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What is the moral of the story in The Hobbit?

Curious
Half-elven


Jul 5 2012, 4:15pm


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What is the moral of the story in The Hobbit? Can't Post

First of all, does it have a moral? Maybe not, but likely so. Tolkien was a teacher and a thinker, and he gave up on a sequel to LotR because it was turning into a "mere thriller." So it is unlikely that The Hobbit was a mere thriller.

Nevertheless, I can't quote the moral of the story from the text. Some would point to Thorin's deathbed quote, "'If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.'" But that's what Thorin learned, not Bilbo. Bilbo valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold before the quest started, didn't he?

In fact, Tolkien is quite coy about what Bilbo got out of the adventure. It's clear what he lost -- he lost his reputation in the Shire. It's also clear that he didn't need the treasure he was given; this is not a rags to riches story. He went from rich to richer, but that's not what the story is about. He gained the friendship and respect of elves, dwarves, wizards, and other "such folk," which is nice, but what are we to learn from that?

Tolkien did say "... the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party." What does that mean? Perhaps that he gained a new appreciation for the comforts he already had. But really, one could gain that by spending time in a prison cell.

Perhaps Bilbo gained something from seeing some of the wonders of the world -- including Smaug, who was evil but also wonderous. Perhaps Bilbo gained the quiet knowledge that he had learned to remain calm and keep his wits about him in extreme danger. And perhaps Bilbo gained something from seeing prophecies come true, and acting as an instrument in making them come true.

I think Tolkien addresses the moral of the story, but not in the text of The Hobbit. He addresses it in a speech he gave after publishing The Hobbit, and an essay based upon that speech, called "On Fairy Stories." In that essay he addressed the benefits of fantasy, and listed them as "Recovery," "Escape," and "Consolation." I think Bilbo gained all three.

First there is what Tolkien called "Recovery" -- the regaining of a clear view. Tolkien says "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Presumably the same is true for Bilbo. It's not just that he appreciates the comforts of home after the discomforts of his trip, it's that he has regained his sense of wonder, and no longer takes anything for granted, even in the Shire. The ordinary road outside his house has become something extraordinary, as Bilbo says in his first poem, spontaneously spoken when he first spies his home near the end of The Hobbit:


Quote
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Tolkien comes back to this point in LotR. Frodo recites another version of the same poem, one more appropriate to the start of an adventure, then say he must have learned it from Bilbo, or perhaps adopted it from what Bilbo used to say.


Quote
"He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'"


So even as Bilbo continued to live in the Shire, he had learned that the road outside his door was just as wondrous as the road by Rivendell or the Lonely Mountain or "under mountains in the moon," because they were all connected.

Now what about the other lessons of fantasy Tolkien mentions in "On Fairy Stories" -- Escape and Consolation? Tolkien defends Escape as a kind of revolt against what we do not like about the world in which we live. Does this apply to Bilbo? Even in The Hobbit we can see that there are some unattractive aspects to the Shire. That unattractive side of Bilbo at the beginning of the tale, his boring, predictable, and mundane personality, was admired and respected by other hobbits. Having shed the shackles of respectability, he also has lost his reputation, and most hobbits now consider him "queer." Bilbo has quietly escaped the expectations of his peers. He has not led a rebellion, as the hobbits do in LotR, but he has personally escaped -- and, in LotR, we will see that he freed a few others.

Finally, what about Consolation? This is where The Hobbit becomes semi-religious in tone. Bilbo has discovered that there is such a thing as Providence, that prophecies can come true, that happy endings are possible. Bilbo has caught, as Tolkien said in "On Fairy Stories," "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." Bilbo is no longer afraid.

One might ask what Bilbo was afraid of at the beginning of The Hobbit. After all, he lived in comfort in a peaceful land, so why would he be afraid? But he was afraid. He was afraid of Gandalf, of the dwarves, of what his neighbors would think. He went on the adventure because he was afraid to say "no." And of course we who are lucky enough to live comfortable lives often still live in fear, including the big one, fear of death. All our comforts, all that we do to keep ourselves safe and well fed, all the rules that we follow and the society we keep may do nothing to calm our fears.

In The Shire, Bilbo's courage takes a different form. He doesn't have to talk to dragons or fight monsters or find his way out of goblin caves. But he knows he can, so the petty fear of what his neighbors will think means nothing. Yes, he still uses the ring to avoid unwanted visitors, but he does not care what they think -- if he did he would welcome them, entertain them, and endure them in order to avoid offending them. He lives his life free of fear, and from the outside it may not seem that much has changed. But for Bilbo, and for us, it makes a world of difference.

Of course, there is a big difference between Bilbo and his readers. Bilbo has lived the fantasy, seen the wonders, confronted his fears. We have only read about him doing so. But the point of "On Fairy Stories" is that we can find inspiration in fantasy. We can regain wonder, escape restrictions, and overcome our fears. We know this is true because of our emotional response to Bilbo's story, our intuitive attraction to it. As Tolkien says in the epilogue to "On Fairy Stories":


Quote
The peculiar quality of the "joy" in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a "consolation" for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, "Is it true?" The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): "If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world." That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the "eucatastrophe" we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater -- it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.



(This post was edited by Curious on Jul 5 2012, 4:21pm)

Subject User Time
What is the moral of the story in The Hobbit? Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 5 2012, 4:15pm
    Multiple morals? Otaku-sempai Send a private message to Otaku-sempai Jul 5 2012, 4:25pm
        That is what Thorin learned, Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 5 2012, 4:30pm
            The first is what Bilbo learned about himself. Otaku-sempai Send a private message to Otaku-sempai Jul 5 2012, 4:42pm
            You don't think Thorin learned it as well?// Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 5 2012, 5:40pm
    The New Shadow imin Send a private message to imin Jul 5 2012, 4:56pm
    Nice essay Curious SirDennisC Send a private message to SirDennisC Jul 5 2012, 6:03pm
        Morals Yngwulff Send a private message to Yngwulff Jul 5 2012, 9:34pm
    What Bilbo gained Gwytha Send a private message to Gwytha Jul 6 2012, 6:21am
        Well, he started writing poetry. Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 6 2012, 11:56am
            You don't consider Bilbo a poet? Gwytha Send a private message to Gwytha Jul 6 2012, 7:24pm
                Relevant Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 6 2012, 7:37pm
                    Heh heh Gwytha Send a private message to Gwytha Jul 7 2012, 4:33am
    You asked what Bilbo was afraid of at the beginning of the story... dormouse Send a private message to dormouse Jul 6 2012, 2:10pm
    What's a moral exactly? FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Jul 6 2012, 3:07pm
        Tolkien did not like allegory because Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 6 2012, 3:49pm
    That's a wonderful analysis dreamflower Send a private message to dreamflower Jul 6 2012, 10:08pm
        I think that the reader is more like Bilbo than like Thorin. Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 7 2012, 1:00am
            Re: I think that the reader is more like Bilbo than like Thorin. dreamflower Send a private message to dreamflower Jul 7 2012, 1:45am
                One of the main things I learned Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 7 2012, 2:44am
                    Story externally dreamflower Send a private message to dreamflower Jul 7 2012, 3:17am
                        It's tricky, though, interpreting TH based on LotR. Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 7 2012, 12:14pm
                            'Tolkien invented Cyberpunk? Otaku-sempai Send a private message to Otaku-sempai Jul 7 2012, 5:46pm
                                In hindsight, hiring William Gibson for the rewrite may have been a mistake. // SirDennisC Send a private message to SirDennisC Jul 7 2012, 11:58pm
                                Oops!// Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 8 2012, 11:37am
                            Tricky? Perspective is key Yngwulff Send a private message to Yngwulff Jul 7 2012, 10:29pm
                                I question whether the dwarves in TH took the quest seriously. Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 8 2012, 12:06am
                            Re: It's tricky, though, interpreting TH based on LotR dreamflower Send a private message to dreamflower Jul 7 2012, 11:00pm
                                The Bilbo of TH is the Bilbo of LotR, Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 8 2012, 12:03am
                                    Re:The Bilbo of TH is the Bilbo of LotR, dreamflower Send a private message to dreamflower Jul 8 2012, 12:22am
    Never laugh at live dragons ElendilTheShort Send a private message to ElendilTheShort Jul 12 2012, 4:28am
        You would think we would know that one.// Curious Send a private message to Curious Jul 12 2012, 2:49pm

 
 
 

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