Symbols in The Hobbit


Without a doubt, the most famous symbol in

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books is the ring itself, which first appears in The Hobbit when Bilbo finds it under the Misty Mountains, just before he meets Gollum. There are rings in earlier epic stories that Tolkien would have been aware of, the most famous being the ring in Richard Wagner’s four-part opera, the Ring Cycle — itself based on the Medieval epic poem the Nibelungenlied, in which two of the characters find a ring and fight to the death for it. In The Hobbit, as in these earlier works, the ring symbolizes the corruption of wealth and power. Gollum lives a miserable existence under the mountains; though he once lived above ground in the sun, it seems as if he has journeyed underground to be alone with his “precious” ring. (There’s lots of other evidence for the corrupting influence of wealth and power in The Hobbit, such as Thorin’s jealous obsession with the Arkenstone.) Bilbo, by contrast, seems relatively uninterested in treasure or power of any kind; perhaps because he is “innocent” in this sense, he can wear the ring without being consumed by jealousy or vanity.


There is an old rule in adventure stories, from The

Odyssey to Star Wars, that the hero’s personal growth must be accompanied by a journey underground. After Bilbo falls off Dori’s shoulders while fleeing from the goblins, he’s forced to fend for himself as he tries to find his way out of the Misty Mountains. In doing so, he has to confront Gollum and goblins, and discovers talents he didn’t know he had — deception, path-finding, riddle-telling, etc. Thus, the Misty Mountains represent Bilbo’s maturation as a character and an adventurer: when he enters them, he’s still immature (literally being carried on someone else’s back!), but when he leaves, he’s confident enough to navigate his own way around.


Bilbo finds a dagger in the trolls’ lair, which is small

for the trolls, but large enough to serve as a sword for him. Later, when Bilbo is rescuing his friends from the spiders in Mirkwood forest, he renames this sword Sting. It’s no coincidence that Bilbo gives his weapon a name at the same time that he’s discovering his own aptitude for adventure, deception, and fighting. In effect, Bilbo “renames” himself in the second half of The Hobbit — he goes from thinking of himself as a well-to-do, adventure-phobic hobbit to a bold, daring adventurer (when he talks to Smaug, he even gives himself new names). Thus, Sting symbolizes Bilbo’s changing nature, and proves that ordinary things —a dagger or a hobbit — are full of surprises.

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