The Hobbit: or There and Back Again
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The Hobbit Summary and Analysis

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapters 1-4

Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

Bilbo Baggins is a peaceful and domestic hobbit who enjoys living in his cozy hole in The Hill. His life is quite wonderful by hobbits' standards, which is to say, there is no excitement and there are plenty of meals each day. Bilbo is the only son of Belladonna Took and the Tooks are a wealthy family but Belladonna and a few of the others had adventurous streaks and they were not nearly as respectable as the Bagginses. In this story, Bilbo is going to lose his respectability on a rather wild adventure.

One of Belladonna's old friends is a wizard by the name of Gandalf and though he has no official business in Hobbiton (the place where Hobbits live), Gandalf makes an appearance at Bilbo's house. The two really don't get on well at the beginning, as Gandalf is a stranger and strangers are adventurous and not very respectable. When Gandalf reveals his identity, Bilbo is politer and goes as far as to invite Gandalf to tea in a few days. Bilbo has a memory of Gandalf setting fireworks and it does seem that his off-handed treatment of the wizard is pardonable.

Gandalf is always plotting something and he usually knows more than those around him know. Bilbo plans to have tea with Gandalf on Wednesday but Gandalf transforms the tea into an organizational meeting for an adventure in which Bilbo is to play the central role as a professional thief. Of course, Bilbo is not interested in this and he has no experience, but Gandalf has brought twelve dwarves to the tea and the company disregard's Bilbo's protests. They also do a good job of eating all of the food in the hobbit's house.

The adventure surrounds an old dwarf-map that depicts a mountain, in which a dragon named Smaug lives. Smaug has stolen hordes of treasure and these hordes must be reclaimed. It is up to Bilbo Baggins to find a way to sneak into the mountain. Of course, there is an incredibly dangerous terrain separating Hobbiton from Smaug's mountain and this is most of the challenge. The head of the assembled dwarves is Thorin and he is eager to reclaim the lost glories of his race. When Bilbo finally heads to bed, he is not at all pleased with the formidable challenge that stands before him.

Analysis:

Tolkien does not waste anytime introducing us to the world of his fiction, Middle Earth. Dwarves and hobbits are only a few of the many types of creatures that are encountered. Gandalf, the wizard, is a major character in The Hobbit as well as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His intentions are rarely manifest though this secretive aspect does not really make him a negative character. Instead, his characterization is positive; he is a guardian and symbol of wisdom. Bilbo is a wonderful contrast to Gandalf and Thorin, the more extroverted of the dwarves. Well before the end of the novel, Bilbo Baggins will prove himself to be an able adventurer but in this chapter Bilbo's joys are all images of domesticity and peace. There will be no tea, little food and hardly a good night's rest on the road and while Bilbo isn't in any danger yet, his discomfort is certainly foreshadowed here.

The characterization of Bilbo Baggins is more complex than the others, as Bilbo is the main character of the novel. The most important thing to notice here is the juxtaposition of Baggins-like Hobbit-style respectability and Took-ish disregard for convention in favor of adventure. Of course, Bilbo will end up more like his mother, Belladonna Took, but even as "belladonna" means beautiful (woman) it is also a name for a poison. Smaug's stolen treasure is another image that commingles beauty and death. Finally, no quest is complete without a destination and treasure in mind and this story borrows on the old motif of the treasure-map and the lost-and-found key. Maps and keys are guides, sources of direction and very convenient. On a thematic level, we will find that discussions of maps and keys bring the ideas of wisdom, natural and acquired talent to the table. Bilbo and Thorin will give us ample data to test hypotheses on whether heroes are born, self-made or both. Finally, we can expect fate to loom as consistently as foreshadowing, which is to say‹all the time. This voyage is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy but that does not mean it is destined for complete success.

Chapter 2: Roast Mutton

When Bilbo wakes up late in the morning, his guests have already departed. He thinks that he has escaped the adventure, but Gandalf enters the scene and explains the dwarves have left a note for Bilbo and they are waiting for him at the Green Dragon Inn. Bilbo is forced to rush to the Green Dragon and he arrives at exactly 11 AM, the appointed hour. He has not had time to collect the things he would bring with him, but there is no time for him to turn around. The company travels into a region called the Lone-lands and it is not long before Bilbo has traveled far beyond his previous limits. He already wishes that he was at home, warming himself by the fire and drinking tea and the torrential downpour is not helping his mood.

The group is not as organized as they should be; they only notice Gandalf's absence well after he has departed and they cannot start a fire to cook dinner‹on account of the rain and wet. The two youngest dwarves, Fili and Kili, are nearly drowned when one of the ponies is frightened and nearly loses himself in the river.

They spot a light in the distance and since Bilbo is the burglar of the group it is his job to go and investigate the scene. Arriving at the fire, Bilbo discovers three trolls who are roasting mutton on spits. They are, of course, significantly larger than Bilbo and summoning his nerves, Bilbo decides to live up to his profession by pick-pocketing. Bilbo reaches for the troll's purse but the bag squeaks: "Ere, oo are you?" and of course, the troll seizes Bilbo. The three trolls, Bert, William and Tom are discussing exactly what a hobbit is and whether Bilbo is worth eating‹and if so, how should he be prepared?

The trolls argue over Bilbo's fate and when they are physically engaged with one another, Bilbo escapes though not without bruises. Unfortunately, the scene does not end here because the dwarves grew impatient while waiting for Bilbo and, hearing the trolls' noises, decided to approach the fire. Trolls hate the sight of dwarves and the appearance of Balin sets Tom and the other trolls on a rampage. It is not long before all twelve of the dwarves are held in sacks and the trolls are contemplating another dinner. Gandalf rescues the dwarves with an invisible appearance. He periodically interrupts the trolls' conversation, saying false statements in voices that resemble the trolls' voices. Bert, William and Tom each conclude that the other two are lying and/or mad and of course, they engage in more physical brutality, whacking each other in the head and arguing until dawn is suddenly upon them and they turn into rocks.

Gandalf is pleased with his performance and he releases the dwarves. Bilbo had stolen a key that fell from one of the troll's pockets and the group is able to find the trolls' lair and make good use of their provisions.

Analysis:

In terms of narrative structure, this chapter provides a comic interlude as the trolls' ignorance really prevents them from becoming formidable. Still, the chapter shows the steady evolution of Bilbo into a hero; this germination is already in progress. The key motif is reiterated here as the object and symbol of Bilbo's success. Like Gandalf, Bilbo relies upon his intelligence and stealth and as the story continues, expect to see Bilbo stealing all sorts of things from strangers and from his enemies. The characterization of Bert, Tom and William is poignant because these trolls are rather like humans at their worst. One does have to wonder how trolls get named William in a story that has dwarves named Bomfur...

A recurring motif that is certainly connected to the key and map is that of the cave/lair of the villain. Bilbo and the group do some very good work here, enjoying the spoliation of their defeated enemy. Several of the novel's scenes, involving caves and lairs, are allusions to one of two classical scenes. Here, we find references to the Homeric epic, The Odyssey. Bilbo, like Ulysses becomes known for his excessive craft and trickery. Here, the deaf trolls are like the blinded Cyclops in the classic. The "mutton" image is also a bit of poignant residue from the Homeric tale and in archetypal fashion, the "dawn" is a symbol of victory over the night, survival and hope for a new day. The "Cyclops" allusion is not intense but should be identified, as it recurs in alternation with references to the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf. Finally, the stone trolls are symbols of the ignorance of the trolls who were alive but stone-deaf.

In regards to the central themes: heroism, wisdom and nobility we can add the complexities of a noble thief: is this an oxymoron? And in terms of heroes it is ironic that the dwarves were sacked after rather timidly relegating the dirty-work to Bilbo. Do not expect this to change. As far as character-development goes, Bilbo is the central focus. He is growing into Gandalf's glowing pronouncement and the dwarves are‹for now, at least‹being themselves. Even as he sheds respectability, Bilbo seems so hyper-civilized, proto-human and (dare we say) British. "Tea" and the forgotten "handkerchief" might make Bilbo seem like a reference to Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit, jumping in and out of hiding holes. Both fantasy writers (Carroll and Tolkien) were drawing upon well-established traditions of British domesticity and this adds a little weight and a bit of a real-world perspective to Bilbo's reveries of the hearth and forgotten articles. From this point until the end of Chapter 17, one of the most important words that we can associate with Bilbo is "nostalgia;" thematically, this is all-important. It is part of Tolkien's personal life and a necessary component of stories that are in this genre, literary epic quests. As a literary device, nostalgia certainly helps to shore up and establish Tolkien's Middle Earth while it is new and susceptible to easy disbelief. Finally, nostalgia dominates Bilbo's thoughts and Bilbo's thoughts‹as you will find, if you read carefully‹sustain the somber mood that balances the comic burlesque of the clownish trolls. Who'd have expected gravitas from the hobbit?

Chapter 3: A Short Rest

The dwarves are not singing; they are glad to be alive and also, the respite from the rain is an improvement on the previous situation. Still, they are not singing because danger seems (and is) omnipresent in these parts. Bilbo and the dwarves ford a river and take their ponies onto a path from which they can see mountains in the distance. Gandalf leads the way and warns strict adherence to the road. They are heading for the residence of Elrond which is called the "Last Homely House" in the "fair valley of Rivendell." This House is the last one west of the Mountains.

There is a good deal of traveling over ravines and through bogs before the travelers make their way into the "secret valley of Rivendell" and their spirits immediately begin to rise. Bilbo smells elves and it is not long before the sounds of the elves' songs are emanating through the scene. The tired journeyers are only too happy to get some rest, though there is a history of unpleasantness between the dwarves and the elves that must be intentionally disregarded.

Inside Elrond's house, Bilbo is able to fatten himself on cakes and as long as the group stayed, Bilbo would have been happy to remain a little longer. Elrond is an old soul who has elves and "heroes of the North" as ancestors and he offers a good amount of insight regarding the quest. The group is to leave with "the early sun on midsummer morning" and when they are to leave, Elrond offers them swords of protection. One is called Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver and another is called Glamdring, Foehammer. They are presented to Thorin and Gandalf, respectively. Looking at the map in the moonlight, Elrond is able to read moon-letters, distinct from the runes printed on the map. These words specify that the secret entrance to the Mountain can be unlocked on Durin's Day, which is the first day of the dwarves' New Year at the crux between Autumn and Winter.

The travelers are well-rested when they leave but they fear that their timing, by the calendar, is horribly unlucky.

Analysis:

In "A Short Rest" we get a host of archetypal images all in a jumble, most of them dreary and threatening. Mountains are symbols of stability and strength when they are under you, but when they loom over you they become the visual images of your obstacles. And of course, the mountains are obstacles, but they provoke psychological effects well before they are navigationally relevant. Nature can get animated in Tolkien's literature and the fear that "danger was not far away on either side" is strengthened by the possibility of natural elements becoming characters that play the villains' roles. Just as a map reveals the future by charting a course to a destination, the names of these locales foreshadow the misery ahead. The "Misty Mountains" are softened by the alliteration (there are worse mountains) but "misty" suggests blindness and this is not desirable.

Names and sounds are important in The Hobbit and Tolkien put great care into the phonics of Middle Earth (He was, after all, a master linguist, classicist and philologist). The dragon, "Smaug," pre-dates our word "smog" but considering the visual similarity between the two (smoke and smoky pollution) it seems likely that Tolkien has extracted his name from the same source as our word. It is important that the elves' song erupts towards the end of the chapter because it produces a positive literary tone by making a euphonious and harmonic musical tone.

Finally, we can look at the clear contrast between the mood of Rivendell and the foreshadowed despondency in the chapter's final lines. It is worth noting that Elrond and Rivendell re-appear in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but here, they seem to occupy a sort of static Paradise, not unlike the Elysian fields of Greek mythology. As a way-station, the house offers temporary rest but the very fact of midsummer, in archetypal terms, offers us as much life and light as the earth will bear. Midsummer in Rivendell is as strong a symbolic heaven/Paradise as we will find in Tolkien's work. The foul names of the swords, if they foreshadow anything, assure us that battles and goblins are forthcoming.

Chapter 4: Over Hill and Under Hill

Elrond and Gandalf help Bilbo and the dwarves navigate their way into the mountains and this is difficult because there are many deceitful routes and paths that only end in destruction. Especially during the cold nights when there is pitch-black silence, Bilbo remembers his hobbit-hole and he thinks about the activities that are in progress. The "high hope of a midsummer morning" drops and sinks as the group travels on the incline, higher and higher. Eventually the younger members of the group are sent to find a cave where the group can sleep for the evening.

As everyone is sleeping inside of the cave, Bilbo is unable to sleep because of a nightmare that becomes reality: the cave is occupied by goblins and Bilbo's yell is able to alert Gandalf, who disappears. Bilbo and the dwarves are captured, though, They are carried "down, down to Goblin-town" and the sounds are unpleasant. They are taken to a big fire-lit cavern and the Great Goblin demands to know their business. The dwarves are suspected as spies and allies of the elves. Great Goblin wants to know what brought the dwarves to his territory and Thorin explains that they are going to see relatives on the East side of the mountains. Other goblins say that a bolt of lightning struck some of their comrades and Thorin's sword is also indicative of his anti-Goblin intentions. The sword is called Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver, but the Goblins call it Biter.

Great Goblin rushes towards Thorin but the lights go out and white sparks begin to burst, burning holes in the goblins. A sword flashes and kills the Great Goblin, and then a voice says "follow me quick." Bilbo and the others follow Gandalf but he Goblins are in close pursuit and Dori is grabbed from behind. Bilbo falls into blackness, bumps his head on a hard rock and remembers nothing more.

Analysis:

This short chapter is important in developing several themes and motifs that recur in Tolkien's work. First, there is the image of the "cave," considered in terms of the theme of shelter. As the final destination of the travelers is a cave that is inhabited by the dragon Smaug, it does seem foolish for the young dwarf to select any cave as a safe resting place. Caves aren't safe. The old myth of Ulysses and Polyphemus offers images of caves, the hope for shelter and the reality of capitvity. This is an allusion that often appears in the novel. The caves harbor all sorts of things that are unknown because of the cave's darkness. This is explicated in the metaphors that liken the cave-dwelling goblins to weasels and bats. Also, the swords that are called Biter and Beater are archetypal lights that destroy the archetypal darkness of evil.

In terms of characterization, we see Thorin's gallantry and leadership and also Gandalf's shrewd manipulation and navigation in the darkness. He relies upon a sort of invisibility that becomes powerful. Readers should look to the next chapters to see Bilbo's own emergence as a hero, foreshadowed by the gift received by Thorin and the invisibility used by Gandalf. By now, we can see that there are several motifs in the word that can be considered as juxtapositions, in that they are pairs of contrasts, and this is not always the case. We see consciousness/unconsciousness, light/dark, invisibility/surveillance. Bilbo's waking nightmares are actual herald's of doom and Biblo hits his head on a rock at the chapter's cliffhanger end.

This narrative structure is so precise and Chapter 5 (entitled "Riddles in the Dark") should be read with close attention to consciousness/unconsciousness, invisibility/surveillance, and riddles/knowledge.

Another motif is a parallel to consciousness/unconsciousness, which is light/dark. It is more than the archetypal good/evil dichotomy in this chapter and it is an integral part of the plot-action. Light and dark are active in terms of knowledge, the hidden unknown, invisibility and surveillance (we might consider them as good and evil forces or perhaps, characters even).

The darkness of the caves makes both capture and escape possible. Invisibility will become permanently important in The Hobbit and in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Light, a symbol of goof, becomes festive "sparks" that are deadly, and a flash of light is a blade that illuminates and kills the Great Goblin‹all the while, Gandalf, the killer, remains hidden. Light and dark can be used for good and evil purposes, and in constructive and destructive means. The interrelationships of light and dark are not so simple, then.

The swords are historical and usable, treasured artifacts and hated weapons, illuminating and murderous, forged yet magical‹multi-named , as it were. So we should not be surprised to see the sword as a symbol of unity (it is the heart of the juxtaposition between light and dark: murderous sparks). Keep in mind that the motif of ancestral and legacy gifts often includes swords, jewels and rings. We will find plenty of this in The Hobbit, further binding it to the genre of old Norse and Anglo-Saxon epic mythology (consider King Arthur and his sword "Excalibur" as a most common example).

Finally, we shift our focus from swords to caves. Looking ahead to Chapters 5, what we have foreshadowed should lead us to think about these places as actual spaces: with or without a Biter or a Beater, the dark and circuitous (winding and twisting) attributes of the enclosing space are all-important. How useful are the swords in broad daylight? Why doesn't Gandalf's "magic wand" of light prevent Bilbo from trailing, banging his head and getting knocked out? The importance of the terrain is precisely what will allow Bilbo, armed with a relatively puny sword and stock of bravery, to emerge as a hero: he will be able to navigate the full terrain of rivers, lakes, mountains, bridges, castles, wombs and tombs that are encompassed within the system of caves.

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