The Hobbit

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Themes and Colors
Coming of Age Theme Icon
The Power of Language Theme Icon
Greed, Trust, Fellowship Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Home and Birthright Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Hobbit, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Power of Language Theme Icon

During The Hobbit, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves confront countless dangers: spiders, goblins, wood-elves, wolves, a dragon, etc. To defend themselves, they use an equally vast number of weapons: knives, daggers, spells, fire, rocks, sticks. Yet one of the most important weapons that they use—and one of the most important skills Bilbo develops on his travels—is language. In the early chapters of the book, Bilbo exhibits almost no sophisticated command of language, staying largely silent while the dwarves and Gandalf discuss their plans to journey to the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their treasure. When he gets lost under the Misty Mountains, he’s forced to use words to compete with Gollum, telling increasingly complicated riddles. While this episode is important in Bilbo’s growth as a manipulator of language, it’s important to recognize that he’s still a novice—he only defeats Gollum by asking a “cheap” question, “What have I got in my pocket?”, not by exhibiting any real creativity or skill with words.

When giant spiders capture Bilbo and the dwarves in Mirkwood forest, Bilbo finally begins to use language with more skill, improvising elaborate songs to confuse the spiders and lure them away from the dwarves so that Bilbo can free them. After his exploits, Bilbo uses language to dub his sword Sting, a name that strikes fear into the hearts of the spiders. Bilbo uses language in a similar fashion when he confronts Smaug—instead of introducing himself as Bilbo Baggins, he calls himself a barrel-rider, a clue-finder, etc. Where before Bilbo renames his sword, here he renames himself.

In The Hobbit, language is a weapon, capable of intimidating, confusing, and otherwise disarming one’s enemies. But perhaps even more importantly, language is a tool for changing and understanding oneself. It’s no coincidence that Bilbo renames himself as he becomes braver and more confident: with the power of naming, he makes his experiences a part of his personality—he doesn’t just describe himself, he changes himself.

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The Power of Language ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Power of Language appears in each chapter of The Hobbit. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Power of Language Quotes in The Hobbit

Below you will find the important quotes in The Hobbit related to the theme of The Power of Language.
Chapter 5 Quotes

"Both wrong," cried Bilbo very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. He knew, of course, that the riddlegame was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Gollum
Related Symbols: The Misty Mountains
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bilbo, who is trapped beneath the Misty Mountains, exchanges riddles with Gollum, a frightening, mysterious cave-dweller. Although Bilbo and Gollum have almost nothing in common (or so they think), they do abide by a common set of rules: they believe in the importance of words and language. As a result, the game of riddles they play with one another has a "sacred" side to it. Gollum promises to show Bilbo the way out of the mountains if Bilbo can stump him; now that Bilbo has won the game, Gollum is "bound" to honor his agreement.

And yet as the passage makes clear, language can be twisted and manipulated to suit people's needs. Here, Bilbo is afraid that his victory in the game of riddles isn't binding, at least not in the sacred, "ancient" sense. Based on the passage, it's clear that Gollum is dangerous to Bilbo, and moreover, his dangerousness is closely related to his refusal to keep his word. In the world of Middle Earth, honor and honesty are of the utmost importance; no creature who breaks his word can be "good."

In the absence of rules—the rules of riddle-telling, in this case—Bilbo must learn to depend on a new set of skills; namely, his abilities with a sword. Thrown into danger, Bilbo is forced to master the art of language, and then, when language fails him, he's forced to resort to physical fighting. Because it proves that he's a versatile, multi-talented person, Bilbo's interaction with Gollum represents a milestone in his journey to becoming a hero.


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Chapter 7 Quotes

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. He never invited people into his house, if he could help it. He had very few friends and they lived a good way away; and he never invited more than a couple of these to his house at a time. Now he had got fifteen strangers sitting in his porch!

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Beorn
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bilbo watches as the wizard, Gandalf, tricks a powerful man named Beorn into letting a large number of dwarves into his home. Gandalf tells Beorn a colorful tale, which Beorn is too interested in to ignore entirely. As Gandalf tells Beorn this tale, he mentions dwarves, and they enter one or two at a time. Because of his interest in the story, Beorn has no choice but to let the dwarves into his house, despite his dislike of visitors.

Gandalf's tactics are a good example of how the characters in the novel use language as well as physical force to get their way. At various points in the book, characters obtain food and shelter and even save their own lives by telling interesting stories. Furthermore, the scene illustrates the basic "tit for tat" of hosting and hospitality in Middle Earth. On many occasions, one character will seek lodgings from another. In order to "pay" for his lodgings, the character will sometimes tell an entertaining story, just as Gandalf does here. In The Hobbit, the most villainous characters are often the worst hosts (the goblins, Gollum, Smaug, etc.). Therefore, the fact that Beorn is reluctant to take in the dwarves but does so anyway clues us into his being a grumpy but basically trustworthy character.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins.
He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
"I will give you a name," he said to it, "and I shall call you Sting."

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sting
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important scene, Bilbo kills a giant spider, using the sword he acquired during the course of his earlier adventures. Standing over his defeated opponent, Bilbo feels like a new hobbit: braver, stronger, and more independent than ever before.

It's important to note that although Bilbo has owned his small sword for some time now, it's only now that he chooses to give it a name. Bilbo's decision to name his sword reflects his emergence as a full-fledged hero: a brave, intelligent warrior who defends his friends (in this scene, the dwarves, who have been captured) from evil. Previously, Bilbo had the potential to become a bold adventurer (just as his sword had the potential to kill), but now his potential has become a reality, as reflected by his new sense of courage. Bilbo seems to be naming his sword, but he might as well be rechristening himself: he's a hero now.

Chapter 10 Quotes

He had never thought that the dwarves would actually dare to approach Smaug, but believed they were frauds who would sooner or later be discovered and be turned out.

He was wrong. Thorin, of course, was really the grandson of the King under the Mountain, and there is no knowing what a dwarf will not dare and do for revenge or the recovery of his own. But the Master was not sorry at all to let them go. They were expensive to keep, and their arrival had turned things into a long holiday in which business was at a standstill.

"Let them go and bother Smaug, and see how he welcomes them!" he thought.

"Certainly, O Thorin Thrain's son Thror's son!" was what he said. "You must claim your own. The hour is at hand, spoken of old. What help we can offer shall be yours, and we trust to your gratitude when your kingdom is regained."

Related Characters: The Master (speaker), Thorin Oakenshield, Smaug
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the Master—the temporary leader of the men of Lake-town (the area near Smaug's lair)—deals with Thorin and the other dwarves. The dwarves have come to the Master's territory to ask for supplies with which to scale the mountain and defeat Smaug. The Master is amazed that the dwarves are actually going to attempt to kill Smaug, and because the Master himself is a rather cowardly liar, he naturally assumes that Thorin and his followers are liars, too, and that they're just in town for the free food and lodgings the townspeople have offered them.

The passage is amusing because of the way it juxtaposes the Master's thoughts—crass, petty, and greedy—and his words, which are grandiose and comically eloquent. Like many of the villains in the novel, the Master maintains his power by manipulating language, using speeches to convince the townspeople that he is their proper leader, and saying certain things even when he secretly believes the exact opposite. In general, the passage establishes a contrast between Thorin's noble dedication to his quest and the Master's opportunism. Tolkien reminds us who the real heroes of his story are, just before they go off to fight Smaug.

Chapter 12 Quotes

"I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I as chosen for the lucky number."
"Lovely titles!" sneered the dragon. "But lucky numbers don't always come off."
"I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me."

"These don't sound so creditable," scoffed Smaug.
"I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider," went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Smaug
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Bilbo has snuck into the dragon Smaug's lair. There, he toys with Smaug, identifying himself with a series of clever nicknames that allude to his impressive exploits across Middle Earth. Bilbo's behavior in this passage suggests a number of things about his progress as a hero and an adventurer. By this point in the novel, Bilbo has had some significant experiences as an adventurer--and he knows it. Impressed with his own bravery and resourcefulness, Bilbo sings his own praises, giving himself epithets like those in Classical poems like Homer's Odyssey.

At the same time, Smaug's reaction makes us wonder if Bilbo's self-satisfaction has any point, or if Bilbo is in fact becoming overly confident and arrogant. Unlike Bilbo's clever wordplay with the spiders or with Gollum, his speech in this scene doesn't help him in any discernible way: it doesn't confuse or frighten Smaug, and his phrase "Barrel-rider" even inspires Smaug to attack Lake-town. So although Bilbo's behavior here proves how far he's come in the novel, Tolkien is also setting Bilbo up for a defeat connected to his own hubris (pride as a fatal flaw). Indeed, in the final few chapters of the novel, Bilbo's actions will prove largely futile, and he'll be reminded of his own smallness and weakness.

Chapter 14 Quotes

As you see, the Master had not got his position for nothing. The result of his words was that for the moment the people quite forgot their idea of a new king, and turned their angry thoughts towards Thorin and his company. Wild and bitter words were shouted from many sides; and some of those who had before sung the old songs loudest, were now heard as loudly crying that the dwarves had stirred the dragon up against them deliberately!

Related Characters: The Master, Smaug
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Tolkien describes how the Master of Lake-town manipulates his followers. The Master knows that if the dwarves can defeat Smaug and reclaim their rule of his mountain, the Master's own position as a leader will be in danger. In order to maintain the current order, then, the Master riles up his people, convincing them that they should be fighting against Thorin and his dwarves instead of welcoming them as returning rulers (as many had earlier). This shows how fickle a crowd can be in its sense of loyalty, as many of those men who had praised Thorin as king now consider him an enemy. But it also is another example of the power of language in the novel; more than almost any other character, the Master excels at using language and speech to control others and get what he wants. The difference between the Master and the other characters who excel at language (like Bilbo or Gandalf) is that the Master uses his gifts to support his own selfish needs, while the other characters often use it to help their friends or simply to escape danger.

In general, the passage is also a good piece of evidence for what Tolkien does—and doesn't—consider heroic. While there are many characters in the novel who excel at fighting or language, only a handful excel at both, and even fewer use these skills for unselfish reasons. Gandalf and Bilbo, and few others, exemplify this particular kind of heroism, while characters like Thorin are in murkier territory, and the Master is an example of someone who uses his skills only to help himself.

Chapter 18 Quotes

From that treasure Bard sent much gold to the Master of Lake-town; and he rewarded his followers and friends freely. To the Elvenking he gave the emeralds of Girion, such jewels as he most loved, which Dain had restored to him. To Bilbo he said:
"This treasure is as much yours as it is mine; though old agreements cannot stand, since so many have a claim in its winning and defense. Yet even though you were willing to lay aside all your claim, I should wish that the words of Thorin, of which he repented, should not prove true: that we should give you little. I would reward you most richly of all."
"Very kind of you," said Bilbo. "But really it is a relief to me. How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don't know. And I don't know what I should have done with it when I got home. I am sure it is better in your hands."

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Bard (speaker), Dain, The Elvenking
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bilbo and Bard—the brave leader who slays Smaug—discuss the future of the treasure that the dwarves have claimed for themselves. Bard is now a leader of the men, and has been charged with distributing the share of gold that Thorin, on his deathbed, bequeathed to him. As Bard discusses his decisions with Bilbo, it becomes clear that he and Bilbo are rather similar, and are two of the most "heroic" characters in the novel. They're both modest, intelligent, and fairly uninterested in material wealth. (Unlike Thorin, Bard leads his followers without selfishly claiming a "right" to treasure—on the contrary, he gives away large quantities of treasure, and says that he would like to give even more to Bilbo.) Both Bard and Bilbo also feel a strong connection to a particular place: Bard to his hometown, and Bilbo to his hobbit-hole.

But where Bard's connection to a place leads him to become a leader, Bilbo's nostalgia for home draws him away from adventure and back to a life of peaceful complacency. As Bilbo explains here, he wants to return to his hobbit-hole, and has no real interest in treasure anymore. Bilbo has received something more valuable than treasure: an unforgettable experience.

Chapter 19 Quotes

"Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" said Bilbo.
"Of course!" said Gandalf. "And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
"Thank goodness!" said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

Related Characters: Bilbo Baggins (speaker), Gandalf (speaker)
Page Number: 305
Explanation and Analysis:

Years after Bilbo's adventures in Middle Earth, he's back in his hobbit-hole, and gets a surprise visit from Gandalf the wizard. Gandalf suggests to Bilbo that he was being "helped" through his adventures by powerful, invisible forces. (At various points in the novel, it's suggested that these "forces" are simply fate, the gods of Middle Earth, or even Gandalf himself.) Surprisingly, Bilbo doesn't dispute Gandalf's suggestion at all—he acknowledges that he's simply not that strong and independent, and is "only quite a little fellow in a wide world."

It's especially surprising that Bilbo agrees with Gandalf's statement since he's admitting that he's not really much of a "hero" in the end. Bilbo has proven himself to be a capable, intelligent adventurer. And yet Bilbo ultimately comes to reject the world of traditionaly heroism—the world of treasure, battle, and centuries-long feuding. In spite of his talents, he washes his hands of adventure, and retires. And yet Bilbo's adventures with Gandalf and Thorin haven't been for nothing. On the contrary, his adventures have made him a more confident, capable hobbit, with a wealth of wisdom and experience.