In what ways does The Hobbit resemble ancient epic literature? In what ways does it differ? What effect do these connections have on the overall meaning of the novel?
At first glance, The Hobbit, with its sweetly cantankerous hero and playful narrative style, does not seem to resemble grim, grand epics such as Beowulf or The Iliad. Epic poems feature glorious heroes and are narrated in an elevated style befitting the tale’s sober importance. In their grandiosity, the epics that Tolkien studied seem completely unlike the simple adventure story he wrote. However, an examination of The Hobbit’s formal elements, such as plot and narrative voice, reveals many points of resemblance between this simple children’s novel and the great epics. The critical difference lies in The Hobbit’s depiction of its central hero, Bilbo—a creature utterly unlike the traditional heroes of epic literature, whose simple, goodhearted bravery redefines the very notion of a hero.
Though The Hobbit is written in a more colloquial, child-friendly style than the classical epics, it makes many nods toward oral storytelling, a key stylistic element of these ancient works. The earliest epics derived from long, sprawling tales told to live audiences, just as The Hobbit began as a series of bedtime stories Tolkien told to his children. The novel’s oral beginnings are reflected in the frequent comments the narrator directs to the reader, typically soothing reassurances (such as a parent might make to a scared but excited child) that Bilbo and his friends will, in fact, vanquish the foe they are about to encounter. The recurring use of songs further emphasizes the novel’s oral nature. Not only do these verses make the novel more fun to read aloud, they also demonstrate how the inhabitants of Middle Earth use music and poems to reinforce community, maintain a sense of history, and commemorate and celebrate notable events.
The Hobbit is structured as a classic quest narrative, a common feature in many ancient epics. In this type of story, a hero sets out to accomplish a dangerous goal, often traveling over the span of his known world in the process and encountering representative samples of its different people. Along the way to achieving his ultimate objective, the protagonist encounters a series of setbacks, each of which constitutes a separate, discrete episode in the narrative. Not unlike a modern video game, Bilbo and the dwarves must pass several distinct tests—the trolls, the goblins of the Misty Mountains, the giant spiders, and the wood elves of Mirkwood—before they reach the final showdown with Smaug, which represents the culmination of the quest narrative. The dragon as final challenge is a familiar motif in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian epics (Beowulf being the most famous example), and the scene features many items commonly found in these stories, such as riddles, named swords, magic objects, and significant talismans. In addition, modest little Bilbo seems to acknowledge his heroic role most decisively in this scene. He announces to Smaug, “I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.” The titles Bilbo gives himself recall the heroic epithets—short, descriptive nicknames—commonly found in ancient epic literature, suggesting that Bilbo is starting to think of himself as such a hero.
However, Bilbo doesn’t triumph over Smaug in this scene, as we might expect in a traditional tale of heroism. In fact, in these last sections of the novel, the contrast between Bilbo and the archetypal hero becomes even more pronounced. Throughout The Hobbit, Bilbo’s small stature, down-to-earth nature, and love of comfort have made him an unlikely hero. Epic heroes tend to be nobly or divinely born, possessed of supernatural skill or strength, and preoccupied with fame and glory—none of which applies to Bilbo. In the scene with Smaug, which has been set up as the tale’s climactic showdown, Bilbo escapes without attempting to defeat his foe. Eventually it is the human captain, Bard, who finally kills the dragon. Bilbo doesn’t even fight in the great Battle of the Five Armies, having been knocked out by a falling stone.
If anyone in The Hobbit resembles a traditional hero, it is the grim, courageous Bard, who distinguishes himself both as a warrior and as a wise, sober leader. And in the end, he receives the more traditional heroic rewards: fame, honor, and a high position of power. This is in sharp contrast to Bilbo, who leaves with less treasure than he’d initially been promised and meets with cold suspicion from his fellow hobbits when he finally returns home. However, Bard is never more than a supporting character in this story. Bilbo is clearly the protagonist and hero of The Hobbit, and Tolkien suggests that we should honor him as such for very different reasons than ancient Europeans would have honored their heroes. Bilbo’s great, final act of heroism doesn’t involve military bravery or a feat of physical strength. Rather, it is an act of selflessness: He offers the precious Arkenstone, equivalent to his percentage of the treasure, as a bargaining chip for the humans to negotiate a settlement with the dwarves. Bilbo’s dedication to comfort, which seems a small-minded trait, is also what leads to his love of peace and accord. Bilbo may not have defeated the dragon or vanquished the Wargs, but he single-handedly brought unity to the people of the Five Armies, establishing a peaceful coalition that will prove crucial in the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy. The fact that he rejects the traditional heroic rewards—neither receiving nor requiring fame and glory—only makes him more heroic and admirable.