II History, Myth, and The Hobbit




Though The Hobbit is the least complex of Tolkien's Middle-earth collection, any reader familiar with the whole
collection is aware that The Hobbit is inextricably tied to all the other works in many ways besides its taking place in
Middle-earth and the protagonist's being a hobbit. The history of Middle-earth and that of the hobbit stem from the
same work, The Silmarillion. Further, the hobbits are only one small part of the vast history, and The Hobbit is only
the first published work about the history of the hobbits in general.

It is important to remember that The Silmarillion was conceived by Tolkien long before he had any idea about the
existence of hobbits. The connection, then, between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion was, as Tolkien points out, an
accident:

I did not know as I began that [The Hobbit] belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth, and merging into history. (Letters 145)
Further,
Mr Baggins began as a comic tale . . . and got drawn into the edge of it [the myth]--so that even Sauron the
terrible got drawn into the edge. (Letters 26)
Upon close examination of The Hobbit, though, we can see that the connection between the two works is more than a
mere accident or coincidence.

The most important figure who appears in both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion is Gandalf, of whom The Hobbit narrator writes,

Gandalf! If you have heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion. (17)
So Gandalf apparently has an existence beyond and above that which we see in The Hobbit. A passage from The Silmarillion
provides some of the details about this existence:
Wisest of the Maiar was Olorin. He too dwelt in Lorien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.  . . . though he loved the Elves, and walked among them unseen, or in the form of one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or promptings that he put in their hearts. In later days, he was the friend of all the Children of Iluvatar, and took pity in their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from their despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.   (24-25)
That Gandalf and Olorin are the same comes to light in a passage from The Lord of the Rings:
"'Many are my names in many countries,' he said. 'Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkun to the Dwarves; Olorin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incanus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.'" ("Towers" 353)
Tolkien writes further about Gandalf's origins in a letter to Michael Straight:
Gandalf is a 'created' person; though possibly a spirit that existed before in the physical world. His function as a `wizard' is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers; to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided. (Letters 237)
Gandalf, then, is very different from most of the other characters of Middle-earth, especially from those in The Hobbit. But the wizard we get to know in that book still seems quite "human," and we need to determine just why that is. The most plausible reason is that the whole tale is told from Bilbo's naive point of view. Because Tolkien wrote this tale most specifically for children, it is not surprising that the protagonist would be one appealing to that audience. Neither Bilbo nor the audience is aware of the large cosmos surrounding the small section of Middle-earth that Bilbo travels through, and this lack is reflected in the narrator's naive view of Gandalf. To both Bilbo and the audience, Gandalf initially seems no more than
". . . the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered . . . the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties . . . the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks . . . ." (19)
Bilbo's naivete is clear not only in his referring to Gandalf as a "man" and "fellow," but also in his awareness of only the more superficial indications of Gandalf's character. But those aspects are precisely those that would appeal to a predominately child-like audience.

Even in The Hobbit, however, Gandalf shows some aspects of the Maia, Olorin. His playing with the smoke rings that emerge from his pipe, though still minor, reflects some of his hidden power:

Then Gandalf's smoke-rings would go green and come back to hover over the wizard's head. He had quite a cloud of them about him already, and in the dim light it made him look strange and sorcerous. (26)
Further, his ominous adventures around Middle-earth hint at his powers. In a conversation with the dwarves, he mentions
approaching the regions controlled by the Necromancer:
    "How he [Thrain] got there I don't know, but I found him a prisoner in the dungeons of the Necromancer."
    "Whatever were you doing there?" asked Thorin with a shudder, and all the dwarves shuddered.
    "Never you mind. I was finding things out, as usual; and a nasty dangerous business it was. Even I, Gandalf, only just escaped." (37)
Judging from the tone that Gandalf uses and the reaction of the dwarves to the name of the Necromancer, Gandalf's approaching the Necromancer's lair exhibits a type of strength that comes from beyond the bounds of nature. His dealings with the Necromancer end temporarily near the conclusion of The Hobbit:
. . . [Bilbo] learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.
    "Ere long now," Gandalf was saying, "The Forest will grow somewhat more wholesome. The North will be
freed from that horror for many long years, I hope. Yet I wish it were banished from the world."
    "It would be well indeed," said Elrond; "but I fear that will not come about in this age of the world, or for many after." (280-81)
Finally, Gandalf's awareness of the transcendent power that has much to do with what happens on Middle-earth demonstrates his close ties with that power. At the end of the tale, Bilbo is surprised at the fortunate outcome of the battle; but Gandalf's matter-of-fact discussion indicates that he may possibly have been aware of how things would turn out before they actually did:
"Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" said Bilbo."
    "Of course!" said Gandalf. "And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You really don't suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefits? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"  (286-87)
Though confusion about whether or not Gandalf is human still remains, looking at his character in terms of Lewis's criteria should clear up some of it. First, Gandalf does seem to be "extra-literary" insofar as The Hobbit is concerned. The narrator mentions repeatedly that Gandalf is involved in events that "do not come into this tale" and that there is much about Gandalf that we cannot know.  Further, Gandalf's presence in not only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also in The Silmarillion, particularly those sections dealing with what occurs before the beginning of Middle-earth, indicates his "extra-literary" quality. If, as we suggested earlier, we see ourselves as inhabitants of Middle-earth, Gandalf's role in the events of the world would seem to suggest that he exists in a world with which we are not familiar; he exists, that is, in a world beyond that which we find in Bilbo's "Red Book of Westmarch."

Second, The Hobbit's narrator makes a point of portraying Gandalf as bound to perform in ways that may seem surprising, but actually should not be. Rather, if one is familiar with Gandalf, he "would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale."  Telling us this, the narrator has cleared the way for all of Gandalf's actions so that the reader will not question any of these actions or the credibility of the narrator's presentation of them.

The third of Lewis's criteria poses a problem for defining Gandalf as a mythical figure because he does not fit it very well. But these problems are lessened if one remembers that Gandalf appears on Middle-earth in the form, presumably, of a human. Since the inhabitants of Middle-earth experience him in this way, it is only natural that they react to him as though he were actually human. One of these reactions is sympathy. However, Gandalf's mythical characteristics can be seen in the second part of this criterion. That his actions do have a "profound relevance to" the lives of those whom he helps is evident. Also evident is that these other characters clearly cannot "transport [themselves] into [his] life" because they apparently do not know that he has a life distinct from the one that they see in front of them. As readers, though, we are aware of his other "life," and we realize that the other characters cannot, in fact, "transport [themselves] into [his]" life. So while in terms of the inhabitants of Middle-earth this criterion may not apply to Gandalf, it does in terms of the readers who can observe Gandalf with nearly omniscient vision.

Fourth, many of Gandalf's actions are "fantastic" in that they are "impossibles and preter-naturals" in terms of the natural laws Tolkien has imposed upon Middle-earth. For example, Gandalf's rescuing the dwarves from the goblins' lair exhibits such "fantastic" elements:

Just at that moment all the lights in the cavern went out, and the great fire went off poof! into a tower of blue glowing smoke, right up to the roof, that scattered piercing white sparks all among the goblins.  (72)
Gandalf's control over fire is his predominant "fantastic" strength in The Hobbit, as we can see by his actions during the battle with the Wargs:
He gathered the huge pine-cones from the branches of his tree. Then he set one alight with bright blue fire, and threw it whizzing down among the circle of the wolves. It struck one on the back, and immediately his shaggy coat caught fire, and he was leaping to and fro yelping horribly. Then another came and another, one in blue flames, one in red, another in green. They burst on the ground in the middle of the circle and went off in coloured sparks and smoke. (106-07)
Further, the Wargs' reaction to Gandalf's fire suggests its "preter-natural" quality:
Wolves are afraid of fire at all times, but this was a most horrible and uncanny fire. If a spark got into their coats it struck and burned into them, and unless they rolled over quick they were soon all in flames.  (107)
Fire is, of course, a natural element, but it is Gandalf's ability to force fire to his will that indicates his power over natural things. It is important to note, though, that when he wields this power, he does so only for good "natural" purposes, and never does he abuse the power by unnecessarily destroying anything natural.

Fifth, all events concerning Gandalf are "grave." Even scenes as trivial as pipe-smoking take on an aura of seriousness, as exhibited by his "strange and sorcerous" appearance. Considering the naive point of view, the reader realizes that any comedy associated with Gandalf comes not from his being a "comic figure," but from the naive perspective on Gandalf. The scene with the three trolls shows how this is so. Using ventriloquism, Gandalf rescues his friends from being eaten. Admittedly, humor is an element in the scene, but it is not so much because of Gandalf that we laugh as because of the trolls' bickering and apparently
imminent demise. The gravity of the situation is clear:   Bilbo and the dwarves come close to dying, as serious a situation as possible. Gandalf realizes this risk and does what he must to rescue his friends. That the dwarves and Bilbo are not fully aware of their peril becomes clear in their reactions after they are rescued:

The next thing was to untie the sacks and let out the dwarves. They were nearly suffocated, and very annoyed; they had not enjoyed lying there listening to the trolls making plans for roasting them and squashing them and mincing them. They had to hear Bilbo's account of what had happened to him twice over, before they were satisfied.
    "Silly time to go practicing pinching and pick-pocketing," said Bombur, "when what we wanted was fire and food!" (52)
Gandalf's apparent "humanness" might account also for some of the humor that is occasionally present. Had he been completely mythic, we would expect there to be no humor associated with him at all. But this combination of the naive point of view and the ambiguity of Gandalf's character accounts for the humor that we do find with him.

Finally, most of Gandalf's actions are "awe-inspiring."  This awe is present in the mind of not only the narrator and the characters but also the reader. Clearly, as natural creatures, we are always awed by and admiring of those who exhibit supernatural abilities because, simply, we cannot comprehend such powers. The narrator's comments about Gandalf in the beginning of the tale show just such a reaction. Also, his admiration of Gandalf appears in statements such as "Gandalf thought of most things; and though he could not do everything he could do a great deal for friends in a tight corner" (73). Bilbo's reaction ("`Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me!'" [19]) to finding out that his visitor is the wizard whose deeds are so
"splendid" suggests his awe of Gandalf. Further, the fact that he is willing to give up his comfortable life at Bag End at Gandalf's request shows his respect for the wizard.

The reader's reaction to Gandalf is necessarily influenced by the narrator's presentation of him and Bilbo's reaction to him, and the reader senses at least vaguely an awe and respect similar to that of the narrator and Bilbo.  That Gandalf's aid is indispensable in helping the characters of The Hobbit against all the perils they face is evident, but there appears also to be another force that aids these characters when Gandalf is absent. Though we cannot name this force merely from the evidence we find in The Hobbit, we can classify it as mythical. Gandalf clearly is not an ultimate source of power; we have seen in The
Silmarillion that Eru is a force far higher and stronger than Gandalf, and Eru appears to be the power that helps in Gandalf's absence, though he is not mentioned by name anywhere in The Hobbit. Gandalf himself refers to this force in his statement to Bilbo at the end of the tale (quoted above), but there are also other such references as well.

The first comes with Gandalf's explanation to the dwarves of why he has decided that Bilbo will accompany them to the Lonely Mountain:

"Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled on burglary--especially when I remembered the existence of a Side- door. And here is our little Bilbo Baggins, the burglar, the chosen and selected burglar." (33-34)
Gandalf himself decides to use a burglar, but apparently someone or something else has "chosen" Bilbo to be "the burglar." The suggestive implications of the word "chosen" are a clear hint that Gandalf understands the presence of a power ordaining Bilbo's role. That Gandalf has knowledge of Eru's existence and his role in the ordering of the world is apparent, especially when we remember that Gandalf comes from the world in which Eru dwells. His use of the word "chosen," then, is not at all arbitrary, but specific.  The role of Eru's power appears to have specific importance in Bilbo's discovery of the ring: "suddenly his wet hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying of the floor of the tunnel" (76). Though at this early point the importance of the ring is not evident, the narrator's adding that Bilbo's discovery "was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it" (76) forces the reader to expect a significant occurrence in connection with the ring. Bilbo's fortunate accident of falling while running away from Gollum (90) provides just that significant occurrence, Bilbo's discovery that the ring has the power to make its wearer invisible:
It seemed that the ring he has was a magic ring; it made you invisible! He had heard of such things, of course, in old tales; but it was hard to believe that he had really found one, by accident. Still there it was . . . . (91)
The phrase "by accident" is, like Gandalf's "chosen," deliberately ambiguous. As we have already seen, Eru has planned the course of the world, and an event that is to have as much significance as this is clearly something that he would have planned, or at least foreseen. The "accident," then, is not an accident from Eru's point of view, but only from Bilbo's. Even the narrator has hinted at the significance of this discovery, indicating that though he may not be aware of Eru's hand in this, he is aware that something providential is involved here.

The use of the word "accident" in another context indicates again its ambiguous use: "Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger" (94). The narrator here explicitly describes the ring as if it had a life of its own, as if this piece of gold were more than mere gold, with expressions such as "[the ring] slipped on his finger" (94).
And here the narrator apparently knows that the accident he suggests is not really an accident; rather, his including the possibility that the ring comes off Bilbo's finger by its own conscious efforts is more a statement of fact than of possibility. Using "accident" here and in connection with Bilbo's finding the ring, the narrator seems to suggest a sense of "cosmic" irony, that all that happens to Bilbo is controlled by someone of whom Bilbo is clearly not aware.  This possibility is further strengthened by the use of the word "luck" in Bilbo's many fortunate escapes. As Bilbo and the dwarves make their way through Mirkwood, Bilbo gets lost in the darkness and is almost left behind. But "luck" comes into play and Bilbo is saved:

They [the dwarves] were just giving up hope, when Dori stumbled across him [Bilbo] by sheer luck. In the dark
he fell over what he thought was a log, and he found that it was the hobbit curled up fast asleep. (153)
Though "luck" seems to be only that, when we see how many times it plays a part in Bilbo's adventures, we begin to realize that the narrator uses "luck" in a way similar to the use of "accident." This is especially true in the narrator's comments when Bilbo is trying to find a way to rescue the dwarves from the prison of the Elves in Mirkwood:
"Very good," laughed the chief of the guards. "I'll taste with you, and see if it is fit for the king's table. There is a feast tonight and it would not do to send up poor stuff."
    When he heard this, Bilbo was all in a flutter, for he saw that luck was with him and he had a chance at once to try his desperate plan. . . . Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then. (173)
The narrator's recognizing that Bilbo's "luck" is "unusual" indicates again his awareness that a power above mere "luck"
is helping Bilbo.

This unusual and exaggerated "luck" becomes clear even to other characters in the tale. As Bilbo and the dwarves
are preparing a way to enter the Lonely Mountain, Thorin remarks:

". . . our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of
courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance . . . ." (203)
Finally, even Bilbo begins to recognize that the "luck" he has is more than one's normal allotment. Considering whether or not he will be the first to enter Lonely Mountain, he says, "`Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days . . .'" (203); and acting upon his observation, he agrees to go in alone.

To say that the narrator or the characters are aware of Eru's hand in Bilbo's luck would be to put the matter too absolutely. However, we, who from The Silmarillion are aware of Eru's presence and purpose in the world, can see his role here. Though his aid is different from Gandalf's in several ways, it is certainly as indispensable as Gandalf's. Without the help of either of these mythical characters, many of the adventures would possibly have had less fortunate outcomes. And, as we learn later, Eru and
Gandalf enable, through their intervention here, the "trivial" adventures of The Hobbit to become inextricably woven into the larger, graver matters of the rest of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

Besides Eru and Gandalf, however, other characters appear in The Hobbit whose aid is also essential. The first of these is Beorn, the "skin-changer." While some readers may find in him characteristics that make him seem mythical, Tolkien is clear in pointing out that Beorn is a man, therefore not mythical by the definition I am using. First, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo learned that Grimbeorn the Old, son of Beorn, was now the lord of many sturdy men, and to their land between the Mountains and Mirkwood neither orc nor wolf dared to go. ("Fellowship" 301)

Secondly, Tolkien states in a letter to Naomi Mitchison that,

Beorn is dead. . . . He appeared in The Hobbit. It was then the year Third Age 2940 (Shire-reckoning
1340). We are now [in The Lord of the Rings] in the years 3018-19 (1418-19). Though a skin-changer and no
doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man. (Letters 178)
By classifying skin-changing as a natural ability of some people in Middle-earth, Tolkien not only declares that Beorn
is a man, but he also places him in history by giving explicit dates to his life. Both of these facts, then, show that Beorn is a figure tied to the nature of Middle-earth, and he cannot, therefore, be classified as mythical.  Elrond, the Necromancer, and the ring itself are other characters in The Hobbit that exhibit what seem to be mythical characteristics; however, they play only relatively
minor roles here as compared to their roles in The Lord of the Rings, and because of this fact, I have decided to leave
a detailed discussion of them to the next chapter. While some would argue that the ring's role here in not at all minor, I would suggest that it becomes important in my terms only after it becomes the One Ring of Sauron. That it does so is, as Tolkien points out in a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin, a forced coincidence on the author's part:
The Hobbit was after all not as simple as it seemed, and was torn rather at random out of a world in which it already existed, and which has not been newly devised just to make a sequel. The only liberty, if such it is, has been to make Bilbo's Ring the One Ring; all the rings had the same source, before ever he put his hand on it in the dark. (Letters 122)
Leaving the discussion of the ring until later, then, is a decision that seems correct in light of Tolkien's comments.  To do so with Elrond and the Necromancer needs no such justification. Two references to each in The Hobbit are clearly not enough to warrant discussing them here, but their large parts in The Lord of the Rings clearly justify doing so there.

The Hobbit is truly "not as simple as it seemed."  Reading only that one book may not allow us to find all the ways by which it is connected to that "world in which it already existed," but by looking at other works from the same world, we can easily see how some of the connections are made. And one of the most important ways is to infuse all the works with the myth of the world. Tolkien's artistry comes out in his ability to bring this myth into this book for those who are interested in it and to leave it
sufficiently unobtrusive for those who are not. One major difference between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as
we shall see, is that the latter includes much more of this myth than the former. Tolkien points out that both tales are about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals:

I would say, if saying such things did not spoil what it tries to make explicit, `by ordained individuals, inspired and guided by an Emissary to ends beyond their individual education and enlargement'. This is clear in The Lord of the Rings; but it is present, if veiled, in The Hobbit from the beginning . . . . (Letters 365)
Having unveiled at least partially the grace and gifts that have been given to Bilbo in The Hobbit, we can now move to
The Lord of the Rings in an attempt to do the same there.  By searching for the myth present in both works and seeing
how Tolkien went about joining all his works through that myth, we will be able to enjoy and to appreciate them as Tolkien expected.


Go to History, Myth, and The Lord of the Rings

Last revised November 11, 2000