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The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Hobbit | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In The Hobbit what style and narrative does J.R.R. Tolkien use to appeal to children, the intended audience?

Tolkien takes a very whimsical approach to describing the hobbits, dwarves, and Gandalf. He creates a magical world with newfangled, sometimes silly words that capture a reader's imagination. His use of description paints vivid pictures for young and old audiences alike. He encourages the reader to suspend belief by mixing the ordinary with the fantastical. Tolkien's whimsy creates a light, enjoyable tone, which masks the seriousness of some of the novel's topics. For example, Bilbo Baggins's home seems like many homes in the modern world, except his home is built into the side of a hill and down into tunnels. Early in the story, a wizard (Gandalf) arrives who shoots fireworks; what child doesn't connect fireworks with magic? There is also, of course, the juxtaposition of an ordinary person being thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Readers of all ages are drawn into Bilbo's internal conflict—a conflict that pits staying ordinary, safe, and boring against taking risks, trying something new, and doing the unexpected.

What range of emotions does Bilbo go through in Chapter 1 of The Hobbit?

Bilbo first becomes uncomfortable with the unexpected appearance of Gandalf, because hobbits take comfort in the expected. Bilbo rarely does anything outside the norm and certainly doesn't go on adventures—and Gandalf represents adventure. While hobbits thoroughly enjoy hearing tales of goblins, dragons, and outlandish ventures, the thought of going on an adventure themselves makes them very uncomfortable. The next day at teatime, a number of unexpected guests arrive: 13 dwarves and one wizard; that in itself is enough to send Bilbo into a tailspin. Additionally the dwarves chatter about Bilbo being a burglar, an idea Gandalf put into their heads by writing it on Bilbo's door. Bilbo is bewildered; he has no idea why the dwarves would assume he is a burglar. Then Bilbo's hidden desires and inclinations toward adventure are awakened when the dwarves begin to play magical instruments and sing a song of stolen gold, tragedy, a dragon, and retribution. By the time the song is over, Bilbo feels excited and vigorous. He asks for the dwarves to lay out the plan, but gradually his unadventurous Bagginsish side starts to overpower his adventurous Tookish side; that is, his father's ancestral influence begins to win out over the inspiration of his mother's family. When Thorin mentions how some "may never return," Bilbo collapses and has to be carried to his room. After some rest he eavesdrops on the dwarves and Gandalf. The wizard and dwarves argue back and forth regarding Bilbo's qualifications. Gloin, a dwarf, describes Bilbo as a grocer and wonders at Gandalf's assessment of the hobbit as fierce. When Bilbo hears that Gandalf called him fierce, he wants more than anything to live up to Gandalf's expectations. He feels inspired and brave. Thus early in the story Bilbo is presented with an inner conflict between his desire to maintain the status quo and a yearning to follow his instincts by going on a fantastical expedition. Within him his father's unadventurous traits wrestle against his mother's adventurous characteristics. Bilbo is enticed by the dwarves' map and by their song, and he soon agrees to the adventure.

In The Hobbit how does J.R.R. Tolkien avoid frightening young readers while writing about sobering and unpleasant events?

Tolkien uses a great deal of humor to soften the blow of unpleasant details and events. For example, as readers learn that a ferocious dragon has caused devastation and the death of Thorin's friends and family, Gandalf has us pondering how the dragon could have gotten through the door to the gold after consuming so many dwarves. Tolkien doesn't skip over the unpleasantness that is required to create conflict and danger, but he quickly distracts the reader.

What is the initial conflict between Gandalf and the dwarves in Chapter 1 of The Hobbit?

The initial conflict between Gandalf and the dwarves concerns their estimation of Bilbo's strengths and his suitability as a member of their expedition. Bilbo Baggins is a simple character—or at least that is what readers are led to believe as the story begins. As a hobbit he is very excitable, so when the dwarves mention the danger that goes along with this adventure, Bilbo has a temporary emotional collapse. The dwarves are cynical and gruff creatures and have very little patience with him. They question Gandalf's choice of Bilbo as a burglar; they can't imagine he has the fortitude and bravery required to steal treasure from a murderous dragon. Gandalf is quite offended that the dwarves question his judgment. He comes to Bilbo's defense and reminds the dwarves that the 13 of them can go on without him and Bilbo if they so desire. The dwarves resolve to go along with Gandalf, but they are no less skeptical.

In Chapter 2 of The Hobbit how does Bilbo end up joining the expedition, and what does he leave behind?

Bilbo wakes up to find his house empty, all of his guests departed, and for a moment he is disappointed. But then he quickly begins to forget that he was even asked on an adventure, resuming life as normal. Gandalf suddenly arrives. He says Bilbo is to accompany the group and gives him the note left by the dwarves. Bilbo has only minutes to make it to the rendezvous spot, so he takes off without thinking. He leaves without his coat, pipe, and kerchiefs. If he had time to think or had made a conscious decision to leave, he would have prepared all the items customary for a trip.

What biases do the dwarves have against hobbits in the fantasy world of The Hobbit?

Each different group of creatures in The Hobbit harbors biases against other groups. The dwarves, for example, seem to think negatively of hobbits—or perhaps they just don't like Bilbo. In their defense, Bilbo certainly doesn't behave fiercely, nor does he appear to have the fortitude of a burglar—both qualities Gandalf assured them Bilbo possessed and upon which their quest, and possibly their lives, depends. Even after Bilbo proves himself in Chapter 2 by voluntarily going out into a dark forest to investigate a fire, the dwarves have very little positive to say about him. Although Bilbo is (partially) successful in stealing a purse during this brave excursion, the dwarves are critical of why he would choose that moment to steal.

How does Bilbo act in Chapter 2 of The Hobbit that shows Gandalf's assessment of his ability to be a burglar was correct?

Bilbo voluntarily goes out into the dark and eerie forest to discover who or what has built a fire. As he gets closer to the fire he is able to move so stealthily, "[not] even a weasel would have stirred a whisker at it." He discovers three large, scary trolls sitting by the fire eating mutton. He attempts to steal a purse from one of the trolls and is initially successful, although his success is dampened when the magical purse's alarm system alerts the trolls to his presence. Bilbo also has a sharp wit about him, as demonstrated when he tries to entice the trolls to let him go so he can cook for them instead of being cooked himself.

In Chapter 3 of The Hobbit what does the elves' song tell readers about these creatures?

The elves have a clear sense of what Bilbo and his crew are up to. They either have the gift of forecasting or prophecy, or some other source (perhaps Gandalf) has told them about the group's adventure. Their music is at first glance whimsical, which gives the initial illusion that they are silly and frivolous: "O! What are you doing,/And where are you going?/Your ponies need shoeing!" As they continue their song, it becomes clear that the elves already know Bilbo's and many of the dwarves' names without introduction. They also sing, "What are you seeking," implying they already indeed know that there is some sort of treasure they seek. This chapter reveals a great deal about the elves through their song: they are mysterious, alluring, cheerful, and intelligent.

As Tolkien discusses the use of swords in Chapter 3 of The Hobbit, what evidence confirms his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon language, history, and culture?

The swords in The Hobbit have a rich legacy and often reveal much about the characters who wield them. They evoke strong reactions in the characters around the owner of a particular sword (much like real swords throughout Anglo-Saxon history, which were sources of pride and heritage, often passed down from generation to generation). For example, in Chapter 3 Elrond reads the runes on the swords that Thorin and Gandalf took from the trolls, learning they were made in Gondolin for the goblin wars. Tolkien uses personification (giving the swords names) to highlight the importance or symbolism of each sword through history. The sword Thorin carries is called Orcrist, or Goblin-cleaver. Apparently it is a famous blade and well known among goblins (as seen by the reactions it elicits in Chapter 4). The blade Gandalf found is named Glamdring, or Foe-hammer.

In Chapter 4 of The Hobbit what do readers learn about the motivation, moral character, and role of goblins in Middle-earth and what they symbolize in Tolkien's real world?

The goblins are a war-loving species, evil at their core. They are portrayed carrying axes and bent swords. Author J.R.R. Tolkien states implicitly that goblins are "cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted." Even their songs—often sardonic or darkly humorous—reveal their viscous ways: "Swish, Smack! Whip crack!/Batter and beat!" Goblins are talented builders and smiths, but they choose to create only ugly objects—objects that are often used to cause pain. They have no qualms about using slaves and prisoners to manufacture these implements. They make a variety of weapons and take special delight in creating machines that have the capacity to kill large numbers of people at once. Goblins also desire to make "instruments of torture." They have no preference about whom they hate and kill, but they especially dislike Thorin's people (probably because of the historic goblin wars). Goblins most likely represent the people and nations that sought to destroy Tolkien's way of life in rural England. Tolkien fought in the British army against the Germans in World War I and was very much changed by the experience. Even after returning home, Tolkien was surrounded by death: nearly all the men from his village were killed during the war. Tolkien was spared this fate because he became deathly ill and was removed from battle, later being deemed medically unfit for general service. Tolkien was profoundly affected by the bombing and mass destruction he witnessed during the war. In The Hobbit the goblins certainly have a love of war and a taste for death. In this way these characters may represent Germany and its desire for European domination.

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