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The Quest for the Empirical Hobbit:
A Comparative Study of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
On Hobbits and Quests

To get a true picture of the change in character of Bilbo, we need to turn our attention to the introductory chapters of The Lord of the Rings. As pointed out earlier, The Hobbit is written as a children's story, and consequently it is difficult to find any deeper psychological features in his character. The prologue and first chapters of The Lord of the Rings deal with the adventures of Bilbo in a new light, and, on a higher level, with the significant part these adventures now play in the dark and threatening matters that are evolving. The Lord of the Rings solves many of the mysteries alluded to in The Hobbit:

There were already some references to the older matter…as well as glimpses that had arisen unbidden of things higher or deeper or darker than its surface…The discovery of the significance of these glimpses and of their relation to the ancient histories revealed the Third Age and its culmination in the War of the Ring. (LR 9)2

But before we delve deeper into these changes of Bilbo it is only appropriate to say something about the nature of hobbits, around whom the story, and this essay, centres. The purpose of this is to contrast their isolated existence to the order of the big world outside the Shire, and thus to show what a huge step it is for the two hobbits, when they join the quests. I will also say something about the quest theme, a true characteristic, not only of Tolkien's novels, but also of the romance novel in general.

The hobbits are often referred to as halflings because they seldom reach heights above that of half the length of "the Big Folk", i.e. men. They wear bright colours, smoke a pipe of weed (tobacco that is) now and then, and try to eat as often as they possibly can, which is notable in their stout composure. They live a very modest and obscure rural life, which is manifested in their reluctance to use machinery and their wish to "never [have] any adventures or [do] anything unexpected" (H 1). These characteristics indicate an epicurist lifestyle, and to a certain degree, gullible innocence. Furthermore, they possess no magical powers more than that they are very good at disappearing quietly and quickly. This is a quality that makes Gandalf think that Bilbo is suited to be that particular burglar he and the dwarves are looking for, together with Bilbo's "Tookish" ancestry. It is also one of the reasons that they are, more or less, unknown to the rest of the inhabitants of Middle-Earth.

It is of course a very airy-fairy description of a people, unreal one might say. The Shire is an Utopia - an oasis separated from the hardships of the rest of the world. This was Tolkien's own way of complaining about the intrusion of industrialism and modern technology on the English and their countryside, and a regret at the loss of the old order of the world. In Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, he gives us a thorough description of Tolkien's love for the English Midlands and the sad sense of loss with urban life's invasion on the rural landscape:

I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food...and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats... The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination - not the small reach of their courage or latent power (179-180). The hobbits are more then anything, a reflection of life as we would want it to be, without the worries and stress that we are surrounded by today.

Roger Sale recognises this English type inherent in hobbits but cannot see them as an entirely human species. He compares them to the animal characters in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, or to A.A. Milne's stories of Winnie the Pooh, who also possess these characteristically English features, by saying that "the hobbits are not strictly human" (249). Here I think Sale draws the wrong conclusion. The fact that he sees the hobbits as English types as in Grahame and Milne does not yield the conclusion that they are not "strictly human". On the contrary, it would mean that it is the animals of Grahame and Milne that are humanlike, possessing these typically English human features.

In his essay "A Struggle for Life", Hugh T. Keenan also draws the parallel to animals, but on a deeper level. He sees the hobbits as a combination of rabbits and children. The rabbit stands as a symbol of fertility with their earthly existence, and the child is the life-preserver with its playfulness and joy, but also a symbol of generation. It is this combination that makes the hobbits "suitable heroes in the struggle of life against death" (66-67). Keenan uses the rabbit as a symbol to show us that the hobbits are the counterpart to the sterility of Evil, and that these features are necessary to be able to resist the temptations of Sauron. In this sense I think the rabbit theory is appropriate, and convincing.

The rabbit discussion (in its literal sense), and as such, an unimportant discussion, has been given too much room in hobbit criticism, and perhaps it was Tolkien's own unintentional fault that these allusions have become so popular. The word hobbit itself bears the resemblance of rabbit in that they rhyme, and maybe it is only natural, lacking any other references, to associate it with the word closest at hand, namely rabbit. But to make it all worse, in many passages in The Hobbit, and this was probably something Tolkien regretted later on, comparisons are made to rabbits, as when Bilbo is called a "nasty little rabbit" by the trolls (H 34; Letters 30, 35; Shippey 52-54). These comments seem to have got stuck in people's minds, not as funny symbolic comparisons, but as actual physical truths, and as we to some extent have to form our own opinions of what hobbits look like, rabbits seem to have become an unconscious influence to some. A discussion like this is of course a very shallow one, unless it is given a deeper and more symbolic meaning, as discussed by Keenan.

Keenan's other part of the parallel - children - is also a bit ambiguous and can be interpreted in the wrong way, as with rabbits. Keenan compares the hobbits to children because they live to enjoy themselves, and that they are a symbol of life and how life is meant to be preserved. Keenan makes a good point here, but I think it is important that we do not see the hobbits as children, because they are not. Even though they are childlike in size, and perhaps in innocence, it is important to know that they live in a society, which consists of children, teenagers, and adults. Grown-up hobbits function as adults, just as young hobbits function as children.

Michael Moorcock is of a different opinion. In his Wizardry and Wild Romance he sees very few adult heroes in "sword-and sorcery stories". They are either "permanent adolescents", "actual children", "youths" or "quasi-children like the hobbits". They often perform noble and self-sacrificing actions, just as children do, by holding on to the truth and standing up against the tides evil (118). I fail to see why these attributes should be particularly childlike. To be noble and self-sacrificing and to believe in truth and goodness might be naive in our own time, but in the realm of the romance and fantasy world, these should be seen as adult characteristics, as they indeed were some six to eight hundred years ago in our own world.

Tolkien himself never meant his dear hobbits to be children, no more than he meant them to be rabbits. But by placing them in the utopian Shire, he has made them naive and ignorant when it comes to the concerns of the rest of the world. He has made a paradise that he did not really intend to create: "hobbits are not an Utopian vision.... They...are an historical accident...and an impermanent one in the long view" (Letters 197). Tolkien wanted the hobbits, as well as everything else in his mythology, to be a part of history, but in many ways he has failed to convey this message to his readers. The Shire has become an Utopia.

What is a quest then? If we look it up in a dictionary it is explained with the words "searching" and "seeking". This is of course a very simple and unsatisfactory explanation, at least when it comes to describing the quest theme of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The myth critic Northrop Frye has developed the concept of the quest in a more analytical way. He talks about "a sequence of minor adventures leading up to a major or climacteric adventure, usually announced from the beginning" (Theory of Myths 186-187). It is the major adventure that is the quest, the purpose of the hero. In Bilbo's case, the purpose is to function as a burglar for the dwarves, in their quest for The Lonely Mountain and their lost home and treasure. The quest of Frodo can be divided into two stages. First, he is to take the One Ring and its inherent evil out of his beloved Shire, to Rivendell. Once there, his quest is extended, and from there on he is to take it to the land of Mordor and "the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there" (LR 74). First he is only to save the hobbits of the Shire, later he is to save the whole world. On these perilous adventures we are met by "minor adventures" which all become unforeseen parts of the quest, but are in fact not the quest.

Frye goes on to dividing the quest hero into two distinctions: the myth hero with his divine and sometimes magical qualities; the romance hero with his human and down-to-earth characteristics (188). In ancient Greek myth, the demi-god Hercules is certainly a divine hero, being the son of Zeus, and possessing inhuman strength. Bilbo and Frodo in the same way are human heroes, with their simple existence and way of reasoning. In "The Quest Hero", W.H. Auden makes the same division of heroes into two, and points out that the success of the human hero is not due to his own powers, but due to "the fairies, magicians, and animals that help him", and this because "he is humble enough to take advice" (46).

In Tolkien's World, Randel Helms apply the psychoanalytic theories of Freud to the adventures of Bilbo, and to some extent, to Frodo's as well. Helms is tracing the tools Tolkien used in order to bring back myth into contemporary literature, something he thought had been lost: "he was distressed that the English had so few myths of their own and had to live on foreign borrowings, 'so I thought I'd make one myself '". Like myself, Helms emphasises the importance of seeing Middle-Earth as an independent world abiding by its own rules, and that it has "a strange relevance to our own world" (8). One such "strange relevance" is the language Tolkien uses, with its inherent unconscious symbolism.

When it comes to the actions and contents of the quest, there seems to be a certain pattern that it follows. Different critics have in one way or another, tried to map these patterns into basic schemes that apply, in various degrees, to all stories with a quest motif. The Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp, in his studies of the Russian folk tale, developed a scheme of thirty-one elements or functions that appear in the folk tale. Even though all thirty-one functions may not be included in the story, they always appear in the same order. Some examples of these functions are:

25. A difficult task is proposed to the hero.
26. The task is resolved.
27. The hero is recognized.

These elements do not only apply to the Russian folk tale but can also be seen "in comedies, myths, epics, romances and indeed stories in general" (Selden-Widdowson-Brooker 72-73).

Frye divides the quest, or romance, into three main stages: the agon or conflict, where we are taken through the dangerous journey of the hero and his minor adventures; the pathos or death-struggle, where the final battle, struggle, or achievement is carried out; and the final celebration of the hero - the anagnorisis or recognition. He emphasises the importance of this "threefold structure" that is often found in the romance, e.g. "the successful hero is a third son, or the third to undertake the quest, or successful on his third attempt" (187).

Auden also sees this "imposition of a numerical pattern", i.e. the use of a certain number which keeps appearing throughout the story, but says that it can be a different number depending on the structure of the quest story. What Auden does not agree to is the set order of the story. It has only two "fixed points" - the beginning and the final accomplishment. Everything else that appears within these "fixed points" is arbitrary (48). All in all, this still seems to agree with Frye's ideas, though definitely not with Propp's.

The dictionary's definition is of course an inadequate one. Searching and seeking is a part of the quest story, but is so much more than that. It ought to mention development and fulfilment along with characterisation and personal achievement. As I now turn to the specific adventures and experiences of Bilbo and Frodo, I will use Propp's specific functions as far as possible in tracing the quests, and I also think it is appropriate and helpful to keep Auden's, Helms', and Frye's ideas in mind. By following their general and rather vague stages we are able to keep an open mind about what really constitutes a quest, and to form our own particular quest scheme of Tolkien's two novels.

Continue to: Agon: The Conflict. Part I: The Fellowship

or go to the Table of Contents

2. "Author's foreword.

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