The Northernness of 
The Hobbit
and its Structure

"Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favorite 'motifs' and characters on the original 'Hobbit'."
--Letter to Furth, Allen, & Unwin, 17 February 1938

"I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them the trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing. . .  . And what about the Riddles? There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues. I should not be surprised to learn that both the hobbit and Gollum will find their claim to have invented any of them disallowed."
--Letter to the editor of the Observer, 20 February 1938

Structural Patterns in The Hobbit

There are a number of ways to organize the structure of the novel. Which do you find most convincing?

  • "There and back again"--Bilbo enters upon an adventure and then returns, though changed. The structure is cyclical in that sense. He undergoes a kind of pilgrimage to return a different hobbit.
  • Continual eucatastrophe with the final end of the dragon always ahead. The plot moves ahead through a series of complications, each one resolved by either Gandalf, Bilbo, or others, such as the Eagles. At the same time, the ultimate encounter with Smaug is introduced in the first chapter and kept before the reader.
  • Gandalf, No Gandalf, Gandalf, No Gandalf, Gandalf: Bilbo learns to fill the leadership gap left by Gandalf's absence--first when he is separated with Gollum, and then once Gandalf leaves to face the Necromancer.
  • Geographic displacement. Bilbo moves from the assurance of Hobbiton to Mountain, Wilderness, Mirkwood, and places increasingly strange and uninviting with Rivendale and Beorn's House the refuges in the midst of them.
  • The discovery of the Tookish side of Bilbo, with Bilbo moving from burgher to burglar, from hole-dweller to hole-explorer.
  • A change in tone, from humor to seriousness, especially as the evil draws nearer. Evil as treated as more damaging and threatening with each new encounter.
  • A movement from one world to another, from Edwardian fairy story to Northern epic. At first the Northern world derived from Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Old Norse sources is experienced in the safe world of Gandalf's protection, but as the story advances the world becomes more heroic, ending in the Battle of Five Armies.

Teutonic and Celtic Blending in The Hobbit--The Two Norths

[W]hatever the success of the imported languages, the inhabitants of Britian, during recorded history, must have been in large part neither Celtic nor Germanic: that is, not derived physically from the original speakers of those varieties of language, nor even from the already racially more mixed invaders who planted them in Britain .

In that case they are and were not either 'Celts' or 'Teutons' according to the modern myth that still holds such an attraction for many minds. In this legend Celts and Teutons are primeval and immutable creatures, like a triceratops and a stegosaurus (bigger than a rhinoceros and more pugnacious, as popular palaeontologists depict them, (fixed not only in shape but in innate and mutual hostility, and endowed even in the mists of antiquity, as ever since, with the peculiarities of mind and temper which can be still observed in the Irish or the Welsh on the one hand the English on the other: the wild incalculable poetic Celt, full of vague and misty imaginations, and the Saxon, solid and practical when not under the influence of beer. Unlike most myths this myth seems to have no value at all.
--"English and Welsh" (1955)

It is always dangerous to deal too comfortably in stereotypes of an ethic or cultural nature. As the above passage from his lecture shows, Tolkien understood that the types of the harsh, pragmatic, pessimistic Norse and the sensitive, poetic, fanciful Celt could not hold up under repeated investigation; nonetheless, he was willing to deal with them in part because they did suggest large cultural patterns that he felt had thoroughly blended in Welsh, Cornish, and English character. Marjorie Burns has argued his hobbits represent this blending, or at least that they have the possibility in a character like Bilbo of discovering that mixture. These two Norths, one with its "theory of courage" and the other with its sensuous sense of the magical and love of kingship, he held were merged in ways that made them difficult to tease apart. Even though Tolkien clearly preferred the Norse/Teutonic strains, his work with the Celtic strain in Sir Gawain, as well as other works by the Pearl poet, as well as Sir Orfeo, indicates the dual debt he had to these cultures.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Gandalf want Bilbo for his mission anyway?
  2. How do the dwarves represent an medieval Icelandic attitude toward life?
  3. What is the cumulative effect of knowing that many of the names in the Hobbit are medieval in origin and etymology?
  4. Are the Elves of Rivendale comparable to their counterparts in LOR?
  5. What makes Norse-informed riddle game sacred?
  6. Like the bewitched river and the white hart, are other magical elements in the Hobbit possessed of the "Celtic" sense of wonder and mystery?
  7. How is Sir Orfeo echoed in Biblo's first sighting of the Elves in Mirkwood?
  8. What makes the ring in The Hobbit different than the One Ring of LOR?
  9. How is Beowulf present in Bilbo, in Beorn, and in Bard?
  10. How Viking in character are Beorn and his hall?
  11. Does the "business" tone of Thorin or the upper-crust attitude of Smaug belong in this tale? Why or why hot?
  12. How does Bilbo succeed in relationship to the Arkenstone while Thorin does not? Compare their responses to that of  FŽanor and Thingol to the Silmarils.
  13. Does Thorin ever become kingly? Why or why not?
  14. Is the happy ending of The Hobbit northern (Teutonic, Celtic, etc.) in any sense?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding