Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Prophecy of Language

Image for post
Image for post
John Bauer, Brother Saint Martin and the Three Trolls

We’re often reminded that all of Tolkien’s stories began with language. Tolkien invented the languages of elves first and then wondered, where did these words come from? Who made them? Spoke them? What books and legends preserved them? Of course, his languages didn’t exactly emerge out of a vacuum, either; they were his attempts to connect the linguistic thread between various ancient cultures, teasing out common words and phrases that might have belonged to an earlier, ur-language now lost in the folds of time. If words tell a story (today is “Tuesday,” which was originally “Tyr’s Day,” the Norse God of war), then it’s amazing how little of this story we understand, or even puzzle over.

Tolkien’s works are a way to make us stare a bit harder in the mirror and wonder where we — and the worlds we inhabit — originated, and if we can ever go home again. So it’s fitting that his very first novel, The Hobbit, provides the essential template that all his subsequent works would follow, and sets the greater books (in scope, not inspiration) in striking relief.

With this in mind, we can see Tolkien’s linguistic bent in The Hobbit, which carries a riddle in every name and incident of the story. Take Bilbo Baggins, for example, a well-to-do Hobbit who is hired as a burglar for a band of adventuring dwarves. A “Bilbo” is a kind of sword once made in Bilbao, Portugal, and “Baggins” has the connotation of “bag” (money/purse) and “bagman” (thief). Similarly, a “burglar” also contains a hint of the word “burgher,” which means a bourgeoise (prosperous) citizen. So the linguistic riddle/joke here is that the Gandalf mistakes a burgher for a burglar, or that he knows the burgher is a burglar because of his name — “Sword-Thief”!

Surprisingly, in a world teeming with fantasy and lore, the Hobbits are completely anachronistic: they behave like proper English “burghers,” with their tidy Hobbit-holes crammed full of snacks and tea, to say nothing of their obsession with propriety. When Bilbo wishes Gandalf a good-day, the wizard quickly realizes that the true sentiment is utterly lacking: “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” (5). Bilbo merely shrugs and says “All of them at once,” and soon says, again, “Good morning!” as a way of dismissing Gandalf.

Bilbo is like most of us; we don’t consider the meaning of our words or where they come from. So what a puzzle to be confronted with Gandalf, a wizard who has literally stepped out of the pages of an old romance, and who understands the meaning of everything — including Bilbo’s name and origin!

As a professor, Tolkien must have despaired to see his students unable to feel the same connection to the heroic works of antiquity — Beowulf, the Sagas, etc. For most these must have seemed like so-many dusty, irrelevant texts to be pilfered for exam questions, not to be read for the sheer pleasure of doing so. As Gandalf laments, “Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortable far-off (and therefore legendary)” (21).

Literature and art has been safely cordoned off into libraries and classrooms, where they are no longer ‘real,’ but celebrated as heirlooms and keepsakes. Yet the old works still have power, just as a sword, once sharpened, can still cut, and a shield can still protect from a dragon’s wrath.

So Gandalf decides to wake up Bilbo by sending him on an allegorical adventure to the heart of meaning itself. Like most fantasy tales, it is a “there and back again” journey, but with a twist: Bilbo is less discovering himself on the road than assuming his alter ego — the “Took” inside the “Baggins.” As Gandalf reminds him, he’s descended from famous Tooks who took grand adventures and became heroes of colorful stories. With a simple name change — burgher to burglar — the man himself changes, since who we are is shaped by what we call ourselves, and how others ‘read’ it. As a further illustration of this, Gandalf engraves runes on Bilbo’s door, as if to further write him into the story. A lie isn’t really a lie, after all, if you believe it yourself.

Initially Bilbo does not believe it, nor can he stomach the idea that people still go on adventures, much less with anyone as socially unacceptable as dwarves. When pressed to tag along, he insists on everything being as businesslike and rational as possible: “I should like it all plain and clear…Also I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration, and so forth” (21).

The juxtaposition of wizards/dwarves and “out-of-pocket expenses” is of course hilarious, as it begs the question, how would we go on an adventure today? The heroes of old never thought about risks or expenses, only of saving the princess and defeating the dragon. Has heroism been bred out of us? Or did it never exist outside of chivalric romances and legends?

Though Bilbo initially seems to be our modern ‘everyman’ in this world of fantasy, we soon learn that Tolkien has a much more ambitious scheme in mind. The dwarves prove curiously like their Hobbit burglar, in that they are obsessed with business and understand little about the past. As Bilbo comes to learn, “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much” (192).

This has something of the professor’s voice in it, or maybe the father’s, since this story was initially created for his children’s amusement. There are no heroes in this world, at least not of the type we read about, as most people are more likely to be villains, corrupted by greed and ambition. And yet, if you “don’t expect too much,” but see humans as humans and dwarves as dwarves, you won’t be disappointed so easily.

The great downfall of Middle Earth is how readily the various races fall into routine and blind tradition. They sing songs they no longer believe in, and hate other races for reasons they scarcely remember. Even the men of Lake Town, who live in the shadow of Smaug’s mountain, only vaguely sing about the King Under the Mountain, but “this pleasant legend did not much affect their daily business” (173).

The dwarves are also blinded by daily business — the pursuit of their long-lost gold. But they’ve thought little about how to steal it back, or more importantly, what to do with an awakened, avarice-mad dragon. Beowulf or Siegfreid could have confronted him single-handed and lopped off his head, but such heroes no longer exist in this world (not until The Lord of the Rings do we meet any of those). So the question remains, how to undertake a heroic question when you’re only a man, or a dwarf, or a hobbit? How does a burgher become a famous burglar of legend?

Bilbo transforms himself through two feats of language. The first and most celebrated is his riddle-game with Gollum. The tradition of riddles goes back to antiquity, and was particularly favored by the Anglo-Saxons; several of their choicest examples survive in the Exeter Book Riddles, which Tolkien drew on (loosely) for Bilbo’s contest. Here we learn the true meaning of Bilbo’s name: a “sword” not in swordsmanship but wit, which he uses to defeat Gollum and (almost) win his freedom. Some readers might wonder why a sinister creature with a magic ring would entertain Bilbo in a game of riddles when he could eat him whole. However, in a world which religion is conspicuously absent, faith and belief remain ever-present, albeit hidden in the shadows.

As the narrator explains, “[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it” (74). Even among “wicked creatures,” words are sacred, and the reverence for those who can use them cleverly is more respected than might itself. Tolkien also hints at the origin of riddles in sacred rituals and wisdom, which is also in keeping with their name: riddles, as Kevin Crossley-Holland explains in his translation of the Exeter Book Riddles, “[derive] from the Old English raedan, to advise, to counsel, to guide, to explain. And in a wide sense a riddle does teach: it presents the old in new ways” (viii).

In riddles lie the seeds of ancient wisdom and ethics, which even the wildest creatures acknowledge and revere (even if they don’t know why). That Bilbo can master riddles so readily marks him out as more than a mere burglar; he is something of a conjurer himself, able to bend fate to his will and save himself and the dwarves. Not coincidentally, Gandalf begins to absent himself more and more in the story as the ‘wizard’ Bilbo takes over.

Some might argue that Bilbo cheats to win the riddle game, since his final riddle, “what have I got in my pocket?” isn’t much of a riddle, at least not one that can advise or explain. Yet it is clever, and it does defeat an opponent who is similarly unwilling to play by the rules. There is also the tempting possibility that Bilbo is already under the sway of the Ring, which wants to escape Gollum at all costs. Yet this kind of trickery seems consistent with Gandalf’s own brand of misdirection, as when he tricks the trolls into straying into the first light of dawn. Like Bilbo, Gandalf almost never uses outright force or magic in the book, preferring to use trickery and wit to achieve his ends. While this might be disappointing to ardent lovers of fantasy, it’s in keeping with Tolkien’s love of language and the power of revealing, and hiding, words.

Bilbo’s second act of language and identity comes when he kills the first spider in Mirkwood with his sword. Having stepped beyond being merely clever to the realm of storybook heroism, he notes that “He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. “I will give you a name,” he said to it, “and I shall call you Sting”” (142).

Here is entering into a sophisticated performance, not merely by naming his sword, but re-writing himself as the hero of the story (instead of the tag-along thief). Heroes have swords with names and do feats of derring-do. While many would mock a hobbit who names his dagger in the manner of Foehammer, the truth is that he does become a hero, killing dozens of spiders and freeing the dwarves from certain doom. Legends begin with a single name and a single story, and from this moment on, Bilbo is effectively the ‘Gandalf’ of the story. To make it stick, he even makes up an impromptu song to tease — and infuriate — the spiders, like the chorus embroidering an ancient legend.

Armed with language and legend, Bilbo soon faces his most formidable foe in the book: the dragon, Smaug. Another riddle is contained in his name, not only “smog” but “smug.” Bilbo uses his inborn arrogance to keep him talking (more riddles) and taunts him into revealing his gem-encrusted chest, which reveals a tiny gap between the armor — just large enough for a well-placed arrow. It is fitting that Smaug is the most powerful (and oldest) villain in the book, since he most embodies what ails Middle Earth: avarice.

The mania for hoarding and counting wealth has infected everyone from kings to hobbits, and is nowhere better seen than in the dragon’s mad jealousy over losing a single goblet (stolen by Bilbo): “Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since first he came into the Mountain! His rage passes description — the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted” (196).

This is a key theme of Anglo-Saxon poetry as well, which we see notably in Beowulf, when describing the treasure hoard left by the great warrior’s death: “They left the earl’s wealth in the earth’s keeping,/the gold in the dirt. It dwells there yet,/of no more use to men than in ages before” (translated by Michael Alexander). Smaug is a fitting metaphor for the greed of kings, who aspire to little more than to spread their wings over a nest of treasure, though the ‘eggs’ will never hatch. Gold in the dirt is “of no more use to men than in ages before,” and will continue to be worthless, a mute monument to the monarch’s greed. A dragon can have no use for treasure, and a king (which comes from the Anglo-Saxon “cynning,” meaning the keeper of the “cynn,” or the “kinfolk”) should more properly protect his people by sharing his gold.

Seen in this light, Thorin is little better than Smaug, as he will simply replace one dragon with another, entombing himself in a mountain of gold. To save him, Bilbo casts his most cunning spell yet, and the one most in keeping with his dual nature as wizard and burglar: he steals the Arkenstone which Thorin covets above all else. As Bilbo reflects, “Now I am a burglar indeed!…But I suppose I must tell the dwarves about it — some time. They did say I could pick and choose my own share; and I think I would chose this, if they took all the rest!” (213).

This sounds suspiciously like the “what do I have in my pocket?” riddle that defeated Gollum, as it skirts the rules and flirts with dishonesty. However, like Gandalf, Bilbo keeps secrets for the good of the dwarves, realizing that they aren’t the masters of their own story and can’t be trusted to pay attention. He thus brokers the negotiation between the dwarves and the men/elves by offering them the Arkenstone and betraying/saving the dwarves. It is an ethical gray area, but exactly what a wizard-thief would do, and particularly one who’s decided that he — and not Thorin — is the master of his tale.

By the end of the story, with the enemy defeated and order restored, one would expect Bilbo to take up residence with the dwarves, or to return to live out his years with the elves in Rivendell. Instead, he willingly decides to return home, renouncing his career as a thief and eager to return to the humble life of a burgher. As the narrator remarks, “The Tookish part was getting very tired, and the Baggins was daily getting stronger” (264).

Most stories of fantasy and adventure end with a return home, because adventure only has meaning relative to the static pleasures of the hearth. Also, adventures can only be told at home, in peace, marveling at the time that once was, but now (gladly) has come to pass. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: that home can only be appreciated from the perspective of exile and adventure?

Tolkien weaves a final riddle into the story by having Bilbo return home smack-middle in a second ‘battle of the five armies’ — but this time, it’s the carving up of Bag-End by his relatives and neighbors. This echoes the return of many heroes to their homes only to find their possessions spoken for and themselves forgotten. Consider The Odyssey, when Odysseus finds his wife besieged by countless suitors who have taken up residence in his home. Though Bilbo regains control of his household (with much less bloodshed that Odysseus managed), it’s not surprising that some refuse to recognize him: “It was quite a long time before Mr. Baggins was in fact admitted to be alive again” (270).

On the one hand, his relatives merely want to keep their ill-gotten gains by having him dead; but more importantly, Bilbo has become a thief, a wizard, a hero. He now has to learn to impersonate the man he was, to wear “Mr. Baggins” like a mask, much like Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne in polite society. Whereas in the past his Took-like nature remained submerged, now he has to dredge up the ‘Baggins,’ and remember how to say “good morning!” with the proper condescension.

If The Hobbit is a book about naming and language, it’s also about the power of telling a story. As we get older, we foolishly assume that only certain people (writers) can tell stories, and that only a tiny subclass (artists) can harness the imagination. The truth is that anyone, great or small, has the power to shape their own narrative and to change their story. Gandalf says as much to Bilbo at the end of the novel: “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in brining them about yourself?” (273). Prophecies are just someone else’s story, and you can insert yourself into this story — and change this story — by a simple act of language.

Tolkien audaciously did the same when he inserted his own creation — hobbits, which are a unique amalgam of traditional elves, brownies, and dwarves — into the traditional lore of ancient Europe. Not surprisingly, some early critics rejected this attempt to re-write history, and German language publishers flatly refused to publish The Hobbit because they couldn’t find a single mention of “hobbits” in any dictionary or encyclopedia! And yet, hobbits have now entered the dictionaries and encyclopedias, as firmly established as the oldest myths of civilization. Perhaps hobbits did exist in the shadow of these ancient tales, forgotten until Tolkien had the wisdom (and trickery) to dream them up?

Written by

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store