Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Contrasting Worldviews

Tolkien was a scholar of ancient languages at Oxford. A major source of inspiration for The Hobbit’s plot was the body of ancient epic literature that Tolkien studied, particularly Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon epics like Beowulf. Elements of the story originate from literature, including the form of the heroic quest, the dragon’s treasure hoard, the importance of named swords, the elves’ mysterious magic, and the grim focus on birthright and family lineage.

The Hobbit revisits many of these ancient conventions with a playful, comic tone that is thoroughly modern. Bilbo himself, with his common sense, love of peace, and warmhearted self-doubt, is in many ways a rural Englishman of the 1930s transplanted into a medieval adventure. Tolkien’s exploration of this contrast between the world in which he lived and the worlds he studied is the source of a large part of the book’s comedy. This contrast also has some thematic importance—Thorin’s last words to Bilbo indicate that despite the grandeur of epic heroism, the simple modern values of the hobbits perhaps have a more important place in the world.

The Nature and Geography of Middle-Earth

Since The Hobbit takes place in a world of the author’s own creation—complete with its own history, language, geography, and mythology—much of the narrative is devoted to incidental descriptions of the places, people, and things that Bilbo encounters. As a result, Middle-Earth emerges as a finely detailed reality with a convincing visual presence and its own unique atmosphere. Taking the reader through this world is one of the primary considerations of the novel, and a great part of Tolkien’s literary ingenuity is devoted to making Middle-Earth seem as real as possible. For many readers, experiencing Middle-Earth as a self-contained whole is probably the most striking aspect of reading The Hobbit.

Read about how Frank Herbert uses similar world-building techniques in a mini essay on his novel Dune.


As is the case in the epic poems Tolkien evokes in The Hobbit, oral storytelling is a powerful means of honoring one’s history, but also a narrative device that affects the fates and actions of the characters. Though Gandalf and the dwarves’ courting of Bilbo results in him initially rebuffing their offer, daydreams of adventure and the fantasies invoked by their lavish tales ultimately win Bilbo over. Participating in a quest of his own inevitably has the effect of forcing Bilbo to weigh his less exciting experiences against those of tales long told, instilling in him a desire to have the kind of adventure people write tales about.

After the battles have been fought, Bilbo’s reputation changes once he returns to the Shire. Tales of his deeds, bravery, involvement in battles, and interactions with creatures beyond Hobbits forge a link between him and the wider world. At the book’s end, Bilbo returns home, filling his time reading and writing of his adventures, and continuing his friendships with those he met along the way. His travels have given him new tales to tell, which will go on to directly influence and affect the future of Middle-Earth.


While the dwarves’ stolen gold is the catalyst for the story’s main action, numerous forms of treasure or riches appear throughout The Hobbit, each offering their own benefits and cautionary tales. After the trolls are turned to stone, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves find a host of swords and weapons to take. Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum brings him to the ring, an object of immense power that has a stronghold over Gollum. Smaug’s own collection of riches, meanwhile, not only boasts a vast fortune, but also brings Bilbo to the suit of mithril as well as the Arkenstone gem.

While each form of treasure throughout the book carries its own significance, purpose, and advantage, many also come with burdens. Smaug sits with his stolen treasure, maintaining a fastidious inventory to the point where he notices when a single cup is stolen, but his accrual doesn’t actually change or impact his life, besides giving him a hoard for the sake of having one. The reader also finds characters psychologically corrupted by the promise of their gains, with Gollum feverishly devoted to his ring, and Thorin being blinded by desire for the treasure, and the Arkenstone in particular.

Following Smaug’s defeat, the promise of a trove of treasure also creates in-fighting among men, dwarves, and elves, as the rebuilding of Lake Town clashes with the dwarves’ desire to keep the gold, which they believe is rightfully theirs. This treasure, then, and the accruing thereof actually causes more problems than it solves. Additionally, while the full narrative of Gollum and the ring doesn’t expand until The Lord of the Rings, it’s suggested in The Hobbit that little good will come from the intoxicating allure of this coveted discovery.