• Amy MacKinnon

Magic in The Hobbit

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

Is There Magic in The Hobbit?


If you’ve read The Hobbit, or seen any of the movie versions, then what comes to your mind first is probably the adventure that Bilbo goes on, the dwarfs, Gandalf, the Goblin King, and the dragon Smaug.


But magic is probably not one of the first things you think of, unless you're thinking about Gollum's magic ring (especially if you’ve read or seen The Lord of the Rings).


But is the ring that Bilbo won from Gollum the only magic in the story?

No, there's a lot more magic in that story, but I'm going to narrow it down a bit.


There are 3 magic things in The Hobbit that I’m going to talk about:

  1. The magic ring

  2. Gandalf’s powers and magic

  3. Elven magic


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The Hobbit and the Magic Ring


When J.R.R. Tolkien write the original version of The Hobbit, the ring was just that: a magic ring.


It wasn’t evil, it didn’t have an evil influence on the wearer—not even Gollum.


And originally, when Gollum lost the riddle contest to Bilbo, he just admitted that he’d lost, handed the ring over to Bilbo, and that was that.


It was only when Tolkien decided to write The Lord of the Rings, that he went back and made changes to that part of the story in The Hobbit. That revised version is the story that most people are familiar with, so most people don’t realize this—unless they’ve read the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf says that it took some time for Bilbo to finally admit the “real story” to him.



The Nature of Hobbits


Magic is in the nature of hobbits. They are closely attuned with nature itself, and they have a magic that aligns them with the natural world. Two of the ways we see this in the stories is in their gardens (and the importance of Samwise, the gardener), and their ability to hide in plain sight.


Growing Things


The world of the hobbits in Hobbiton (Hobbit town) is limited to their home and hearth, for the most part. The like their routines, and their homes—they love stability. It's because they love their homes so much that they spend most of their time at home. Their homes are cozy, built for comfort, and settling in.


That's also why they collect so much "stuff"—they like their creature comforts, and always having their "stuff" around them limits the changeability of the world and provides a type of stability.


Their gardens, whether decorative or vegetative, are always very well tended—unusually so!


They have a type of magic, which is for growing things.


It's a magical ability because they live in the world of Faerie, but it's a magic that's part of their nature.


The world of the hobbits is an agrarian society, so gardeners are vitally important. Having a specific talent for growing things is greatly prized. It keeps them alive, and thriving.


They're not just in tune with nature, they enhance it and the natural world thrives because of their interaction with it.


But that's not all that's going on: in a story written by a Christian, the role of "gardener" is often a reference to either Adam or Jesus, or both


Who did Mary Magdalene think that Jesus, the new Adam, was on Easter Sunday?

The gardener.


The job of the very first human being, Adam, was to till and keep the garden.


All that he and Eve ate at first was the fruit from the trees in the Garden of Eden. That changed after they committed the Original Sin, when they rejected God as their Father and acted more like animals than children of God.


Even after the Fall, human beings only ate fruits and vegetation (just as the animals ate). It wasn't until after another "fall" which came after Noah and the Great Flood, that God gave human beings permission to eat animals.


Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in harmony with God and with nature. Work for them was tilling and keeping the Garden, but it wasn't with the difficulty and hard labor that we experience now.


So in some ways, Tolkien is comparing the hobbits and their life in Hobbiton to life in the Garden of Eden. They live simply, in relative harmony (not perfect harmony) with nature and each other, until their life is disrupted by outside influences.


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Invisible


The hobbits also have a talent for blending into their surroundings so perfectly that others don't even notice them. They don't become completely invisible, but this ability of theirs is like a natural camouflage.


This is partly why Tolkien says that it’s difficult for us to see one—they hide from us when they see or hear us coming!


This natural ability of hobbits is also part of the reason why the ring makes Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo invisible when they wear it. In a sense, it takes their natural ability to disappear into their environment and magnifies or enhances it. That idea is developed much more in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s first mentioned in The Hobbit.


And it's definitely magical. The hobbits don't naturally disappear completely from sight at will—they blend into their environment.


The ring takes that natural ability to blend in and escape the notice of others, and brings them into a shadow world where they are invisible to our sense of sight, but still allows them to act in our world.


The action of the ring is magical and enhances what is natural to a hobbit, but the ability itself is not natural to a hobbit.


What Are Gandalf’s Powers?


In The Hobbit, he’s a bit mysterious. He seems to know a lot about Bilbo and his older family members, dwarfs, trolls, elves, and hobbits in general, but there’s no explanation for who he is and how he knows any of this.


Except that he’s a wizard.


Which means what, exactly? If you really want to know more about him, you really have to read both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. In this story, however; all you know is that he has a lot of knowledge, speaks to animals, seems to disappear and reappear without anyone seeing how he does it, and that he helps them to defeat trolls and dragons.


Knowledge, however, is a potential foundation for a type of wisdom. This is the type of wisdom that comes from experience, suffering, reflection, and pursuing the truth and goodness. This is a different type of wisdom from the wisdom that's a gift of the Holy Spirit.


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Wizard means “wise man”


So in this story at least, it seems that Gandalf is a wizard because of his great age, wealth of experience, and thoughtful reflections on that. He does have a little bit of magic, but he's not a wizard to be feared for his magic and abilities the way he is in LOTR.


What you don’t really find out until later (LOTR, Silmarillion) is that he’s a wizard because of the type of creature that he is, and this is why he has some magical abilities, and it's also why his using the magic ring would have grave consequences for him and for Middle Earth.




Can Elves Use Magic?


If your only knowledge of elves in Tolkien's world of Middle Earth comes from reading or seeing The Hobbit, then you might think that the answer is "no."


The elves in The Hobbit are the same elves in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s weird trying to reconcile them. In The Lord of the Rings, there is a certain nobility and seriousness (or gravitas) about them, but in The Hobbit they’re more than a little bit silly when we first meet them—just as the dwarfs are.


Both the elves and the dwarfs sing silly songs in The Hobbit, but when you read or see The Lord of the Rings, it’s really hard to imagine Gimli or Legolas acting that way.


Why the difference?


Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit for his kids, and wrote The Lord of the Rings about 20 years later. It's not just the difference in time itself that changed; his kids were adults by then, so he didn't have little kids running around the house anymore. He was writing for a different audience, so we have to take that into account.


It might be better to look at them either as different versions based on old texts that have different accounts (which is somewhat how Tolkien justified the change in the effect of the Ring), or even as different elves altogether.


What is Elven Magic?


There’s more in The Lord of the Rings about the magic of the elves, but there are some small references to it in The Hobbit, too.


The Road or Path through the woods


Gandalf warns Bilbo and the Dwarfs to stay on the path while they travel through the woods. Straying from the path is always dangerous when going through a magic forest!


Of course they stray—just a little bit—and end up being taken captive by the elves.


The road or path itself has some magic in it, which is why they would have been granted safe passage if they had stayed on that path.


Time works differently in the world of Faerie


In faerie stories, time always works differently than it does in our world. When Rip van Winkle took a nap for a few hours, only to wake up and discover that decades had passed in our world.


In both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, time spent in the homes of the elves means that time there passes differently than in the rest of the world. It’s a fairy tale/faerie story trope, so Tolkien is honoring that in his stories.




List of Posts in the Series, "Magic in Christian Fiction"


Magic in Fairy Tales

Magic in Narnia

Magic in The Hobbit (this post)

Magic in The Lord of the Rings



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