One of the pleasures of the study of literature in the new millennium is the multiplicity of critical literary theory. Exclusive and limiting theoretical perspectives no longer bind the critic; literary theory is now more eclectic and holistic. By employing ecocritical and feminist paradigms, a student of literature is able to revisit older works with an eye to alternative forms and approaches to writing. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is one such work; it lends itself to an examination within an ecocritical and feminist framework. Due to the holistic nature of these two theoretical disciplines, it would be impossible to discuss all the manners in which ecocritical and feminist theory apply to the text of The Hobbit in a paper of this size. Instead, the focus will be on specific aspects of ecocritical and feminist theory, and the intersection of the two, ecofeminist theory.
The first issue a theoretician must settle before attempting an ecocritical reading of any text is a determination of the definition of the term nature applied in the critique. Kate Soper suggests that the definition most often recognized is one that sees nature as that which is not human, and is isolated from all human intervention (15). She considers this definition problematical, and argues that defining nature as only that which is truly untouched or unaffected by human actions or existence, would limit it to little or nothing within these parameters (18). Rather than taking a polemical stance in regard to the definition of nature, this paper will attempt to apply two definitions of nature to The Hobbit: one that sees all things other than human (or human-like creatures) and humanly created as nature, and the other that sees feelings, actions and tendencies as “human nature”. One must also apply a theoretical framework to the feminist literary theories used in examining The Hobbit. The theories used will attempt to establish gendered meaning in such elements of the text as landscape, which falls under the rubric of ecofeminism; social relationships between characters; and the absence of female characters. There is much overlap between ecocritical and feminist theory, both attempt to examine and establish a study of relationships; feminist theory focuses on the relationship of gendered hierarchies and ecocritical looks at those between human and nature.
One is able to study nature, or the natural world, as it pertains to literature, in a number of ways. In The Ecocriticism Reader Cheryll Glotfelty defines ecocritical literary theory as examining the following issues: how nature is represented; what part the physical setting plays in the plot of the text; and whether there is consistency between the ecological ideals expressed with current environmental values and beliefs. She also asks how the landscape or natural metaphors affect our understanding and treatment of the land; whether there is a specific genre of nature writing; if place or landscape should be studied as a category in line with race, class, and gender, moreover, is there a difference in nature writing based on the author’s gender? Other aspects include the assessment of our relationships to nature, our definition of nature and wilderness, whether attitudes have changed over time and in regard to changing ecological situation and governmental policies (xviii-xix). Ecocritical literary theory attempts to create an inclusive, multidisciplinary approach that allows for a partnership of science with the humanities.
This is not to say that all who see themselves as ecocritics agree with the broad nature of Glotfelty’s definition. Ecocritics such as Jonathan Bate, Jhan Hochman, Christopher Cokinos, and Don Scheese see a need for an ecological approach to literature, but they warn against it becoming something that is too academic (Cokinos) or politically ineffectual. In the introduction to The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, Bate states: “class, race and gender are important dimensions of both literary and cultural studies; but the survival of the biosphere must surely rank as even more important, since without it there are no issues worth addressing” (5). Although he has a valid point, Jonathan Bate seems to value nature and the natural world over humanity and culture.
Scheese and Hochman are more generous toward humankind with their definition of ecocriticism, although they agree with Bate that ecocritical theory must have a practical political application. Don Scheese would have ecocritical literary theory create a new ecologically friendly consciousness by being political in nature, inclusive, experiential, and open to divergent opinions (Scheese). Jhan Hochman sees the aim of ecocriticism as “the examination of nature through words, image and model for the purposes of foregrounding potential effects representation might have on cultural attitudes and social practices which in turn, affect nature itself” (187). Like Bate, Hochman sees a binary opposition between nature and human, but there seems to be more allowance for human survival in Hochman’s eco-critical paradigm.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s stance on nature vs. humanity seems to fit within Hochman’s framework. It is a well-documented fact that J.R.R. Tolkien held a special fondness for nature and the non-mechanized past. Joseph Pearce cites one of Tolkien’s letters published by Humphrey Carpenter:
I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated)…I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); … I go to bed late and get up later (when possible). I do not travel much. (153)
Tolkien’s love of nature and a simple life is evident in the letter, and becomes more so as one reads The Hobbit. Greg Harvey posits a correlation between Tolkien’s love for his home in the Midlands of Great Britain and the hobbits’ love for their home in the Shire (Harvey). Given Tolkien’s own admission of being more like a hobbit than a man, and his love of nature (or nature as he perceived it), it seems fitting that landscape and the natural world play such an important role in his writing.The disdain of mechanization and mechanized weapons is evident in The Hobbit in Chapter IV, “Over Hill and Under Hill,” which describes the capture of Bilbo and the Dwarves by the goblins:
Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely 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, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. (60)
It does not take much imagination for one to replace the image of monstrous, destructive goblins with that of humankind in our quest for technology, military might and capital. Tolkien’s judgement of the goblins and their ways, and by extension humankind and technology, is evident.Although Tolkien does assert that the goblins are “cruel, wicked and bad-hearted,” he relies more on his description of their interaction with nature to engender a feeling in his reader. Compare his description of the goblin’s tunnels: “deep, deep dark…crossed and tangled in all directions…[and] most horribly stuffy” (57) to the description of Bilbo’s hobbit-hole: “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, not yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort” (5). It becomes immediately obvious that the hobbit is the hero or “good” character, based only on his relation to his home in pleasant natural surroundings.
Other homes and the character of their inhabitants make use of this link between wholesome natural settings and those that suggest otherwise. On the side of the good or positive characters, we see the elves and the Last Homely House. After anxiously travelling through a forest that felt as if it were without end, Bilbo and the Dwarves begin their descent into the valley that holds the Last Homely House:
Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dusk down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell. The air grew warmer as they got lower, and the smell of the pine-trees made him drowsy…Their spirits rose as they went down and down. The trees changed to beech and oak, and there was a comfortable feeling in the twilight. (46)
There is no question in the readers mind as to the alignment of the elves of Rivendell. Similarly, on the trip to Beorn’s, another of the group’s helpers/friends, they encounter a pleasant stream in which to bathe, warm sunshine, and flower-filled fields (108-10). These images of welcoming places and cheerful, helpful characters stand in direct contrast to the group’s approach to the Lonely Mountain. Facing uncertainty and a battle with an entrenched dragon, Bilbo and the Dwarves journey, and the landscape they travel through, matches their mood:
It was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one. There was no laughter or song or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes which had been stirred in their hearts at the singing of old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom. They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end. The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once…it had been green and fair. There was little grass, and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished. They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon and they were come at the waning of the year. (188-9)
With not much more than a description of the environment and landscape, Tolkien is able to describe to the readers how his characters felt. Neil Evernden maintains that the “establishment of self is impossible without the context of place” (101). Tolkien describes place and landscape with more care than the character’s emotions in many scenes, yet the reader never wonders how the characters feel. Patrick Curry agrees when he writes:
It wouldn’t be stretching a point to say that Middle-earth itself appears as a character in its own right. And the personality and agency of this character are none the less for being non-human; in fact, that is just what allows for a sense of ancient myth, with its feeling of a time when Earth itself was alive. It whispers: perhaps, therefore, it could be again; perhaps, indeed it still is. (282)
Tolkien makes use of landscape as a way to establish atmosphere, context and character alignment. Most often studied in the novel under the heading of ecocritical theory, landscape is an area of overlap between ecocritical and feminist theory. Ecofeminists see a connection between the oppression of women and the domination of nature. There are links between the feminine and many natural elements, and landscapes; the earth itself is feminine – Mother Earth. In “Unearthing Herstory” Annette Kolodny argues that we consider the earth as something more than Mother; it is a woman, and as such, it (she) stands for gratification (171). Further, she ponders why humankind feels the need for this link to the earth, and posits that we feel a desire for the earth to nurture, comfort and gratify us because the unknown is “threatening, alien and potentially emasculating…” (176). The landscape as female or feminine echoes the way Susan Bordo sees the female body: “a text of culture…and a practical direct locus of social control” (italics original, 2362). Humankind attempts to control nature; because we cannot control nature we label it wild, terrifying, and feminine. We are afraid of it so we “other” it.
Tolkien includes many elements of the natural world and landscape that an ecofeminist critic might read as uncontrollable and feminine or “other.” In The Hobbit: A Journey into Maturity William Green points to a series of five cycles in the text of The Hobbit. Each cycle consists of a beginning in a home or place of refuge, a trip over water and into peril, rescue or escape from peril and another trip over water to a place of safety or refuge. Many of the places of refuge are comforting and womblike. Bag-End is a comfortable hole in the side of a hill. Situated snugly in a “comfortable”(46) hidden valley is the Last Homely House. Beorn’s hall is warm and welcoming, and protected by “a belt of tall and very ancient oaks, and…a high thorn-hedge” (110). Esgaroth, or the Lake-Town, built on stilts above the water of the lake, sits in a protected bay (179). The penultimate haven is deep in the heart of the Lonely Mountain, made safe once again with the death of the dragon Smaug (239). The story comes full circle with Bilbo returning to his warm and womblike hobbit-hole. With each emergence from a safe haven, Bilbo goes through a kind of rebirth; he comes away with either a stronger sense of himself or a material reward.
Another element in each part of the story cycle is the confining nature of the peril that Bilbo and the Dwarves face. Each one of these perils or traps is readable through a feminist lens as birth or rebirth rather than just escape. William Howarth suggests ecocritical and feminist theory collaboration in the image of the bag or enclosed space:
Ecocriticism finds its strongest advocates today in feminist and gender critics who focus on the idea of place as defining social status. Of a particular interest is ‘a woman’s place’ often described as an attic or closet, that contains yet sustains individuals until they locate a congenial environs (Gilbert and Gubar). Some feminists equate anatomy with geography, envisioning the female body/text as a ‘no man’s land’ aligned against a hostile masculine world, the patriarchal settlement (Gilbert and Gubar, Kolodny). (165)
The examples of the bags or enclosed spaces in the story cycles fit neatly within this idea if read with feminist theory in mind.
The first bagging occurs in Chapter II, “Roast Mutton.” Bilbo and the Dwarves, wet, cold, and tired, stumble upon three trolls. The trolls capture and place the Dwarves in sacks in preparation of eating them, but Gandalf’s trickery and timely return saves them. Bilbo and Gandalf untie the sacks and free the Dwarves. The sacks are small and dark, and could have been the death of the Dwarves; there is a sense of rebirth inherent in the Dwarves emergence from their captivity.
In Chapter V, “Riddles in the Dark,” Bilbo escapes from the goblin’s underground home. Just barely slipping through a crack in the door “he squeezed and squeezed, and he stuck! … He gave a terrific squirm… He was through…” (85). If one thinks of the earth as Mother Earth, Bilbo’s tight squeeze through the door and out of the goblins’ cave can be compared to a trip down the birth canal.
Chapter VIII, “Spiders and Flies” recounts Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the giant spiders in Mirkwood forest. Lured off the path by the wood-elves’ fire, spiders capture the Dwarves and bundle them in spider silk. This time Bilbo, rather than Gandalf, releases the Dwarves from their wrapping. Apart from the obvious link between spiders and the female, spiders symbolize female energy; the escape of the Dwarves from the spiders’ cocoons echoes the escape from the trolls’ bags and another birth or rebirth.
Bilbo is both the reason for the Dwarves internment and their method of emergence from the barrels in Chapter IX, “Barrels out of Bond.” After Bilbo releases the Dwarves from the spiders’ webs, the King of the wood-elves captures and imprisons the group. Bilbo uses the barrels as a means of escape for himself and his travelling companions. He encloses each Dwarf in a barrel and waits for the elves to drop them into the river to float to freedom. After jostling around on the river in barrels that were dark, damp, and confining, the Dwarves emerge on the banks near Esgaroth. As with the other emergences from confined spaces there is an aspect of the Dwarves being born.
Ursula K. Le Guin reads the symbolism of the bag in a slightly different, but still feminist approach. She sees the bag or container as woman’s contribution to the survival of humankind. For her the container is the real hero; it is the place that we store nourishment and all the things worth keeping (154). Her theory does fit within the text of The Hobbit, but she seems to favour the characters that would consume Bilbo and the Dwarves. A feminist theorist might suggest that Le Guin relates to the feminine elements, spiders, underground tunnels, etc. Jane Chance suggests, “Tolkien is supremely conscious of those individuals or groups or races who are marginal, who exist on the peripheries of society, often in exile, or as outcasts” (Chance). Perhaps Chance is referring to those characters that Le Guin seems to relate to; the marginalized feminine characters who deserve a voice.
There are no further overt bag-like symbols in the story cycles, but there are other allusions to womb-like places and feminine landscapes. In Chapter XI, “On the Doorstep,” once Bilbo and the Dwarves finally make it to the Lonely Mountain they need to find a way to enter the mountain and retrieve the treasure from Smaug the dragon. The group is unable to approach the front gate of the mountain a “dark cavernous opening in a great cliff-wall between the arms of the Mountain” (190), so they approach it from the rear. At the head of a valley, they find the secret door. Imagine the mountain as the body of a woman as they describe their find:
Silently, clinging to the rocky wall on their right, they went single file along the ledge, till the wall opened and they turned into a little steep-walled bay, grassy-floored, still and quiet. Its entrance which they had found could not be seen from below because of the overhang of the cliff, nor from further off because it was so small that it looked like a dark crack and no more. It was not a cave and was open to the sky above; but at its inner end a flat wall rose up that in the lower part, close to the ground, was as smooth and upright as masons’ work, but without a joint or crevice to be seen. No sign was there of post or lintel or threshold, nor any sign of bar or bolt or key –hole; yet they did not doubt that they had found the door at last. (191)
The key they have, a bequest from Thorin’s father, but they must wait until the moon is right – the right time of the month – to enter the mountain’s enchanted passage. The phallic symbolism of the key and the magical door is unmistakable. It seems unlikely that Tolkien would have written this passage to be purposely erotic. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and The Hobbit is a book suitable for children, but there is unquestionably a feminine aspect to the description of the mountain and the treasure she holds. Joseph Pearce would be appalled at the idea of such sexuality ascribed to Tolkien’s work, as he sees any such feminist reading as entirely lacking in the spiritual and religious dimension he considers the cornerstone of Tolkien’s works (142). Authorial intentions aside, a feminist reading can expose multiple instances of gendered language and meaning in the images and landscape of The Hobbit. Michael J. McDowell suggests that the writer creates a Bakhtinian dialogic between the landscape and the reader; this allows the reader to “recover the representation of place” (378) and use the landscape as a means to understand the characters and the narrative. What’s more, he suggests that this dialogic relationship between landscape and reader allows us to give voice to traditionally marginalized characters and elements (374).
If one applies this logic, one can recognize Ursula K. LeGuin’s theory of the bag as hero as plausible. Although the bags or wrappings are negative areas for the main characters, they do supply a way for the elements and creatures portrayed as feminine to speak. Andrea Blair suggests in “Landscape in Drag: The Paradox of Feminine Space in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, that:
landscape that is gendered feminine but is constructed as active rather than passive, as dialogical rather than monological, as subversive rather than hegemonic, and as the site of feminine rather than masculine fantasies, might disrupt restrictive gender codings for women and environments alike. (117)
Many have accused Tolkien of being misogynistic, but this subtle use of the feminine dialogic in these story cycles seems to suggest otherwise. Tolkien did not require female characters in his work; feminine landscape and elements fill the female roles. There is a Bahktinian dialogic at play in the scenes of confinement and entrapment by feminine gendered elements and creatures.
While most often applied to the novel in terms of language, Bahktin’s concept of heteroglossia applies in an ecocritical manner in terms of the coded language present in the metaphors and meanings of landscape present in The Hobbit. For Bakhtin, the novel consists of multiple voices (heteroglossia) all working together in an exchange of terms and meanings (dialogic) (1191-2). An ecocritical approach to The Hobbit would consider the many uses of landscape and natural elements as engaging in a dialogical relationship with the reader. This is both a strength and weakness in an ecocritical reading of Tolkien’s text. Tolkien’s use of common elements such as darkness and damp, wormy holes to establish mood are effective only if the audience is familiar with the climate described.
Furthermore, when one studies the author’s use of the weather and seasons as a way to establish tone and the passage of time this point becomes more clear. Bilbo’s quest takes just over a year, yet within the text there is only one instance of specific amounts of time, measured in days of the week, mentioned; after escaping the goblins, Gandalf reveals that it was Thursday, and that they had been in the tunnels since Monday night or Tuesday morning (91). All other references to time mention the Month or the season: Bilbo and the Dwarves left on their adventure “one fine morning just before May” (30) and Bilbo returned to Bag-End on June twenty-second (277). These references are unproblematic, as most, if not all, readers would be familiar with the days of the week and the months of the year. It is with the invocation of specific moods or atmospheres by the seasons or months that there may be issues. Tolkien’s use of signifiers such as “as good as May can be…” (31) and “autumn-like mist” (127) rely on the reader’s familiarity with and understanding of Tolkien’s experience of the weather and seasons. A reader in Australia or Africa would have a very different perception of these phrases than one in Europe or North America.
Similarly, many of the descriptions of landscape employed to establish the mood of the characters rely on a specific understanding of metaphor and meaning. Although Tolkien is very descriptive when he writes the scenes that have Bilbo and the Dwarves enter Mirkwood forest; “the entrance to the path was like a sort of arch looking into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves” (133), he still relies on his readers to be able to recognize the trees he is describing. Michael Skeparnides believes that “Tolkien’s Middle Earth [sic] is a powerful and intimate experience, yet no matter how wondrous and far fetched it may be, it is the product of the human mind, and inevitably, of the real human world” (Skeparnides). For him there would be no issue with assumed signifiers, it would not matter if Tolkien envisioned an Oak tree and the reader imagined a Birch tree. Kate Soper argues that because humankind must use language to signify meaning we must realize that in doing so we do not make nature any less real (125). So no matter what kind of tree we imagine as we read, or how affected we are by the weather or landscapes portrayed, there will always be nature as conveyed by literature and nature as it is in reality.
What would Tolkien think of such discussion about the natural elements and landscape playing such an integral part in the establishment of the meaning of his work? Although Tolkien thought fondly of his childhood in rural England (Pearce 14), and likened himself to the hobbits, his own essay “On Fairy Stories” suggests that he may not have fit into the definition of what we now consider an ecocritical writer. He writes, “nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘nature’ and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it” (141). As with the questions concerning whether Tolkien would have written subtly erotic passages or feminist centred text, his opinion on the use or study of nature does not preclude an ecocritical examination of his work.
Just as the analysis of nature in The Hobbit is possible no matter Tolkien’s stance on the study of nature so is an examination of femininity. Andrea Blair draws a correlation between the study of landscape and gender in literature, suggesting that as a strategy, it can develop a place where contradictory concepts and ideologies can work together to create something new (116). One of these new spaces is the place where a critic can examine both the feminine and masculine aspects of characters. There is an almost total absence of female characters in The Hobbit. There is only one mention of an undeniable female early in the story. We read of Bilbo’s mother Belladonna Took in Chapter I “An Unexpected Party.” Long dead, she is considered the reason that Bilbo, an otherwise respectable hobbit, would even consider going on such a foolish adventure: “the mother of this hobbit…was the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took…[and] once in a while members of the Took clan would go and have adventures” (4). There are many allusions to the “Tookish side” of Bilbo getting the best of him and resulting in his being involved in more adventure than he should. At first this seems to be rather anti-female, yet as the story progresses the reader is able to see that the story is not entirely male oriented and masculinist.
One aspect of critical feminist theory is a refusal to accept essentialized gender roles. Uma Narayan argues against this essentialized notion of the male and female roles. She maintains that essentialism creates or perpetuates sharp binary oppositions (88). When one begins to deconstruct the main characters’ behaviours and actions, it becomes apparent that there are both feminine and masculine aspects in many of them. Gandalf the wizard takes on a maternal role for Bilbo and the Dwarves giving them advice and arriving to help them just when they are in the direst need. Just as a mother would chide a boa!@#$l child, Gandalf good-naturedly reminds Bilbo of his place in the world:
‘You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.’ (280)
Without Gandalf’s urging and support, Bilbo would never have embarked on the adventure that allows him to reach his full potential as a hobbit.
The Dwarves, on the other hand, are purely masculine characters. At times they resemble nothing more than adolescent boys on an adventure; setting off without any thought as to how the journey will go and what they will do once they arrive at their destination: ” ‘So far we have had no clear idea what to do. We thought of going East…after that the trouble would begin — ‘” (21). It is not until after the battle of the Five Armies, after suffering the loss of a number of their friends, that the Dwarves begin to understand the gravity of their actions. On his deathbed, Thorin makes peace with Bilbo by proclaiming that the world would be a better place if everyone held the same values as Bilbo (266). It would seem that of all the characters, it is only Bilbo who is able to fully reconcile both his feminine and masculine aspects. He rejects the traditional masculine role in favour of a more balanced personality.
Patrick D. Murphy concludes that an ecofeminist reading of male canonical figures attempt to deconstruct the traditional masculinist conclusions (92). A feminist deconstructive reading can do this with the character of Bilbo in The Hobbit. When the reader first meets Bilbo, he is comfortably ensconced in the hobbit-hole built by his father. William Green suggests that Bilbo is a “fussy homebody” (47) contained as he is in his version of Gilbert and Gubar’s “madwoman’s attic.” As the adventure unfolds, Bilbo goes through a period of growth or maturation. At the end of each story cycle, after he has saved the Dwarves he comes away with either personal growth, in terms of bravery or further confidence, or a material reward such as the ring or his sword “Sting.”
These rewards all contribute to the more self-actualized hobbit that returns to Bad-End at the close of the novel, but there are some rewards that hold specific gendered symbolism within the text. At the end of the first story cycle, after the defeat of the trolls, Bilbo claims a “knife in a leather sheath…[that] would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but…was as good as a short sword for the hobbit” (42) from inside the trolls cache. The phallic symbolism of a sword or knife is a well-accepted literary convention, and in this, Tolkien does not disappoint. While lost in the bowels of the goblin’s tunnels Bilbo finds his little sword “quite forgotten…inside his breeches” (67). He wields the sword again while defending himself and the Dwarves from the spiders in Mirkwood forest. Bilbo goes through a period of personal growth during the battle with the spiders:
The spider lay dead beside him, and his sword-blade was stained black. Somehow in the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder…as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. (146)
Read with the spider as a female symbol, and the sword as masculine, this passage has subtle sexual overtones. Similar to the slyly erotic passage with the phallic key at the entrance to the tunnel at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, this passage if read in an erotic or sexual light depicts Bilbo losing his virginity and becoming a “man.” Even his appellation has changed, from Bilbo to Mr Baggins. Bilbo uses the sword twice to defend himself, and both times, the phallic meaning is clear. Bilbo’s growth from homebound (feminine) bystander to active (masculine) hero is obvious in the text. There are further instances of Bilbo’s growth and maturation as the novel progresses.
If we return to the story cycles discussed earlier in terms of the rebirth for the Dwarves, we can also see corresponding growth for Bilbo. Middle-aged Bilbo lives alone in the hobbit-hole built by his father. He has never left the comfort of the parental home to make a life of his own; he is content to play the role of Bungo Baggins and Belladonna Took’s son for the rest of his life. The machinations of Gandalf, by means of a sign on Bilbo’s door advertising his skill as a burglar, bring the Dwarves and their plan of adventure into his well-ordered and peaceful life. Bilbo joins the Dwarves on their adventure late and in a fluster, running out of the house without his hat, pocket-handkerchiefs, or money (30), which for a methodical hobbit is akin to naked. In a scene that is reminiscent of a birth (or rebirth), Bilbo abandons his womb-like home naked and unprepared.
The next stage of growth for Bilbo corresponds with the rebirth or rescue of the Dwarves from the trolls’ sacks. It is from the trolls’ treasure cache that Bilbo obtains his sword, “Sting,” which figures so prominently later in the story as a phallic symbol. The next rebirth or area of growth for Bilbo takes place during his encounter with Gollum deep in the bowels of the goblins’ mountain. Bilbo goes through a number of changes in this chapter. This is where he finds the magic ring. It is with this magic ring that Bilbo is able to help his friends and gain the experiences and confidence that lead to his maturation. The first step is in his contest of riddles with Gollum. Bilbo manages to trick Gollum into showing him the way out of the tunnels with a bit of trickery that he would never have thought of or been able to achieve without the ring. A far different Bilbo squeezes his way through the goblins’ gate.
This new, more confident Bilbo uses his magical ring to sneak into the Dwarves camp. Here he discovers that the Dwarves have little to no confidence in him, but he decides to stick it out and show them they are wrong in their misgivings; revealing himself with the boast “here’s the burglar!” (88). Now confident in his ability to take on the role of burglar, Bilbo steps into a leadership role with the Dwarves. Once again, Gandalf leaves the travellers and it is Bilbo who fills his role as leader.
Bilbo takes on the role of hero while in Mirkwood forest. He saves the Dwarves from the spiders, and he does not abandon them when the wood-elves capture them. Bilbo steps further into his leadership role when he devises a method of escape for the group. The Dwarves begin to respect Bilbo as each of these events unfolds: “they had changed their opinion of Mr Baggins very much, and had even begun to have a great respect for him…” (155, italics mine). No longer is he just little Bilbo; he is now Mr Baggins. By the time Bilbo and the Dwarves reach the Lonely Mountain the Dwarves have begun to rely on Bilbo’s leadership. Bilbo is the one who discovers the location of the enchanted door, and deciphers the riddle on the map that explains how to open the door.
Once inside the Lonely Mountain the Dwarves depend on Bilbo’s wits and cunning to discover the dragon’s whereabouts and mood. Bilbo engages the dragon in a match of wits, similar to his game of riddles with Gollum but more sophisticated, which would have been unheard of at the beginning of Bilbo’s journey. The reader is able to fully see just how much Bilbo has grown from the homebound hobbit (who bore a striking resemblance to Gilbert and Gubar’s “madwoman in the attic”) to a cunning and confident leader. Bilbo’s final growth demonstrated comes during the battle of the Five Armies when he takes the Arkenstone, which he had claimed for himself, to the leader of the opposing army as an offering to end the war. Bilbo is in direct contrast to Thorin and the other Dwarves in his generosity and ability to avoid the ensnarement of greed. Bilbo demonstrates this further in his travels home as he shares his portion of the treasure with those who had helped him along his journey. He returns home, a mature character with his masculine and feminine sides fully integrated. This is illustrated well by his response to Gandalf’s gentle teasing about Bilbo’s small place in the world. He responds with the heartfelt exclamation ” ‘Thank Goodness!'” (280). Although a psychoanalytical framework could be employed to critique the story cycles and Bilbo’s maturation, a feminist reading is possible as well. Feminist literary theory is flexible and will often apply various methods of analysis to come to a feminist based reading of a text.
The story cycles are well suited to a feminist reading, but there are elements incorporated into them that are ecocritical. In each cycle, there is the element of water that precedes and follows each peril. Water is often associated with the feminine, as a symbol of life flowing from the earth, so by any ecocritical examination would have to include feminist aspects, thus eco-feminism, the intersection of ecocriticism and feminist theory will be applied. In each story cycle, there is water, usually in the form of a river, to be crossed; once before they face the peril, once as they escape from it. The first river Bilbo and the Dwarves come to, is swollen and moving quickly. Shortly after that, while searching for shelter from the rain, the travellers encounter the trolls. The mood of the water reflects the turmoil caused by the trolls. The river out of peril is the one they cross on their way into Rivendell. Although it too is fast moving, it is described in much less dark terms: flowing fast because the sunshine has finally melted the last of the winter’s snow. There is a definite feeling of wholesomeness about this stream not conveyed with the first crossing.
The next water that leads to peril is Gollum’s underground lake. Icy cold and home to a disgusting creature this body of water symbolizes fear and misgivings. Bilbo imagines the “nasty slimy things” (68) that live in the water, and it confronted with one of them in the persona of Gollum, “a small slimy creature” (69). Compare the image and feeling of the underground lake to the “shallow and clear” (108) stream that the travellers bathe in just before they meet Beorn. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, the travellers are clean and warmed by the sun. The group faces, once again, a menacing body of water while in Mirkwood forest. Warned by Beorn not to bathe in or drink from the black stream, Bombur accidentally falls in and is immediately enchanted. The group must carry him for much of the rest of the journey until the rain dripping off the trees breaks the spell. A cleansing rain allows Bombur to shake off the enchantment of the black stream.
The river that allows for Bilbo and the Dwarves escape from the wood-elves functions as both a negative and positive force. As a Hobbit, Bilbo is not accustomed to immersing himself in water, and the very act of allowing himself to ride a barrel down the river attests to his courage and desire to help his friends. Luckily, they all managed to survive the trip down the river and land safely on the shores of Esgaroth where they found shelter with the inhabitants. The river that they used to escape the wood-elves also functioned as their means of travel to the Lonely Mountain. The men of Esgaroth lent them boats, supplies for the last leg of their trip, and helped them set off to confront the peril of the dragon. The stream at the Front Gate of Lonely Mountain also functions both as water out of peril. Once Smaug dies, Bilbo and the Dwarves are able to exit the mountain by the Front Gate. It functions as water into peril during the battle between the travellers and the men of Esgaroth; the stream is part of the defence of the mountain stronghold. The final waterway the Bilbo crosses in one out of peril and on his journey home. He crosses the bridge at the edge of the Wild once more; as with the first crossing the river is swollen and moving quickly, but this time it does not seem so menacing. Rather than rushing down from the mountains as it had in the original crossing, the summer sunshine and rain has swollen the river. The river still symbolizes something wild and uncontrollable, but it is more welcoming and nurturing on the return home. A feminist approach can link Bilbo’s return as a mature and integrated hobbit with the vision of the wild yet traversable river.
Apart from the gendered symbolism, and the lack of female characters there is one other aspect of The Hobbit that a feminist reading must take into consideration. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of the continuum of male homosocial desire applies to this text. Sedgwick’s work in queer theory examines the gaps or overlaps where identity is fluid and changing; the growth and change in Bilbo’s character fits well within these parameters. There is no overt sexuality between the male characters in The Hobbit. The male homosocial continuum seems to function without disruption.
This uninterrupted male homosocial relationship is a common theme in the male centred quest novel. In his discussion of the American quest genre Joseph A. Boone draws some conclusions that fit for The Hobbit even though it is a British text. Boone suggests that writers worked in this genre as a way to oppose the traditional heteronormative tale that ended in courtship and marriage. He sees the genre as concealing “a potentially radical critique of the marital norms, sexual roles and power imbalances characterizing nineteenth-century…familial and social life” (961). It seems likely that Tolkien chose to portray exclusively male characters for a reason. William Green proposes that the reason for all male characters could have been to save Tolkien the bother of having to deal with anything other than the masculine pronoun, or it could have been a convention used in order to avoid having to deal with the theme of sexuality (66). Tolkien expressed his belief, in letters to his son Michael, that men and women could not form friendships without sexual issues arising (Smol 966). Regardless of the reasoning behind the creation of all male characters, their presence bears examination in a feminist reading.
If one agrees with Boone’s hypothesis of the homosocial quest genre as subversive there are a number of conclusions one can draw from The Hobbit. In the traditional quest tale, the hero returns from his perilous journey matured and ready to take on his expected role in life: heterosexual marriage and children. Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo does return from his quest matured but he does not take on the role expected of him. In fact, he lives out the rest of his life as a contented bachelor. Upon returning from his journey, Bilbo finds that “he had lost his reputation…he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be “queer”…” (278). Although the word queer was commonly used to designate something odd or unconventional when The Hobbit was published, and is undoubtedly what Tolkien meant when he wrote the novel, it has taken on a much different meaning in modern times. The gay and lesbian community has expropriated queer as a non-pejorative term for those who are not heterosexual. Whether one ascribes to the original definition of queer or the more modern usage, it is a fitting word for what Bilbo ultimately becomes.
Boone would suggest that writers such as Tolkien turned the typical realist novel on its head with the use of homosocial male characters in a quest novel. In this case, the exclusively male cast of characters makes a political statement against rigid definitions of gender roles and norms. This supports Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s assertion that men only create homosocial bonds as a way to perpetuate patriarchal structures (Boone 981). The suggestion is that the male characters fulfilling both masculine and feminine roles prove that the world can function without women. One cannot help but wonder if there is more to it than that. Perhaps what the male-only adventure story proves is that gender roles are socially constructed and that if one is able to remove oneself from those expectations one might be able to discount such rigid binaries.
Clearly there are many more questions than answers in any literary analysis. One is not able to truly know what the author’s intentions were, especially if one aligns one’s theoretical framework with Roland Barthe’s concept of the death of the author. Furthermore, it is impossible to deconstruct a text with just one theoretical approach. There are far too many layers in a piece of work to have it fit neatly within one theoretical framework or another. Conversely, some methods of analysis are far too complex to have a single piece of work fit all the factors.
By examining a work not usually included in the category of ecocritical or feminist work, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, one is able to see just how varied literary theory can be. This work did not fit neatly into either category, and there are sections that are readable through either an ecocritical or feminist lens, but those same sections could be read through an alternate theoretical framework; the latter disproving the former. Ecocriticism and feminist literary theory are two such paradigms; they are both multifaceted and complex, and neither can claim a concrete definition. This multiplicity can be problematic as it is difficult to solidly define theoretical parameters, but it also can be positive as it allows for a great deal of flexibility for transforming theory to praxis. Considering that two of the most recent theoretical practices, ecocriticism and feminist literary theory, are generally inclusive, flexible and holistic, perhaps the practice of literary theory and the study of literature will follow suit.
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