There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.
Hobbits, the narrator explains, are little people, roughly half the size of humans, with thick hair on their feet, round bellies, and a love of good food, comfort, and security. Though some hobbits live in houses, they traditionally live in holes in the ground. The holes are not dank and smelly but comfortable, cozy underground dwellings with all the amenities of their aboveground counterparts. The hole occupied by the hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins is called Bag End. It is quite a pleasant dwelling, with comfortable furniture and a well-stocked kitchen, nestled in a snug little village under a hill.
Bilbo’s ancestry is somewhat noble by hobbit standards: his father was from the well-to-do, conventional Baggins family, but his mother was from the Tooks, a wealthy, eccentric family infamous for their unhobbitlike tendency to go on adventures. Despite his Took blood, however, Bilbo prefers to stay at home and live a quiet life.
On the day the story begins, Bilbo is enjoying a pipe outside his front door when an old man with a long cloak and a staff arrives. After the old man introduces himself, Bilbo recognizes him as the wizard Gandalf, who has created spectacular fireworks displays on holidays in Hobbiton, but Bilbo still looks on the old wizard with a suspicious eye. When Gandalf asks if Bilbo would be interested in going on an adventure, Bilbo declines and quickly excuses himself. He invites the wizard to come over for tea sometime but only so as not to seem rude—in reality, he wants nothing to do with Gandalf and his adventures.
When the doorbell rings the next afternoon, Bilbo assumes it is Gandalf. To his surprise, a dwarf named Dwalin pushes past him and promptly sits down to eat. Soon, other dwarves begin to arrive, and as Bilbo’s neat little home becomes crowded with dwarves, Bilbo becomes increasingly confused and annoyed. At last, Gandalf arrives with the head dwarf, Thorin. The thirteen dwarves and the wizard nearly clean out Bilbo’s pantry before finally settling down to discuss their business.
It soon becomes clear that Gandalf has volunteered Bilbo to be a “burglar” for the dwarves on their adventure. The hobbit protests, and the dwarves grumble that the soft little hobbit does not seem suited to their adventure. Gandalf, however, is certain that Bilbo is useful, and insists that there is more to the hobbit than meets the eye.
The wizard then brings out an old map of a great mountain and points to a mysterious secret entrance, a door to which Thorin holds the key. Bilbo demands some clarification about the point of the whole expedition. Thorin explains that his grandfather, Thror, mined the mountain shown on the map and discovered a wealth of gold and jewels. Thror then became King under the Mountain, but his fantastic treasure attracted unwanted attention. Before long, the dragon Smaug came and killed or scattered all of Thror’s people. The dragon has been guarding the treasure ever since. Thorin and the dwarves are out to reclaim their rightful inheritance, even though they are unsure of what to do with Smaug when they find him.
Bilbo suspects that the dwarves want him to play a part in slaying the dragon. Although his Baggins side would like nothing better than to sit at home with his pipe, the Took influence in him fuels his curiosity about the adventure, and he is reluctantly excited by the tales of dragons and treasure and great battles. After looking at the map and discussing the adventure with the company, the hobbit makes up beds for all his guests and then spends the night in troubled dreams.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien presents us with a fantasy world of his own creation, complete with its own races, languages, and geography. Tolkien was a language scholar, and he was partially motivated to write his stories by his desire to invent other languages. He implies at the beginning of Chapter 1 that this fantasy world, which he later dubbed Middle-Earth, is somehow connected to our own world, saying that hobbits “have become rare and shy of the Big People,” which is why we no longer see them around.
In The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien implies that Middle-Earth is our Earth as it existed millions of years ago, when the continents had very different forms. Thus, Tolkien’s world is as much mythological as it is fantastic. Its larger purpose, like that of Greek and Roman mythologies, is often to reflect truths about our own world that may be better seen when presented in a mythical context. In fact, Tolkien first wrote about Middle-Earth with the intention of creating an entirely new mythology for the English people, and the story’s form is based on the ancient heroic epics that Tolkien taught and studied at Oxford. But The Hobbit is only tangentially connected to Tolkien’s history of Middle-Earth and to the larger mythology that Tolkien would explore in his longer and more ambitious works.
The Hobbit’s tone is much warmer and more humorous than that of most heroic epics, such as Beowulf. Tolkien tested out The Hobbit as he wrote it by reading it to his sons, and the manner of narration is, at times, very much like a children’s story. Its style is extremely playful and conversational, with frequent asides and jokes directed at the audience, including one famous quip about how an ancestor of the Tooks invented the game of golf when a goblin’s head he had chopped off in battle rolled into a hole.
The unlikely pairing of Bilbo with wizards, dwarves, and dragons in the first chapter establishes the contrast between the novel’s historically inspired, mythological subject matter and its lighthearted, modern tone. Much of the humor in the novel’s early chapters stems from this contrast. For example, as the dwarves hold their great feast, Bilbo worries that they will chip his plates and furniture—both Bilbo and the dwarves end up looking slightly ridiculous. The hobbit’s skeptical outlook on his guests and on the adventure mirrors our own outlook, and it enables the story’s more fantastic elements to be introduced in a manner that is more entertaining than explanatory. Tolkien eases us into his fantasy world, so that as Bilbo develops into a bolder and more heroic figure, we also become more familiar with the magical landscape of Middle-Earth.
In the preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien conveyed his distaste for allegory. In the decades after writing The Hobbit, however, he openly acknowledged the link between hobbits and the English people of his own time. There are even many similarities between Bilbo and Tolkien. Like Bilbo, Tolkien enjoyed middle-class comforts—simple food, a pipe, and a quiet life. Like Bilbo, Tolkien had “adventurous blood”—his mother was from a family known for its extensive escapades. In a more general sense, Bilbo can be seen as a gentle caricature of the English—a reserved, quiet people who, nevertheless, can be roused to action when the situation calls for it, a trait Tolkien witnessed firsthand during his service in World War I.