Masculinity in The Hobbit

Hi everyone!  I recently wrote a paper on non-traditional forms of masculinity in The Hobbit.  I’ve cut it down, although it is still longer than the average post (sorry!).  I do wish to issue a SPOILER ALERT: This essay discusses the end of the book, which means if you are just watching the movies, this year’s The Desolation of Smaug and next year’s There and Back Again may be slightly spoiled…

1937 Dust Jacket for The Hobbit
1937 Dust Jacket for The Hobbit

Bilbo’s Domesticity—Alternative Masculinity in The Hobbit

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is described as a lover of flowers and comfort, as well as a hospitable host.  As he travels on his adventure through caverns and forests, to the Lonely mountain and back again, he continually expresses his love for his hobbit-hole home. As he starts out on his journey, Bilbo’s concerns are not for the dragon awaiting them, but for his forgotten handkerchiefs and rain getting into the food stores (Tolkien 30-31).  When the dragon has been defeated, Bilbo’s thoughts still focus on his home, and he claims, “I wish now only to be in my own armchair!” (296).  Theories of “home and away” (Clausen), masculinity, gender, and power have all been brought to bear on the text, as well as feminist criticisms and denunciations of Tolkien as entirely sexist.  However, the fact that Bilbo maintains his love for his domestic life in the Shire, rather than abandoning it in favor of adventure, reveals a complexity to assertions of simplistic gender representations in The Hobbit.  Although Bilbo moves for a time in a highly masculine sphere of bearded dwarves and men, although he develops skills as a burglar, and although he experiences many dangers—including trolls, giants, goblins, Wargs, vicious spiders, and a conniving dragon—he does not hesitate to return to his home as soon as he is able. Thus, despite the lack of women present, or his journey with the dwarves, Bilbo rejects the thrill of adventure—and thereby stereotypical masculinity—in favor of domesticity, the hospitality of the elves, and the comfort of his own armchair.

Critics have accused Tolkien of extolling masculinity in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, citing the lack of any women in the former, and the scarcity of women in the latter as evidence of his sexism. William H. Green, a frequent writer on Tolkien and his works, writes, “The tendency for the women… to be goddesses, monsters, or other stock foils for more complex male characters obviously manifests sexual bias, bias that Catherine Stimpson calls ‘subtle contempt and hostility toward women’…There is certainly a bias here, an emotional charge pushing the women to margins of stories…” (“Where’s Mama?” 190).  Although other critics—notably women—like Nancy Enright and Jane Chance argue that Tolkien’s female characters are complex, the focus is still most often on the women in, or not in, the novels.  After all, Bilbo’s mother Belladonna Took is cited as having her own adventures before getting married, and Gandalf is mentioned as sending off many “lads and lasses” on adventures—that means women, too, and more than one of them!  The Hobbit, then, is not the story of the one person to ever have left the Shire on an adventure, but one of many, who happened to be male in this instance.  Additionally, Bilbo Baggins is quite a different sort of male than is often present in an adventure story filled with derring-do and dragons.  Bilbo himself stands as a critique of the very masculinity some critics accuse The Hobbit of celebrating.

1995 Cover of The Hobbit
1995 Cover of The Hobbit

From the start of the novel, Bilbo is introduced as a domestic, hospitable, and quiet-loving hobbit.  In fact, even before meeting Bilbo, readers are introduced to his domestic space; “The door opened on a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors” (1).  The attention to furnishings, carpet, and the neatness with which Bilbo’s home is arrayed suggest that he finds pleasure in these domestic activities.  However, this pleasure does not make him feminine.  Christopher Clausen, in his article “Home and Away in Children’s Fiction” focuses solely on Bilbo’s domesticity, ignoring gender entirely: “Bilbo’s quest is successful… but it is significant that the only reward he seeks is to be allowed to return home. This wish is repeated throughout the book as a sort of refrain… There is no indication that he will ever again trade the placid virtues of home for the more speculative benefits of adventure. Even the great ring of power has come to serve the domestic purpose of helping him avoid unwelcome callers” (149-150).  The refrain that Clausen refers to, Bilbo’s repeated expressed desire to be home again, reveals the continual, unbroken line of Bilbo’s domesticity.  And yet, for Clausen, the desire to be home is not necessarily feminine, but merely a love of peaceful days rather than unsafe adventures.  Bilbo therefore rejects the stereotypical masculinity of the dwarves, and even exercises civilizing forces on the insidiously evil ring of power!

Unlike Bilbo, the dwarves—with their long beards, work as miners, and desire to do battle for their gold—represent a more stereotypical type of maleness.  When they arrive at Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, the dwarves reject Bilbo’s polite offer of tea and order red wine, tarts, pies, cheeses, salads, “And more cakes—and ale—and coffee, if you don’t mind” (Tolkien 11).  They order breakfast in much the same way, “without so much as a please” (27), and show general disregard for basic rules of politeness.  Thorin, who “indeed was very haughty” (10), is established as the most prideful of the dwarves.  They all have “…a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves” (15), hitherto unknown to Bilbo, and ultimately rejected by him. The dwarves, and Thorin in particular, reveal ingratitude, greed, and haughtiness toward others.  When Bard appeals to Thorin for a share of the gold, “…the lust of it was heavy on him,” and he refuses (Tolkien 265).  Bard, revealing his own desire for gold, demands one twelfth of the treasure and threatens violence for it (266).  Caught between the greed of men and dwarves, domestic Bilbo is the only one who strives to end the standoff before blood is shed.  Enright, in a critical book on The Lord of the Rings and power, writes, “In fact… power, when presented in the traditional male-oriented way, is undercut as often as it is asserted… The stereotypical and purely masculine kind of power… is shown to be weaker morally and spiritually than its non-traditional counterparts…” (93).  Bilbo represents the true power, the ability to let go of grievances and desire peace above gold—his is the ideal masculinity, not that of the dwarves.

Although Bilbo starts out expressing a masculinity of hospitality and domesticity, by the end of his adventure he has achieved an even higher understanding of war and peace, greed and generosity, and friendship.  As Bilbo watches the dwarves lose themselves to the power of greed, he makes a choice that reflects his own growth: “Alone in the deepest sense, alienated from the greed-crazed dwarves who are themselves alienated from elves and men, Bilbo decides that peace is more important…” (Green, “Four-Part Structure” 139).  It is not until this moment, when he puts his friendship with the dwarves at risk, and his own life along with it, that Bilbo reveals how much he has changed.  Jane Chance, in her look at power in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, writes, “Intellectual heroism in Tolkien’s world is achieved through social involvement, service to others, and the disappearance of self-indulgence” (23).  Bilbo learns to express those very characteristics, potentially losing his share in the fortune to save his friends from starvation and war.  Chance continues to talk about leadership in Tolkien’s works, asserting, “…the leader’s true power emerges from wise and healing service to the community. The maintenance of society is best advanced by the caretaker and the gardener, those who nurture others and continue the work of the family or nation” (24).  Bilbo, the quiet hobbit tagalong, becomes that caretaker, a hidden leader in a company of strong-willed dwarves.  He returns home much the same, but with a deeper sense of self and, of course, a love of “writing poetry and visiting the elves” (Tolkien 304).

Thorin, the leader of the dwarves and the clearest expresser of warrior-type masculinity, fails as a true leader by becoming obsessed with gold and revenge, instead of with the peace and joy of his people.  He chooses war with his neighbors over peace, rather than giving up a small portion of his vast wealth, and that decision is his downfall.  Bilbo, on the other hand, having tried to save his friends from war, ends up lying unconscious throughout the entire battle.  Instead of being considered a coward, though, Bilbo is praised by the dying Thorin: “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West.  Some courage, and some wisdom, blended in measure” (290).  Bilbo’s masculinity proves to be the strongest, winning even prideful, greedy Thorin over in the end.  Thus, The Hobbit provides a critique of certain types of masculinity through comparison.  The kind, wise, peace-loving masculinity of Bilbo is by far the strongest, despite not boasting the physical prowess of the dwarves.

*Note: Among the many things I cut was a paragraph on Elrond and Beorn, who both also show hospitality and work for peace, revealing other successful leaders with alternative forms of masculinity.

Works Cited

Clausen, Christopher. “Home and Away in Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature. 10.1 (2009): 141-152. Web. 9 July 2013.

Chance, Jane. The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. Lexington, Ky: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2001. Web. 3 August 2013.

Enright, Nancy. “Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power.” Renascence. 59.2 (2007): 93-108. Web. 9 July 2013.

Green, William H. W. H. “The Four-Part Structure of Bilbo’s Education.” Children’s Literature. 8.1 (2009): 133-140. Web. 9 July 2013.

—. “”Where’s Mama?”: The Construction of the Feminine in ‘The Hobbit’.” The Lion and the Unicorn : a Critical Journal of Children’s Literature. 22.2 (1998): 188-195. Web. 9 July 2013.

Tolkien, J R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. Print.