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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

"The wheels of the world are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak" (Letters 149). The speaker of this axiom, J.R.R. Tolkien, was referring to the character of world history, in his Middle-Earth as well as in our own world. The plans and strategies of civilisations are set by an elite, "Lords and Governors, even gods", but they are carried out by ordinary people of ordinary life - the "unknown and weak". It is not the generals that fight out in the fields, but the common soldier who has no choice in reality. This is very much the theme of Tolkien's own two novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Two young hobbits are drawn into perilous adventures without really having anything to say about it. They become tools of a higher authority, and are just parts of a greater master scheme. Gandalf and the dwarves, more or less against The Hobbit's own will employ Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit, as a burglar. He has no intention of involving himself in any adventures, an abomination in itself to hobbit life, when he addresses the dwarves at Bag End: "I don't pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars…and I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house" (H 17-18). He makes a clear statement that he is not interested in joining them in their quest for the Lonely Mountain. In the end, he still finds himself leaving his beloved hobbit hole in a such a hurry that he forgets things he normally does not forget: "I have come without my hat, and I have left my pocket-handkerchief behind" (H 28). Bilbo himself blames the rebellious ancestry in his family, "the Took side" (H 3), but it is of course the manipulative manoeuvres of Gandalf that decide Bilbo's future destiny.

Bilbo's second cousin and adoptive son, Frodo, is exposed to a similar situation. He has inherited "the small plain ring" from Bilbo. When the ring is revealed as being Sauron's tool, "the Masterring, the One Ring to rule them all" (LR 64), Frodo is forced to take a stand, to make a choice, which, at least on the surface, seems to be a choice. He cannot keep the Ring in the Shire because the Black Riders are searching for it, and that would mean the doom for all The Hobbits and their freedom. On the other hand, he cannot give it away because the Ring has a will of its own. It has got a hold on Frodo, which makes it impossible for him to part with it, and hand it over to somebody else.

In the end, the only "choice" left for Frodo is to bring the Ring out of the Shire, and take it, via Rivendell, to Mount Doom and throw it into the fire where it was once forged long ago. The little man must carry out the tasks of the Great, on the same terms, and with the same chances of success, or as Elrond puts it: "This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong" (LR 287). This is a notion that C.S. Lewis has paid attention to in his essay "The Dethronement of Power". He recognises this theme, and emphasises that it is "a structural invention of the highest order: it adds immensely to the pathos, irony, and the grandeur of the tale" (13).

Reading the two novels you receive a picture that is somewhat deceptive. Bilbo's adventures seem to be of a more light-hearted and jocund nature, while Frodo's are filled with horrors indescribable, which affect him in a very negative way. At the end of the two quests, Bilbo seems to be a happier and more fulfilled hobbit. Frodo, on the other hand, is physically and mentally wounded, mutilated, and he seems to have lost the light in his eyes: "he is…a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror…and in the end made into something quite different" (Letters 186).

Why is it then that Bilbo is more or less unharmed by his experiences, and that Frodo's existence is almost shattered? One answer to this is the way the two fairy tales are written, i.e. their intended audience. The demand for a sequel to The Hobbit made Tolkien start something much grander than its predecessor. Bilbo's story is clearly written as a children's story, while The Lord of the Rings "[is] forgetting children" and "becoming more terrifying than The Hobbit" (Letters 41). While the first story only alludes to his vast mythology, The Lord of the Rings takes a firm position in the middle of it, and explains the enigmas presented in The Hobbit.

This difference between the character of the two fairy tales can then be explained by the different techniques and styles the author used - the children's story and the epic. But these differences are concerned with our own world, the primary world. To be able to understand the differences in character of the two hobbits, we need to go beneath the surface of the primary world and dive into the complex order of the secondary world, i.e. Middle-Earth. Thus we are able to trace the true experiences and developments of Bilbo and Frodo.

As touched upon in my first essay on Tolkien 1 , again I feel obliged to emphasise Tolkien's own attitude towards allegory. I need only to mention that he disliked intentional allegory and that there were no such intentions in his mythological works. Instead, we must see Middle-Earth as a fully functioning world of its own. Frodo and Bilbo are characters of a real world, and as such, they live and develop according to its standards and rules, but are using the primary world's moral values. In other words, it is a reflection of our own world, not a part of it. Lewis answered the question "why…must [we talk] about a phantasmagoric never-never-land of [our] own", by saying that "the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality", and that "we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it". He suggested that "if you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror" (15-16).

So, placing myself in Middle-Earth, I intend to study and compare the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo. By doing so, I will show that the two quests are quite similar to each other in structure and development. I believe that Bilbo's experiences are of the same cruel character as those of Frodo's, and even though Bilbo has had the Ring for a much longer period of time, he seems less affected by it than Frodo. By following their journeys step by step, I will be able to trace the gradual deterioration of Frodo's character, and the personal growth of Bilbo's. In the end, I will also be able to see if these changes in characters are caused by the Ring only, or if other experiences throughout their quests are to be blamed as well. A helpful tool in such an analysis will be the psychoanalytic ideas of our primary world, which I will apply to the secondary world to show how difficult it is to ignore the primary world's moral values, and the unconscious use of symbolism in language.

Continue to: On Hobbits and Quests

or go to the Table of Contents

1. "
The Undefinable Shadowland: A Study of the Complex Question of Dualism in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

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