Symbolism In The Hobbit
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As both an author and a literary scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien makes his dislike of allegory and symbolism well known. In the preface to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Tolkien wrote, "As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. The Hobbit is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Tolkien never differentiated between the two works to suggest that one might contain symbolism while the other did not. For this reason, many fans of The Hobbit may contend that the book contains no symbolism.
However, those looking for symbols will certainly find them.
- The hobbits, with their love of good food and a quiet, conventional life, may serve as a symbol for common people.
- The named weapons, such as Gandalf's Glamdring, are symbols for the weapons used by heroic soldiers.
- Smaug the dragon may be a symbol for intelligent evil.
The Symbols and Development of Characters
These symbols are pivotal to the novel's central development of Bilbo's character. Bilbo begins the story as a common person, a simple hobbit. He gradually transforms into a hero due to his adventures that require him to challenge and defeat mighty enemies, including the trolls and Smaug. When Bilbo names his sword "Sting," he completes his evolution from a common person to become a true hero.
Reality and myth are ever intertwined. We understand this to be true because our very sense of self -- that which defines our lives -- is based on our internal understanding and interpretation of the past. Myth is a creation of the synthesis between the collective unconscious in the form of archetypes and the conscious application of those archetypes in the present. To explain this, we must examine our understanding of mythic history and how it contributes directly to our identity, and to our reality. We, as Americans, for example, subscribe to the myth of Columbus: that white Europeans discovered this land, hacked a living out of the wilderness, and enlightened the native peoples to the joys of civilization. It is from this myth that we derive our identification with adventurous explorers, tough frontiersmen, and rugged individualists. But, we also know this myth to be far from historically or truthfully accurate. The native populations, who had been here for millennia, sold cultivated and well-farmed lands to the colonists, thereby providing them with a rather comfortable transition from Europe to the Americas.
But, our collective mythos of the creation of our nation is what feels real to us because we have internalized the "Pioneering Spirit", which gives us permission to explore other places, and to lay claims on other lands. Such is the power and importance of myth. In the works of Tolkien and LeGuin, the balance of reality and myth are explored in detail. Fiction allows the author to create worlds, and the more detached from our own reality or history that world is, the more representative it tends to be of the psychology of the author and their understanding of the world. Both of these authors created incredibly complex worlds in which myth is demonstrated as being both parallel to and causative of reality. There, indeed, exist two worlds in Tolkien's The Hobbit, and LeGuin's The Wizard of Earthsea. Through an understanding of those dual worlds, we can then derive an understanding of ourselves and our own relationship with mythology.
The Hobbit, which introduces us to Tolkien's Middle-Earth, is an exercise in psychological exploration. "The country of the book, Middle-Earth, is a land much like our own, as mythical, but no more so. Its sunlight is remembered from the long summers of childhood, and its nightmares are equally those of children (Tolkien, p x)." The two worlds of The Hobbit -- Middle-Earth and that of their collective Myth -- demonstrate the relationship between what we understand about our past (myth) and how that shapes our present (reality). The denizens of Middle-Earth are as varied as the species of animals on our own Earth. Yet, each one is painted with a brush of characterization. The creatures, both good and evil, symbolize specific characteristics of life. The Hobbits cull their identity from their personal legends, tales which have shaped them into farmers and traders instead of explorers and adventurers. Likewise, the Dwarven legends fuel their identity as insular, fiercely independent dwellers of the depths of the Earth. The Goblins are reinforced by their own myths in their frequent retelling. Their second world, that of their mythologies (archetypes), clearly define not only their identity, but their destiny as well. As in our life, Bilbo's development is linear, he develops from "childish passivity to mature involvement (Crabbe, p35)" through the course of his exploration of life. Along the journey, we begin to understand that one's personal second world has a direct effect upon one's reality. As Bilbo recounts the memories and tales of his adventurous ancestor, he begins to understand that he, too, can be an adventurer; that he can expand beyond his boundaries. This is made clear by the fact that no other Hobbit in the book behaves in the way Bilbo does. He is reacting to his particular and individual past but is also guided by his identification with the collective Hobbit identity. The world of myth both binds Bilbo to the Shire and allows him to leave it, knowing that one day he will return. Thus, Tolkien allows the reader to see that we, too, have a collective and personal myth, which serves to form our behavior and guide us, just as Bilbo was able to leave the confines of his given identity and truly develop and change, as no other character could.