Themes in The Hobbit

Key themes in The Hobbit:


During The Hobbit, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves confront countless dangers: spiders, goblins, wood- elves, wolves, a dragon, etc. To defend themselves,

they use an equally vast number of weapons: knives, daggers, spells, fire, rocks, sticks. Yet one of the most important weapons that they use—and one of the most important skills Bilbo develops on his travels—is language. In the early chapters of the book, Bilbo exhibits almost no sophisticated command of language, staying largely silent while the dwarves and Gandalf discuss their plans to journey to the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their treasure. When he gets lost under the Misty Mountains, he’s forced to use words to compete with Gollum, telling increasingly complicated riddles. While this episode is important in Bilbo’s growth as a manipulator of language, it’s important to recognize that he’s still a novice—he only defeats Gollum by asking a “cheap” question, “What have I got in my pocket?”, not by exhibiting any real creativity or skill with words.

When giant spiders capture Bilbo and the dwarves in Mirkwood forest, Bilbo finally begins to use language with more skill, improvising elaborate songs to confuse the spiders and lure them away from the dwarves so that Bilbo can free them. After his exploits, Bilbo uses language to dub his sword Sting, a name that strikes fear into the hearts of the spiders. Bilbo uses language in a similar fashion when he confronts Smaug—instead of introducing himself as Bilbo Baggins, he

calls himself a barrel-rider, a clue-finder, etc. Where before Bilbo renames his sword, here he renames himself.

In The Hobbit, language is a weapon, capable of intimidating, confusing, and otherwise disarming one’s enemies. But perhaps even more importantly, language is a tool for changing and understanding oneself. It’s no coincidence that Bilbo renames himself as he becomes braver and more confident: with the power of naming, he makes his experiences a part of his personality—he doesn’t just describe himself, he changes himself.


Virtually every one of The Hobbit’s primary characters—including both the heroes and the villains—is at least partially motivated by a desire

for unnecessary material things. Smaug, the primary antagonist of the novel, is so greedy that he notices when Bilbo steals a single cup from his vast collection of treasure. (Tolkien notes that his anger is that of a rich man who’s lost something he never uses.) The dwarves are struggling to reclaim what is rightfully theirs from Smaug, but when they succeed in their quest, it becomes clear that their love for treasure is almost as obsessive as Smaug’s—notably, they refuse to use their riches to repair the town Smaug destroys, even though it is during its destruction that Bard kills Smaug, guaranteeing the dwarves their wealth. Similarly, the wood-elves who imprison Thorin and the other dwarves believe that they have a claim to some of the dwarves’ treasure. Tolkien doesn’t bother to clarify whether the dwarves or the elves are correct in this dispute—the point is that both sides are flawed by their greedy, irrational desire for things they don’t need. Even Bilbo, who is largely indifferent to the dwarves’ talk of glory and riches, shows occasional flashes of greed. Under the Misty Mountains, he pockets Gollum’s ring without thinking twice about it, and later takes the Arkenstone for himself because he’s afraid that the dwarves won’t honor their promise to give him one-fourteen of their treasure. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that Bilbo and dwarves are constantly in want of food, and when they eat, they eat huge feasts—while this isn’t greed per se, it does suggest that it’s natural to want things, and perhaps to want more than one needs.)

If everyone is at least a little greedy, Tolkien seems to say, then the best they can do is try to limit their nature with reason and self-control. Bilbo may be the best example of how to overcome greed—though Thorin offers him one-fourteenth of the dwarves’ treasure in return for his services, he’s satisfied to take back a smaller portion, reasoning that it’s enough to keep him satisfied for the rest of his life. Similarly, the dwarves, elves, and men ultimately overcome their greed by uniting together to defeat the wolves and goblins. On his deathbed, Thorin seems to renounce his former greed, saying that he’s now traveling to a place (presumably, the afterlife) where this is no

gold or treasure. Greed, then, is ultimately futile—compromise and personal sacrifice are more important for maintaining peace and building mutual prosperity (as is evident in the fact that back before Smaug the communities of Dale, the Kingdom under the Mountain, and the elves of Mirkwood traded together and developed prosperity and mutual connection by doing so). In fact, the novel seems to place greed in direct contrast to trust and cooperation, and every overwhelmingly greedy character lives in almost complete isolation: Smaug, Gollum, and, for a time near the end of the novel, Thorin. Looked at on a larger scale, the races of dwarves, men, and elves are also separated by greed and the mistrust sown by greed. It is only after the attacking armies of the dwarves force the dwarves, elves, and men to band together in fellowship against this common enemy that they are able to rebuild their communities and attain their former prosperity.


The Hobbitis a fantasy novel, and it contains many of the genre’s traditional tropes: a quest, treasure, a dark forest, and even a dragon. With this in mind,

it’s worth asking who the hero—arguably the most important fantasy trope — ofThe Hobbitis, and how Tolkien defines heroism. Bilbo Baggins is the protagonist ofThe Hobbit, meaning that he’s the default hero. In the early chapters of the book, Bilbo is cowardly and reluctant to participate in the dwarves’ quest. Ironically, this makes Bilbo seem more heroic than ever—the “reluctant hero” is an old literary archetype (Moses and King Arthur are classic examples.). Also in these early chapters, Tolkien submits one possible definition of a hero: a larger-than-life person who excels at combat. Bilbo’s memories of his ancient ancestor, a hobbit who slew a goblin, suggest that this is how Bilbo, if not Tolkien, thinks of heroism.

Tolkien complicates this definition of heroism, however, as the story goes on. Heroism requires skill in combat, but also bravery, cleverness, and a talent for words. Characters who excel at only one of these things—Gollum, who excels at wordplay, the dwarves, who excel at combat, etc.—tend to fail in their aims; for instance, the dwarves are captured by spiders, their skill with swords useless. Although Bilbo is hardly a hero at the start of the book, he finds that he has many of the skills required for heroism as he and the dwarves travel to the Lonely Mountain. Ultimately, Bilbo develops a talent for both wordplay—he trades riddles with Gollum—and bravery—he alone is courageous enough to sneak into the Lonely Mountain while Smaug lives there. While he also shows some talent for combat, killing the spiders in Mirkwood forest, it’s clear that Bilbo is not a great warrior—indeed, he largely hides during the Battle of the Five Armies.

There seems to be no single character in The Hobbit who excels at every skill required to complete a quest. Bard, the archer who kills Smaug and goes on to lead the people of Esgaroth,

excels at bravery and combat, but while he also shows some talent for words during his negotiations with Thorin, it’s difficult to imagine him riddling his way out of the Misty Mountains, tricking Smaug into revealing his weak point, talking his way into Beorn’s house, etc. Ultimately, the question of what makes a hero, or who best exemplifies heroism is less important to Tolkien than describing how characters cooperate with each other to fight evil and accomplish their goals. Thus, both Bilbo and Bard kill Smaug: Bilbo determines how to kill Smaug, and Bard uses the information to do the deed. It may be true that no single person is heroic in every sense of the word; thus, only when characters work together (as dwarves, elves, and men do in the Battle of the Five Armies) do their achievements become truly heroic.


The desire and love for a home motivates most of the main characters in The Hobbit. Sometimes, the characters’ desires for home contradict each other.

For instance, Bilbo Baggins says at many points throughout his journey that he regrets ever leaving his home in hobbit-town, while the dwarves with whom he’s embarking on his adventure seek to return to (and reclaim from Smaug) their home under the Lonely Mountain. In many cases, having home means having a claim to some position or material wealth. Thus, Thorin, the descendant of many dwarf kings, has a claim to his ancestors’ treasure, which lies under the Lonely Mountain; similarly, Bard, the descendant of the lords of Dale, can claim lordship of Dale as his birthright.

But having a birthright isn’t only a privilege—it’s a duty. To have a home, one must also be a fair and generous “host,” treating one’s guests, subjects, and property with respect. Most of the antagonists in The Hobbit —the three trolls, the goblins, Gollum—are ungracious hosts who refuse to entertain Bilbo and the dwarves during their long quest. Some of the other antagonists, such as the Master and Smaug, play the part of a good hosts but are actually doing so for the wrong reasons, like the Master (who’s trying to stay in power by manipulating the crowd), or trying to lure travelers into a false sense of security, like Smaug (who tells Bilbo to take what he wants of the treasure). Yet even the dwarves become ungracious hosts once they regain their treasure and their home under the Lonely Mountain, refusing to help the wood-elves or the men whose town Smaug has destroyed. Thorin even becomes ungracious to his own subjects, condemning Bilbo and the twelve other dwarves to starve during a siege. As a result, Bilbo leaves the dwarves, and a war breaks out between men, elves, and dwarves. The desire for a home is a universal human feeling, so we sympathize with Bilbo and the dwarves because they feel this desire particularly strongly. But sometimes, this desire becomes too powerful, and leads the characters, such as the dwarves, to be ungracious hosts and overprotective of their

home—to make of their home something to be owned rather than shared.

In the end, Tolkien implies, having a home means loving it, but not too much. Bilbo is a good model for how to regard one’s home—he loves his hobbit-hole, but he’s willing to invite others into it and to travel far away from it, too. Bard provides a good example of how to treat one’s birthright. Unlike the Master, he doesn’t exploit his position as the lord of Dale; on the contrary, he fights to feed and shelter his people, eventually bringing great prosperity the town.

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