Study Guide

The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again Exploration

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Exploration

Chapter 1
Bilbo Baggins

"All the same, I should like it all plain and clear," said [Bilbo] obstinately, putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional and live up to Gandalf's recommendation. "Also I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration, and so forth" – by which he meant: "What am I going to get out of it? and am I going to come back alive?" (1.121)

Some of the humor in this first chapter comes from the fact that both Bilbo and Thorin regard his signing up to be a burglar on a quest for treasure as a "prudent and professional" business contract. In other words, we think that exploring foreign lands filled with goblins and dragons sounds exciting and romantic. But the dwarves and Bilbo keep using this formal legal language to keep things strictly business. The tone of these negotiations seems so at odds with the excitement of what they're planning!

"We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them," said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring. Then he took out his morning letters, and began to read, pretending to take no more notice of [Gandalf]. He had decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away. But the old man did not move. (1.12)

(By the way, it took us a long time to figure out that when Bilbo says "braces," he doesn't mean the ones that go on your teeth. "Braces" is also an Anglo English word for "suspenders," which is what Bilbo actually means here.) So, Bilbo seems completely and totally dead-set against exploration. At what point during the Unexpected Party does Bilbo change his mind?

As I was saying, the mother of this particular hobbit — of Bilbo Baggins, that is — was the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran on the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. (1.4)

First of all, we find this passage hilarious because, in a few short words, Tolkien evokes how very hidebound and conservative the hobbits are. They may be cozy, happy people, but they also insist that no one does anything unexpected. And if someone does go and "have adventures," they'll exclude that "rebel" from hobbit society. This kind of exclusion would probably be really horrible for someone who only knows the world of the hobbits. But once you've seen the larger world, the bad opinion of a few people under The Hill probably seems a lot less serious – as, in fact, Bilbo discovers by the end of the novel.

Chapter 2

Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting! For your hospitality our sincerest thanks, and for your offer of professional assistance our grateful acceptance. Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all traveling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for. (2.8)

What do you think of the terms of Thorin's job offer for Bilbo? Why does Thorin insist on an official contract with his burglar? What might Thorin be afraid of if he doesn't have a contract with Bilbo? Would you accept the contract Thorin offers Bilbo?

Chapter 4

They had thought of coming to the secret door in the Lonely Mountain, perhaps that very next last moon of Autumn – "and perhaps it will be Durin's Day" they had said. Only Gandalf had shaken his head and said nothing. Dwarves had not passed that way for many years, but Gandalf had, and he knew how evil and danger had grown and thriven in the Wild, since the dragons had driven men from the lands and the goblins had spread in secret after the battle of the Mines of Moria. Even the good plans of wise wizards like Gandalf and of good friends like Elrond go astray sometimes when you are off on dangerous adventures over the Edge of the Wild; and Gandalf was a wise enough wizard to know it. (4.3)

The dwarves often get ahead of themselves in their plans. They can see the end point so clearly that they never take into account the dangers in the way. That's not only the case in this passage; we can also compare this to later scenes in Lake-town, when Thorin "looked and walked as if his kingdom was already regained and Smaug chopped up into little pieces" (10.38).

Chapter 7

There is [a way around Mirkwood], if you care to go two hundred miles or so out of your way north, and twice that south. But you wouldn't get a safe path even then. There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go. Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description. Before you could get round it in the South, you would get into the land of the Necromancer, and even you, Bilbo, won't need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer. I don't advise you to go anywhere near the places overlooked by his dark tower! Stick to the forest-track, keep your spirits up, hope for the best, and with a tremendous slice of luck you may come out one day and see the Long Marshes lying below you and beyond them, high in the East, the Lonely Mountain where dear old Smaug lives, though I hope he is not expecting you. (7.145)

In this description from Gandalf just before Bilbo and the dwarves head into Mirkwood, we finally get a sense of the larger layout of the world of The Hobbit. Up until now, they have mainly been traveling in a straight line on a road heading east. But now, the option does exist to keep going east, north, or south. So, as their adventure is getting more dangerous, the setting itself – the layout of The Hobbit's fantasy world – is also growing more complex.

Chapter 10

Those lands had changed much since the days when dwarves dwelt in the Mountain, days which most people now remembered only as a very shadowy tradition. They had changed even in recent years, and since the last news Gandalf had had of them. Great floods and rains had swollen the waters that flowed east, and there had been an earthquake or two (which some were inclined to attribute to the dragon – alluding to him chiefly with a curse and an ominous nod in the direction of the Mountain). The marshes and bogs had spread wider and wider on either side. Paths had vanished, and many a rider and wanderer too, if they had tried to find the lost ways across. The elf-road through the wood which the dwarves had followed on the advice of Beorn now came to a doubtful and little used end at the eastern edge of the forest; only the river offered any longer a safe way from the skirts of Mirkwood in the North to the mountain-shadowed plains beyond, and the river was guarded by the Wood-elves' king. (10.4)

Bilbo's luck is so very good that he manages to find the only road that would have been possible out of Mirkwood: the river out of the Wood-king's palace. Even Gandalf can't predict that the "great floods and rains" have swallowed "the elf-road through the wood which the dwarves had followed." So, at this stage in their adventure, even good advice is not enough to make travel predictable or safe. In a sense, this is the moment when Bilbo and the dwarves truly begin to explore, when they go off the path into genuinely unknown space.

Chapter 11

They all fell silent: the hobbit standing by the grey stone, and the dwarves with wagging beards watching impatiently. The sun sank lower and lower and their hopes fell. it sank into a belt of reddened cloud and disappeared. The dwarves groaned, but still Bilbo stood almost without moving. The little moon was dipping to the horizon. Evening was coming on. Then suddenly when their hope was lowest a red ray of the sun escaped like a finger through a rent in the cloud. A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face. The old thrush, who had been watching from a high perch with beady eyes and head cocked on one side, gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground [...]

Then Thorin stepped up and drew the key on its chain from round his neck. He put it to the hole. It fitted and it turned! Snap! The gleam went out, the sun sank, the moon was gone, and evening sprang into the sky. (11.32-7)

Again, we have to be amazed by Bilbo's luck: he happens to be standing near the side door when the thrush indicates that now is the time: it's Durin's Day, and the secret keyhole is about to be revealed! We do sometimes feel that the lengths the novel goes to make sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time – the Eagles that save Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves from the goblins, the thrush that indicates that it is Durin's Day, to name a few more – are a bit much to believe. Should we forgive The Hobbit its farfetched plot twists because it's a fantasy novel? Do we allow more license to fantasy fiction about things like cause and effect because of the nature of the genre? Does The Lord of the Rings ever also seem contrived, or is it just The Hobbit?

Chapter 18

[Bilbo] had many hardships and adventures before he got back. The Wild was still the Wild, and there were many other things in it in those days besides goblins; but he was well guided and well-guarded – the wizard was with him, and Beorn for much of the way — and he was never in great danger again. (18.57).

Why do we hear nothing of Bilbo's adventures traveling with Gandalf and Beorn on the way back west? Are you curious about what happens to Bilbo on the road home, or does the pacing seem right to you?

Chapter 19

Indeed Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons – he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be "queer" – except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders.

I am sorry to say he did not mind. He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party. (19.27-8)

It almost seems like the whole point of Bilbo's trip is to make "the sound of the kettle on his hearth [...] ever after more musical than it had been [...] in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party." If you had gone an adventure like Bilbo's, would you be satisfied to just stay at home afterwards? Now that Bilbo has seen the wider world, how does he maintain his ties to people outside of Hobbiton?