What Is the Symbolism in "The Hobbit"?

There are several different kinds of symbols in J. R. R. Tolkien's novel "The Hobbit," many of which appear to reference elements of Norse mythology, the Christian Bible and the wars of 20th-century Europe. "The Hobbit," set in the fantasy realm known as Middle Earth, features objects, creatures and locations that are often interpreted as symbols, although the author denied using symbols or allegories intentionally.

J. R. R. Tolkien is best known for the novels "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," but these novels only make up a relatively small portion of the extensive fantasy world that Tolkien built. In creating races, cultures, religions, and complete written and spoken languages, Tolkien drew upon elements of European history and mythologies. Many scholars have compared the world itself, Middle Earth, to the Norse world Midguard, because of the similar representation of creatures like elves and dwarfs. The dragon, Smaug, is similar to the Norse dragons who were known to guard treasures in their caves, and the Elven land of Valinor is frequently compared to the Norse Asgard or the Christian heaven. Old English influences can be seen in the languages and names Tolkien uses, particularly those of dwarfs, and in comparisons drawn to the epic poem "Beowulf."

Scholars have also theorized that Tolkien's depictions of wars in the novel are meant to reference the carnage he witnessed in World War I. Similarly, it is believed that the portrayal of the Hobbits, whose simple lives afford comfort, are supposed to symbolize a warning against too much reliance on technology. Instructors and students can also find symbols in the behavior of the characters that reflect aspects of human nature.

However, even though readers find relatable and symbolic meaning in many of these figures, according to the author, these comparisons were unintentional. In a letter to Herbert Schiro, J. R. R. Tolkien asserted, "There is no symbolism or conscious allegory in my story." Symbols, like enjoyment of a story, are therefore left up to the reader's interpretation.