I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The book is a wonderful one, with a compelling story, beautiful language, well-crafted characters, and moral complexity. It’s a classic journey tale, in which a protagonist goes from one place to another and changes along the way.
I first read The Hobbit in high school. One of my English teachers was reading it aloud to the class. While pleasant, the slowness of listening to a read book prompted me to use paper route money to buy paperback copies of both The Hobbit and a single-volume onionskin copy of The Lord of the Rings.
Reading it now, I can definitely see what appealed to me about The Hobbit back then. In many ways, it comes down to the character of Bilbo. He is a rather soft, comfort-loving sort to begin with, but Galdalf propels him on an improbable adventure and he succeeds in the face of considerable difficulties. My favourite chapter was the first one where he is really on his own, lost in the caves after getting separated from his companions. It’s where you first really see that Bilbo has capabilities of his own, in reasoning, silent movement, negotiation, and a good measure of jumping skill. Bilbo may grumble about inconveniences and discomforts, but he is actually quite a resilient fellow. He demonstrates this amply in his later interactions with the dragon Smaug.
I think Bilbo’s character also connects to the biggest theme of the book: that it is good to live a peaceful and comfortable life, when circumstances allow it, but that there are times in which more is expected of people. Of course, this is fleshed out much more thoroughly in The Lord of the Rings. After all, Frodo’s adventure is for the good of all of Middle Earth, whereas Bilbo’s is mostly a fortune-finding expedition, albeit with a measure of reclaiming what has been unjustly taken.
Bilbo certainly makes ethical choices throughout the book. He decides not to attack Gollum while armed and invisible, despite the clear threat Gollum poses; he saves the dwarves from spiders and then elves at considerable personal risk; he is even on the cusp of returning into the goblin tunnels alone in search of his friends when he discovers their camp. Later, Bilbo puts his assessment of right and wrong (in this case, avoiding war) above his loyalty to his friends and his own safety. It’s interesting how Tolkien creates Bilbo’s role as a peacemaker between his dwarven friends and the lake men. It’s a situation that calls for tact, fortitude, and a willingness to accept personal risk for the greater good. It’s much more morally complex than Bilbo’s interaction with the dragon.
The language of the book may be its finest characteristic. Throughout, there is a playful storytelling relationship between the narrator and the reader. The reader is given hints about what is to come, explanations of some consequences that were quite unknown to characters in the story, and occasionally comforting indications that dire circumstances will be resolved favourably. For instance, when the eagles drop off Bilbo and the dwarves near the house of Beorn, the narrator mentions in passing that Bilbo sees the eagles again: “high and far off in the battle of Five Armies”.
The level of attention to language is illustrated in one section where Bilbo has been rescued from goblins by eagles. He is concerned to hear himself and his companions referred to as ‘prisoners’. The narrator, however, explains:
“As a matter of fact Gandalf, who had often been in the mountains, had once rendered a service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound. So you see ‘prisoners’ had meant ‘prisoners rescued from the goblins’ only, and not captives of the eagles.”
To me, this short passage illustrates a lot of what is special about Tolkien. Bilbo’s initial concern arises because of his attention to language. The explanation â€“ which Bilbo never learns in the story â€“ is part of an elaborate backstory created by the author, part of the rich verisimilitude of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The narrator takes an opportunity to clarify a point about language, using a sentence structure that demonstrates his interest in linguistics, while also illustrating a point about reciprocal altruism or perhaps just telling an interesting miniature story.
Tolkien’s work is also set apart from a good deal of other fiction by the complex motivations of characters and the moral complexity of the situations in which they find themselves. Bilbo’s allies are not candy-coated one-dimensional sources of aid, but rather figures with agendas of their own that sometimes conflict with his. Similarly, his opponents are rarely purely evil. The Hobbit also establishes some of the most complex moral relationships that develop in The Lord of the Rings, such as the One Ring as an entity with a will of its own and an ability to corrupt its bearers, the sometimes strained alliances between the free races of Middle Earth, and the ethics of requiring a disproportionate sacrifice from a person or a group in order to improve outcomes for a larger mass of people.
Given that a film of The Hobbit is forthcoming â€“ and that films have a tendency to permanently over-write some of our memories from books (that’s why I have refused to see the film of “The Golden Compass”) â€“ this may be a good time to read or re-read Tolkien’s short novel. It really is a literary accomplishment, I think. It is simple and accessible but also deep and thoughtful. It’s a book to hang on to.