Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit-one of a short, furry-footed, amiable race of people living in the pastoral land of The Shire, whose passions include tobacco, brightly-colored clothing, parties, and multiple meals a day-living a quiet and respectable life (although some questions linger about his ancestors from the Took family, who had a habit of disappearing on mysterious adventures). The wizard Gandalf interrupts Bilbos tranquil routine one day, announcing that he is seeking someone to accompany him on adventure. As any self-respecting hobbit would, Bilbo declines. The next day, however, thirteen dwarves arrive at Bilbos home; Gandalf soon follows, announcing that Bilbo has been selected as the burglar for an expedition the dwarves have planned. Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarves leader, explains that he and his kin are headed east to the Lonely Mountain, to reclaim their ancestors treasure from the dragon Smaug, who is hoarding it. Although Bilbo is quite sure he does not wish to be hired as a professional burglar, something within the Took side of his ancestry is stirred as the dwarves sing of their intriguing quest to a far-off land. Gandalf, however, seems to settle the matter: “If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”
Tolkien skillfully introduces readers to his storys fantastic setting by presenting them with a protagonist who, except in superficial ways, largely resembles a real person. (That setting, incidentally, was not, at the tales origin, necessarily Middle-earth. Brian Stableford calls The Hobbit a “fine, robustly plotted adventure story, richly detailed by virtue of the fact that Tolkien already knew very much more about the Secondary World setting (Middle-earth) than he was yet ready to publish” [Fantasy and Horror 5-288]. His statement is true, but may obscure the fact that only over the course of the novels development did Tolkien conclude that hobbits and The Shire were part of his long-cherished “subcreation.” The references in this chapter to Moria and “the Necromancer,” for example, serve to tie what originally began as an unrelated childrens tale into the private mythology Tolkien had been constructing-or, as he would have put it, “discovering”-since at least World War I.) Yes, Bilbo is short and shoeless, but in most respects he represents an idealized English country existence. Further, like many modern people, Bilbo harbors a desire for adventure and excitement-a desire often at odds with the demands and expectations of conventional society. “What the neighbors will think” is no less a concern for Bilbo than it is for many people today.
Chapter 1 also introduces the intertwined themes of greed and pride. Dragons, of course, often serve as symbols of greed in fantastic literature. Roz Kaveny writes, “Though dragons like Tolkiens Smaug are typologically related to the Satanic dragon of Christianity, their endless pursuit of anyone who has stolen from their hoard derives from the Norse version of dragonishness” (The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p. 295). Yet Smaug is not the only cipher of greed in The Hobbit. While Thorin claims that his motivation is to right the wrong done by Smaug to the dwarves of previous generations, his pride in those dwarves past achievements cannot be neatly disentangled from his own thirst for riches, as events in later chapter will show (and note in this chapter the moment at which Thorin “stroke[s] the gold chain round his neck.”) Judging from his manner of speaking, Thorin clearly considers himself a person of high importance; while he is, Gandalfs treatment of him also may indicate that the dwarf esteems himself overly much-in contrast to Bilbo, whom Gandalf says underestimates himself. Readers may consider when pride crosses the line between healthy and unhealthy, as well as the ways in which it can mask other motives.