“More Than Meets the Eye”
Tolkien never precisely invokes this old cliche, but it aptly summarizes his characters experience of Bilbo Baggins, and Bilbos experience of himself. Bilbo is an unlikely hero, but from the outset of the adventure Gandalf knows that the little hobbit has it within him to be more than even he imagines-and Gandalf says so on more than one occasion! The other characters growing knowledge of Bilbo, and Bilbos deepening awareness of himself, signals the theme of self-knowledge that forms the heart of any mythic quest tale.
Greed and Pride
As mentioned in the Analyses and the Metaphor Analysis, the theme of the dangers of too much pride and of greed runs throughout The Hobbit. Thorin, who ultimately loses his life because of stubborn commitment to ancestral pride and overmuch desire for his family treasure, serves as a cautionary tale. Furthermore, the broken relationships between men, elves, and dwarves at the end of the book warn readers today of how greed and pride can damage the social fabric.
Readers may wish to consider the question of “What is moral?” in the context of The Hobbit. After all, the hero of the story is a burglar who, at various points, conceals the truth from his friends, doesnt quite “play fair” in a riddle contest, and steals the one part of the treasure that Thorin most desires. Do ends always or even often justify the means? Is Bilbo consistently obeying a larger and greater good? How might the theme of morality interact with the theme of “More Than Meets the Eye,” discussed above?
Engagement and Withdrawal
As the discussion of the Shire as a metaphor above indicates, The Hobbit concerns itself with questions of when and how to engage with the wider world. While “Bag End” is not bad-indeed, Tolkien presents Bilbos home as quite a comfortable place (as in the novels celebrated opening lines)-it is not the sum total of the “wide world” (to use Gandalfs phrase) either. Like Bilbo, we all must discover our place in the wide world, even if it end up being a “small” one (but, caveat lector: consider once more the theme of “More Than Meets the Eye”-what is “small,” and who decides?).
History Haunts Us
Tolkien draws on the vast, personal mythology which he had been creating for years in The Hobbit-to a lesser degree than he does in The Lord of the Rings, to be sure, but the past is still very much present: for Thorin, for the Wood-elves, for the Master and the people of Esgaroth, for Bard, and even for Bilbo, who must reconcile the “Baggins” and “Took” sides of his personality. Readers should ponder the questions: How aware am I of my personal and social history? Does that history affect me largely for good or for ill?-for it is, of course, possible that it may do both. To what extent should we respect and learn from the past, and to what extent should we let it be past?
As mentioned in the Analysis for Chapter 14, the Master “scapegoats,” or unfairly shifts blame to, the dwarves for Esgaroths troubles after the final attack of Smaug. Readers will wish to be aware of the tendency toward scapegoating not only in society at large but also in their own experience. Perhaps they have committed scapegoating; perhaps they have been the victims of it; perhaps some combination of both. How can we, as individuals and as a society, prevent scapegoating? How might the theme of history haunting us be brought to bear on this issue?
“More Than Meets the Eye”