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