In an essay titled “Psychological Themes in The Hobbit,” Dorthy Matthews writes the following:
“It is only through chance that the key to the trolls’ cave is found, thus providing unearned access to the magic swords so necessary for later trials. If the sword is seen as a phallic symbol, its miraculous appearance at the beginning of the journey supports the ritualistic pattern of maturation in Bilbo’s adventures.”
There is no doubt that The Hobbit can be read as a tale of maturation or coming of age. I prefer viewing The Hobbit as an unwilling pilgrim’s tale as the goal of any pilgrimage is to return changed and hopefully find direction in one’s life, both of which happen to Bilbo.
However, I am really bothered by the writer’s casual tossing about of Freudian interpretation in regards to swords in The Hobbit. It demonstrates a lack of responsibility to careful interpretation and instead relies on a smoke and mirrors interpretation and many modern preconceptions that in no way fit the story. Furthermore, such an interpretation, which leads a person to equate sword to phallus, can only be had by over interpretation, wishful thinking, and a lack of practical life experience. I sometimes cannot help and wonder as to why woman see penises everywhere in literature. I think Freud would say it is penis envy.
Freud himself is said to have quipped that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, meaning that at every moment of a character or person taking advantage of something that is longer than it is wide (a sword or a stick of chewing gum) is not always going to equate to phallus. Freud was apparently a worse Freudian than modern Freudians in that he seemed to know the preposterous world view that might result by pointing at every taller than wide thing and thinking phallus. Taking Freudianism to the logical absurd end, a person sees the world in terms of phallus, and like the old Tootsie Roll commercial where all things longer than wide – trees, cars, buildings, dogs -- turned into a tootsie roll of some great size (with the lyrics to the jingle in the commercial The world looks mighty good to me/ 'cause Tootsie Rolls are all I see/ Whatever it is I think I see/ Becomes a Tootsie Roll to me), the phallus interpreter runs the same danger and should remember that sometimes a sword is just a tool, a weapon, an object for safety, a source of courage.
The sword, particularly those that are long and straight, has a very practical design, which is too often ignored by Freudians. The Freudians seem to imagine that long ago a man looked at his penis and concluded that it is the perfect shape for a weapon, when in reality it is advantageous in hand to hand combat to keep one’s enemy or target at a distance for safety reasons. When the cave man designed the throwing spear, it is clearly because he loved his own phallus and thought the best way to give tribute to it is to design a hurling weapon of destruction. The cave man might not have understood the principles of aerodynamics but one need not understand physics to know that a spear will fly better through the air than a block or most other shapes. If the Freudian view was true than one logical conclusion is reached in that men are apparently more aerodynamic than women due to the phallus.
There are several ways the reader knows quickly that swords are not representative of the phallus in The Hobbit. The first is that the sword never grows in moments of arousal and excitement, as one would expect with a phallus. If the word is a phallus, it only means that Bilbo and Gandalf and the Dwarves suffer from a dysfunctioning phallus. Therefore, the swords in The Hobbit are actually poor representations of adolescent and adult maturity.
Another way we know the sword is not a phallus is that a sword fits the story in time and place. What other weapon would Freudians have the travelers use? If the weapon is wider than it is long it would still be phallic to the Freudian– for you only have to turn it on its side to make it into phallic imagery -- and if the weapon was curved and circular than it would be clearly modeled on testis and therefore a phallic like imagery or at least an image in the neighborhood of the phallus, which for Freudians is close enough to the real deal. Tolkien wrote a story in which the main weapon of the culture and of defense was a sword because Middle Earth was colored by Anglo, Saxon, and Norse epic tales and myths where swords were the instrument of choice for the hero. It is not because Tolkien’s world was colored by Freudian phalli. In other words, the sword was chosen because it made sense in terms of culture and time.
A third way we know that a sword is not a phallus in The Hobbit comes from practical experience from any one who has ever lived or traveled through a dangerous land. The wilderness is wild and dangerous; if the proper precautions are not taken the traveler might be overpowered by the wild and the wild creatures. A soldier does not travel into the jungles without weapons, backpackers do not backpack without a walking stick, a handy weapon if needed, and at minimum a pocket knife. Why would adventurers travel without weapons? Moreover, the weapons a traveler caries add a sense of safety to the journey and help the traveler, when the time comes, to be courageous – as is seen when Bilbo kills the spiders with his sword. Without the sword he would have only been able to run from the spiders like the other dwarves.
Therefore, knowing who Tolkien is and his deep-seated Christian beliefs, trying to interpret his writings though an atheistic humanism lens is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. You can do it but only at great force and not without damaging the hole or the peg. Lastly, in this case, the sword is little more than a magical artifact that assists the travelers in the adventures, and in no way is it a phallus. Sometimes a sword is just a sword.