Reading The Hobbit: Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire or the Notion of “Other”

It is often stated that Tolkien’s work exhibits a clear demarkation between good and evil, light and dark. This has been used many times by critics as one of their strongest rebukes. The same frame of reference is used today to lift up the new fantasy authors of the age as champions of the grey area.

Obviously these people did not read The Silmarillion, or for that matter The Hobbit, and certainly did not read The Lord of the Rings closely. Yes, there is a clearly proposed notion of good and evil in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but this negates all levels of nuance. For Tolkien all is good in the beginning; it could even be said all is turned to good in the end as well. This notion is firmly established at the moment of creation in the Ainulindalë, so declares Ilúvatar on the completion of the Great Themes:

“’Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’” (The Silmarillion 17)

Not only is this one of the most beautiful and clearly theological passages in Tolkien’s larger legendarium, it is crucially instructive in the nature of good and evil. The whole tale of the singing of the Ainur, describes the nature of good and evil as Tolkien saw it. As I understand it, it is a spectrum or a circle. All are within it, some closer to Ilúvatar’s unadulterated theme and some further, but altogether creating the great harmony.

So what does any of this have to do with The Hobbit, or in particular the sixth chapter?

In this chapter, like the previous two, we are introduced to three separate races (not including Gollum): the goblins, the wargs and the great eagles. Two are arguably evil and one supposedly good.

Let’s look at the goblins or orcs first. They are greedy, cruel, and clever. In “Under Hill and Over Hill” it is stated that

“…they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them…” (TH 74)

They certainly qualify as evil. But what is interesting to note is that their particular motivations are very clearly stated. Evil is not a monolithic entity, of single mind, level and goal. Their primary purpose in capturing the dwarves is one information and two slaves for their work force, both of which, while of dubious morality, are highly practical and in other circumstances would seem normal. The scenario, as will later be seen, is repeated multiple times throughout the book, each time playing the reader’s preconceived notions of the character of the captor against their stated action. And later, it is perfectly justifiable, if we weren’t dealing with goblins, for a people to pursue infiltrators in anger after the murder of their leader, the Goblin King.

Then there is also the wargs, who happen upon the company by chance. The glade where they collide is apparently a meeting place of the wargs, and their coming preordained:

“Now it seemed that a great goblin-raid had been planned for that very night. The Wargs had come to meet the goblins and the goblins were late.” (TH 118)

The goblins and the Wargs are natural allies against the men who have come to live in that area. They are not of sufficient number to raid alone, but together may not be resisted. The motivation of the Wargs in the tale of the Company is therefore purely coincidence enflamed (literally) by the counter attacks of Gandalf. However, their interest starts and ends at stopping the escape of the supposed spies of Men, who will report their planned raid. When they are met with fire, they are soon quelled and ready to flee.

And at this moment the goblins appear.

Each of these two “races” wears the stereotypical trappings of evil. Yet if we stop to think about it, which I believe Tolkien intends us to do, how evil are their actions really; particularly if we view them in light of their later twin in the capture of the dwarves by the Wood Elves?

So the goblins and the wargs join forces, and by the clever guile of the goblins devise a plan which would have led to the Company’s utter destruction, that is if not for the arrival of the great eagles.

Just using The Hobbit as our source, it is again made clear that the eagles also have their own motivation and self interest in rescuing the Company. Tolkien very explicitly states the nature of the Great Eagles and their posture towards others:

“…the ancient race of the northern mountains were the greatest of all birds; they were proud and strong and noble-hearted. They did not love goblins, or fear them. When they took notice of them at all (which was seldom, for they did not eat such creatures), they swooped on them and drove them shrieking back to their caves, and stopped whatever wickedness they were doing. The goblins hated the eagles and feared them, but could not reach their lofty seats, or drive them from the mountains.” (TH 121)

The coming of the eagles has nothing to do with any good will towards the Company, but rather a general and deep-seated malice towards the goblins and the wargs. Even so, their primary motivation in this case is not even that, but the “curiosity” of the Lord of the Eagles (TH 121). Again, like the wargs, the Company’s presence in their actions is defined by coincidence.

It is later said that Gandalf and the eagle-lord are on “friendly terms…[as Gandalf] had once rendered a service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound” (TH 127). Though this friendship exists, however, it is not the reason the Company was saved, but again happy coincidence. It is though, the reason the eagles are willing to fly the Company on to Carrock. They will not fly close to the homes of Men because “’they would shoot at [the eagles]…for they would think [they] were after their sheep. And at other times they would be right’” (TH 128-9).  The Lord of the Eagles is of course very pleased to have halted the goblin’s endeavors and in the act to pay back the debt owed Gandalf, but again it should be noted that these are the surprise benefits of their act, not the planned upon goal.

Each of these “peoples” is a study in motivation, as are all in The Hobbit.  This book is largely a tale of that very issue and how preconceived notions of a character or people’s nature color both Bilbo’s and the reader’s perception of their actions.

Here, in The Hobbit, Tolkien does something he would also attempt to do in The Lord of the Rings with Tom Bombadil. Tom is, of course, one of the most enigmatic and therefore questioned plot pieces of almost all Tolkien’s larger legendarium. No one seems to know his purpose, least of all Tolkien himself (at least in his published writings). Yet one of the reason he gives for Tom’s existence, here adds further depth to the “simplistic” tale of The Hobbit.

Tolkien states in his 153rd letter (p192):

“…I kept [Tom] in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. I do not mean him to be an allegory-…-but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: his is then an ‘allegory,’ or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires the knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind…

…The power of the Ring [or in this case monolithically conceived good and evil] over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion-but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe.”

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that Tom represents the desire for study, for seeing beyond, for knowledge outside ourselves and our apparent need “because they are ‘other.’” This is the impulse that appears to be driving Bilbo in reporting the peoples of Middle Earth in his diary. He is reporting the “other” he sees, not only based on the power of the monolithic Black and White he has probably been indoctrinated into through established tales in the Shire, but based on the motivations he reads with more acuity as time goes on.

The second argument, which is more prevalent in LotR, is that neither Evil or Good is monolithic in either character or motivation. Just as there are evils outside Sauron’s power (the barrow wights, the Balrog and Shelob) and goods outside those opposed Sauron directly/openly (Tom, the elves of Imladris, Cirdan, the Shire etc), there is more beyond the gloss of either good or evil in The Hobbit.

Here, it seems appropriate to segue into the film’s interpretation of these same peoples. This is the greatest facet lost with the additon of Azog to the film. In place of a nuanced and multilayered study of motivation, prejudice and the nature of good and evil, the viewer is left with the unified mallice of a single enemy, which ultimatley drives all others.


4 thoughts on “Reading The Hobbit: Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire or the Notion of “Other”

  1. Are you familiar with Jonathan McIntosh’ blog-series, ‘Tolkien’s Metaphysics of Evil’? If not, I think you’ll find it interesting. The first post in the series is here:

    I like the discussion of good and evil that you undertake here, and I have some further thoughts in that connection.

    One of the things that I like very much about Corey Olsen’s book, “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit” is that Corey looks at “The Hobbit” more isolated — how can we understand the story without reference to the wider legendarium. I think we are often liable to base our reading of “The Hobbit” on our knowledge and understanding of Tolkien’s wider legendarium, in particular on “The Lord of the Rings”, but also on “The Silmarillion”, but I am not convinced that this is in every case fair to “The Hobbit” — or at least that it is a good way to go about the question of what the author actually intended with the story: to use the terminology of the Foreword to “The Lord of the Rings”, we are using Tolkien’s other writings to colour the applicability of “The Hobbit” instead of trying to understand the book on its own terms.

    The discussion here of evil and good in “The Hobbit” does, I think, owe much to “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion”, and tries to understand the story on these terms. For the purpose of the discussion here it proves to be an interesting route, and the complexities you discuss are quite enlightening. This approach is, however, one that is likely to forget that “The Hobbit” is a children’s story — designed to be read out loud to children too small to read it themselves. The portrayal of good and evil in “The Hobbit” rests to some extent more on the assertions of the narrator than on the actions: the goblins are wicked because we are told so, and the wood elves are good because we are told so, not necessarily because we are shown so by their actions.

    My point here is that within “The Hobbit” itself, the actions of the goblins, wargs, eagles, elves, etc. etc. are not necessarily a reliable guide to the books portrayal of their position on the Good-Evil axis: for that positioning the author relies on the narrative assertions in sure-footed violation of the maxim to “show, don’t tell” (as Tom Shippey points out in his books, Tolkien repeatedly ignores or rejects much of the writing advice of traditional writing wisdom).

    • I agree that it is worth reading The Hobbit for its own merits, which I have tried to do as much as possible. And while The Hobbit is a children’s book, and so on the surface full of basic conceptions of good and evil, as revealed by the narrator, I’ve lately come to notice that for the adult (who would presumably be the one reading aloud) there is much to see in terms of the nuances of good and evil.

      However I do think an understanding of The Silmarillion at least is valid in viewing The Hobbit. Just prior to writing this tale, Tolkien had just finished the first Quenta Silmarillion and before that the Lays and the Book of Lost Tales. These were his life’s work, into which wander the hobbits. This is why there are many brief moments of interlacement to be found in The Hobbit. Yes, to read and appreciate The Hobbit as its own work is a worthy endeavor, but I think Tolkien’s own efforts to tie it ever more tightly into the larger legendarium makes this a difficult if not impossible task. The way I have approached reading The Hobbit is as a retelling of Bilbo’s journey filtered through both Bilbo and the narrator. In the final analysis, the conception of Middle Earth may be slightly different, but also the same; in the sense that two writers of history may report events in opposing manners.

      We are baldly told that the goblins are evil, or the eagles great and honorable or the elves good but wary…but we are also told explicitly the motivations of each as well as their actions. By these we are able to take the next step and see a further layer of sophistication.

      Yes The Hobbit is a children’s book and so actions may not describe the full nature of each race/character. But as Tolkien believed the fairy story was not the sole provenance of the child, but deserving of adult attention, I believe this is part of his effort to fold that level of interest into the tale. We are aware of the evils or goodwill of the characters, but shown actions which contradict it.

      Though here the reading may be stretching the original intent of the children’s tale, I believe the events surrounding the last third of the book (the wood elves, the Lake Men, the later dwarves, and their changes through to the conclusion of the book) bear out these conclusions.

      I have used Tolkien’s other works to attempt to illuminate certain points, but I think the intricacy of the “grey” area between light and dark is very much an intrinsic part of The Hobbit.

      I have not read Jonathan McIntosh’s blog series, but I’ll look forward to doing so!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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