Lessons in Manliness: The Hobbit

by Jeremy Anderberg on September 18, 2013 · 45 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness


The Hobbit has been a favorite of children and adults alike since its publication in 1937. It used to take a backseat to The Lord of the Rings, but with the movie being released last summer, interest has been renewed in Bilbo Baggins’ adventure.

When it was originally published, it was put into the children’s category and even won prizes for best juvenile fiction that year. Tolkien himself, however, said that a simple tale like The Hobbit can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, making it a great story to read with your kids.

In the book, the reluctant Bilbo Baggins is recruited by a wizard, Gandalf, to join a group of dwarves on an adventure. There are 13 dwarves in the party (an unlucky number, hence the recruitment of Bilbo) who have been exiled from their home, the Lonely Mountain, by a dragon. In that mountain are mounds and mounds of treasure, which is what attracted the dragon in the first place. Nobody has yet had the gall to try to fight off the beast and reclaim the mountain, so these 13 dwarves, plus Bilbo, make a run at it. Together they cross valleys, mountain ranges, murky forests, and raging rivers in order to make their way back home to the Lonely Mountain to fight the dragon.

There are many lessons we can glean from The Hobbit, but today we’ll focus on just a few of this classic tale’s most salient takeaways:

1. You can aspire to and achieve greatness no matter who you are and no matter your stage in life. This sounds extraordinarily like a cliché, but do you really believe it? Contrary to what the movies would have you believe, in the book, Bilbo was 50 years old when he set out on his adventure. (So was Frodo, in fact, in Lord of the Rings.) He had “little to no magic,” and “didn’t like to be called audacious.” He was a thoroughly middle-aged fellow who had no interest in spicing up his life. He lived comfortably, ate and drank much, and enjoyed his cozy home. He even said, “We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

And yet, Bilbo ultimately becomes the hero of our story. He often complains and longs for home, but he keeps pressing on. He even gets to a point where he can feel the desire for adventure calling out from within him. We’ve written about the importance of taking full advantage of your 20s, but the potential of your middle and elder years shouldn’t be squandered either. Will you be an empty nester or retiree with a quiet, comfortable life? Or will you say “yes” to whatever adventure or dream is trying to make itself heard from within your spirit? When you feel yourself trying to say that you’re not the kind of person to start your own business or that you’re too old to travel the world, harness your inner Bilbo Baggins. Say yes, take the first step outside your front door, and keep on going.

2. A great leader knows when it’s time to step back and let go. There are plenty of leadership lessons we can learn from Gandalf, but his wise style of mentorship is what stands out most. Gandalf travels a good distance with Bilbo and the company of dwarves, but ultimately leaves them to their own devices. He says, “Indeed we are now a good deal further east than I ever meant to come with you, for after all this is not my adventure.”

A great leader and mentor will certainly assist his followers, especially at the start. But there comes a point when the leash has to come off. It’s difficult because it means you have to trust the person with whatever task you’ve charged them with. You’re giving up control of the situation, which is a tough thing for humans to do. Think about what a great coach does, though. He teaches and guides as far as he can, but ultimately he’s not the one who can win the game. He has to put his trust in his players to actually make the plays. The same thought rings true of parenting. The instinct is to just hold a child’s hand for ever and ever, and yet there comes a day when you have to let go, even if it means allowing them to make mistakes and giving them the space to find their way through those mistakes on their own.

3. There are some things in life we just have to accomplish on our own. Just as a great leader knows when to let go, a mentee must embrace the challenge of sometimes going it alone. One of my favorite lines in the book comes after Bilbo has killed a giant spider. His friends had been kidnapped, he was all alone, and to top it off it was the pitch black of night. “Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder.”

I can relate to this, albeit in a comparatively very small way. In the last half-year or so I’ve taken up running, something I had never done before. In the beginning, progress was quick. I went from walking half of my three miles, to only walking a few blocks of it in a matter of weeks. But after that, it felt like a barrier went up, and I couldn’t make much progress. My wife finally convinced me to run with her, and for the first time, I went 3+ miles without once stopping. Huzzah! I now knew that I could do it. And yet, I had to also do it on my own to prove to myself that it was legit. So a couple days later I went out for a run, and sure enough, my brain wanted to walk. Even just for 10 seconds. And yet, I knew that I physically could do it, so I powered through and did it on my own. It took a friend along the way (my wife) to show me I was capable, but to ultimately break through the barrier and feel stronger as a runner I had to do it on my own. Can you relate?

4. To simply continue on is one of the bravest things that can be done. Near the end of the story, Bilbo is in the mountain and ready to gaze upon the dragon that is guarding the lost treasure. He’s alone, and in the dark (seems to be a common setting, doesn’t it?). He could see the glow of the dragon’s fire, but not the dragon himself. “It was at this point Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”

His greatest battle was not with the dragon, but with his own will. He knew danger was ahead. He didn’t know what it looked like, but he knew it was coming. He steeled himself, and continued on. That singular moment of deciding to move forward was braver than any other thing that Bilbo ever did. Quite a statement, isn’t it?  And yet, it rings true. Deciding to do something, with unknown waters ahead, is much harder than doing the thing itself. When we moved to Denver from Iowa a year ago, my wife and I were both jobless. She had just graduated from physical therapy school, and I had just been laid off from my job, which was supposed to continue as a work-from-home position. I can say with certainty that the decision to move out here anyway and follow the adventure was much harder than the actual moving day. Our toughest challenges are mental; and once you clear that hurdle, you can do just about anything.

5. A great story always has conflict or hardship. Imagine your life as a story. Not too long ago, we even had a guest post about this — our life is a journey, and a heroic one at that. Imagine yourself sitting down with your grandkids and telling them the story of you. “Well, I made some money, bought a few cars, sat around and watched TV for a few hours every night, and that’s about it.” Pretty boring, isn’t it? Now imagine that you can start hours worth of stories with, “I explored…I traveled…I fell in love…I fought and won…I overcame…I sweated…” Not only would the story be better, but you likely would be far more satisfied with the course of your life.

J.R.R. Tolkien agrees. “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyways.” He is saying that a life of good ease is a boring one. It’s often what the American dream aspires to, but the reality is that personal growth, and even enjoyment, are things that come out of some kind of challenge. Whether it’s huffing and puffing and groaning your way up a mountain for the view at the top, or getting laid off and finally realizing you don’t want to be in a cubicle anymore, joy is often found after a bit of trudging. Don’t shy away from challenge. Embrace it, and know that someday it’ll make for a great story.

What lessons have you gleaned from The Hobbit? Which of these five most resonate with you? Tell us in the comments!


{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Katy September 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm

My husband and I have read a handful of books together out loud, and just this week we picked up the Hobbit to read aloud for our unborn baby boy to “hear.” :) Can’t wait to read him more great works like this, in good time. Great article.

2 Victor P September 18, 2013 at 4:50 pm

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

3 Ethan September 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Love the post, I’ve always seen The Hobbit as a sort of political statement but this perspective is great. Thanks for it!

4 Serafin Nunez September 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm

One correction… Though Bilbo is 50 when he sets out on his journey, he is a Hobbit. Their 50 is more like our mid-30s.

The age discrepancy in the movies has always annoyed me. Bilbo, and later Frodo, are not portrayed as they are in the books. Frodo, who is 33 when Bilbo leaves, is 50 as well when his adventure begins.

5 David Y September 18, 2013 at 6:49 pm

One of the great lessons from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that you do not have to be a larger than life character to achieve great things. Seemingly small and insignificant people can sometimes rise up and become hero’s. JRR Tolkien regarded Sam, who was a simple gardener, as the true hero of LOTR.

During WW2, the Germans tended to think of the British as a nation of shopkeepers and gardeners. Those shopkeepers and gardeners rose to the occasion.

6 Michel September 18, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Great post! It’s weird because I was watching the movie as you posted this.

7 James September 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Fantastic post. I keep a blog almost entirely dedicated to the lessons of Tolkien and this article just reminds me how amazing and deep the Professor’s work can really be.

8 Joey E September 18, 2013 at 8:30 pm

My story is not about me. There is a bigger story that supersedes all. My story is important, but only as it connects to the whole picture.

9 Lindy September 18, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Great article. The only thing I would add is that while how we respond to struggle shapes our character and lives in many ways, we still need to value the quiet (boring!) moments. Without them, we will likely not have the energy to face the struggles and make the right choices that we need to make.

10 Adrian September 18, 2013 at 10:45 pm

My dad loves that book. I love that book, and now my 5yo son loves that book.

Back in about February he (then 4) was looking at the latest and greatest Lego catalogue and showing me pictures of the Hobbit movie merchandising (we’ve not seen the movie nor did he realise it was from a movie), I pointed out that it came from a book and went and found it on the shelves and showed him the maps and the sketches of the spider. We started reading it, anywhere from a few pages a night up to half a chapter or so when he got completely engrossed and wouldn’t let me stop. Took us until early June to finish, but we both loved the experience!

11 Beresford September 19, 2013 at 3:06 am

Everything goes better with a song.

“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.”

12 H.W. September 19, 2013 at 7:13 am

#1. You can aspire to and achieve greatness no matter who you are and no matter your stage in life.

This statement resounds with me, and I’ll give you a synopsis of why.

At 18 I dropped out of high school, drank, started doing drugs, and got into trouble with the law. for the next 5 years I worked a menial job as a labourer being paid under the table with no savings and a lack of stable housing. in short, I was a damned wreck as a young man.

I am now 30 years old. I am in college for the first time, and on track to graduate with honours. I haven’t been near drugs in 8 years. I have made the commitment to join the army reserve in order to improve myself and to serve others, and after graduating will either become a social worker or police constable.

This I feel is one of the great, and seldom spoken truths of life. You can, and should work to improve yourself each and everyday – because you CAN make yourself great, no matter your beginnings, or where you are now.

13 Will Malven September 19, 2013 at 7:51 am

The Hobbit is a classic adventure tale. It parallels the adventures the Norse laid out in their Eddas and, in fact, that was the intention of Tolkien when he began his writing adventure–The Hobbit he wrote for his children and his personal amusement, but it was derived from his efforts to create an English version of the Norse tales. The Lord of the Rings was the culmination of his efforts.

It is the classic “heroes journey” that Joseph Campbell examines in detail in his book: “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”–the secure, safe, comfortable home=>the question, challenge, trophy=>the journey, quest, search for meaning=>the descent into darkness, fall from grace, loss of hope=>the awakening, rebirth, victory=>the return home as hero, prophet, victor.

It’s a universal tale.

If I may be so bold, I would add Campbell’s “Hero” to the list of “must read books.”

Joseph Campbell was the greatest mythologist of our time and his writings delve into our deepest search for meaning in life.

14 Mike September 19, 2013 at 7:57 am

The size of the heart, not the person determines greatness.

15 John B September 19, 2013 at 8:29 am

This is one of my favorite books. I read it as a child but I didn’t appreciate it until I read it again as an adult. It’s a true adventure, I love the full title , …There and back again, when Bilbo comes back he’s not the same hobbit. The protagonist, an everyday hobbit, found the strength in himself and grew to be a great character and completely changes his life. The entire story is inspiring and makes you feel good after reading it.

16 Mark Ruddick September 19, 2013 at 8:30 am

“Those shopkeepers and gardeners rose to the occasion”

Gardeners rose…nice pun.

17 Davis September 19, 2013 at 8:54 am

In my opinion, the first lesson of the story is not the great things you can achieve, but that God’s plan for your life is much greater than your own. Keep in mind that Tolkien was catholic as well.

18 Tim Card September 19, 2013 at 9:12 am

One of the biggest lessons that I took from the Hobbit is that sometimes bad things comes in small, shiny packages and may not manifest itself fully for a long, long time.

19 Eric Petersen September 19, 2013 at 9:13 am

Thanks for posting this. It has been interesting to notice how the ever since graduating from college in April that there are fewer “established” ways of challenging myself. This is just a reminder that it is us and us alone that can truly find ways to get outside of our comfort zone and create wonderful adventures.

20 Tina September 19, 2013 at 9:26 am

Never trust the guy who values his gold ring more than anything else.

21 Wolfgang September 19, 2013 at 10:11 am

“Everything goes better with a song.” My wife and incorporated a version of that song into our wedding ceremony. Such is the influence of Tolkien.

22 TJ September 19, 2013 at 10:20 am

My favorite analysis of The Hobbit is that Tolkien wrote it as an alternative to the great epics of history but from a Christian worldview. All of the great epics of history The Odyssey, The Illiad, etc were all about strong men going to find something; The Hobbit/LOTR are about a weak person going to lose something. That is a starkly different narrative

23 Carson September 19, 2013 at 10:57 am

Great article. I actually just starting reading The Hobbit with my son this week. I fell in love with this adventure tale when I was nine and now that I’m older I find myself appreciating the deeper meanings in the book that I didn’t pick up as a kid.

24 John September 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm

The most important lessons in manliness that The Hobbit has to offer are well explained in Joseph Pearce’s book Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning in The Hobbit. It is a well written and quick read. Highly recommend.

25 Caleb September 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm

The most important lesson for me in The Hobbit (as well as the LOTR) is that it is never, ever, under any circumstances right to despair. And that is a huge lesson.

Also, per Biblo, never laugh at live dragons.

26 MT Geoff September 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm

I first read “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” as a teen, back when no publisher could bind the Trilogy itself into one volume. Marvelous and yes, hobbits are manly.
“A great story has conflict or hardship.” True, for adversity reveals us in our strengths and weaknesses. But the conflict need not be anger or rivalry. In “The Guardian” (a movie to promote manliness if there ever was one), the rescue swimmers disagree on training a bit. But the story is about conquering danger, protecting others, and conquering one’s own limits. It’s not about conquering each other or even conquering evil. I loved that. (The bar fight was stupid.)

27 MikeK September 19, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to my children when they were young. Before that, I had read it myself. I have always associated it with Tolkien’s own time in World War I.

28 Serafin Nunez September 19, 2013 at 6:10 pm

“This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?” – Elrond

29 jocon307 September 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm

It is good for me to read this post and the comments now. I’m facing a challenge that I never expected, nor sought, certainly and I think I’m doing OK with things, but the mood swings (hope/fear/elation/fear) are kind of hard to handle.

I’m trying to be brave and look at it as an adventure.

30 Don September 19, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I’m telling you, if you haven’t taken a long road trip with your kids and listened to the audio version with Rob Inglis, you are missing one of life’s great pleasures.

31 mike September 19, 2013 at 9:39 pm

i am 50, like Frodo and Bilbo. i am tired, done enough. looking forward to a hobbit hole and food and drink and company.

32 Bill Woods September 20, 2013 at 1:31 am

#18 Tim Card “One of the biggest lessons that I took from the Hobbit is that sometimes bad things comes in small, shiny packages and may not manifest itself fully for a long, long time.”

If you’re referring to Gollum’s ring, you don’t get that lesson from _The Hobbit_. That ring was just a generic magic thing. It didn’t become a Bad Thing until some years later, when Tolkien set out to write a sequel.

An interesting book on _The Hobbit_ came out recently: _Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”_

33 Born Free September 20, 2013 at 2:03 am

#5 resonates. “A good story..hardship”. I taught reading to 5-8. We read “The Hobbit” (in voices) of course, but this is about a far different book, “The Old Man and The Sea” (Hemingway’s Nobel Prize). My advanced classes went wild over it, yet it’s a story that ends in defeat. What they stood clapping about was an incredible spirit of hope and perseverence. I was agog, and very proud.

34 jim oberg September 20, 2013 at 6:49 am

” “It was at this point Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.””

Amen, I say again, amen. This is the passage I stopped at, as I was reading the book to my grandsons [aged 8 & 11] last spring. I read the paragraph twice. A few weeks later, when they visited again and wanted more bedtime reading, I read the whole chapter again and this paragraph especially. These kinds of words, you remember all your life, especially concerning dragons.

35 Hunter September 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

If you’re looking for lessons in contentment and happiness may I suggest the Wisdom of the Shire.


36 Tj September 20, 2013 at 10:06 am

“not every adventure is a pony ride in May!”

37 Marios September 22, 2013 at 2:13 am

There goes another one!
In hard times, friendship and companionship is the only thing that will keep you alive, literally and metaphorically. In every adventure that Bilbo and the Dwarves had, the only thing that helped them survive was the fact that they had each other. Similarly in war, you will never survive on your one. You need friends, especially in hard times.

38 Philip September 23, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Great post for a great book. I feel like Bilbo was portrayed as old and a little foolish in the movie. Not so in the books.

“I sit beside the fire and think…” poem really evokes the emotion of this character.

39 Erik September 24, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I don’t necessarily see the problem with a cozy quiet life, as when I am able to retire and relax with a pipe and a 30 year old scotch I will do so and be happy with my choice. But, I see your point and it is a good one!

40 Lady Val September 30, 2013 at 7:49 am

The author is incorrect almost immediately when he states that the object of the quest was to “fight the dragon.” The LAST thing that the dwarves (AND Bilbo) wanted was to even SEE the dragon. Bilbo is recruited as a BURGLAR and he states to the dwarves as they wait in the secret tunnel that their treasure is so vast that he could hardly carry it off had Smaug (the dragon) been as tame as a rabbit! Even the song the dwarves sing on the night they meet at Bilbo’s house is about the TREASURE, not the dragon. That’s what makes Tolkien’s story so very right! Nobody starts off with grandiose plans of slaying dragons, only with being able to “steal back” enough of their own to keep them in their old age.

41 James September 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Spoiler Alert for the Story, just in case

I’ll need to think about the lessons I learned from The Hobbit but I feel obligated to point out that taking risks is, well, risky. Remember that three of the dwarves (who also risked much) did not survive the adventure, and one of the survivors later died on another adventurous undertaking in Moria.

So, yes, take some risks and if you survive and succeed then you will be the better for it … but temper that with a little wisdom now and again. In the battle of the five armies, Bilbo said “no” and put on his ring to avoid that particular risk. (That would be one of my five lessons, once I figure out how to word them.)

42 Bill Jones September 30, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Frodo was thirty three.

43 James October 1, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Frodo turned 33 on the day Bilbo turned 111. In the book, it was nearly 17 more years before Gandalf figured out it was the one ring and so Frodo arranged to leave the Shire when he was fifty, just like Bilbo did.

And I have no idea why that detail is perfectly clear in my head yet I cannot for the life of me quote more than a line or two of any of the songs in the books.

But back to The Hobbit. I guess one of the lessons I learned was the value of knowing experts. Assuming Gandalf knew the moon letters were there but could not read them, he knew that Elrond could. Without that knowledge, the quest was probably lost before they began. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know where to go and whom to ask when you need it.

44 Peter October 9, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Thank you all for these marvelous, thoughtful posts!

45 Karl November 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

I read Lord of the Rings in 5th grade and also the Hobbit back then, 1979, loved them both. It is a shame reading has become a lost pastime for all or at least holding a great novel that is bound in leather, now we have e-readers which are fine, but nothing compairs to holding a novel in your hands.

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