75 reasons: Michael Drout


The Heroic World and the Bourgeois World Each Have Something to Offer

An important structural dynamic in The Hobbit is the interaction of the bourgeois world with the heroic.[1] Bilbo, with his pocket handkerchiefs, morning letters and appointment tablet,[2] at times misunderstands the conventions of the heroic world, whose denizens likewise misunderstand him. This dynamic—which appears in books like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and, to a certain extent, in the proximate influence for The Hobbit, E. A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvelous Lands of Snergs—was not invented by Tolkien, but perhaps because it is built on an existing tradition, The Hobbit avoids a significant artistic flaw that often arises from this type of comparison: the assumption of moral superiority for either domain. Instead of depicting the bourgeois world as hopelessly debased or the heroic world as ridiculously primitive, Tolkien shows each world having something to offer the other.

Even though both books take place in Middle-earth, the setting of The Hobbit is somewhat different from that of The Lord of the Rings. The heroic world is everywhere visible, including as it does the dwarves, elves, dragon, trolls, goblins and wargs as well as magical swords, food-serving animals, talking eagles and letters that only are readable in the light of a particular moon. But this world is set in a matrix of the bourgeois world, wherein many of the heroic characters accept—albeit reluctantly at times—commerce, contract and middle-class convention: Gandalf assumes that Bilbo will dust the mantelpiece under the clock on; the narrator mentions that the goblins know their tunnels as well as you know the way to the post office. This bourgeois frame creates an always implicit (and at times explicit) commentary on the heroic world inside it. The bourgeois world is practical, focused around material resources and contractual arrangements.

In the heroic world, a will makes a way. Characters can set off to bring their curses home to Smaug with only a vague idea of where they need to go, what the obstacles in between might be, and what they are going to do when they get there. Thirteen dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard set off on a journey with not enough food to take them to the end of it and with only one member of the party—Gandalf, who occasionally wanders off—having any idea of where they are stopping to get more.[3] And, after many adventures, they make the same mistake when they leave Beorn, carrying with them (presumably) barely enough food to get them all the way through Mirkwood, having no knowledge of the end of the path, and no margin for contingencies. Even worse is their ‘plan’ for opening the door to the mountain and dealing with the dragon (I use scare quotes because I’m not sure it deserves to be called a plan): sitting on the doorstep and thinking of something, and then having no way to remove the treasure, fight the dragon, guard the treasure or transport it elsewhere. And once again they don’t have enough food. But this is the heroic world, where the mundane details of sheltering and feeding more than a dozen people, not to mention sanitation and grooming, are just not part of the story. It would be bourgeois to quibble.

And it is bourgeois quibbling (or, paying attention to the actions required to meet material needs) that creates a fair bit of the humor in The Hobbit. Bilbo and the audience know about the heroic world and have a general idea how it works, but the main character and the reader are firmly of the bourgeois world, and so we want things “plain and clear” and wonder about “risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration and so forth.”[4] That Thorin Oakenshield, a prince of the dwarves, has to draw up a contract using formal business language and containing contingency clauses and stipulations of treasure distribution[5] is funny, but it also shows some of the strengths and the weaknesses of both cultural domains: the heroic world knows that of course funerals (if the companion is not eaten) will be taken care of, expenses not an issue and treasure distributed generously; the bourgeois world knows the benefit of having such things spelled out in precise language. Although Bilbo, having grown up hearing marvelous tales about dragons and goblins and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons, has an idea of how the heroic world works, but his values and his underlying assumptions are quite different from those of Thorin and company, who similarly understand the bourgeois world enough to operate within its framework even though they do not really belong to it.

The most ethically complex incident in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s giving the Arkenstone to Bard and the Elvenking, occurs not only because Bilbo’s and Thorin’s values are fundamentally different, but because Bilbo can understand the workings of both domains while, at this point, Thorin cannot. Having found the Arkenstone while first exploring Smaug’s treasure-mound, Bilbo has concealed his possession of the gem from the dwarves. Thorin considers the stone the heirloom of his house, values it “above a river of gold,” and, despite the immense hardships he and the company have been through together (and the kinship of many of the dwarves with him) vows revenge on any of his comrades who withhold it from him.[6] Presumably Bilbo could have placed the Arkenstone in a dark corner somewhere and allowed Thorin to find it, but instead he sneaks over the wall and delivers the great jewel to Thorin’s enemies, telling them that “it will aid you in your bargaining.”

Readers tend naturally to side with Thorin and Company and be horrified by Bilbo’s betrayal, which seems to violate values of loyalty that, while they might find their most extreme expression in the heroic world, are common to both domains (and to almost all times and places). Although Bilbo is trying to save the lives of his friends as well as those of elves, men and Dain’s dwarves, many readers will have—through the power of point of view—adopted the perspective of the heroic world, in which Thorin’s willingness to “sit on a heap of gold and starve” is admirable rather than short-sighted or foolhardy.

Perceiving one of the fatal flaws of the heroic world, Bilbo tries to remedy it with the methods of the bourgeois. The heroic world is not a place of compromise. Forgiving and forgetting are not the strong suit of the heroes of Icelandic sagas or Germanic legend. The great tragedy of the heroic world, the negative side of “Northern Courage” and all that goes with it, is the never-ending cycle of violence, represented by the eternal feud Hjaðningavíg, in which the slain warriors are revived each night only to fight the next day.[7] Some of the sagas recognize this flaw and lament it as tragedy, but its amendment is not found within the culture of the heroic world: the only hope comes from outside. In Njál’s Saga the coming of Christianity and its doctrine of forgiveness offers a way out of the heroic trap, and doubtless Tolkien understood the conversion of the North as an escape from the despair of paganism, but religion is not an option in The Hobbit (and in any event would have arrived too late to save Thorin and the dwarves, just as it is too late to save Njál and Bergþóra in the saga).[8] Instead, in Bilbo’s actions with the Arkenstone, Tolkien illustrates how the values of the bourgeois world might save the heroic world from its own worst tendencies. For while the bourgeois world may not possess the bravery, stamina, unbending will and single-minded determination of the heroic world, but it has other virtues: compromise, fairness, and the idea that there is a mutually beneficial solution to most disputes.

Rejecting the all-or-nothing ethic of the heroic world, Bilbo uses the Arkenstone to attempt to arrange a solution that is, in economic terms, Pareto Efficient: everyone is at least as well off as they were before the trade, and some (or all) are better off. [9] The Arkenstone seems to be worth about one fourteenth of the treasure. Thorin wants the stone and to keep all the treasure. Bard wants one twelfth of the hoard in repayment for dragon-slaying and other considerations.[10] Bilbo wants to go home. By giving the Arkenstone to Bard, Bilbo hands the Heir of Girion a bargaining chip that, it turns out, can be cashed in for one fourteenth of the treasure[11]—Bard may not get his twelfth, but he gets a lot more than he had, and he is guaranteed to get it rather than having to risk getting killed in trying to get a larger share. Thorin, who values the Arkenstone “over a river of gold” gets the jewel and loses only one fourteenth of the treasure, which he was going to lose anyway by paying Bilbo.[12] He is therefore at least as well off as he was before Bilbo took the stone, and in fact quite a bit better, because he no longer has to face the high odds of being killed either by starvation or violence. Similarly, the other dwarves are better off, because they have not lost any treasure and they also no loner face starvation or war. And Bilbo, who values going home more than he values treasure, gets a chance at going home by sacrificing something he did not want anyway (and he still has his mail coat and, presumably, the gratitude of Bard, the Elvenking and the Lake-men. The miracle of money—well understood by the bourgeois world though an absolute mystery to the heroic—allows the same treasure to please multiple stakeholders.[13] The bourgeois world understands that compromises can be made, contracts re-negotiated and insults forgiven—so long as money is spread around and everyone has a chance to benefit.

Michael Drout (c) Michael Drout

Michael Drout (c) Michael Drout

That this bargain fails is an indictment of the heroic world (and of the character of Thorin Oakenshield), not of Bilbo or his efforts. The tragedy in The Hobbit, which leads relatively directly to the death of Thorin, Fili, Kili, and many elves and men, is that the representatives of the heroic world realize too late that they could benefit from the wisdom of the bourgeois world, which, in Bilbo, its representative, has already learned of the value of heroic virtues. Only after Thorin’s death and final words does it become clear that it is possible for the heroic world to temper its intensity. Thorin does not necessarily accept bourgeois virtues. His dying words, “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” are somewhat ambiguous and do not necessarily show that he has accepted Bilbo’s values.[14] But he has, at least, accepted that such values exist, that a child of the kindly West can have wisdom and courage and so be worth listening to and learning from. At the end of the book, Bilbo and Balin exchange invitations, one in the idiom of the heroic world, one in the idiom of the bourgeois world, and each understands the other.[15] In this sophisticated final synthesis, the heroic has learned from the bourgeois, the bourgeois from the heroic and both are improved by their engagement.


Works Cited

Benson, Larry, ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

 Njál’s Saga, Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, ed. and trans. New York: Penguin, 1960.

Osborne, M. J. and A. Rubenstein. A Course in Game Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. London: Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Skaldskaparmál: Vol. I, Introduction and Notes. Anthony Faulkes, ed. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998, 72-73.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Allison R. Ensor, ed.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.

Wyke-Smith, E. A. The Marvelous Land of Snergs, Douglas A. Anderson, ed. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, 1996.

[1] First noted by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth, 55-59.

[2]  H, I, 13-15, 40

[3] A rule of thumb is that you need one and half pounds of food per person per day when camping. Assuming that dwarves and hobbits need only about a pound (though one would imagine that hobbits would eat considerably more) the company would need at least about 300 pounds of food—not counting equipment and bringing nothing to feed the ponies—to get from Bree to Rivendell. They could just barely be carrying that much on their ponies, but they have no margin for error. If they had become separated from Gandalf, they ran a serious risk of starving while looking for the entrance to Rivendell.

[4] H, I, 31.

[5] H, II, 38.

[6] H, XVI, 279.

[7] Described in chapter 50 of Snorri Sturluson’s Skaldskaparmál.

[8] In chapters 121-123 of Njál’s Saga, we see that even though almost no one wants events to unfold the way they do—leading to the burning of Njál and his wife—they all seem helpless to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred that has been set in motion. It is only much later in the Saga, when Christianity has taken root in Iceland and Flosi has made a pilgrimage to Rome, that he and Kári are reconciled and the cycle of revenge finally broken.

[9] A key concept in game theory and economics Pareto Efficiency is named after the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. For discussion see Osborne and Rubenstein, A Course in Game Theory, 7.

[10] What the Elvenking desires (besides jewels) is not entirely clear, but at the least he wants to help Bard and the Lake-men.

[11] Why Thorin is permitted to change the terms of Bilbo’s contract by “setting aside the gems” is never explained (H, XVII, 288). It may be that Tolkien is dramatizing the rejection of the binding and permanent nature of a written contract in the heroic world (in contrast to the presumed permanence of a spoken agreement that Dáin later follows). Or Tolkien may just be showing how unreasonable Thorin is (and how reasonable Bilbo and Bard are not to object to the changed terms).

[12] H, XVI, 284.

[13] In Chaucer’s “The Shipman’s Tale” we see a similar money-created miracle, where the circulation of the same 100 francs satisfies three different people.

[14] H, XVIII, 300-301.

[15] Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, 66-67.

[learn_more caption=”Author biography: Michael Drout”] Michael Drout is Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study of the Medieval at Wheaton College, Norton, Mass., where he teaches Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, medieval literature, fantasy, science fiction and writing. He is also a Millicent C. McIntosh Fellow. His scholarship is focused on tenth-century English literature and culture, meme-based theories of culture, and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.[/learn_more]


A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert

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  • Great analysis! I think the pervasiveness of the heroic trap theme throughout Tolkien’s works is quite remarkable.