The Impact of Setting in The Hobbit
While it may be easy to underestimate the importance of scenic descriptions, setting plays an important role in most literature – including character-driven fantasy. Setting can be written to represent conflicting forces or ideals, and to help illustrate the conflict and overarching idea of a story to the reader. One work of literature that utilizes setting to emphasize conflict and enhance the development of the plot is the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Throughout the novel, Tolkien emphasizes the importance of two central locations: Bilbo’s home in The Hill, and the mountain where Smaug the dragon lives. Not only do these places differ in location, as many miles separate The Hill from Smaug’s Mountain, but they also represent contrasting traits from the perspective of Bilbo. Through his contrast between The Hill and Smaug’s Mountain, Tolkien illustrates how Blbo’s character develops throughout the progression of the story.
From the beginning of the novel, when Bilbo first describes his hobbit hole in The Hill, the importance of the hobbit hole to Bilbo is obvious. Not only does the quaint hobbit hole represent safety, comfort, and happiness to Bilbo – it also contains countless memories of his family, who originally built the home, and his childhood. Bilbo acknowledges his love and familiarity for his home when he says “…it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort” (Tolkien 1). Essentially, the hobbit hole represents everything Bilbo has ever known, and everything he values. As the story progresses, however, and Bilbo gets further away from his home in The Hill, Bilbo’s character changes drastically – he becomes more knowledgeable, and his values change. By the time he reaches Smaug’s Mountain, Bilbo has faced numerous conflicts, from getting lost in Gollum’s cave and managing to escape to fighting the spiders who attacked him and his friends when traversing through a forest to the army. Overall, The Hill helps convey to the reader how Bilbo’s character develops and becomes a hero – as his journey progresses, he learns to goup against his fears and discomfort, the opposite of what The Hill offered to him, and he learns that adventure is not as bad as he first thought it was.
Whereas The Hill is a safe and comforting place for Bilbo, Smaug’s Mountain contains the opposite: an unknown territory of danger and malice. The mountain seems ominous from the second Bilbo and the others reach “…the dark cavernous opening in a great cliff-wall between the arms of the Mountain” (Tolkien 189). To Bilbo, Smaug’s Mountain is the apex of less favorable aspects of adventure, and represents exactly what Bilbo seems to be afraid of: danger, uneasiness, and change. Before Bilbo even knows what the adventure will be, he vehemently refuses Gandalf when he first travels to Bilbo’s home in The Hill to propose the idea of adventure to him. Bilbo justifies his own refusal for adventure by stating “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures… I can’t think what anybody sees in them” (Tolkien 6). However, by the time Bilbo reaches the mountain, his outlook on adventure, along with his character, has changed drastically. Along the way, Bilbo not only experienced danger but learned to face and overcome it. Bilbo’s journey, and the conflicts he faced throughout it, developed and revealed his inner hero. When he finally reaches Smaug’s Mountain, the adventure’s end goal, Bilbo is no longer the same timid person he used to be. While still fearful of facing the dragon, Bilbo has learned that he is capable of undergoing conflict and facing the unknown. Smaug’s Mountain illustrates Bilbo’s development as a hero – while it may be a source of unknown danger, by the time Bilbo enters it, he is both competent and confident in himself.
Overall, The Hill and Smaug’s Mountain play different aspects in the story, but both locations work to develop the plot and characters. Whereas Tolkien introduces The Hill from the very beginning of the novel, Bilbo does not arrive at Smaug’s Mountain until near the end of the novel. Ultimately, The Hill starts the adventure, and Smaug’s Mountain ends it, as reaching it and defeating Smaug appears to be the very goal of Bilbo’s adventure. By writing the locations so far apart from each other, both in location and order of appearance in the novel, Tolkien emphasizes how Bilbo’s character changes throughout the progression of the story. The journey that transpires on the way to the mountain forces Bilbo to adapt to change and learn how to face danger, and therefore acknowledge his inner heroism. When Bilbo leaves The Hill to transpire the journey, he appears timid and weak, and even views himself as such – by the time he reaches Smaug’s Mountain, he has conquered various dangers and conflict, and therefore knows his capability greater than he once thought.
Sting and Bilbo: Significance of the Small in The Hobbit
Bilbo’s sword, Sting, plays a large role in The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien — a role that almost appears to be incongruous for its size. Through each one of its appearances, Sting’s increased significance as a plot element simultaneously symbolizes steps forward in Bilbo’s journey in becoming a true hero. The roles of the weapon with overlooked potentials and the hobbit with underestimated abilities eventually are revealed to be more significant than imagined.
Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls is what leads to the discovery of Sting. Because his experience with the trolls is his first encounter with the true perils of the world outside the Shire, Bilbo’s actions reflect those of a typical hobbit with an easy, sheltered life. Although he escapes the trolls alive, he is painted as a character of extreme cowardice in this part of the novel, as he hides in a bush while his dwarf-friends take on the statuses of future troll-fodder. Nevertheless, after the trolls are turned into stone, his success in overcoming his first taste of danger is rewarded with the discovery of Sting in the troll’s cave. Compared to the other precious elvin-made swords found in the cave, Sting appears insignificant, as it “would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit” (Tolkien 42). Like Sting, Bilbo appears useless and incapable of any great deed at this point in the novel. For a stretch of time afterwards, during which the dwarves regard Bilbo as a burden due to his useless presence, the hobbit forgets about his sword.
However, when Bilbo is abandoned in the goblin tunnels, he remembers the dagger he keeps in his possession. During this time of despair, Sting brings a ray of hope to Bilbo. As he goes on to meet Gollum, Bilbo finds that his hope is justified when Gollum puts on a polite exterior, “anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit” (73). The presence of Sting, combined with Bilbo’s composed demeanor, makes Gollum wary long enough for Bilbo to plot his escape.
After this episode, in which Sting plays a small but vital part by bestowing hope to Bilbo and apprehension to Gollum, the idea of Bilbo being a capable hero becomes less ludicrous to the dwarves. As Bilbo proudly boasts of his adventures to them, they regard him in an awe that he previously did not receive. Although Bilbo obtains Sting early on in the novel, it is not until he kills the giant spider in the forest that he gives his sword a name: “Somehow, the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or anyone else, made a great difference to Mr Baggins. He felt like a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. ‘I will give you a name,’ he said to it, ‘and I shall call you Sting'” (156). The scene that follows, in which Bilbo’s first impulse upon seeing his friends trapped by spiders is to rescue them by himself, contrasts sharply with the inept way in which he handled the imprisonment of his friends by the trolls as a greenhorn adventurer earlier on in the novel. Such exponential growth in bravery and selflessness reflects Bilbo’s extreme growth in terms of heroism. Even though Bilbo has already successfully escaped Gollum on his own, the virtue of saving one’s own life pales in comparison to the chivalry present in the desire to rescue others, especially if one may be put at risk as a result. As he fearlessly slashes apart the spiderwebs that imprison the dwarves, Bilbo demonstrates that he has not only acquired knowledge and wisdom in dealing with the evils of the world, but has also achieved a level of undeniable heroism.
In this manner, the naming of Bilbo’s sword foreshadows the last test Bilbo must, and does, overcome in order to gain the status of a true hero.The significance of Sting in the plot of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is made obvious at the same rate in which Bilbo’s heroism develops to its full potential. Both Sting and Bilbo have the potential to attain a greatness even those regarded with great esteem cannot achieve.
Heroes and the Hobbit
The principal concern of a literature student is to try to infer what the author’s intentions are. However, we often include our own perspectives and forget the author altogether. Take a look at The Hobbit. Many people assume Tolkien wanted Bilbo to be viewed as the hero and that the story is of his transformation. However, given Beowulf’s influence on Tolkien, Bilbo is most likely not meant to a hero.For those who think Bilbo is the hero, don’t be too offended by my claim. The theory does make sense. When we first see Bilbo, he is as commonplace as can be. Every morning he sits down, smokes his pipe, and is a good housekeeper – never forgetting to dust the mantelpiece. However, one morning he is whisked away from his hobbit hole. He is taken on an adventure, where he proves himself to be above norm. He performs many daring feats. Bilbo certainly does change during the adventure. However, it takes more than performing heroic feats to be a hero.But then, what is a hero? The American Heritage Dictionary defines hero as, “the principal male character in a literary work.” For all purposes, this definition is too broad – any protagonist (as long as they’re male) could qualify for this distinction. How, then, do we define a hero? The hero, after all, has been a long literary tradition. Choosing then, which character or adventure is best fitted for the definition of hero can be tricky. What is the standard? Heroes from mythology? Should we turn to King Arthur or his nephew Gawain? Or maybe someone more modern – Harry Potter perhaps?Beowulf is a direct influence on Tolkien’s The Hobbit. He studied it, wrote about it and taught it. The setting of Heorot is directly responsible for Rivendell. Both are viewed as havens and the food and drink are endless. Beowulf’s dragon shows his face as Smaug. Both are wakened by the theft of a single cup. Both too meet their death by the sword of a King (There are other similarities, of course, but that isn’t this paper’s concern). Therefore, we will use the poem’s titular character as the definition of a hero.Of course, a hero goes on a journey and in the process slays many monsters and helps rescue those in need. A hero, though, is more than a person with a sword. A hero, first and foremost, is a leader. They must also possess cunning and strength. Yet, s/he still has qualities, such as flaws that allow him (her) to be viewed as human. A hero also has God (or the fates on his side) and they intervene on his behalf and without his knowing. A hero must also make a quest to the Underworld, where s/he gains something of use.Beowulf is the leader of his comrades. He decides that they travel across the sea to help fight Grendal. He decides that they will use no weapons when battling the monster. He also decides that they must battle his mother. When he becomes King of the Geats, he decides when to fight the dragon and how.Bilbo is a hired burglar – not the leader. He often takes orders and allows himself to be tricked into dangerous jobs. A good example would be the trolls or Bilbo’s job as scout in the Lonely Mountain. Nor does he really care if the quest succeeds. His main worry is being returned safely.Beowulf without a doubt is full of cunning. He thinks of quick replies to counter Unferth’s insults. He thinks out his attacks before charging into the heat of battle. Beowulf also has much physical strength. His battles with Grendal and his mother prove that.Bilbo too has cunning. He thinks of plans to rescue the dwarves from spiders and elves. He also keeps a quick tongue with Gollum and Smaug. However, he lacks physical strength. Preferring to use his ring and brain, we never see Bilbo do battle.Beowulf also has a flaw. He has both a willingness to prove himself and is boastful—a dangerous combination. The swimming contest with Breca shows just how quickly he will risk life for fame. His boast that he will not use weapons when battling Grendal almost leads to his death.However, God (or the fates) intervene. Intervention of higher beings and luck, of course is a must for a hero. After his sword fails when piercing Grendal’s mother, he immediately finds another potent sword and slays her.Bilbo, like Beowulf, has a flaw. However, Bilbo has too many flaws. He often lacks caution. After discovering the trolls, instead of going to tell the dwarves, he tries to pick their pockets. Bilbo also suffers from critical complaining. Rather than try to help his condition, he dwells on how miserable it is. Bilbo is also guilty of cowardice. Rather than fight the spiders he distracts them and helps the dwarves flee. Critics will counter with “that’s just quick thinking.” Of course, it is. However, in the Battle of the Five Armies, rather than stand up and fight, he hides behind his ring.Bilbo doesn’t seem to have the intervention of God or the fates. Rather, he has a great deal of luck. Waking up in time to see the mountain wall open, waking up to see the spider are all fine examples.This leads us to the final part of what a hero is. Beowulf makes a trip to the Underworld—not literally but figuratively. He travels under water and mountain to battle the vicious mother of Grendal. During this battle, he acquires his sword hilt. When he returns, he acquires the blessing of Hrothgar to be King of the Geats. Both of these things are useful, but do not overshadow Beowulf. The title and the sword are extensions of Beowulf.With Bilbo, it is the opposite. Bilbo does make his quest to the Underworld, where he meets Gollum. He then is faced with a Battle of Riddles and escapes with a magic ring. However, the ring is used too often. Rather than the ring being an extension of Bilbo, it becomes his only saving grace.The Hobbit, however, is not without its heroes. Bard and Thorin, both side characters, function as the true heroes. Thorin is the leader of dwarves. He has decided on their quest to the Lonely Mountain. He also, is the one who hires Bilbo. Of course, the addition of Bilbo is from Gandalf, who serves as the higher intervention. Thorin also has a small flaw – stubbornness, which causes the Battle of the Five Armies.It is fair to assume Beowulf has had a great influence on Tolkien. Keeping this in mind, it is also safe to assume, Bilbo Baggins is not meant to be a hero. He is merely a comedic character who performs many heroic feats. To those still skeptical, I’ll leave you with this last thought: Turn to The Lord of the Rings and answer this question: Whom does Tolkien choose as the ring-bearer—Frodo or Bilbo?Works Cited”Hero.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd Ed. 1994.
Tolkien’s Hobbit: From Children’s Story to Mythic Creation
“Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.” -J.R.R Tolkien, letter to his publisher (quoted in Carpenter 1977, 182).The Hobbit started as little more than a bedtime story for Tolkien’s children. Like most of his fellow academics, Tolkien viewed fantasy as limited to childhood. The result was a book written in a chatty, informal style that contrasts sharply with that of its serious successors. The narrator makes frequent patronising and intrusive asides, such as “And what would you do, if an uninvited dwarf came and hung his things up in your hall without a word of explanation?” (H, 18). The language approximates baby-talk at times (nasty, dirty wet hole oozy smell”), and modifiers (“terribly”, “lots and lots”) abound.Many critics, including Tolkien himself, have viewed this as the chief weakness of the book. Although the tone does evoke the oral tradition through which myths were originally created, it detracts from the power of the book. It renders villains are more comic than truly threatening, its heroes more endearing than awe-inspiring. One commentator feels that The Hobbit “lacks a certain intellectual weight” and “deserves little serious, purely literary criticism” (Helms 1974: 53).The important words here are “purely literary”. The novel cannot be studied in isolation, but must be seen against the broader backdrop of Tolkien’s literary philosophy and the entire mythic tradition. For the writing of The Hobbit both influenced and was influenced by the profound intellectual change its author was undergoing, namely the development of the philosophy of mythopoeia, or myth-making.In his lecture “On Fairy Stories”, delivered only a few months after The Hobbit was published, Tolkien expressed the view that myth represents truth about humanity and its environment far better than the crude factuality of science is able to. It allows people to see in a new light what has become commonplace and drab. Although Elves, for instance, do not “exist” in a scientific sense, they embody the creative skill and immortality of the human spirit, and therefore do exist.As Tolkien put it, the storyteller “makes a Secondary World in which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside”. He called this process sub-creation: by creating a parallel world, the myth-maker emulates God, the supreme creator. The Bible is the ultimate, divine fairy story because it reconciles historic with mythic truth, and all man-made myth will reflect this. Tolkien famously disliked allegory, and saw myth as an entirely different art form.In addition, Tolkien believed, fairy stories offer an escape from the gloom of modern life and, through eucatastrophe, or the happy ending, provide a joy similar to religious ecstasy. However, he could find no mythology indigenous to his native country, and so, in his own words, set out to create “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogenic to the level of the romantic fairy story which I could dedicate simply to England” (quoted in Rogers & Rogers 1980: 30).In true mythopoetic tradition, The Hobbit borrows extensively from the ancient and medieval, only a few of which can be detailed in this essay. The Old English poem Beowulf inspired, among others, its chief villain, Smaug. In his other well-known lecture, entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien rebuffed scholars critical of the central theme monsters occupy in the poem, and argues that “they are essential [and] give it its lofty tone and high seriousness”. They embody radical evil, he argues, and make true heroism possible. Thus when Bilbo encounters the dragon’s hoard, he takes a cup, just as the nameless servant in Beowulf does. Both works end in a dragon-slaying, but even more interestingly, they begin in the defeat of quite similar creatures: Grendel in Beowulf, Gollum in Hobbit.Smaug is a creation of several other sources, some that the author himself would dispute. His name is derived from the Germanic verb smugan meaning “to squeeze through a hole”. He is a fusion of serpent and bird, symbolising the union of earth and sky, or, in psychoanalytical terms, id and superego. Therefore, his death brings about the equilibrium of both slayer and community. The dragon also reminds of the Biblical serpent, and with great skill tempts Bilbo into doubting his party (Nitsche 1979: 44). There are even echoes of parable when Smaug’s vanity and greed causes him to reveal his weak spot and thereby brings about his downfall.Tolkien was also heavily influenced by Norse mythology. The Hobbit’s elves, trolls and especially dwarves, which forge beautiful and valuable treasures deep inside mountains, are Nordic creations. The name of the head dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, is found in the Prose Edda, and is derived from the Icelandic words Thorin, meaning “bold one” and Eikinskjaldi, meaning “with oak-shield”. Another uniquely Nordic feature is the importance of luck in the composition of a hero, although in Tolkien the Catholic “luck” definitely contains elements of divine providence.The riddle-contest, which has been called the pivot of the story and which the narrator assures us is “sacred and of immense antiquity” (H, 84), mirrors The Saga of Kind Hedrik the Wise, where Odin disguises himself and wins a riddle contest by asking a question that is not a riddle. As in fairy tales the world over, rhymes and music play an important role throughout The Hobbit in mirroring the order or disorder in nature. Rituals, in general, and especially feasting, signify fellowship and equilibrium. This explains why a period of intense danger and suffering in the company’s journey is always followed by a feast provided by a hospitable representative of Middle Earth.The character of Beorn has a rich mythic heritage. Bears are revered by the Celts and respected by the Norse for their primitive power. Beorn derives his name from the Nordic words for warrior, beorn and bear, bjorn. He is perhaps modelled on the legendary beserkers, warriors who went into such a frenzy during battle that they performed extraordinary feats. As both man and bear, he represents the unity of nature and society, much long-for by humanity since the fall. He embodies both the cruelty and honesty of nature. For this reason, shamans often assumed animalistic qualities during rituals (O’Neill 1979: 118). The fact that both Bear (earth) and Eagles (sky) offer their assistance on more than one occasion again symbolises the unity between all aspects of nature and of the human psyche once evil is defeated.However, “one learns little by raking through a compost heap to see what dead plants originally went into it. Far better to observe its effect on the new and growing plants which it is enriching” (Carpenter 1977: 182). Despite the above-mentioned influences, and many others, Tolkien was not interested in merely rehashing other people’s stories, but in mythopoeia. Although Tolkien did not begin The Hobbit with this intention, he soon found himself, quite unexpectedly “discovering” a world with its own scientific laws, races and even proverbs, such as “escaping goblins to be caught by wolves” (H, 101).If there is a specific point where The Hobbit first begins to transcend its modest beginnings, it is surely with Bilbo’s discovery of the ring. The importance of this part of the book makes for an odd, unconventional structure, one surely unplanned by the author himself. The sentence “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it” marks the beginning of a change in tone – it remains simple and informal, but begins to deepen and mature.The enchanted talisman is a potent mythical symbol, and with the words “it quietly slipped on to his groping forefinger”, Tolkien already implies that the ring has a will of its own. It is Bilbo’s (and the reader’s) first experience of real magical power, as opposed to Gandalf’s earlier fireworks. The ring is the link between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and its discovery is as much a turning point in Tolkien’s career as in his protagonist’s.Another link is the troglodyte Gollum, the first embodiment of real, adult evil. He is the age-old figure of the “unhuman”, made even more disconcerting because he was once a hobbit and thus, in Jungian terms, represents Bilbo’s shadow side. It is fitting the Bilbo should discover this aspect of himself at the edge of a deep, murky lake, after a physical descent into the mountain. This is representative of the descent into his psyche. The hero’s journey into the underworld, of which Orpheus’ is the most well-known, has always been accompanied by his isolation, entrapment and loss of control over enchantment. His quest is to emerge with certain powerful symbols that will mark his initiation into manhood. To keep the ring, Bilbo has to confront his long-suppressed Took side, a side he does not fully embrace until he has descended once more, into Smaug’s mountain.The dragon’s death is another turning point in The Hobbit for both thematic and character development. The hitherto clear-cut lines between good and evil begin to blur, and the theme of the nature of heroism is developed. Thorin, until now the character closest to the conventional fairy tale hero, becomes stubborn and greedy. Although he remains firmly on the side of good, his position is usurped by Bard, who epitomises the courage and selflessness required by the hero of a fairy tale.Of course, neither of these traditional heroes are The Hobbit’s most important hero. That title belongs to Bilbo, the “unhero” with his many flaws. Because he is all too human, his growth gives hope and inspiration to ordinary people. Tolkien certainly identified with him, writing “I am in fact a hobbit (in all but size)” and equating hobbits, in their lack of imagination but potential for courage, with the English in general (quoted in Rogers & Rogers 1980: 126).Bilbo’s sacrifice of the Arkenstone, his most noble act, develops the very Christian theme that renunciation can be a more powerful act than acquisition. The approval of Gandalf, the guide and teacher that is in this world but not quite of it, reinforces the religious undertones. It is he who reminds Bilbo at the end of his journey that he was merely a small player in a divine plan:Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies just because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? [Y]ou are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all! (H, 285).Because Tolkien wanted to retain a remoteness and fantastical quality, there is not explicit mention of a Christian God in The Hobbit. However, God is present – by creating a world both like and unlike his own, the author believed he was paying tribute to God. By awakening humanity’s imagination, he would thereby waken its spirituality and religious inclination.The Lord of the Rings would have been impossible of not for its predecessor. “Tolkien learned so much in writing The Hobbit that he had to do the whole thing again, differently” (Helms 1974: 53). The book played a vital role in teaching its author the immense possibilities of fantasy. It itself does not exhaust these possibilities, but merely begins to explore them. It starts unambitiously, but in drawing from the rich store of world folklore and the author’s imagination, soon develops into a myth that, like all good fantasy, speaks as clearly to the mythopoetic imagination today as it did in Tolkien’s time.Bibliography:Carpenter, H. 1977. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin.Helms, R. 1974. Myth, Magic and Meaning in Tolkien’s World. London: Granada Publishing.Nitshe, J.C. 1979. Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England. New York: St. Martin’s.O’Neill, T.R. 1979. The Individuated Hobbit. Boston: Hougton Mifflin.Rogers, D. & Rogers, I.A. 1980. J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Twayne.Tolkien, J.R.R. 1937. The Hobbit. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Riddles, Fate, and Darkness: Analysis of The Hobbit and “Tom Tit Tot”
A riddle, unlike a common question, contains its own solution, and cleverly using word play and double meanings, it both exposes as well as obscures the answer. This type of mental puzzle requires creative thinking to solve.One must see past the obvious, the mundane, and look deep into the realm of the mysterious.It is not surprising that riddles in literature are often associated with magic and power such as in the story of The Hobbit and the fairy tale “Tom Tit Tot”. There are common threads running through both stories that bind together not only the importance of riddles in creating an altered way of thinking but also the implication of magic, luck, or the Divine, which manifests immediately before, during, or after, these altered states. Riddles bring to the surface what is hidden deep in the unconscious mind. They both invoke and provoke, summon and stimulate, calling forth the unseen: the psychological, the emotional, and the magical.
In the story The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien, the unlikely hero Bilbo goes on a quest and journeys far from his homeland, and, as is common in questing tales, his character develops both internally as well as externally by the challenges he meets, and defeats, along the way.Bilbo is hired as a burglar to steal Smaug’s golden treasure but his first victory is that he wins the game of riddles with Gollum and takes a small gold ring as his prize. The ring itself represents magical power and the unknown as it both mysteriously, as well as literally, turns its wearer into the “unseen” by making him invisible.This ring has been placed directly in Bilbo’s path, by luck, or by design, before the game of riddles begins.The ring comes to play the most important role in Bilbo defeating Gollum and escaping from the underworld.As Tolkien writes, the ring becomes the “turning point in [Bilbo’s] career… [even though he] does not know it [yet]” (p.81).
When Bilbo falls down into this dark place, alone, he is entering into his own deep unconscious where he must face his fears.The game of riddles he plays with Gollum are for very high stakes: Bilbo’s life hangs in the balance. During the contest Gollum starts to win but fortune is on Bilbo’s side.It is the force of fate, his hand having met the ring on the dark tunnel floor, as well as Bilbo’s altered state of mind, caused by the riddling, which work in tandem and provide him the victory.Again, pure luck, or perhaps Providence, is on Bilbo’s side when he tries to answer Gollum’s last riddle; he wants “to shout out: ‘Give me more time!’…But all that [comes] out with a sudden squeal [is] ‘Time!'” and this happens to be the correct answer (p.92).Then when Bilbo can no longer even think of another riddle he coincidently puts his hand into his pocket and his awareness touches upon the forgotten ring.He asks a question aloud, “What have I got in my pocket?”, talking to himself, but again by luck Gollum takes this to be a riddle and is defeated.This shift in power is not caused by Bilbo’s superiority but by a force which is beyond himself.The game of riddles, a touch of magic, and the danger of loss of life, set the stage for the unseen forces to play out.
Similar to this scenario in The Hobbit is the fairy tale of “Tom Tit Tot”. In this tale a girl has her life on the line. If she is unable to perform an impossible task, spinning five skeins, she will be put to death by her own husband. Like Bilbo, she also has been put into isolation and must face her fears alone. To save her own life she enters into a riddling game with “a small little black thing with a long tail” (p. 3). In the same way that Bilbo riddles for his life so too does this young woman, and in the same way that the reader does not feel empathy for Gollum so too is the black thing something to be despised. Both dark and vile creatures are associated with magic. Even though these other-world creatures have the power to save the protagonists they represent a malevolent force and are life threatening. It is the combination of dealing with magic and dark forces, along with the threat of death, which creates the space for the manifestation of pure luck to intervene and tip the scales in favor of the girl. Coincidently it is her husband, the very same man who is threatening to take off her head if she does not complete her spinning, who provides the answer to the riddle of the black thing’s name. In the same way that benevolent forces put the words into Bilbo’s mouth, and the ring into his path, they also put the girl’s husband into the forest at the exact right time to over hear the goblin speaking his own name and then to convey the information to her directly, and, in the best moment. The riddling, which is a metaphor for mystery and magic, also represents trickery and ingenuity. In both cases, for the girl and for Bilbo, the riddling talk provides the foundation for the idea of another way of thinking, it takes the players under the surface of the ordinary, and opens the opportunity for forces outside of the normal realm to be expressed and revealed.
The riddle can be said to represent the heroic journey, or a quest, by taking the hero deep into the labyrinth of the unconscious mind, into the world of the unknown and the unseen, to search for the answer which lies at the center of the question.Without a choice, the seeker enters the darkness and is forced to face his own death. The riddle opens the door to the other worlds and takes the seeker on a journey which spirals into a connected circle: there is a ring of Truth, the serpent bites his own tale, and the Divine makes itself felt. What had been associated with death is transformed into what will save:it is Gollum’s own ring which saves Bilbo and it is the girl’s husband who provides the name of the creature. Through the psychological process of delving deep into the underworld of magic and the unconscious, profound connections are made and the hero returns to the mortal world enlightened.
Jacobs, Joseph, ed. English Fairy Tales Dover Publications, Inc. 2016
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit HarperCollins Publishers, London 2006
Pity: How the Real Battle of Middle Earth is Won
Though it is a book of children’s literature, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit still deals with issues of great moral complexity. In the novel, Bilbo Baggins debates whether or not he should kill the creature Gollum, who stands in his way of escaping the caves filled with goblins. While Bilbo could easily kill Gollum for his own self-preservation, he decides instead to have pity on him and spare his life. This scene in The Hobbit both foreshadows and allows for Frodo and Sam’s pity on Gollum in the rest of The Lord of the Rings. If Gollum had not been alive, he would not have served as Frodo and Sam’s guide to Mordor. And had Frodo not showed pity to Gollum, and the ring would not have been destroyed. Bilbo’s pity for Gollum thus makes the salvation of Middle Earth possible. This reinforces the theme that mercy wins the battle for Middle Earth and in our world.
Long before Frodo and Sam encounter Gollum, Bilbo meets Gollum on the way to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit.. After playing a riddle game for Bilbo’s life where if he loses Gollum will lead Bilbo out of the mountain, Gollum betrays Bilbo and tries to attack him instead of doing what he promised. In trying to escape from Gollum, Bilbo discovers a ring that makes him invisible, giving him an advantage over Gollum. Gollum stands defenseless, unable to find Bilbo, and Bilbo has the prime opportunity to sneak up on Gollum and kill him. By many counts, Bilbo has a right to kill Gollum, or, at least it would be understandable if he did. Bilbo is trapped in the caves and needs to get out. Additionally, Gollum betrayed his promise to Bilbo, trying to attack him rather than leading him out of the caves. Killing Gollum would be a form of self-protection and self-defense, and it would avenge his betrayal to Bilbo. Bilbo thinks to himself that he must “stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it” (92). Killing Gollum, in a sense, would serve him right.
However, something inside Bilbo stops him from killing the creature. While he is invisible, he is able to take a good look at Gollum. When Bilbo really looks at Gollum, he observes that Gollum is “miserable, alone, lost” (93). He sees Gollum as he truly is: not a monster but a poor, miserable, hobbit-like creature. He sees that Gollum is defenseless and killing him is “not a fair fight” (92). This communicates that if we see deeper than surface-level, if we see people as they truly are, it will be much easier to show them mercy. Bilbo not only sees more of Gollum, but he begins to understand him: “A certain understanding, a pity mixed with horror welled up in Bilbo’s heart” (93). Bilbo begins to know more of Gollum’s pain. He imagines a “glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering” (93). He sees the misery Gollum endures daily and begins to empathize with him. And this understanding allows for Frodo to take “pity” on Gollum. This pity is not only feeling sorry for Gollum, but it is deeply sympathizing with his pain. It is not a haughty form of judgment but a stirring of compassion. This pity leads to an act of mercy, proving itself an action as well as a feeling. Pity motivates Bilbo to spare Gollum’s life.
This moment may seem small, but it is a critical moment in the fate of Middle Earth. Gollum is an essential figure in the mission to destroy the One Ring. Gollum was in possession of the ring for several years before it came to Bilbo and Frodo. The Ring slowly corrupted Gollum and then betrayed him, leaving him lost, lonely, and miserable. He is aware of the ring’s power and serves as an example to Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam for what the Ring can do. And after being captured and tortured by Orcs, Gollum is familiar with the structure of Mordor. He is able to serve as a guide to Frodo and Sam. But he is also the reason the Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom. Frodo almost takes the Ring for himself, which would fail his mission. But Gollum bites off his finger and falls into the fires of doom with the Ring. Frodo himself acknowledges Gollum’s essential part. Frodo says to Sam, “But for him I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end” (Return 241). This fulfills Gandalf’s words spoken earlier about Gollum: “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or evil” (Fellowship 65). This scene shows us that unexpected people may have parts to play in our stories. We, like Frodo, should not be quick to deal out judgment.
But if Frodo had not learned his own lesson in pity, none of this would be possible. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo Gollum’s story and importantly, how Bilbo spared his life. Frodo is angry and wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. He cries, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!” (65). But Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need” (65). Gandalf warns Bilbo, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (65). Gandalf claims that for his pity, Bilbo “has been well rewarded” (65). And though he does not know it, Frodo will be rewarded for is pity too. Later when Frodo meets Gollum himself, he chooses to have pity on him, just as Bilbo did. When Gollum first sneaks up on Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers, Frodo has the chance to kill Gollum. But he remembers his conversation with Gandalf about Bilbo’s pity. And when Frodo really looks at Gollum, he says, “Now that I see him, I do pity him” (246). Frodo chooses to spare Gollum’s life and trust him with his own. He lets Gollum guide him to Mordor and be a crucial part of his mission. Bilbo’s pity in The Hobbit both foreshadows and allows for this moment.
Pity for Gollum wins the battle for Middle Earth. This reinforces the Christian themes of mercy and forgiveness in Tolkien’s works. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (New Revised Standard Version, Matt 5.44). He also says to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Matt 6.13-15). Bilbo and Frodo do just that. They have compassion on Gollum and see him as he truly is, not a monster, but someone who needs help. They learn to love Gollum, their enemy, and see him as a friend. They grant him pardon. And because of their mercy, they save both Middle Earth and themselves. Tolkien’s writings implore us to forgive and be merciful to others. Many think the world can change through power or might. But it will only truly change through mercy. It is true for Middle Earth, and it is true for our world.
Classifying The Hobbit versus The Lord of the Rings: Questions of Genre, Tone, and Audience
The genre classifications of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy anthology have always been an interesting discussion topic for both scholars and casual readers alike. Not many compendiums can claim they range in style from children’s book, to modern fiction, to poetry collections, and (for all intents and purposes) history textbooks over the course of the series. Most notable and well-known in Tolkien’s legendarium are the novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Although they are installments in the same series and the latter is directly sequential to the former, it is clear that the two books can be distinguishable with respect to their genres—mainly through differing use of narration and character themes.
The most significant differentiator between the two novels is arguably the style of narration. While the two both use a third-person omniscient narrator, The Lord of the Rings is told in a much more informational and didactic manner—the thoughts and views of the characters are portrayed, but opinions on the plot are seldom (if ever) offered. The Hobbit’s narrator, on the other hand, is what’s called an obtrusive narrator—one that can almost be considered a character his/herself. This style uses direct address—speaking directly to the audience—in a manner that is reminiscent of old fairy or folk tales that were carried down the generations auditorily. It is often used as a method, it seems, of both keeping the child audience’s attention and ensuring them that a good ending is happening; on more than one occasion (usually at the end of a paragraph) Tolkien will narrate the thought of one of the leading characters, only to right away ensure the audience that the thought is not valid.
One example can be found in the Wood-elf king’s reaction to the escape of the prisoners: “He at any rate did not believe in dwarves fighting and killing dragons like Smaug, and he strongly suspected attempted burglary or something like it—which shows he was a wise elf and wiser than the men of the town, though not quite right, as we shall see in the end” (Tolkien 198-199). Rather than allow the audience to make their own judgements about the king’s opinions, the narrator overtly reveals the truth of the character’s error in judgement. This style of narration continues throughout the novel and substantiates the theory that the narrator of The Hobbit is a fallible person (as opposed to the all-knowing narrator of The Lord of the Rings).
For a further example, it is beneficial to compare some of the similar characters in the two books—specifically the warrior-dwarves and the hobbits. The portrayal and description of the dwarves in the children’s novel is that of a rather bumbling, clumsy, and almost incompetent group desperately in need of a leader—whose shoes are often filled by either Gandalf or Bilbo. The encounter with the trolls is laughably short and none of the other battles are depicted as particularly glorious. Thorin Oakenshield, the famed warrior and rightful King Under the Mountain is bested almost every time he takes up arms, and is not treated with the “importance” (despite Tolkien’s overuse of the word) as you’d expect. The Hobbit, in essence, is a fairy tale, with Thorin’s company being very similar in characterization to the seven dwarves of the Snow White story. Contrast that with the depiction of Gimli’s combat abilities (and battles in general), which are significantly darker, more serious, and violent in TLotR—more “adult-themed,” if you will. If memory serves, at one point in “The Two Towers,” during the battle at Helm’s Deep, Gimli is able to cleave the heads of three orc swordsman in gruesome and glorious detail. Those descriptions would not be found in The Hobbit.
It would also be remiss not to mention the thematic symbolism of the two main characters, as well. In her essay Tolkien and the Rhetoric of Childhood, Lois Kuznets points out that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins both represent different literary goals. Despite being the same age at the start of their quests, Bilbo in The Hobbit begins as much more youthful and inexperienced (more childlike) sets out on his journey to find himself. Frodo in TLotR, on the other hand, is more mature and attempts to lose himself and sacrifice himself to the task (Kuznet 158). It is not difficult to guess which is more suitable for a child audience. It is through these narrative and characterization techniques that indicate the distinct separation in genre between Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.