Classic Review – The Hobbit (1937)

or There and Back Again

Book Cover

Overview

Synopsis A hobbit, a wizard, and thirteen dwarves go on a quest to save their homeland from a greedy dragon.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Artist J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher George Allen & Unwin
Genre Fantasy

Length 310 Pages

Release Date September 21st, 1937

The Hobbit will be turning 85 years old on September 21st!

In the last two years, I’ve worked on Classic Reviews as a quasi-monthly series, and I’ve realized there are three texts that scare me too much to approach them: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Collected Works, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Certainly, there are other books that intimidate me. I struggle at times with the works of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky for instance, but I do not fear them. There are authors like John Milton and William Wordsworth whom I deeply respect and want to research before writing authoritatively on, but I do not fear them, either. The three writers above deeply unnerve me, solely because I am afraid to approach their works and say something that’s already been said. Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Dante are three of the most aggressively studied and discussed authors in history. I fear I would not be able to offer a condensed or useful summary of their works.

The problem with approaching the field of Tolkien studies is it has been thoroughly pruned. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of accomplished academics who have written and taught meaningful exegesis on the subject of Tolkien. Tolkien’s letters have been thoroughly examined, and every piece of commentary – from his quote that his works are fundamentally Christian to him saying he hates allegory – is beyond well known. They’re almost clichés. There is little new to offer to the field without saying something incorrect (as the Tolkien Society is infamously wont to do).

That said, The Hobbit is a much easier book to work with than its contemporaries and stands as one of the author’s literary masterpieces in its own right. Plus it would be worth examining in light of the Amazon Series The Rings of Power. The billion-dollar streaming series has been marked by years of controversy and negative attention, with critics haranguing Amazon for ignoring some of Tolkien’s authorial intent and introducing somewhat anachronistic elements, like a girl-boss Galadriel and multiracial hobbits.

I’ve publicly advocated against prejudging the show. Fans of The Witcher publicly aired these same complaints of feminist subtext and race-flipped characters before the first season aired to near-universal acclaim and fanfare. There’s always a chance The Rings of Power will prove itself a worthy adaptation of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

Regardless of how the show turns out, a retrospective is in order. Whether or not the show is good is irrelevant at the moment. However, we should have a grasp on the spirit of Tolkien’s authorial intent; this will prove useful for us to judge the new series.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: There are no direct references to religion or faith, but the story is driven by a deep religious subtext.
Violence: A lot of violence, war, bleeding, and death. Very few gruesome deaths.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: Lots of smoking and drinking.
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of growth, love, and overcoming greed.

The Hobbit cover with mountains

Review

One of the general challenges of approaching The Hobbit is untangling its legacy from that of its sequel. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was originally published in England between July 1954 and October 1955 and its legacy completely subsumed that of its predecessor, which has become known as its little brother, a mere children’s novel, compared to Tolkien’s epic masterpiece. Most history and analysis you will read of The Hobbit bleeds the books together seamlessly, and authorial intent that was clearly written into its sequel becomes retroactively part of the predecessor. Much ink has been spilled discussing the theological implications of Riddles in the Dark or how Smaug might’ve played a theoretical role in the War of the Ring had he aligned with Sauron.

I don’t want to trek into that continued and hollowed ground of discussion. Instead, I want to zoom into this text alone; not as a companion to The Lord of the Rings, but as a solo story.

Those who have read The Lord of the Rings will likely know this bit of trivia, but the current draft of The Hobbit is substantially different than the first edition. There were many changes. Notably, Gollum was treated far less menacingly in the original version, happily handing over the invisibility ring to Bilbo, serving no real purpose beyond being a plot device. Tolkien would alter this, in George Lucas-esque fashion, in later editions prior to the publication of Lord of the Rings to better reflect the more serious tone of his masterpiece.

He even justified this within the canon of the story. As Tolkien writes in the prologue:

“It is a curious fact that this is not the story as Bilbo first told it to his companions. This account Bilbo set down in his memoirs and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Gandalf, however, disbelieved Bilbo’s first story, as soon as he heard it, and he continued to be very curious about the ring.”

This certainly does affect the authorial intent of The Hobbit, more clearly divorcing it from its sequel. It certainly downplays the theological significance of the idea that Bilbo’s pity for Gollum is the accidental key that saves Middle Earth 80 years later at the steps of Mount Doom. It does raise the question of what The Hobbit accomplishes on its own merits, though. If it is a masterpiece yet merely a children’s book, what is the book trying to communicate?

In that sense, I would argue it is about three things:

1. Growing into the person you are intended to be

2. Coming to terms with world weariness

3. The ways greed destroys the human soul

Bilbo smoking a pipe

There and Back Again: The Story of Bilbo Baggins

Between the 100 million copies of the book in circulation, the animated Rankin Bass film, and the immensely successful Peter Jackson Hobbit Trilogy that grossed $2.938 billion at the box office between 2012 and 2014, I can imagine most of you readers are already familiar with the story.

The Hobbit has a very simple premise with few flourishes or major surprises. Its fantasy narrative hinges on creative story solutions a modern screenwriter would consider convoluted or odd by modern standards, plus moments of incredible luck and convenience a more realistic novel couldn’t get away with. It is also structured in a series of whimsical vignettes, episodic asides, and mini-heists; most involve dwarves being captured and saved by Gandalf or Bilbo in the nick of time. The core quest of the story is over well before the final chapter, before concluding in a thus-foreshadowed epic battle between the races of Middle Earth. The Hobbit‘s ending thus turns into a grand ironic mistake that ties all of the story threads together long enough for them to end in a bittersweet tragedy highlighting the moral of the story.

Unlike most modern action stories, our protagonist’s skill is his integrity rather than his physical prowess. The heroes don’t set out with a clear plan, and there is little chance of fighting through their situation. They must constantly rely on fortune, providence, and wisdom to guide their way safely through dangerous paths. But all of that is personal. This is not an action story; it is an adventure story. Our hero Bilbo Baggins proves himself more than capable of becoming the man he needs to be in order to save the day.

The book begins with one of the most famous lines in all of literature, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” As we come to realize, hobbits are a race of gentle, pastoral farmers who spend their days working hard and evenings in joyous partying with ale, tobacco, and fine foods. They’re not prone to adventures, although our hero comes from a line of adventurous hobbits who have the potential to do great things.

One day, Bilbo finds himself called upon by Gandalf the Grey, a great wizard who needs to conscript an adventurous hobbit for a job as a burglar. He initially turns down the offer, but the wizard sees to it that a company of dwarves storm his kitchen. They impose on him long enough that he suddenly is swept up in an adventure his nerves would not otherwise allow. He learns a company of thirteen dwarves, led by the great Thorin Oakenshield, are set to quest to their homeland under the Lonely Mountain to flush out a massive dragon that conquered their capital nearly 50 years prior. They need a burglar for the quest.

A wizard surrounded by dwarves and one hobbit

Bilbo becomes the fifteenth member of the party and joins them on a months-long quest across the wide distances of Middle-Earth. Throughout the journey, they find themselves on unbeaten trails set upon by trolls, goblins, and elves that want to eat them or seek a claim to the treasure hidden under the mountain. The dwarves come within an inch of their lives several times, but manage to escape even as they constantly struggle with running out of food or having their weapons stolen from them.

Once they finally reach the base of the mountain, they’re able to incite the dragon into a rampage that destroys the nearby human settlement of Lake Town, leading to the deaths of a quarter of the town. By some miracle, a man known as Bard manages to slay the dragon with a lucky arrow shot. He leads the survivors up to the mountain, joined by a company of elves, to seek penance for the damage the dwarves’ quest has done to their village.

Sadly, Thorin is taken by dragon sickness. Dragons do not seek wealth for their own sake, but to hold it purely for selfish reasons. They are the embodiment of empty greed, standing on a hoard of gold while those outside its caverns starve and die. Thorin becomes possessed by this greed as he begins to adore the great treasures of his kingdom and becomes so enraged that he refuses to part with a single gold coin of his limitless wealth.

Just as it seems the elves, dwarves, and humans will come to bloody blows, Bilbo escapes the mountain with a priceless treasure known as The Arkenstone that Thorin seeks more dearly of all of the treasures in the mountain. A temporary truce is made, when all of the sudden a massive army of goblins descends upon the mountain to selfishly murder all of the beings and take the treasure for themselves. All of the forces, hundreds of men, dwarves, elves, and a great wizard, with assistance from other magical creatures they met along their journey, hold off the armies at a great cost of life. Thorin redeems himself in battle and only manages to survive his wounds long enough to seek counsel with Bilbo and apologize for his greed.

Bilbo returns to the hobbits, not having taken his fair share of the treasure but merely enough to live on and rebuild his life back home. However, the adventure has proven him a different hobbit than the one who left the Shire a year prior. He returns a better, stronger, happier, and more selfless man who has a greater understanding and appreciation for the smaller, beautiful things in life. Unlike those who were consumed by their greed, he grew past it and became a fine, upstanding person who was more himself than he was before.

Smaug the dragon sitting on his pile of gold

On Greed, Growth, and Death

If one had to summarize the themes of The Hobbit simply, it would be easier to say it’s a treasure hunt story about why treasure hunts are foolish. It is a story about greed and the underpinning moral of the story is a quite morally foundational view that the love of money is the root of all evil. It is not done so in a cheap way, though.

This book cannot be easily chopped up as a capitalistic or socialistic novel, as much as those who read it may try to claim. It is purely a moralistic novel. Though the book is not overtly Christian, the morals do map clearly onto Christ’s oft-bewildering statements on the nature of riches, such as that it’s “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven.” Granted, Christ is not merely saying wealth is wrong, but that it blinds a person to spiritual truth by attaching them too deeply to worldly things. A Franciscan monk lives this philosophy out by finding joy in his poverty and serving others, a far distance from the communist revolutionary who is so consumed by his lust for money that he will kill to make others poorer.

In Tolkien’s depiction, greed is the root of the worst aspects of any human ideology because it keeps us from being fully human, and it is that humanity that drives Bilbo’s story. He starts the novel too nervous to join the dwarves, but slowly earns their respect and learns to respect himself and his capabilities. His greatest test comes during the party’s capture in Mirkwood, where the enormous spiders are debating when to eat their prey. Bilbo uses his ring, small sword, and wits to completely outsmart the spiders and save the dwarves.

“Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, much fiercer and bolder… (144).”

As Asbury University Professor Devin Brown points out in his book The Christian World of The Hobbit, “We could say that another enemy Bilbo must face alone is the enemy within, his own inner temptations. Gollum and Smaug can be seen to represent the dark side of Bilbo’s personality, so it is significant that both encounters take place deep belowground… In overcoming these enemies, Bilbo can also be seen to overcome his own deep-seated flaws… [In defeating Gollum,] Bilbo could be said to face and defeat his own strong tendency to prefer isolation over community.”

This is most true in his final confrontation with Thorin. The book’s dramatic conclusion ends not with a dragon duel, but with the question of whether the combined forces of humanity, Gandalf, and Bilbo can shake Thorin out of his dragon sickness and bring the humanity out of him before a battle breaks out. He has wealth beyond necessity within the mountain and those around him need money to rebuild their lives following the negative effects of his quest, yet he doesn’t budge until it’s too late. The tragedy comes with the realization that only battle can awaken his humanity, and Thorin joins the battle to pay penance for letting his greed consume him.

“Each of the characters tempted by treasure risks becoming a smaller version of the dragon,” says Pr. Brown.

By the end of The Hobbit, we are left with only characters who have been consumed by greed and those who have not. Those who have been consumed by greed are dead, including Smaug the Dragon, Thorin, and several lesser characters, but Bilbo goes on to live a more content and pastoral life and gives away large portions of his treasure he doesn’t feel he deserves to own.

As it has been said, you cannot store treasures from the world in heaven. As Thorin reflects upon his deathbed:

“I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth…”

A screenshot from the animated movie version of The Hobbit

Catholicism and The Worldweariness of Our Heros

It must be more plainly said that The Hobbit is an overtly Catholic work from a philosophical standpoint. It is very far from a sermon and it’s far less theological than its sequel, but many of the core Catholic tensions are very much present in the book. It is a book that loves life, regards creation as a kind of temple, venerates nature, and sees the enchantment of creation. It’s for that reason that the Catholic cult of J.R.R. Tolkien is so pervasive.

During the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church responded to the critiques of the Reformation by placing a copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica on display beneath a copy of the Bible as a symbol of its secondary status only to scripture, affirming the core dogmas of the Catholic Church as Aquinas wrote of them. It was a sign that this book, though it was not scripture, was a bulwark of the Catholic understanding of the world that must be upheld as secondary to scripture.

As was noted by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, “The Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.”

I hope my dear Catholic friends do not take this comment as sarcasm or dismissal when I say many modern Catholics hold Tolkien up in a very similar light, for it is true. His sensibilities seem to overlap with so many modern Catholics for the reason that Tolkien is a form of consolation for them. There is a deep sadness and melancholy underneath these works that makes them appeal very dearly to Catholics, a lament for the bittersweet nature of creation itself combined with a zest for life, love, happiness, and family.

I must admit that my most recent readthrough of The Hobbit affected me much harder than it did the first time. Maybe it is because I am older. As I read it, the scenes that most dearly affected me were the scenes that depicted the exhaustion of the characters. The narrator reflects on this well just as the party is approaching the Lonely Mountain, saying, “it was a weary journey and a quiet and stealthy one. There was no laughter or song or sounds of harpers and the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of the old songs by the lake died away in a plodding gloom.”

One of my favorite reflections upon this most recent meeting comes during the meeting of the company with Beorn, an enormous man who has the ability to transform into a bear but who has been evidently separated from his home and left to try and make a peaceful life for himself surviving only on honey and milk.

“As a bear he ranges far and wide. I once saw him sitting all alone on the top of the Carrock at night watching the moon sinking towards the Misty Mountatins, and I heard him growl in the tongue of bears: ‘The day will coem when they will perish and I shall go back!’ That is why I believe he once came from the mountains himself.”

Beorn, like the dwarves, is homesick for a world destroyed by conflict with the dwarves and he now lives forever longing to return to a life he has been tragically separated from.

The scene that affected me most, though, was Bilbo’s reaction to Thorin’s death. After realizing the dwarf leader wouldn’t survive, Bilbo is left alone to grieve. “Then Bilbo turned away and he went by himself and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and, whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse. He was a kindly soul.”

These painful scenes are placed in perfect context with the rest of Bilbo’s quest and they inform what we are supposed to understand and gather out of them. The Hobbit isn’t a sad story, and it is nowhere near as weary and exhausting as The Lord of the Rings, but it is very honest about the truth of life that its beauty and tragedy are all connected and consoled to one another. It paints a very unique image of life that is more human than human because it is told through the lens of a fantasy story. As C.S. Lewis famously commented on fairy stories, they help us to see life more clearly. “We do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”

A photo of the dwarves from the live-action film adaptation of The Hobbit

On Fairy Stories and Universality

Of course, a story like The Hobbit would not merely exist in its current form if it was solely a sermon on greed. Few theology textbooks ever sell 100 million copies. Tolkien became popular both because his books were embraced by Christians and also because his works were embraced by atheists, secularists, counter-culture hippies, environmentalists, and all sorts of people an arch-Catholic wouldn’t like. That can only be because Tolkien stumbled upon something deeper than a simple children’s story.

As Tolkien writes in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Such sentiments tend to get books like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings written off by mainstream literary critics as escapist fantasies or children’s stories. As Pr. Brown notes, “Tolkien’s work is a challenge to the dominant literary orthodoxy of the past century, which has been ironic and self-doubting.” And yet The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings connected better with readers better than almost any books of the 20th century. “Tolkien addresses questions that have deeply preoccupied ordinary people but have not been answered by the official speakers of our culture.”

His works are grand because they are works of escapism first and foremost, fully realized and comprehensive in their fullness and life. Even their most convoluted moments, coincidences, and plot holes are delicately laid out without the complex groundwork of the lore. To what ends is this story an escape? From what? To the Christian or Atheist fan of Tolkien, what is being escaped? Certainly, it is meaninglessness itself; the fear of a world where fortune doesn’t favor the bold. Tolkien’s works abhor this concept, directly advancing the idea of providence and the ultimate victory of goodness at the cusp of defeat.

It must be said that The Hobbit, and Tolkien’s entire body of work, is popular because it is true. As Pr. Brown notes, “readers can enjoy Tolkien’s fiction without sharing the beliefs that gave it birth, as is evident from the millions who have read and enjoyed Tolkien’s books without sharing his Christianity.” Even in this more primitive and childish form of his first children’s book, Tolkien speaks the truth about the world and gives us an escapist story that speaks more truthfully to what makes us human in a handful of moments than many entire novels do.

The Hobbit is simple to read, but it is not uncomplicated. It is drenched with a depth and understanding of the world all its own and carries its readers through joy and sorrow to its final moments of consolation. It is truly good to go to the ends of the world and come home only to realize that the tea tastes better because of your hardship.

Positives

+ Amazing Character Writing
+ Powerfully Structured and Textured Story
+ Strong Themes and Ideas

Negatives

- The Book Has Been Overshadowed By Its Sequel

The Bottom Line

The Hobbit remains one of JRR Tolkien's essential works of storytelling and one of the best novels of the 20th century.

 

Story/Plot 10

Writing 10

Editing 9

Art 9

9.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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