The narrator begins by describing the hole in the ground beneath a hill, in which a particular hobbit lives. The hole is highly comfortable: it has bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms for entertaining the hobbit’s many visitors. The best rooms in the house have a view of the garden outside the hobbit’s home. Locals refer to the area as The Hill, located in hobbit-town.
The first paragraph of The Hobbit is a surprise to read, because Tolkien doesn’t begin by describing what a hobbit is—he begins by describing the hole. This is a clever strategy for immersing readers in the fictional world of the book: the hole Tolkien describes is actually a fairly ordinary-sounding home, comfortable and clean. In this way, we see the world of The Hobbit as both fantastical (populated with strange creatures we’ve never heard of) and familiar (full of cozy homes). It’s also important to note that the best rooms in this hobbit’s home—presumably the ones the hobbit itself prefers—have windows. The hobbit enjoys comfort and security, but it also longs for the exterior world, and, perhaps, for travel and adventure.
The hobbit’s name is Baggins, and he belongs to a well-to-do family of hobbits that never gets involved in adventure. The narrator notes that The Hobbit is the story of how Baggins became involved in an adventure and lost some of his neighbors’ respect. The narrator will leave it up to the reader to decide whether Baggins gained anything from his adventure.
Tolkien narrates The Hobbit in a third-person omniscient voice; this creates a tone of reassurance that Bilbo will survive his dangerous adventures. Nevertheless, the narrator doesn’t explain whether or not Bilbo has “gained” anything—this focuses the reader on most important part of the story, Bilbo’s personal transformation.
The narrator turns to describing hobbits. Hobbits are small creatures that resemble dwarves, except without beards. They have no magical powers except for their ability to hide, especially from humans, who are loud and clumsy. Hobbits love to laugh and eat, and they wear bright clothing.
Tolkien simultaneously distinguishes hobbits from people, who he playfully criticizes for being big and loud, and compares hobbits with people, noting their love for food, their sense of humor, etc. Again, Hobbits are established as both fantastic and “normal”, in the sense of being like the normal, non-heroic, non-adventurous, everyday people likely to be reading the book.
Bilbo Baggins, the Baggins about whom The Hobbit is written, is the child of the hobbit Belladonna Took, who was herself the daughter of the famous Old Took. The Tooks were rumored to be distantly related to fairies, and they were said to go on adventures occasionally. Belladonna Took never went on adventures; instead, she married Bungo Baggins, who used Belladonna’s mother’s money to build the hobbit-hole where Bilbo lives. At the time when the story begins, Bilbo is fully grown—about fifty years old—and looks and behaves exactly like his father, though he seems to have inherited some qualities from his Took ancestors.
Tolkien’s suggestion that, despite Bilbo’s apparent comfort, he has some yearning for adventure is connected to his ancestors. Tolkien makes similar connections for other characters later in the book, and often sees character traits and even destinies as a kind of “birthright” that can be passed down without the person receiving them even really knowing it. It’s important to note that Bilbo is supposed to be “fully grown” when the story begins—in fact, he will change greatly during the story, and, in effect, grow up. Perhaps the point is that it’s never too late to become a different person, and that adventure is a means of discovering things about yourself you didn’t know.
One morning, Bilbo is sitting outside his home smoking, when Gandalf passes by. Gandalf, an old man who wears a grey cloak and carries a staff, is famous among hobbits. He was friends with Old Took, but hasn’t been by The Hill since Took’s death. Bilbo, doesn’t recognize Gandalf, but greets him; Gandalf tells Bilbo that he is looking for someone to accompany him on an adventure. Bilbo refuses, saying that hobbits don’t take part in adventures, and pretends to ignore Gandalf. Gandalf then introduces himself to Bilbo, who is impressed, having heard stories about how Gandalf would bring quiet young people on adventures.
Bilbo, revealing his dual nature, is both attracted to and repelled by Gandalf’s promises of adventure. He knows that Gandalf brings innocent people like himself on quests and tries to avoid him, and yet he doesn’t simply turn Gandalf away. This suggests that, deep down, Bilbo wants to go on precisely this kind of quest, even if he’s too peaceful and satisfied with his life to admit it (to others or to himself).
Gandalf tells Bilbo that he will give him what he has asked for; when Bilbo says that he hasn’t asked for anything, Gandalf says that, in fact, he’s asked for it twice. Bilbo, rattled and a little afraid, invites Gandalf to tea tomorrow, and immediately goes inside his home, thinking that Gandalf is a powerful wizard, and that he’ll have to be careful. Gandalf is amused by Bilbo’s behavior, and marks Bilbo’s door with a strange sign before he leaves.
Gandalf seems to sense (and perhaps knew before even meeting Bilbo) that Bilbo secretly wants to go on an adventure, but can’t admit it. Bilbo’s invitation to Gandalf further suggests that he’s at least a little attracted to his offers of adventure. Gandalf also proves himself to be adept at manipulating language and signs—drawing a complex figure on Bilbo’s door—while Bilbo stumbles over his words.
The next day, Bilbo has almost forgotten about tea. So he’s surprised to hear a knock at his door and find a dwarf, who introduces himself as Dwalin, standing outside his home. Bilbo is flustered, but invites Dwalin inside for tea. A little later, he hears another knock on the door, and finds anther dwarf, Balin—Dwalin’s brother. Again, he invites Balin in. In this manner, he lets a total of thirteen dwarves into his house: Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, who’s very fat, and Thorin Oakenshield, who is haughty. Gandalf arrives along with the last four dwarves. All thirteen dwarves, except for Thorin, who’s too important to join in, ask for food and sing songs about ruining Bilbo’s home, though they actually treat it with great care.
There is very little characterization of the twelve dwarves other than Thorin. This sets the tone for The Hobbit, in which the group often acts as a single entity. Thorin’s sense of honor verging on haughtiness is established here and remains important through the book. The dwarves’ boisterous singing and play along with the actual respect they pay to Bilbo’s home establishes them as fun-loving and disorderly but also as having a deep sense of honor and respect. The scene also portrays how to be both a good host and a good guest. The host trusts and is generous with his guests; the guests enjoy themselves but are also careful with the host and his home.
The dwarves play music and sing of the dwarves of the past, who lived in a great hall beneath a mountain, where they mined gold and jewels. A dragon attacked the dwarves and drove them from their home, and now they must quest to reclaim their home and their treasure. As Bilbo hears this song, he’s momentarily filled with a desire to go on adventures, but this desire disappears soon after the music ends.
Song is an important means of communication in Tolkien’s book—it allows a group of people to share the same stories and keep memories of the past alive. Bilbo’s reaction to the song implies again his secret yearning for adventure. The dwarves’ tale marks them as a group that has had their home, and wealth, stolen from them. Now the stakes begin to be set: Bilbo has a home with which he is content (both his hole and his life among Hobbits), but the dwarves are without a home, without their birthright, and must go on an adventurous quest to get it back and the implication is that Bilbo could choose to leave his own home to go on the quest.
Thorin rises from his seat and praises Bilbo, who he calls the dwarves’ co-conspirator, for his hospitality. He alludes to a great adventure on which Bilbo is to accompany the dwarves, and comments that Bilbo may never return. Bilbo is so shocked by this that he screams and faints. When Bilbo is revived, he overhears the dwarves wondering whether Bilbo, who they call a “little fellow” is capable of adventures. Bilbo indignantly says that he is capable of anything, an outburst that he is later to regret. The dwarves inform him that there was a sign on his door claiming that he is a burglar looking for employment; Gandalf reveals that it was he who wrote this sign, but that the dwarves should accept Bilbo as their co-conspirator.
At this point in the narrative, Bilbo is shy and timid, hardly the adventurer he will eventually become. Instead of actively choosing to participate in the quest, he’s forced to so by Gandalf, who manipulates language to fool the dwarves into treating Bilbo as their burglar. Nevertheless, Bilbo shows some signs that he wants to be part of the adventure—he angrily insists that he isn’t afraid. For the time being, though, Gandalf controls Bilbo’s fate, not Bilbo himself.
Gandalf produces a map, which he tells Thorin belonged to Thror, Thorin’s grandfather. The map shows a hall beneath a mountain, marked with the symbol of a red dragon. Gandalf explains that there is a secret passageway into the mountain, which is too small for a dragon to use itself. He had attempted to recruit warriors for the dwarves’ expedition, but found that warriors were too busy fighting, and for this reason chose a burglar, Bilbo. He also gives Thorin the key to the secret passageway.
Gandalf acts as a source of history and useful information for the dwarves during their quest. His discussion of the relative merits of warriors and burglars is a clue to the kind of heroism he believes in. Where others favor violence and strength, Gandalf seems to have more respect for cunning and cleverness. Gandalf’s motives in The Hobbit are never entirely clear—why is he helping the dwarves? Why does he seem so interested to include Bilbo?—though they are revealed more in Tolkien’s later Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Bilbo, who loves maps, asks for an explanation of the dwarves’ quest. Thorin explains that the fourteen dwarves in Bilbo’s house were the dwarves in their song. His grandfather, Thror, was King under the Mountain—King of a vast Dwarf city under the Lonely Mountain—and his subjects’ skill as miners and craftsmen brought trade, wealth, and prosperity to the surrounding area, and led also to the establishment of a large town for men, the Dale, which served as a hub of trade. A dragon, Smaug, heard about the dwarves’ wealth, and drove them from their home, keeping the treasure for itself.
Bilbo’s love of maps again suggests his yearning for adventure (though it also displays at this point a love of adventure contained within a very domestic world: Bilbo likes to imagine faraway lands from the safe comfort of his home). Thorin’s description of his family’s history sheds light on the interaction between the different peoples of Middle Earth, an important theme later in the novel: the homes of the dwarves and of men are interdependent.
Bilbo suggests that the dwarves go to the Mountain and try to reclaim their treasure, and offers to fix them breakfast before they leave. Thorin implies that Bilbo will be going with them, and, without waiting for an answer, asks Bilbo to fix him eggs for breakfast. The other dwarves ask for similar food and go to bed. As Bilbo falls asleep, he hears Thorin humming the dwarves’ song. He has vivid, unusual dreams that night, and wakes up late.
Bilbo falls short of personally volunteering for the dwarves’ quest to the Lonely Mountain, but he continues to show signs that he’s secretly attracted to this quest. It’s as if Bilbo’s coming of age—from a passive homeowner to an active adventurer—can only be achieved if someone else—in this case, Gandalf—gives him a strong nudge.