Part Two: Descent into Darkness
Part Three: Satan, Smaug, and the Seven Deadly Sins
The classic definition of evil is “the absence of the good.” With the preceding definition of evil, any and all evil acts are acts void of goodness. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, evil is depicted primarily through the evil acts of dark races. That is, goodness is presently absent from such dispicable creatures that one learns quickly how the acts of a person reveal the ontological state of the various races of Middle Earth. In the Christian understanding, theologians would say that God’s creation is intrinsically good – worth and goodness are not and cannot be merited by any means. In The Hobbit the nefarious beasts, though originally good, have become malicious to the extent that one might wonder whether goodness remains or whether a once good person has become so perverted and twisted that the intrinsic and ontological nature has changed for the worse, for how can goodness remain in a being who does no good? However, what is clear in the story is that in no way can these monsters be mistaken for being good. They are rotten: evil personified. By including these horrible monsters in his tale, Tolkien paints for his reader a didactic story on the dangers of evil. This instruction is demonstrated by drawing on classic literary devices, imagery, and word choice. Primarily evil is depicted in the lack of hospitality of the fiendish creatures contrasted with hospitality of the good creatures, darkness as a telling prelude to trouble and encounters of evil, and with the Lucifarian image of Smaug.
Part I: Hospitality
A major theme in “The Hobbit” is hospitality, as it serves as the measuring rod in determining which creatures are good and which ones are evil, for the good creatures are hospitable and the evil ones are not. The hospitality provided by the good characters follows a three-fold pattern in which the travelers are given rest, food, and safe shelter.
Though the first instance of hospitality is shown in Bilbo’s reception of the troop of dwarves and Gandalf, the pattern of food, rest, and safety is present, it is not as clear until after the travelers encounter loss and danger in the wilderness in the form of losing supplies and encountering the Trolls en route to Rivendale. Sill, Bilbo hosts the dwarves and furnishes them food of every sort (tea as well as supper), rest , a place for meeting, and safety – as the Shire, in this tale of Middle Earth, is a place that evil and dangers do not exists.
Upon the troop’s arrival in Rivendale, they first encounter the jolly and silly singing of the elves. They most hospitably extend an invitation in song to the road weary travelers to stay and sing through the night with them:
“To fly would be folly,
To stay would be jolly
And listen and hark
Till the end of the dark
To our tune
ha! ha” (49)!
While in Rivendale, the dwarves and the hobbit are treated to many tales, they grow refreshed from their travels, are given safety from danger (for no evil or dangerous creature would enter the valley of Rivendale), are provided with delightful food, and upon leaving their bags are “filled with food and provisions light to carry but strong to bring them over the mountain passes" (52). The overall hospitality given to Bilbo and the dwarves is par excellence in the story, as nowhere else do they receive such treatment. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Rivendale is the only place the travelers’ arrival is expected. All other hospitality pales in comparison to that of the elves of Rivendale.
The eagles of the Misty Mountains, though only a brief encounter, follow the same pattern of good hospitality. The eagles rescue the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf from the goblins and wargs. In so doing the eagles not only save the travelers from danger but also give them safety and shelter in the Eagles’ nestings in the Misty Mountains. In addition, "The Eagles had brought up dry boughs for fuel, and they had brought rabbits, hares, and a small sheep" for the party (110).
Following the hospitality of the eagles, the dwarves and the other two travelers come upon the home of the great Beorn -- whose home might be described as a “land of milk and honey,” as most of the food Beorn provides his guests with are made with honey and cream. All-in-all, Beorn gives the guests food, several nights stay, and protection from the wild. Beorn’s hospitality extends beyond his house when he provides his guests with ponies, jars of honey, and other supplies for the trip to Mirkwood forest and the Lonely Mountain (132). Again the tri-fold pattern of food, rest, and safety is present in the travelers’ stay with Beorn.
In the next encounter of good hospitality occurs when the dwarves accidentally fall into the hands of the elves of Mirkwood and taken prisoners. Tolkien makes extra effort to remind the reader that the elves here “are not wicked fold" and are “Good People" (167, 168). Still the same three-fold pattern of the hospitality of the good is present in the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood. Even after being captured, the Wood-Elf King tells his men to take Thorin "away and keep him safe" and the reader learns that the elves "gave [Thorin] food and drink, plenty of both, if not very fine; for Wood-elves were not goblins, and were reasonably well behaved even to their worst enemies, when they captured them" (169). Thorin's dwarven companions were extended the same hospitality and good treatment upon their capture, as the Elf king "ordered the dwarves each to be put in a separate cell and to be given food and drink" (173).The last example of good hospitality the dwarves receive is from the men of Lake-town. There, Master of Lake-Town gives his own festival chair to Thorin, and Fili, Kili and Bilbo all receive seats of honor (198). Then shortly after, the Lake-town people give the travelers horses, ponies, many provisions and even help in getting them to the foot of the Lonely Mountain in the form of boats with many rowers (200).
The dividing line between the hospitality of the good and the lack of hospitality of the evil is simple. The good hospitaliters are essentially life giving, and the evil hospitaliters are destructive and life devouring. The destructive nature of the evil creatures is emphasized by the ever-present threat to the travelers of being eaten by their wicked captures. What can be less hospitable than eating one’s guest? Such treatment is first realized in the comical scene with Bilbo and the three Trolls, in which the trolls capture the Burglar and his companions and then debate, with the help of Gandalf mimicking the trolls’ voices, as to whether it would be best to roast, boil, or squish the dwarves (40).
Next the dwarves are captured by the most diabolical of creatures: goblins. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary “goblin” comes from the Latin gobelinus and roughly means “a mischievous ugly demon” (“goblin”). There can be no mistake as to the evil nature of these creatures for Tolkien calls the beasts “cruel, wicked, and bad harted” (62). Moreover, following a literary tradition where the author portrays the interior disposition of a person in the beauty of their physical appearance and the beauty of their culture, ugly beings are evil, and beautiful beings are good. The goblins are ugly and “make no beautiful things”; therefore, the goblins are unmistakably devilish (62). The Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits are presented as making beauty in their surroundings, quality craftsman ship, delectable food, and enjoyable music; therefore, they are essentially good. The climax of inhospitality shown to the companions by the Goblins is clear and is first expressed in Thorin’s words to Dori about getting the Hobbit into the tree less “[Bilbo will] be eaten if we don’t do something” (100). Further, the goblins confirm Thorin’s fear of being eaten when the goblins begin their song while the dwarves are in the trees. The demons take delight in their fiendish song and sing:
“O What shall we do with the funny little things?
Roast ‘em alive, or stew them in a pot;
Fry them, boil them or eat them hot?
. . .
Bake and toast ‘em, fry and roast ‘em!
Till beards blaze, and eyes glaze;
Till hair smells and skins creack,
Fat melts, and bones black” (106)
The fear of being devoured does not end with the goblins. It continues on into the story and is found elsewhere in the book -- particularly with Bilbo’s chance encounter with Gollum. Here, Gollum seeks not to play games with Bilbo, but first desires eating him, to make a “choice feast; at least a tasty morsel” out of the Hobbit (72). Thus the lack of hospitality is expressed by Gollum’s desire to devour Bilbo, and the reader immediately knows Gollum is evil. However, Gollum is a unique creature with a soul of malicious intent. Though he shows some semblance of hospitality in the form of a riddle challenge, Gollum’s mind and heart are revealed by the twisted, lifeless, and destructive riddles he gives. For every lifeless life destructive riddle Gollum gives, Bilbo counters with a riddle that is life giving. Where Gollum’s first riddle involves the lifelessness of a mountain, Bilbo counters with the life giving organ of teeth personified as white horses on a red hill. Gollum then presents wind as a destructive force, and Bilbo counters with an image of the life giving sun shinning on daisies. Next Gollum shows the destructive nature of dark in his riddle, adding to the immediate fear of the dark surrounding Bilbo, to which the Hobbit responds with the most obvious life giving riddle about an egg. The most chilling of riddles is Gollum’s fish riddle in which the fish is seen as being alive and dead. The fish is “alive without breath,/As cold as death” says Gollum (76). Bilbo’s counter-point is a riddle in which fish is the life sustaining source of a man and his cat. Gollum’s final riddle, whose answer is ‘Time’, views time through its destructive nature. Gollum sees time as the final destroyer of all great things, and at the same time fails to see time as the vehicle that makes the mountains and other things great before they are destroyed. If a further study on Gollum and his riddles were to be had, one might come to the conclusion that Gollum exemplifies the sneaky, innocent, childlike manner evil can take in its attempts to devour the good.
Like the Trolls, Goblins, and Gollum, the Spiders of Mirkwood also seek to devour and destroy the travelers. The spiders, who come the closest to actually eating the dwarves, poison and bind the dwarves in a mess of webs so that they might hang for a bit. The poisoning and hanging was to ensure the dwarves “make fine eating” (157).
Smaug, the most fearsome of creatures in The Hobbit for the power he has, does not look to eat the travelers for the sake of a meal like the other evils encountered by the travelers. Instead, Smaug seeks to destroy the dwarves for the mere theft of a gold cup. It is a destruction of life stemming from the hubris and blind rage of the dragon, and the destruction does not begin nor end with the dwarves and hobbit. Instead it includes an entire town.
In the context of “The Hobbit”, the dividing factor between Good and Evil is hospitality. But why the emphasis on hospitality? Perhaps this might be compared to Abraham in Genesis when he is visited by three men on their way to judge Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham wastes no time in provided hospitality, food, rest, and safety for his divine visitors. Upon reaching Sodom and Gomorrah, the divine visitors are greeted somewhat hospitably by Lot and his family. However, the local townspeople show no hospitality to the divine visitors. In stead, the locals seek to take something from the visitors and even destroy those who stand in their way. The message in these two stories is simple: those who seek the destruction of life will in turn be destroyed themselves. As we see in the Bible the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed because they wanted to destroy. Likewise, the trolls, goblins, wargs, spiders, and Smaug are all destroyed due to their wanting to take and destroy life; whereas, those who seek and ensure the survival of life are rewarded.