A few weeks ago, I watched the concluding film of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I was not disappointed, but only because I had seen the prior two films and had low expectations. Jackson appears to have decided to make a set of films for an audience that loved his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but has not read The Hobbit. In order not to allow the movies to confuse my recollections of the book, I decided to re-read The Hobbit for what was probably the fifth or sixth time. Mind you, those readings were spread over a period of 44 years, though my last reading of it was only a few years ago, prior to Jackson's first Hobbit film. Over the course of those decades, my experience of the book has changed little.
For me, The Hobbit ranks first among light, "escapist" reading. It's my literary "comfort food." In contrast, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works provide us with more weighty themes. Three characters are well-developed in The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and to a lesser extent Gandalf the Grey, but character development is not really the central virtue of the book. Instead, The Hobbit takes us on a journey through a mysterious world which has horizons that are mainly limited to the scene of its action. Certainly, there are hints of a wider world. Much has been made of these hints by literary critics who ascribe the attraction of the novel to those hints. Tolkien himself thought this, but in truth the hints are quite few. Instead, the intimation of a wider, imaginary world is mostly a consequence of the non-human cast of characters. If the characters are so different from us, then surely their world must be different. No hints are really required for that. What really makes the story endearing is that the reader understands Middle Earth's horizons to be much wider than what we see, but this world is one which is revealed to us only slowly and in the course of the journey. This is analogous to a child's experience of his or her development to adulthood.
Following the story of The Hobbit along the journey to the Lonely Mountain, one begins in Bilbo's house. Despite being built into the side of hill, Bilbo's house is familiar enough. One can imagine the cozy fire, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of food. Soon enough, Bilbo's world is disturbed by a company of dwarves. As a child, this intrusion from the outside was not terribly different from the appearance (in real life and on television and radio) of people from the world outside of my family and immediate friends. They produced both interest and anxiety. Eventually, Bilbo sets out with the Dwarves and plunges into a world that he knows little about. In the course of his "adventure," his horizons become wider and wider, encounter challenging environments, trolls, goblins, wolves, a shape-shifting bear-man, a dismal forest, elves, men, and finally the Lonely Mountain and its dragon. Along the way, Bilbo progressively rises to the challenges he faces.
His first real challenge comes with his encounter with the trolls. Here Bilbo succeeds only in the sense that he musters the courage to attempt to pick the pocket of one of the trolls. His (and the dwarves') escape is arranged by the intervention of Gandalf. Bilbo's second challenge comes with his game of riddles with Gollum. Again his escape is less of his own doing than, luck. By finding a ring that makes him invisible and accidently uttering a riddle that stumps Gollum, Bilbo manages to escape the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains. It is really not until the travelers make it into Mirkwood (a dismal forest) that Bilbo really begins to discover his capabilities. His defeat of the spiders that have captured the dwarves is mostly a product of his invisibility, but by now, the powers of the ring can be thought of as indistinguishable from Bilbo's own evolving resources.
Bilbo's maturity as an agent in the story really begins in full when he formulates a successful plan to free the dwarves from imprisonment in the caverns of the wood elves. It is an elegant escape, but not without sacrifice to the dwarves. The culmination of Bilbo's progress comes at the Lonely Mountain, when he rather willingly confronts the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is now most certainly a formidable actor in the wild and dangerous world that had been far outside his horizons at the start of his journey, but his development is more than one of adult confidence. In the final acts of the novel, Bilbo steps out of his role as someone having an adventure when he truly acts to shape the course of events by delivering the Arkenstone (a gem prized by Thorin Oakenshield) to the armies arrayed against the dwarves. Far from betraying his friends, Bilbo's action creates the possibility of their salvation and indeed, results in the moral salvation of Thorin Oakenshield.
What we see in The Hobbit is Bilbo's development from a childish existence to a mature adult actor. At the same time, his maturity does not completely lose touch with his simple persona. When the War of the Five Armies breaks out at the very end of the action, Bilbo is struck on the head with a rock and misses the greater part of the battle. Some things remain too large for the hobbit.
Reading the story as a child, I was fascinated, indeed enchanted, by the unfolding mysterious world and thrilled by Biblo's capacity to rise to meet its challenges. I found strength in the idea that someone so small and unheroic might succeed in his foray into the wider world.
The two other characters that stand out in the novel are Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf. Gandalf clearly serves as a parental figure, wiser than Bilbo, watching out for his safety, and guiding his steps. Still, his failure to save Bilbo, the dwarves, and even himself from the wolves and goblins east of the Misty Mountains reveals both the dangers of the wider world and the limitations of those we must rely upon. It is noteworthy that Biblo's developing maturity only becomes manifest when Gandalf leaves the adventure.
Thorin's character development stands as a cautionary tale. At first Thorin is a reasonably admirable, if flawed, adult character; but he is overcome by his greed and he leads the people for whom he is responsible into needless danger. It is Bilbo's recognition of Thorin's failing that leads him to take the final step in his own development. Bilbo's relationship with Thorin reminds us that in the end, one must be responsible for one's own actions and know when to depart from ostensible authority.
Again, these character developments are not really the magic in the story -- at least not for me. Instead, it is Tolkien's ability to posit a world unlike our own and show us only what a developing character can see along his journey. The hints of the grand stories of Middle Earth told in The Silmarillion are not what makes The Hobbit exciting. What gives the novel its power is the slow, but progressive revelation of a mysterious world that provides a model for one's own actual coming of age. Reading it much later in life reminds me of those days when the wide, actual world (or should I say the "unimaginary world") seemed dark and mysterious, and where all that was familiar was closely bound in space, time, and culture. Like no other book The Hobbit allows me to recapture that exciting sense of pending discovery.