In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor 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. (p. 1)
Summary: Part of what makes The Hobbit such a classic is that it is extraordinarily layered and balanced as a story. (And it is the failure to respect this, I think, that creates so many flaws in the Peter Jackson bloating of it.) We get some of the essential idea of it in Gandalf's own story-telling to Beorn:
Mr. Baggins saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars. (p. 123)
What Bilbo perhaps misses is that he (and the reader) was captured in much the same way. Faced with a mass of dwarves, Bilbo would certainly have not tolerated the 'unexpected party'; but a few at a time was more difficult, and he, like Beorn, only gradually learned the actual number. Likewise, we (like the dwarves) only gradually learn the potential of the hobbit; and in part by the sharp contrast between his relative helplessness in the episode of the trolls (Chapter 2) and his bravery in the episode of the spiders (Chapter 8) or his resourcefulness in the hall of the Elvenking (Chapter 9).
But a tale of only symmetries is bland, and I think one of the most brilliant moves of the book is that the tale leads us to think of Smaug and his treasure as the goal of the whole journey -- although it did warn us here and there that things were perhaps not so simple -- but then shows us that this could not actually be it at all. The dwarves thought as far as the treasure; they had no clear plan for dealing with Smaug; and beyond that, nothing. But Tolkien recognizes that the actual target of the tale cannot be the dragon in the Mountain but what happens after. A formulaic writer would not lead Bilbo and the dwarves to Smaug just to have Smaug slain by Bard -- true, that was made possible by Bilbo and the dwarves, but it is a diversion of the apparent goal of the story that would not be commonly found elsewhere. But the move, allowing the Battle of the Five Armies rather than the death of Smaug to take the climactic height, is a vast improvement. It gives the book an epic feel; but also, and equally important, it makes the return to the Shire possible. Bilbo has become very resourceful -- but against the backdrop of the Battle, we see, as Gandalf says, that he is "only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!" (p. 303).
I had intended to look a bit more closely this reading at the influence of Beowulf on the work; Tolkien notes elsewhere that Beowulf was not consciously on his mind, but also recognizes that, while the story grew on its own principles, Beowulf was certainly an influence on features of it. But in fact the story sped by so smoothly that I never really got around to it. And that, I think, is a sign of quality all of its own.
Then Bard drew his bow-string to his ear. The dragon was circling back, flying low, and as he came the moon rose above the eastern shore and silvered his great wings.
"Arrow!" said the bowman. "Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!" (p. 249)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Ballantine (New York: 1989).