Study Guide

The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again Race

By J.R.R. Tolkien


Chapter 1

Long ago in my grandfather Thror's time our family was driven out of the far North, and came back with all their wealth and their tools to this Mountain on the map. It had been discovered by my far ancestor, Thrain the Old, but now they mined and they tunneled and they made huger halls and greater workshops – and in addition I believe they found a good deal of gold and a great many jewels too [...] So my grandfather's hall became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups, and the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North.

Undoubtedly that was what brought the dragon. Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever, unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of current market value. (1.122-3)

Here, Thorin is introducing both his own people, the dwarves (who are cunning miners), and his enemies, the dragons (who "steal and jewels [...] and never enjoy a brass ring of it). Morally speaking, it seems like one of the worst problems with dragons is not just that they love gold. After all, the dwarves love having huge piles of wealth, too. But dragons don't know anything about it – "they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad." From the perspective of a craftsman like Thorin, it must seem like the worst waste to steal a bunch of gold without truly appreciating its worth. The "fierce and jealous love" (1.83) of the dwarves for gold seems to be more spiritual than the dragons'.

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. (1.4)

There are a couple of interesting things about this quote: first, it describes hobbits, Tolkien's particular creation. Second, it represents hobbits as an endangered species: "rare and shy of the Big People." And third, it positions the narrator as a human (one of the "large stupid folk like you and me"). And in a novel that has very few humans, being human here places both the narrator and the reader on the outside, observing the actions of hobbits, elves, and dwarves from a distant perspective.

Chapter 2

But at any rate hobbits can move quietly in woods, absolutely quietly. They take pride in it, and Bilbo had sniffed more than once at what he called "all this dwarvish racket" as they went along, though I don't suppose you or I would have noticed anything at all on a windy night, not if the whole cavalcade had passed two feet off. (2.37)

Even though Bilbo mostly feels inferior to the dwarves when he first joins their company, he still has some interesting racial pride as a hobbit. He's constantly trying to prove himself to the dwarves, as when he tries to steal Bill the Troll's wallet. But here, he's sniffing "more than once at what he called 'all this dwarvish racket.'" These odd moments when Bilbo's perspective is suddenly represented as alien to our own (because we wouldn't have "noticed anything at all on a windy night") draw the reader's attention to the fact that Bilbo is not human, and that his judgments may not be entirely predictable. It's a nice, low-key way to remind the reader that Bilbo is, in fact, a hobbit, and not just a short, pudgy man.

Chapter 3

So [the elves] laughed and sang in the trees; and pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it. Not that they would care; they would only laugh all the more if you told them so. They were elves of course. Soon Bilbo caught glimpses of them as the darkness deepened. He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too. Dwarves don't get on well with them. Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a very foolish thing to think), or get annoyed with them. For some elves tease and laugh at them, and most of all at their beards. (3.14)

The foolish singing of the elves seems entirely different from the elven songs we see produced in The Lord of the Rings. Why might Tolkien have decided on this more light-hearted elvish characterization for The Hobbit? What effect does it have on the pacing of The Hobbit's chapters that these songs are often presented in full? How do the elves' songs compare to those of the dwarves or the goblins? (How do you like playing Twenty Questions?)

Chapter 4

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. (4.22)

There's a reason why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been described as anti-mechanical. After all, nature is associated with Good People, such as the elves. And engines and machines (not "beautiful things" but "clever ones") belong to the goblins. Based on what you know from The Hobbit, what do you think Tolkien's ideal living space and environment would be? What kinds of spaces in The Hobbit seem most inviting?

Chapter 5

Now certainly Bilbo was in what is called a tight place. But you must remember it was not quite so tight for him as it would have been for me or for you. Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people; and after all if their holes are nice cheery places and properly aired, quite different from the tunnels of the goblins, still they are more used to tunneling than we are, and they do not easily lose their sense of direction underground – not when their heads have recovered from being bumped. Also they can move very quietly, and hide easily, and recover wonderfully from falls and bruises, and they have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard of or have forgotten long ago. (5.8)

This passage seems to display Tolkien's deep respect for the importance of folklore and oral tradition connecting the present to the past. One thing the narrator admires about hobbits is that "they have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard of or have forgotten long ago." When does Bilbo use these "wise sayings"?

Chapter 8

The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. There the Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic and their cunning craft in the making of beautiful and marvelous things, before some came back into the Wide World. In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon, but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk. Still elves they were and remain, and that is Good People. (8.128)

There's a sense of decline in this passage. While "elves they were and remain, and that is Good People," the fact still remains that the ancient tribes of elves were perhaps more marvelous than these current Mirkwood residents. And what has made the difference in their strength is "the coming of Men" – a.k.a., us. The rise of man has changed the face of Middle-earth. What sense do you get of Tolkien's feelings about the past versus the present? Which characters in The Hobbit seem most oriented towards tradition, and how do these characters keep their traditions alive? What are the traditions of the different races we see in The Hobbit?

Chapter 17

Ever since the fall of the Great Goblin of the Misty Mountains, the hatred of their race for the dwarves had been rekindled to fury. Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies, and strongholds; for they resolved now to win the dominion of the North. Todings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming. then they marched and gathered by hill and valley, going ever by tunnel or under dark, until around and beneath the great mountain Gundabad of the North, where was their capital, a vast host was assembled ready to sweep down in time of storm unawares upon the South. (17.44)

The elves were the first to charge. Their hatred for the goblins is cold and bitter. Their spears and shields shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them. (17.50)

The goblins hate the dwarves as a race. And the elves hate the goblins as a race. So, race determines not only your moral character, but also your loyalties and your enemies, in Tolkien's world. What do you think of the ethics of this depiction of race? In what respects do Tolkien's races (elves, goblins, hobbits, etc.) differ from real world racial divisions?

Chapter 18

Beorn indeed became a great chief afterwards in those regions and ruled a wide land between the mountains and the wood; and it is said that for many generations the men of his line had the power of taking bear's shape, and some were grim men and bad, but most were in heart like Beorn, if less in size and strength. In their day the last goblins were hunted from the Misty Mountains and a new peace came over the edge of the Wild. (18.51)

The incredible importance of genetics and lineage in Tolkien's world can't be overestimated: Beorn starts his own line of men with "the power of taking bear's shape." And Bard manages to kill Smaug thanks to an inherited ability to talk to birds. Even Bilbo's adventurousness comes from his Took family background. So, in Tolkien's world, it really does matter who your father is. It'll have a huge effect on your own abilities and character.