Gandalf tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin and his band of twelve dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition's "burglar". The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo, indignant, joins despite himself.
The group travel into the wild, where Gandalf saves the company from trolls and leads them to Rivendell, where Elrond reveals more secrets from the map. Passing over the Misty Mountains, they are caught by goblins and driven deep underground. Although Gandalf rescues them, Bilbo gets separated from the others as they flee the goblins. Lost in the goblin tunnels, he stumbles across a mysterious ring and then encounters Gollum, who engages him in a game of riddles with deadly stakes. With the help of the ring, which confers invisibility, Bilbo escapes and rejoins the dwarves, improving his reputation with them. The goblins and Wargs give chase but the company are saved by eagles before resting in the house of Beorn.
The company enter the black forest of Mirkwood without Gandalf. In Mirkwood, Bilbo first saves the dwarves from giant spiders and then from the dungeons of the Wood-elves. Nearing the Lonely Mountain, the travellers are welcomed by the human inhabitants of Lake-town, who hope the dwarves will fulfil prophecies of Smaug's demise. The expedition travel to the Mountain and find the secret door; Bilbo scouts the dragon's lair, stealing a great cup and learning of a weakness in Smaug's armour. The enraged dragon, deducing that Lake-town has aided the intruder, sets out to destroy the town. A noble thrush who overheard Bilbo's report of Smaug's vulnerability reports it to Bard, who slays the Dragon.
When the dwarves take possession of the mountain, Bilbo finds the Arkenstone, an heirloom of Thorin's dynasty, and steals it. The Wood-elves and Lake-men besiege the Mountain and request compensation for their aid, reparations for Lake-town's destruction, and settlement of old claims on the treasure. Thorin refuses and, having summoned his kin from the mountains of the North, reinforces his position. Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone to head off a war, but Thorin is intransigent. He banishes Bilbo, and battle seems inevitable.
Gandalf reappears to warn all of an approaching army of goblins and Wargs. The dwarves, men, and elves band together, but only with the timely arrival of the eagles and Beorn do they win the climactic Battle of Five Armies. Thorin is fatally wounded and reconciles with Bilbo before he dies. Bilbo accepts only a small portion of his share of the treasure, having no want or need for more, but still returns home a very wealthy hobbit.
The development and maturation of the protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, is central to the story. This journey of maturation, where Bilbo gains a clear sense of identity and confidence in the outside world, may be seen as a Bildungsroman rather than a traditional quest. The Jungian concept of individuation is also reflected through this theme of growing maturity and capability, with the author contrasting Bilbo's personal growth against the arrested development of the dwarves. The analogue of the "underworld" and the hero returning from it with a boon (such as the ring, or Elvish blades) that benefits his society is seen to fit the mythic archetypes regarding initiation and male coming-of-age as described by Joseph Campbell. Jane Chance compares the development and growth of Bilbo against other characters to the concepts of just Kingship versus sinful kingship derived from the Ancrene Wisse (which Tolkien had written on in 1929) and a Christian understanding of Beowulf.
The overcoming of greed and selfishness has been seen as the central moral of the story. Whilst greed is a recurring theme in the novel, with many of the episodes stemming from one or more of the characters' simple desire for food (be it trolls eating dwarves or dwarves eating Wood-elf fare) or a desire for beautiful objects, such as gold and jewels, it is only by the Arkenstone's influence upon Thorin that greed, and its attendant vices "coveting" and "malignancy", come fully to the fore in the story and provide the moral crux of the tale. Bilbo steals the Arkenstone—a most ancient relic of the dwarves—and attempts to ransom it to Thorin for peace. However, Thorin turns on the Hobbit as a traitor, disregarding all the promises and "at your services" he had previously bestowed. In the end Bilbo gives up the precious stone and most of his share of the treasure in order to help those in greater need. Tolkien also explores the motif of jewels that inspire intense greed which corrupts those that covet them in the Silmarillion, and there are connections between the words "Arkenstone" and "Silmaril" in Tolkien's invented etymologies.
The Hobbit employs themes of animism. An important concept in anthropology and child development, animism is the idea that all things—including inanimate objects and natural events, such as storms or purses, as well as living things like animals and plants—possess human-like intelligence. John D. Rateliff calls this the "Doctor Dolittle Theme" in The History of the Hobbit, and cites the multitude of talking animals as indicative of this theme. These talking creatures include ravens, spiders and the dragon Smaug, alongside the anthropomorphic goblins and elves. Patrick Curry notes that animism is also found in Tolkien's other works, and mentions the "roots of mountains" and "feet of trees" in The Hobbit as a linguistic shifting in level from the inanimate to animate. Tolkien saw the idea of animism as closely linked to the emergence of human language and myth: "...The first men to talk of 'trees and stars' saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings... To them the whole of creation was "myth-woven and elf-patterned."
The Hobbit Teaching Guide
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The Hobbit can be seen as a creative exposition of Tolkien's theoretical and academic work. Themes found in early English literature, and specifically in the poem Beowulf, have a heavy presence in defining the ancient world Bilbo stepped into. Tolkien, an accomplished Beowulf scholar, claims the poem to be among his “most valued sources” in writing The Hobbit. Tolkien is credited with being the first critic to expound on Beowulf as a literary work with value beyond merely historical, and his 1936 lecture Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics is still required reading for students of Anglo-Saxon. The Beowulf poem contains several elements that Tolkien borrowed for The Hobbit, including a monstrous, intelligent dragon. Certain descriptions in The Hobbit seem to have been lifted straight out of Beowulf with some minor rewording, such as when each dragon stretches out its neck to sniff for intruders. Likewise, Tolkien’s descriptions of the lair as accessed through a secret passage mirror those in Beowulf. Tolkien refines parts of Beowulf's plot that he appears to have found less than satisfactorily described, such as details about the cup-thief and the dragon’s intellect and personality.
Another influence from the Anglo-Saxon is the appearance of named blades of renown, adorned in runes. It is in the use of his elf-blade that we see Bilbo finally taking his first independent heroic action. By his naming the blade "Sting" we also see Bilbo's acceptance of the kinds of cultural and linguistic practices found in Beowulf, signifying his entrance into the ancient world in which he found himself. This progression culminates in Bilbo stealing a cup from the dragon's hoard, rousing him to wrath—an incident directly mirroring Beowulf, and an action entirely determined by traditional narrative patterns. As Tolkien wrote, "...The episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at this point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same."
As in plot and setting, Tolkien brings his literary theories to bear in forming characters and their interactions. He portrays Bilbo as a modern anachronism exploring an essentially antique world. Bilbo is able to negotiate and interact within this antique world because language and tradition make connections between the two worlds. For example, Gollum's riddles are taken from old historical sources, while those of Bilbo come from modern nursery books. It is the form of the riddle game, familiar to both, which allows Gollum and Bilbo to engage each other, rather than the content of the riddles themselves. This idea of a superficial contrast between characters' individual linguistic style, tone and sphere of interest, leading to an understanding of the deeper unity between the ancient and modern, is a recurring theme in The Hobbit.
Smaug is the main antagonist. In many ways the Smaug episode reflects and references the dragon of Beowulf, and Tolkien uses the episode to put into practice some of the ground-breaking literary theories he had developed about the Anglo-Saxon poem and its portrayal of the dragon as having bestial intelligence rather than being of purely symbolic value. Smaug the dragon and his golden hoard may be seen as a symbol of the traditional relationship between evil and metallurgy as collated in the depiction of Pandæmonium with its "Belched fire and rolling smoke" in Milton's Paradise Lost. Of all the characters, Smaug's speech is the most modern, using idioms such as "Don't let your imagination run away with you!"
Just as Tolkien's literary theories have been seen to influence the tale, so have Tolkien's experiences. The Hobbit may be read as Tolkien's parable of World War I, where the hero is plucked from his rural home and thrown into a far-off war where traditional types of heroism are shown to be futile. The tale as such explores the theme of heroism. As Jane Croft notes, Tolkien's literary reaction to war at this time differed from most post-war writers by eschewing irony as a method for distancing events and instead using mythology to mediate his experiences. Similarities to the works of other writers who faced the Great War are seen in The Hobbit, including portraying warfare as anti-pastoral: in "The Desolation of Smaug", both the area under the influence of Smaug before his demise and the setting for The Battle of the Five Armies later are described as barren, damaged landscapes. The Hobbit makes a warning against repeating the tragedies of World War I, and Tolkien's attitude as a veteran may well be summed up by Bilbo's comment:
|“||Victory after all, I suppose! Well, it seems a very gloomy business.||”|