By Soncirey Mitchell
Since J.R.R. Tolkien published his novel The Hobbit on Sept. 21, 1937, the thrilling tale has shaped the hearts and minds of readers across the globe and inspired several adaptations — most recently Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Though the newest adaptations are fun action movies, they fail to capture the enduring messages of empathy and peace at the heart of the book, which are just as resonant today as they were 86 years ago.
In Tolkien’s work, a hero is not a warrior, but a good person who values peace above all else.
Tolkien’s life was heavily influenced by battle — fictional and otherwise. He fought in World War I in his early 20s, and spent much of his life as an academic steeped in medieval texts that centered on bold and victorious warriors.
Bilbo Baggins is no Beowulf, nor is he a Hollywood action hero. Within the world of the story, Bilbo only joins the dwarves on their adventure because the wizard Gandalf couldn’t find a real “Warrior” or “Hero.” Such men are said to be too busy fighting one another to help. The stereotypical heroes are ultimately useless, and so the quest falls to a small, peaceful hobbit who loves gardens more than gold.
Bilbo is a successful protagonist because he consistently choses empathy despite the violence inherent to his journey. When faced with the emaciated, vicious creature Gollum — who attempts to eat the hobbit — Bilbo is understandably both terrified and disgusted. Instead of acting on his hatred, “[a] sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment,” as Tolkien wrote.
It would have been easy for Bilbo to kill Gollum; otherworldly creatures often die at the hands of conventional fantasy protagonists. Instead, the hobbit chooses compassion over the sword.
Even while the dwarves are consumed by greed in the final chapters of the book, Bilbo risks his life and offers up all his gold to save his friends and avert a war. Not even enchanted treasure could convince him to fight for selfishness or glory.
The filmmakers of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies — the final installment of the most recent adaptation, which came out in three parts between 2012 and 2014 — did not understand the importance of a hero who isn’t a warrior. The dwarves are rewritten as skilled fighters whose shortcomings are redeemed through intense CGI battles and gruesome deaths.
There is no redemption through war in the original text. Tolkien wrote explicitly that the dwarves are “not heroes,” and greed motivated them to the end. Only when Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarves, fell in battle did he realize that spreading joy is more important than hoarding gold.
The battle of the five armies only takes up nine of the novel’s 374 pages, and most of the events are told in summary after the fact. More words are dedicated to descriptions of gardens and forests than to the penultimate battle.
Moreover, Bilbo never actually fights in the war: he slips on his invisibility ring and is rendered unconscious until well after the army is defeated. Tolkien put little to no emphasis on the critical conflict that Hollywood dedicated a two-and-a-half-hour movie to. Why?
Because peace is far more important than war. The men, elves, dwarves and eagles must fight the goblins to defend themselves, but their pain and suffering aren’t something to be glorified.
Tolkien saw first-hand the destruction that war brings, and that taught him to value peace and joy all the more. In a society inundated by violent media, The Hobbit remains relevant because it prioritizes empathy over might. Tolkien knew that war should never be celebrated — only the peace it can bring.
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