It's hard to miss that The Hobbit is a fantasy novel, what with all of the elves and goblins and trolls and things. And The Hobbit is also clearly a quest because the whole engine of the book is Thorin and the dwarves' plan to seek their stolen gold in the lair of the dragon Smaug. Finally, this also counts as a coming-of-age story because it depicts the development of Bilbo Baggins from a sheltered, comfortable homebody to a brave, wise hobbit of the world.
The first line of The Hobbit suddenly came to J.R.R. Tolkien as he was in the middle of grading English exam papers:
One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits are like. (source: Quoted in "Introduction," The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition, pg. 8)
No, we aren't pointing this out to suggest that you leave your test papers blank to spur your teachers' creativity. Instead, we want to think a little bit more about the word "hobbit" as the title of J.R.R. Tolkien's first major novel. If the word "hobbit" was suggestive enough to make Tolkien want to write a whole darn book about it, what does the title The Hobbit make us want to do? Well, the title is an excellent way of marketing a book to a reader: it inspires us with suspense to know more. And because "hobbit" is an entirely made-up word, we want to discover what it could possibly mean. That's right – Tolkien is luring us into cracking open (and possibly buying) his funny-named novel. For more on the origins of hobbit-kind, check out "In a Nutshell" and our "Character Analysis" of Bilbo Baggins.
The Hobbit is also often accompanied by a subtitle: There and Back Again. At the end of the book, Bilbo is comfortably retired and is working on his memoirs: "There and Back Again, a Hobbit Holiday" (19.30). So by using the title of Bilbo's fictional memoirs in the actual title of the book about the guy, Tolkien is blurring the lines between our world and the world of the novel. There and Back Again is also reassuring, since we know just by looking at the cover that Bilbo is going to go somewhere, but will come back – he's not actually going to die in his adventures with goblins and dragons. Phew!
In a 1933 letter, C.S. Lewis (author of the beloved Narnia books) comments on having just finished reading Tolkien's manuscript of The Hobbit: "Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of course another question: still more, whether it will succeed with modern children" (source: They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, pg. 449). Obviously, history has shown that The Hobbit has indeed succeeded with modern children. What's interesting about this quote, though, is that Lewis thought The Hobbit was really good until the end. Now, of course Tolkien continued to revise the manuscript between 1933 and 1937 (and even after the first edition came out), but the question of what Tolkien is up to at the end of the book is still open.
The last couple of chapters of The Hobbit, with the sudden outbreak of the Battle of Five Armies, seems surprising in a novel that's otherwise pretty focused on the quest of a bunch of dwarves (and Bilbo) for honking amounts of gold. This sudden opening out of the book to deal with the doings of men, Wood-elves, dwarves, goblins, Wargs, Eagles, and wizards sets the stage for The Lord of the Rings cycle that's going to be published twenty years later, so obviously Tolkien had a lot left to say about Middle-earth (his imagined land). Still, there's something a little out of balance about suddenly seeing so many big world events spiraling around little Bilbo Baggins.
But this is part of the point of The Hobbit: even though its main character is, in the words of wizard Gandalf, "only quite a little fellow in a wide world" (19.36), he still has a hand "in bringing [prophecies] about" (19.36). The Hobbit is like an exercise in the Butterfly Effect, where one small event causes the entire world to change. Just think: if Bilbo had not found the Arkenstone of Thrain before Thorin did, he wouldn't have been able to help Bard and the Elvenking gain some power over Thorin. And perhaps the single most important event of the entire Lord of the Rings series happens in passing, when Bilbo puts his hand out in the dark of the Misty Mountains and finds a small golden ring that happens to make him invisible (5.2). So Bilbo's story is part of a much larger series of tales, and his narrative needs a beginning, middle, and end even if the rest of Tolkien's imagined world is going to continue on without him.
To that end, The Hobbit has an absolutely beautiful structure, in which the first chapter promises us:
This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors' respect, but he gained – well, you'll see whether he gained anything in the end. (1.3)
And indeed, by the last chapter, we do see that Bilbo has lost the respect of the people of Hobbiton. They think he's a bit crazy, and no one believes his nutso stories of elves and dragons. All the same, we have also learned all that he has gained: "for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way" (19.27). Bilbo has completed his quest with honor and skill, and even if he's no longer quite as boring as the other hobbits would like him to be, he is "quite content" (19.28). The fact that his neighbors don't believe his colorful stories is proof of exactly how safe Bilbo is at the end of The Hobbit: Hobbiton remains untouched by the goings-on far outside its borders (at least, until The Fellowship of the Ring – but we won't give you too many spoilers here).
We all know that the only real ending to a fairy tale is, "they lived happily ever after." And Tolkien, in the best tradition of fairy tales, gives us the pleasure of being reassured: "[Bilbo Baggins] remained very happy to the end of his days, and they were extraordinarily long" (19.29). What's more, the area around the Lonely Mountain has been reborn, "and much wealth went up and down the Roaring River; and there was friendship in those parts between elves and dwarves and men" (19.32). Both the world and Bilbo Baggins find themselves in a better place at the end of the novel than they were in the beginning – the sure sign of a successful quest and a happy ending.
First things first, we strongly suggest that you check out the handy map Tolkien drew while writing The Hobbit to get a sense of where all of these places are. This map represents Thorin's grandfather's map of the Lonely Mountain. Pretty handy!
Otherwise, we start out in the "kindly West" (18.19), in the land of the hobbits. The hobbits call the place where Bilbo lives The Hill, while the Took family lives across The Water. In other words, the hobbits are so sheltered that they can only imagine one hill and one body of water. They don't even use proper names to distinguish between different hills and waters. (At least, not yet – the Shire gets a whole host of real names, but not until The Lord of the Rings.)
As Bilbo and the dwarves set out on their adventure, they travel east. They leave behind the pleasant greenness of hobbit country and travel into lands "where people spoke strangely, and sung songs Bilbo had never heard before" (2.23). And as they go farther and farther away from Bilbo's home, they find "dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees" (2.23). The farther that Bilbo goes into the unknown, the more the landscape reflects his discomfort: suddenly, Bilbo is seeing "old castles with an evil look" (2.23) and, of course, the trolls, Bert, Tom, and Bill.
Still, even though the "Lone-lands" aren't familiar to Bilbo, he's in no true danger yet. The real border between comfortable lands and dangerous lands is helpfully marked by Rivendell, the location of the "Last Homely House" protected by the great lord Elrond. Rivendell is a sheltered valley filled with elves singing and laughing. Yet, while the valley of Rivendell is pleasant and delightful, it's still overshadowed by the Misty Mountains beyond. And Bilbo has to leave it eventually.
Bilbo's naiveté about the landscape of his own world really comes to the fore when he first sets eyes on the Misty Mountains, before he and the company stop in Rivendell. Bilbo asks, "Is that The Mountain?" (3.2). He can't imagine that there's more than one mountain – after all, he comes from a place with The Hill and The Water. But Balin replies dismissively, "Of course not!" (3.3). The Lonely Mountain is still miles and miles away. So we have gone from The Hill in Hobbiton to a whole chain of enormous, threatening mountains.
Once Bilbo comes out the other side of the Misty Mountains (and the goblin tunnels), he takes shelter with Beorn the wild man in a large wooden house near a rock Beorn calls the Carrock. Beorn's place is comfortable and safe, but it's still strange and not home-like: Beorn relies on ponies to serve him, and he eats only honey and bread. The strangeness of Beorn's house proves that we are still definitely in the Wild.
Next up, Mirkwood. Mirkwood is a dark forest filled with suspicious Wood-elves, eerie enchantments, and giant spiders. Still, when Bilbo asks if they can go around it, we find out that the Grey Mountains to the north are filled with "goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description," while to the South, "you would get into the land of the Necromancer" (7.145). Hm… So while Mirkwood is not safe, there are other places that are even less so – once you are "over the Edge of the Wild" (7.145), there's no safety left.
The Lonely Mountain is the end of the dwarves' quest. It towers "grim and tall" (11.1) and "danger [broods] in every rock" (11.19). The primary characteristic of this setting (besides gloominess) is that it's incredibly hard to get inside. The dwarves have to wait until precisely the right day before they can unlock the side door and get inside. And once Smaug has been killed, the dwarves barricade all of the doors except the Front Gate so they can defend themselves against Bard and the Elvenking. This space is like the inverse of Hobbiton, where we began our journey: the tunnels of the Lonely Mountain are grim, dark, and reeking of dragon, while Bilbo's home is "a hobbit hole, and that means comfort" (1.1). This opposition between Bilbo's hobbit-hole at the beginning and Thorin's dangerous (but wealthy) dwarf tunnels at the end demonstrate just how far Bilbo has gone over the course of his quest.
When Bilbo returns to The Hill, having seen all the things that he has seen, suddenly his own home under The Hill seems changed. (The estate sale of all of his belongings that Bilbo finds upon his return probably doesn't help!) But his home now holds a sword over the mantelpiece, and he takes "to writing poetry and visiting the elves" (19.29). The changes to Bilbo's home – the sword over the mantelpiece and the chainmail coat in the hallway – only serve to prove his internal development as a character.
It may seem surprising that we find Thorin Oakenshield and Gollum similar. But hear us out! We think we can make our case. To start, both of them lost their homes long ago. Smaug destroyed Thorin's grandfather's kingdom under the Lonely Mountain many years prior, and Thorin barely managed to escape with his life. Similarly, while we don't know exactly how Gollum got under the Misty Mountains (in this book, at least), the narrator does refer to a time "long, long ago, before [Gollum] lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains" (5.22).
So, both Thorin and Gollum are homeless. And in their separation from home, they've both gotten obsessed with a single object that means a lot to them. Thorin's is the Arkenstone of Thrain, a giant diamond that "is worth more than a river of gold in itself, and to [Thorin] it is beyond price" (16.2). The stone belonged to Thorin's father, Thrain, and Thorin will do anything to get it back. For Thorin, the Arkenstone is a symbol of his family, and of his family's lost kingdom and greatness.
For Gollum, the thing he loves most in the world is his ring of invisibility. We find out that Gollum whispers, "My birthday-present!" about the ring "often […] in the endless dark days" (5.76). In other words, as Gollum crouches in the dark all by himself, the only company he has is this golden ring, which is more precious than anything to him. And calling it his "birthday-present" reminds him of a time when he actually got presents and had birthdays – a very long time before The Hobbit starts. So the ring is also a symbol of home to Gollum.
Both Thorin and Gollum are incredibly focused on these symbols of home. Thorin contemplates waging war on Bard and the Elvenking just to get his Arkenstone back. And Gollum swears eternal hatred on Bilbo for stealing "the only thing he had ever cared for, his precious" (5.121).
But Bilbo, who has his own comfortable hobbit-hole back under The Hill, doesn't seem to feel this intense desire for things. He happily hands the Arkenstone over to Bard to try and prevent war. And while he doesn't give the ring back to Gollum (and he'd probably get killed if he tried), he mainly just uses it to dodge "unpleasant callers" (19.29) at Bag-End – nothing too tricky. Bilbo gives the Elvenking a necklace of silver and diamonds because he feels bad for burgling the man's home. And Bilbo willingly takes only two small chests of treasure because that is "quite as much as [Bilbo] can manage" (18.37). Bilbo doesn't seem to be obsessed with wealth, perhaps because he's already a comfortable, well-off hobbit. He doesn't need polished symbols of home like the Arkenstone or the ring when he has a real home of his own to return to.
Even though the "I" who is narrating The Hobbit hardly ever appears in the novel, this is still technically a first-person book. Someone occasionally steps in to make direct comments on the novel's events. For example, when this narrator introduces Gandalf, he comments, "Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale" (1.6). So it almost sounds as though there's some live person telling us one among many stories that he knows about Gandalf. This gives the whole novel a chatty (and often hilarious) tone.
Since The Hobbit sometimes sounds like it's coming from on oral storyteller, it contains lots of little side comments about everything that's happening in the novel, and about Bilbo in particular. The narrator seems to have a ton of affection for Bilbo. Even when Bilbo is at his worst, as when he foolishly allows himself to get caught by trolls in the second chapter, the narrator sounds deeply sympathetic about his "poor little feet" that had been "very squashed in [troll] Bert's big paw" (2.67).
And even when Bilbo is at his best, generously weeping for frenemy Thorin Oakenshield after Thorin's untimely death, the narrator keeps up a wry, slightly condescending tone: he reports Bilbo's crying "whether you believe it or not," acknowledging that Bilbo is a "kindly little soul" (18.20). The fact that the narrator never takes Bilbo too seriously makes the hobbit seem even more relatable to us. And the narrator seems to like Bilbo so much that we can't help but join in.
There are no direct references in The Hobbit. Nowhere does Tolkien say, "Check out Beowulf! I like it and it's good!" But there are many, many texts that have influenced The Hobbit. We mention several in "In a Nutshell." We also highly recommend Douglas A. Anderson's Annotated Hobbit and Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth for more.