The Hobbit

In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit, his first major work to see print. Many of you probably read this book as a child, or even listened while a parent read it to you, as Tolkien read it to his own children. As you walk through this little book along with the Tolkien Professor, you may be amazed at how complex and sophisticated it really is.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?”

— Bilbo Baggins

It is strongly encouraged that you read each section of the book before listening to the lecture, as you will find them much richer and easier to follow in that way.

Lecture 1: Took and Baggins

Reading: Chapter 1: “An Unexpected Party”

In this lecture, I look at the steps Tolkien takes to introduce his juvenile audience to his secondary world, exploring the tension Tolkien builds between the fantastic and the mundane as we see the adventurous world break in on Bilbo’s quiet and orderly life. Further, Tolkien embodies this tension in Bilbo himself, who is himself divided between his poetic Took side and his “prosy” Baggins side.


Lecture 2: The Ridiculous and the Sublime

Reading: Chapter 2: “Roast Mutton” and Chapter 3: “A Short Rest”

In this installment, I discuss the awkward beginning of Bilbo’s burglarious career as he transitions from his safe and comfortable homeland into the dangerous and uncertain lands beyond. We will also see how Tolkien uses humor and absurdity to help young readers meet two very different but equally challenging encounters with the violent, terrifying trolls and the beautiful, enchanting elves.


Lecture 3: At the Roots of the Mountain

Reading: Chapter 4: “Over Hill and Under Hill” and Chapter 5: “Riddles in the Dark”

In this session, we’ll see what happens when Bilbo, his transition over, crosses into the Wild and comes to the “turning point in his career” (in several senses). We will also see how, in Gollum and the goblins, Tolkien gives a remarkable description of the nature of evil. Finally, after a careful examination of each riddle in the riddle game, we will see Bilbo make the most momentous decision of his entire life.


Lecture 4: Rescued in the Wild, by the Wild

Reading: Chapter 6: “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire” and Chapter 7: “Queer Lodgings”

In this lecture, we’ll look at what happens to Bilbo’s relationship with the dwarves and with Gandalf in the new phase of the hobbit’s burglarious career. We will also take a close look at each of the residents of the Wild that we meet in these chapters: the goblins, the wargs, the eagles, and Beorn. Having done so, we’ll step back to look at the larger nature of the Wild as a whole and what it shows us about Bilbo and his world. Finally, as we look toward the trip into Mirkwood, we’ll take a close look at the long and puzzling song that the dwarves sing in Beorn’s hall.

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Lecture 5: Bilbo Builds His Resumé

Reading: Chapter 8: “Flies and Spiders,” Chapter 9: “Barrels Out of Bond” and Chapter 10: “A Warm Welcome”

In this installment, we follow Bilbo and the dwarves into the eerie otherworld of Mirkwood, with its dark, black monsters and its beautiful and perilous Elves. We will also find another crucial turning point in Bilbo’s career, and we will watch what happens when Bilbo finally lives up to Gandalf’s recommendation and begins to take on the leadership of the expedition. Finally, we will look closely at the outburst of enthusiasm upon the party’s water-logged arrival in Lake Town, and at the songs of prophecy with which they are greeted.

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Lecture 6: Bilbo Earns His Reward

Reading: Chapter 11: “On the Doorstep,” Chapter 12: “Inside Information,” and Chapter 13: “Not at Home”

Bilbo Baggins, action hero? Almost! In this lecture, we look at Bilbo’s personal transformation as he realizes that the dwarves have no idea how to actually deal with the dragon. We talk about the difference in perspective between the dwarves and Bilbo, take a look back at Chapter 1 in comparison, and discuss Bilbo’s acceptance of his new identity, which he now hopes to help construct. We gain some insight on Bilbo as the “clue-finder” by learning about an earlier manuscript draft of the chapter on the Spiders of Mirkwood. We delve deeply into Bilbo’s riddle-based recount of his activities to Smaug.

And Professor Olsen uses the word “triskaidekaphobia.”


Lecture 7: The Hobbit Grows Up

Reading: Chapter 14: “Fire and Water,” Chapter 15: “The Gathering of the Clouds,” Chapter 16: “A Thief in the Night,” and Chapter 17: “The Clouds Burst”

In this installment, we discuss the rest of the main action of the story, starting with Smaug’s death and going through the Battle of Five Armies. The death of the dragon doesn’t mean a fairytale ending. We look at how the waste created by the dragon manifests in not only physical destruction but in “dragon-sickness”: not just greed, but selfishness and isolation. We’ll discuss how Bilbo’s separation from the other parties allows him the space to rise to his finest hour as a common enemy emerges. (Spoiler: It’s Goblins.) The “King Under the Mountain” finally returns.

And Professor Olsen uses the word “eucatastrophe.”


Lecture 8: Return and Recovery

Reading: Chapter 18: “The Return Journey” and Chapter 19: “The Last Stage”

In our final lecture, we trace our steps with Bilbo and find, as he does, that home doesn’t look quite the same anymore. We discuss the healing in the changed perspective and attitudes of dwarves, elves, and men post-battle. We look at Bilbo balancing both his Baggins and Took sides in his home-life, discuss “the road” as connector, and touch on Bilbo’s journey as piece of a larger story.

Professor Olsen also casually mentions that it’s taken him four and a half years to get from Lecture 1 to Lecture 8. That’s roughly 3 years longer than it took Bilbo to go “there and back again.”