described as falling prey to the dragon sickness. He loses power; Bard replaces him. At various times, the dwarves are described as being overly fond of material wealth, and there is a sense in which the pursuit of his personal ancestral treasure kills Thorin, although it also brings about the necessary death of Smaug.

Even Bilbo Baggins, that mildest of creatures, must learn to leave the safety of his home, where he lives alone, and act as part of a group. He is rather social in his own way, on his own terms, but his journey requires him to push himself beyond the limits of his own comfort. Whereas he formerly could think of nothing better than the solitary pleasure of a breakfast of eggs and bacon or a pipe full of tobacco, he eventually wins the respect of others for acting in their behalf. In agreeing to accompany the dwarves on their journey, he agrees to cooperate in a communal venture in which he has no personal investment.

The Uses of Power

One of the major themes of The Hobbit concerns the use of power on several different levels. Gandalf has magical powers that you see him use almost immediately. As the story begins, he places a secret mark on Bilbo Baggins' door that causes the dwarves to congregate at the hobbit-hole. He seems to know much more about Bilbo than can be explained, and he has a certain gift for prophecy. He uses a magic wand at times, and he appears and disappears at will. The full extent of his sorcery is demonstrated in The Lord of the Rings, but even in The Hobbit, Gandalf clearly has powers that exceed those of the other travelers. His magical power is reflected in his age and his wisdom.

Although much younger than Gandalf, Bilbo's wisdom increases throughout the story and as a quest hero, he very much develops a kind of personal power. He grows from a reluctant, rather cowardly creature who complains when he is hungry or rained upon into a clever and courageous one who rescues the dwarves from the dungeon of the Elvenking, defies both Gollum and Smaug, and survives the Battle of Five Armies. He gains the respect of his companions and develops a personal authority that defines him as a leader. When Gandalf temporarily leaves the group, Bilbo becomes the leader in essential ways: He devises plans and he volunteers to go first in risky situations. Although he is the beneficiary of a great deal of good luck, Bilbo also exercises his will to take on difficult tasks, like confronting Smaug, and he makes ethical choices, like when he spares Gollum's life. He declines heroism and chooses instead to live a relatively quiet life when he returns home, but it is a life enriched by the self-knowledge he achieves on his journey.

There are suggestions in The Hobbit that Tolkien is interested in the problem of a more worldly power than either Gandalf or Bilbo represents. At the beginning of the story, Gandalf tells Thorin that their journey requires a hero or a warrior, but he cannot find one because all the warriors are far away fighting each other. Later, in Chapter 4, the narrator explains that Goblins are so wicked they are probably responsible for inventing the machines that have since been used in war to kill many people at once. Such machines were a distinguishing feature of World War I, in which Tolkien served in France; formerly, wars had been fought much more as a series of hand-to-hand combats. As his writing of The Hobbit drew to a close, the events that would result in World War II were taking shape in Germany. Even his friend C. S. Lewis remarked that as Tolkien began writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, political events in Europe were imitating his "history" to an uncanny degree. There is no evidence that The Hobbit was intended as an anti-war fable, however; Tolkien was adamant that he was not interested in writing allegory. Nevertheless, Chapters 14 through XVII certainly depict the flaws inherent in political power. You see the leaders of various groups committed to war for personal gain — namely Smaug's treasure — and you see failures of diplomacy, as when Thorin refuses to parley with Bard because Bard has allied himself with the Elvenking. The personal failures of characters like Thorin, whose pride prevents him from negotiating peace, the Master of Lake-town, whose political power ultimately corrupts him, and Bilbo's failure to buy peace, in effect, with the Arkenstone represent an attitude toward war that is both critical and resigned. The Prime Minister of England, Neville Chamberlain, signed the Munich Agreement with Adolph Hitler as Tolkien was beginning the Rings trilogy; it was not be long before "monster" became the common description for Hitler.

The Storyteller's Voice

Readers frequently comment on the voice of the narrator of The Hobbit, often attributing to it the book's success. Some have called it professorial, because it gives a great deal of information on rather esoteric topics like runes, the lifestyle of hobbits, and the ancient history of dwarves and elves. It is certainly congenial, however, and one of the reasons The Hobbit is so enjoyable to read is the pleasure the narrator takes in telling the story.

The story of The Hobbit is related from a third-person omniscient point of view; that is, by a narrator who is not a character in the story himself (there is no "I" in The Hobbit) but who nonetheless knows everything there is to tell. He knows what some of the characters are thinking, especially more complex characters like Bilbo, Gollum, and Smaug. He describes Bilbo's daydreams about food and tobacco, for example, and the alternatives he faces when making choices; he describes Gollum's unique psychology.

This narrator also knows what will happen in the future of the story. The first time Bilbo thinks longingly of his hobbit-hole and wishes he were back home, the narrator explicitly tells you that this will not be the last time Bilbo has such regrets. On different occasions, he reveals that a certain character or place won't be seen again; he hints at the future death or disappearance of some characters. When Bilbo is rescued by the Lord of the Eagles, you are told (Chapter 7) that Bilbo won't see the eagles again until the Battle of Five Armies (Chapter 17). In his prophetic vision, the narrator shares some of Gandalf's magical power; this is consistent with the power that has traditionally been attributed to storytellers. He is in control of the plot of the story.

On the most superficial level, the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves conforms to the maps, drawn by Tolkien himself, that serve as the endpapers for most editions of the book. More subtly, the narrator draws your attention to the significance of events, as when Bilbo finds the ring of invisibility, that you might otherwise pass over. When a character is mistaken, the narrator sometimes shares with you the more accurate judgment, the better decision that could have been made. Despite the fact that he is narrating a story of his own invention, he assumes you are in sympathy with him and even share in his knowledge, as when he identifies the Wood-elves and comments that "of course" that is what they are.

At one point in the story, Tolkien offers a peek behind the scenes, as it were, to see the crafted structure of his plot. After Smaug has flown out of the Lonely Mountain in a rage and destroyed Esgaroth, the narrator begins Chapter 14 by asking you to go back two days to imagine the terror the people of Esgaroth felt as they saw Smaug descend upon them.

These narrative intrusions — places where the narrator breaks in upon his own story, destroying any illusion that it is reality unfolding before you — contribute to your sense that the plot is being capably managed and that the story is told by someone who really does know, down to the smallest detail, what happened. You are, in other words, in the hands of a master storyteller. While there is no "I" in The Hobbit, you find a great many references to "you," the reader. Tolkien's great attention to you as you read The Hobbit, his care that you understand every detail along the way, and his welcoming you into the world in which his story takes place accounts for much that makes the narrative voice so attractive.