The Hobbit is a novel that occupies a strange position as a work of fiction. One of the first of his published works to be set in his fantastical world known as Middle Earth, JRR Tolkien first spun the tale as a bedtime story for his own children. Drawing upon his considerable knowledge of European mythology and folk tales, the Oxford professor created the mysterious wizard Gandalf, the proud dwarf Thorin Oakenshield and the home-loving Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hobbit himself, then sent them off on an adventure that would eventually shape the fate of their whole world (though nobody knew as much at the time).
Tolkien illustrated this world with his own hand, creating pen and ink drawings of the locations and characters in the tale with a distinctive style that are still the most commonly-used images of the story. He also drew up a map of the route taken by the party of adventurers, embellished with runes and devices of ancient English origin, adding to the mythological flavour of Middle Earth itself.
Often lost in the long shadow of Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, and credited as little more than a prequel to the later trilogy, this is nevertheless a well-written book in its own right and loses nothing when read as a self-contained fantasy novel. While the epic events and characters of The Lord of the Rings are currently wowing cinematic audiences in the film adaptation, it is in The Hobbit that many of the most important characters have their genesis. It is also interesting to consider the fact that The Lord of the Rings follows on from the events of The Hobbit and is greatly enriched by having read the first book.
Tolkien gave The Hobbit the very apt alternate title of There and Back Again. In essence the story follows Bilbo Baggins as he accompanies Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves on their quest to liberate their ancestral home of the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug, who took it as his lair after driving their people out many years before, and then follows him back to his home in the Shire.
The Hobbit's origins as a children's story are evident in the fairly basic lines along which the plot is based and the episodic structure of most chapters, whereby a scenario is initiated and followed through to its conclusion within that one chapter. This all follows the typical layout of a children's fairy tale (and chops the tale up into pieces that are just enough to keep a child happy and interested one night after the next).
Gandalf happens upon Bilbo one morning, as the latter is smoking his pipe leisurely outside the front door of his home Bag End. Deciding that the hobbit is too set in his ways as well as too cheeky for his own good, Gandalf sells Bilbo's services to Thorin as a burglar capable of sneaking into the Lonely Mountain right under the dragon's nose and scouting out the way for his party. From thereon, Bilbo is swept along - somewhat unwillingly - in a stream of events that carries him far from his warm little hobbit-hole and into the big wide world.
In the simplest terms, the plot revolves around the dwarves encountering various obstacles to their progress and usually falling foul of them despite their best efforts. Bilbo in the meantime comes to the rescue and engineers their escape, saving the supposedly handy dwarves from the mess that they have landed themselves in and slowly overcoming his fears and self-doubt in the process.
The journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain leads the party first to Rivendell home of Elrond, from there to the Misty Mountains, through the lair of a goblin lord, to the hunting lodge of Beorn the skin changer, on to the haunted paths of the Mirkwood forest to the kingdom of the wild sylvan elves, down the river in wine barrels to the aptly named Laketown and then finally on to the Lonely Mountain itself. Once there, all that remains is to battle the legendary dragon and then deal with all the claimants to the riches that the great wyrm has amassed over the years... which, when compared with the obstacles that the protagonists overcome on the journey there, should be as easy as finding a lazy fat hobbit in the Shire.
The Hobbit is, as previously mentioned, the first outing for many of the most important characters in Tolkien's Middle Earth and the grounds on which the events of The Lord of the Rings are built. Though not part of the sweeping epic that would follow, the powers that clash in the later trilogy are present here and working their influence upon the world and its people for good or ill.
Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, Hobbiton, the Shire, represents the archetypal hero of many a folktale in that he begins the tale as a fairly innocent fellow, quite happy with his lot, not at all concerned with the world beyond his current horizons and is plunged into adventure by forces beyond his control. Through the course of the story, he is challenged time and again by adversity which he overcomes with great success. Thus, when he returns home, laden with the bounty of his adventures he has gained experience of the world and realised his true potential. Though diminutive in size, Bilbo is called on time and again to save the dwarves from elves, wargs and monstrous forest spiders into whom they blunder time and again. Of all the characters in the book, and even though he is a hobbit, only Bilbo presents the viewpoint of the common man. While other characters are defined mainly by their race or profession (as in the case of the dwarves and Gandalf respectively), Bilbo stands out as a person of few airs and graces but a large amount of common sense. He may at first panic at the sign of danger, but in the heat of the moment it often seems that only Bilbo keeps his head.
Gandalf the Wizard
Gandalf the wizard, it seems, is here as ever the hand that guides events from the sidelines and claims little credit for the outcomes, even though they suit his agenda too well to be mere coincidence. It is Gandalf that pushes Bilbo out of his door and off with the dwarves, who leads the party to Rivendell and saves them on many other occasions. Though there are times in the book where Gandalf will leave the others behind, claiming that he has business elsewhere and thus allow the party to get up to their necks in trouble until either he returns in the nick of time or Bilbo saves the day himself. Gandalf also serves as Tolkien's mouthpiece in The Hobbit, always ready to dispense wisdom and council or recount the history of an artefact from a long-forgotten age.
'Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror' is the rightful heir to the dwarven stronghold of the Lonely Mountain, driven into exile by the depredations of the dragon Smaug. Thorin, it seems, wants little more than to claim his rightful place as 'King under the mountain,' and to liberate the halls of his ancestors from the clutches of the dragon. But this is also the source of Thorin's major flaw, it is one thing that dominates his each and every action. Thorin's pride and determination to have his realm and title back is best summed up by comparison to his attempts to recover the gem known as the 'Arkenstone', an heirloom of his line. Thorin will stop at nothing to find the stone. But it is in the end found by Bilbo, who decides that he should keep it a while and eventually he uses it as a bargaining chip against Thorin who, out of stubborn pride, refuses to allow a portion of the dragon's hoard to be given to the men of Laketown and the elves of Mirkwood from whom the wyrm stole much (mainly due to the fact that he has not found the Arkenstone among the hoard). Slain in the final battle, Thorin is buried clutching the Arkenstone which is returned to the dwarves by Bilbo, holding in death what his stubborn nature denied him in life. To aid him in his quest, Thorin has the support of a band of his kin who come in neat pairs with matching names (Oin and Gloin, Fili and Kili, Bifur and Bofur), all apart from Bombur who is rather on the tubby side and thus counts as two dwarves anyway.
Elrond the Half-Elven
Elrond the Half-Elven, also a major character in The Lord of the Rings, is described as having both elves and men as ancestors (something which is explained and expounded upon in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion). Elrond offers shelter to the party after they have a run-in with trolls and also dispenses his wisdom on the legendary blades that they find in the creature's hoard. Apart from that, Elrond serves as little more than an incidental character in the story.
Beorn is a rough and ready outdoors type who, Gandalf informs both Bilbo and the reader, is a 'skin-changer' in that he can change his shape, being at sometimes a man and at others a great bear. Beorn was most probably inspired by Norse myths of berzerker warriors blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) by the god Odin with the ability to take the shape of ferocious animals in the heat of battle, such was their lust for combat and slaughter. Though not a mindless killer, Beorn is rabid in his hatred of goblins and shelters the party at his lodge on the edge of Mirkwood, while he and his woodsmen hunt down their goblin pursuers.
Bard the Bowman
Bard the Bowman, a man of Laketown, is a fairly enigmatic figure descended from a line that once ruled the settlement (earning him the enmity of the current leader of its people). In many ways Bard resembles Strider of The Lord of the Rings, a mysterious outsider who has turned his back on his lineage but is eventually called upon to once again reclaim his legacy and lead his people in a time of great crisis. A hardy fighter, skilled with the blade and the bow, Bard commands a great deal of respect from men and elves alike and in the end slays the dragon with an arrow through the heart.
'A slimy creature, dark as darkness' in Tolkien's own words, Gollum is without doubt one of the most important characters in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. First encountered by Bilbo in the depths of the goblin lair beneath the Misty Mountains, Gollum is a feral creature who dwells on the shores of an underground lake subsisting on fish and the few goblins that he can catch and kill in the darkness. Upon learning that the hobbit is lost, Gollum challenges Bilbo to a contest of riddles. If Bilbo wins then Gollum promises that he will show him the way out, if not he will kill and eat him as his prize. Bilbo agrees to the contest, unaware that his opponent intends to kill him regardless of the outcome and is merely toying with him. Gollum loses the riddling contest and slinks away into the darkness to fetch his 'precious', a magical ring that grants the wearer invisibility under the cover of which he means to stalk and kill his victim. But by a twist of fate he had dropped the ring (or, as posited in The Lord of the Rings, it had deserted him of its own will) earlier and Bilbo had found it. The ring on his finger, Bilbo slips away leaving the demented Gollum to rave at him in the darkness: 'Curse the Baggins... We hates it, we hates it forever!'
The Necromancer of Mirkwood and Sauron The Deceiver
There are many points in The Hobbit where a reader with some experience of Tolkien's later works can trace the evolution of the history begun there and expanded upon later in such titles as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The best example of this is perhaps the relationship between the fleetingly mentioned 'Necromancer' who lairs in Mirkwood forest and Sauron the ruler of Mordor and principal villain of The Lord of the Rings.
It is made plain in Tolkien's later writings that these two are one and the same, but the Necromancer of The Hobbit is a mere shadow of the dark lord of Mordor who casts his shadow over the whole of Middle Earth. All events that stem from the hand of the Necromancer are recounted by Gandalf whom it seems has been battling him 'off-stage' while Bilbo and the dwarves make their progress towards the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf present Thorin with a map to the mountain and a key to a secret door on its slopes that were entrusted to his keeping by the dwarf's father, whom the wizard encountered in the dungeons of the Necromancer before his death. Towards the end of the book, Gandalf also recounts the news that The Necromancer has been driven out of Mirkwood by his allies (presumably retreating to Barad Dur in Mordor).
This pales in comparison to Sauron who, while not a physical presence in The Lord of the Rings, despatches his agents to do his bidding across the face of Middle Earth. The nine Ringwraiths scour the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and even the head of Gandalf's own mystical order, Saruman the White, lends his power to the dark lord's cause. Of course this is due partly to the epic scope of the later books and the status of The Hobbit as a children's tale, where goblins and riddles are more appropriate subject matter than ancient mythologies, earth-shattering magic and the restoration of lost royal bloodlines. But the vast difference is striking nevertheless.
This great contrast also takes into itself the magical ring lost by Gollum and found by Bilbo. The Lord of the Rings sees Gandalf identifying this artefact as the fabled 'one ring' forged by Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom, with which he came within a hair's breadth of conquering Middle Earth. Conversely, in The Hobbit this history is absent due to the fact that it has not yet been invented by Tolkien, and while it gives Bilbo a very useful edge in his exploits as a burglar, it is little more than a trinket to add magic to the story and its history is simply that Gollum had the ring, lost it and Bilbo finds it.
It is only later in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf acts upon his suspicions as regards the ring and digs up the truth of its past from the archives of Minas Tirith, the seat of the fallen kings of Gondor, where Isildur reigned after cutting the ring from Sauron's finger in battle. We learn that Sauron not only forged the ring of power to dominate all other magical rings and their bearers, but also that he infused it with his own hatred, malice and life-essence so that even when his body was destroyed his spirit endured as long as the ring itself remained intact (and the only thing that could destroy it was the fires in which it was made). The ring of power moves from a plot device for Bilbo in The Hobbit to being the central focus of The Lord of the Rings, over which wars are fought and age old nations are brought to the brink of extinction.
As with all of Tolkien's works, The Hobbit has been translated into countless languages and enjoyed by both children and adults the world over. It has spawned audio-books, graphic novels, stage productions and (as with The Lord of the Rings, though not at the hands of the same animation studios) even an animated adaption. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, it has yet to be adapted for the silver screen, but even so long after its first edition The Hobbit shows no signs of falling out of favour. It is loved more now than ever by its ever-expanding audience of established fans and new readers each year.