Beowulf and Storyline of The Hobbit
A comparison of The Hobbit and Beowulf
By Joanna D. 6/28/06
J. R. R. Tolkien was professor of English literature, and he really liked Beowulf. This being so, he managed to use many of the same scenes, characters, and symbols in his book, The Hobbit.
To understand the rest of this report, you will need to be acquainted with Beowulf. He is the nephew of a Geatish ruler. He comes to the aid of a Danish king who has a problem with a cannibalistic monster. This monster, Grendel, comes every night to the hall where all the king’s warriors sleep and devours many of them in their sleep, returning every night to his lair. Beowulf stays in the hall one night and fights Grendel with his bare hands, tearing off the monster’s arm before he escapes.
The next night Grendel’s enraged mother comes, thinking only of revenge. She is met by many men and, capturing one of them, she flees with Grendel’s arm. They track her to the pool of her underwater lair, finding there the remains of her captive. Beowulf takes the loan of a sword (Hrunting), dives, and is brought by Grendel’s mother to her lair, where he finds a great sword, with which he slays her. He also finds Grendel, who is dead, and cuts off his head as a trophy. As he comes up, however, he finds that the blade of the marvelous sword melts in the heat of the gore in the water, and that every one seeing all the blood on the water thought he was dead.
After many thanks and rewards, Beowulf returns to Geotland, where his uncle, Hygalec also praises and rewards his valor. Many years later, when they are in a break in a battle with the Swedes, Hygalec leads an expedition up the Rhine River. They are all, with the exception of Beowulf, who escapes, killed. Hygelac’s son is killed for harboring royal Swedish refugees. Beowulf becomes king. One of his men is Wiglaf, a young warrior who was hired by the Swedish king to kill as Swedish prince whose armor Wiglaf now wears. That prince’s brother, however, is now the king of Sweden.
One day, a run-away slave stumbles across a dragon’s treasure, and steals a golden cup as atonement for some crime. It is accepted, but the dragon begins to wreak havoc across the region. Then, learning where the cup came from, Beowulf, eleven of his warriors, and the slave set off to fight the dragon. Beowulf, now about seventy, starts to falter in his duel with the dragon despite his sword Naegling. Wiglaf, seeing that something is wrong, leaps to the aid of Beowulf, calling for the others to join him. Beowulf, though the dragon bites him, kills it with the aid of Wiglaf, his nephew, whom he makes his successor. As he dies, he requests that he should be buried in a tall grave on a cliff top, visible from sea. The ten other swordsmen never joined in and are disinherited. All of the gold is either burned or buried with Beowulf. The end of the poem is disheartening. In addition to the many enemies who will attack when they hear of Beowulf’s death, there is also the king of Sweden whose brother’s armor Wiglaf wears and an old curse put upon the gold because they did no totally destroy it.
Most of The Hobbit’s emphasis is on the dragon, but I will speak briefly of the other monsters. Bilbo Baggins started as a respectable hobbit, who are short, fat, brightly clothed, and calm, with curly hair on their leather-like feet and head. In this case, respectable means rich, estimable, and never going on adventures. He is forced into an adventure when a wizard, Gandalf comes, and Bilbo unwillingly and inadvertently admits to liking adventures. Gandalf immediately arranges that he be sent on one. He goes off with thirteen dwarves, and Gandalf. The dwarves’ names are Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bomber, and Thorin Oakenshield. None of them are very memorable except Thorin, who is chief dwarf and grandson of Thrain, the king under the mountain;as well as Bomber, a fat dwarf who is the comic relief. Fili and Kili, who are Thorin’s young nephews, are also memorable because they are characters with whom you can sympathize with more then the rest of the dwarves. Their first adventure is some trolls. Bilbo accidentally alerts the trolls of the rest of his group’s presence, but Gandalf saves them by making the trolls argue until sunrise, when they turn to stone.
They find the troll’s cave, where they get Elvish weapons: Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, Foe-hammer, worst hated by the goblins as Beater, Thorin’s sword, Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver also hated by the goblins as Biter, and Bilbo’s dagger which he names Sting. This is interesting: the practice of naming weapons, and while it was common in the Middle Ages, it is still a noteworthy similarity between the two books. It makes you wonder what Hrunting and Naegling mean. Also interesting is the the fact that the swords are known by multiple names. The swords obtained from the trolls in The Hobbit glowed when goblins were near. “Suddenly a sword flashed in its own light.” and, “It gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached.” Similar to the sword Beowulf found in Grendel’s mother’s cave; as, it was a “glittering a great hoard-weapon smith-wrought by giants a sword for victory blade for a champion best of war-weapons gleaming in gold work.”
They meet and, are captured by some Goblins. Their home is similar to Grendel’s mothers home: “It was deep, deep, dark, such as only goblins that have taken to living in the heart of the mountains can see through.” The mother of Grendel’s home was in an underwater cave. “That black she-wolf bore him away tugged through the water that warrior from above to her deep cavern-den”. Gandalf rescues them, but Bilbo gets left behind. The goblin’s feelings about their possession of the sword are similar to the mother of Grendel’s feelings about their possession of his arm. “They hated it and hated worse any one who carried it.” “Then his mother sorrowed grieved for her child greedy for man-blood went prowling for vengeance payment for her son.” Not to say that the goblins are an exact, or even a parallel to Grendel’s mother, they just come at similar places and do similar things. Bilbo’s reappearance was also similar to Beowulf’s. After escaping another carnivorous creature and finding an invisibility ring, he finds them “wondering and debating what they were to do now. The dwarves were grumbling, and Gandalf was saying that they could no possibly go on with their journey leaving Mr. Baggins in the hands of the goblins, without trying to find out whether he was alive or dead, and without trying to rescue him.” “ ‘And here’s the burglar!’ said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them, and slipping off the ring. Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight.” This was because they thought, like Beowulf’s warriors, that he might be dead: “they wished without hope that their hero would surface dive up to them.” “His thanes received him thankful to their God for bringing him back from that baleful journey safe after his fight with that sorceress of death. ”
They go through an evil enchanted forest and are captured by elves who live in the forest, but finally, they arrive at the town at the base of the dragon’s mountain. After announcing that the King under the Mountain has returned, they have great assistance. There were rumors about the king returning and gold. When they finally got into the mountain, Bilbo has to do his job. To prove himself to the others, he steals a great golden cup from under the dragon’s nose. “ His heart was beating and a more fevered shaking was in his legs than when he was going down, but still he clutched the cup, and his chief thought was: `I’ve done it! This will show them’.” This scene has exactly the same motives and outcome the scene where the wretched slave fleeing punishment for a crime steals a cup as a gift for Beowulf, so that he could have his life. “till a trembling slave kindled his [the dragon] anger carried off a gem-cup bore it to his lord begged a settlement a gift for his life. ” The treasure in The Hobbitand Beowulf is similar. Both hoards are cursed, “The dwarves of Yore made mighty spells”. And “Those ancient heirlooms earned much curse-power old gold-treasure gripped in a spell – no one might touch them those nameless stone-riches no good or bad man unless God himself the great Glory-King might give someone to open that hoard that heap of treasures a certain warrior as seemed meet to him.” Both hoards were also guarded by a dragon. “ ‘he took all their wealth for himself. Probably, for that is the dragons’ way, he has piled it all up in a great heap far inside, and sleeps on it for a bed.’ ” “a raging flame-dragon ruled in darkness fire-grim guardian of a great treasure mound”.
The dragon figures that the thieves who stole his cup must have come from the Lake Town. “ ‘If you are not one of those men of the Lake, you had their help. They shall see me and remember who is the real King Under the Mountain!’ ” The dragon in Beowulf figured the same thing, and went out on an angry rampage for his cup. “The dragon was ready on his wall by the sea soared with balefire fueled by his fury. The feud had begun, ”. Bilbo had seen the dragon’s vulnerable spot when he had talked with the old worm earlier. ‘Dazzlingly marvellous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!’ exclaimed Bilbo aloud, but what he really thought was ‘Old fool! Why, there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!’” A thrush had overheard, and told Bard, one of the besieged about it. “ ‘Wait! Wait!’ It said to him. ‘The moon is rising. Look for the hollow of his left breast as he flies and turns above you!’ And while Bard paused in wonder it told him of tidings up in the mountain and of all he had heard.” “The great bow twanged. The black arrow sped straight from the string, straight for the hollow by the left breast were the foreleg was flung wide. In it smote and vanished, barb, shaft and feather, so fierce was its flight. With a shriek that deafened men, felled trees and split stone, Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over and crashed down from on high in ruin. Full on the town he fell. His last throes splintered it to sparks and gledes. The lake roared in. A vast steam leaped up, white in the sudden dark under the moon. There was a hiss, a gushing whirl, and then silence. And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth, [the Lake Town] but not of Bard.” And, thus, Bard symbolizes Wiglaf. He did the killing, as Wiglaf gave the fatal wound to his dragon: “He ducked past the head – hot flame-belching burned his hand then as he buried his sword burnished treasure-blade in that black snake belly.” Bard became the new ruler of the town, “ ‘We will have King Bard!’ the people near at hand shouted in reply.” Because Bard was the descendant of the ruler of Dale, (which had become deserted years earlier because of the dragon) Bard became the governer of Dale, but let the old Master continue ruling Esgaroth. Wiglaf also became Beowulf’s heir and inherited his throne. “ ‘Now would I give to my good son-child my armor and weapons if only a land-heir had been granted to me to guard my kingdom prince of my loins.’ ” “He removed from his throat a marvelous neck-ring gold-gleaming collar gave it to his thane, young spear-warrior, yielded his armor helmet and mailcoat hailed him farewell”. Smaug (Bilbo’s dragon) and Beowulf’s dragon also, basically died in the same place, though Beowulf’s dragon died by his cave on the sea shore and not in the sea, and both ended up in the sea/lake. Of Tolkien’s dragon, “He would never again return to his golden bed, but was stretched cold as stone, twisted upon the floor of the shallows.” And Beowulf’s dragon: “The dragon they shoved over the cliffwall into cold wave-water let the sea embrace that shepherd of wealth.”
There are preparations for a war at the end of The Hobbit, similar to the war foreshadowed at the end of Beowulf, “We will live to see dark slaughter-days when the death of our king is widely heralded over wave-rolling seas to Franks and Frisians. That feud was started hard against Hugas when Hygalac went forth sailing with float-troops to Frisian territory where the swordstrong Hetware humbled him in battle gained victory there with greater force-fighting till that best of spear-kings bent down in death fell among foot-troops – no fine gold plunder he brought to our hall. Since that day no stern Merovingians have sent us peace-tokens. Nor will Battle-Swedes bear us good tidings wish us good will.” The Lake-men and elves are about to fight it out for the gold, against the dwarves, minus Bilbo (who has gone over to the elves’/Lake-men’s side) and Gandalf, (who has returned, but is with Bilbo) plus Thorin’s friend Dain’s army. Fortunately, the war is prematurely stopped because of an oncoming hoard of Goblins. “ ‘Halt!’ cried Gandalf, who appeared suddenly, and stood alone, between the advancing dwarves and the ranks awaiting them. ‘Halt!’ He cried in a voice like thunder, and his staff blazed forth with a flash like the lightning. ‘Dread has come upon you all! Alas! It has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the north is coming, O Dain! whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! the bats are above his army like a sea of locusts They ride upon wolves and Warges are in their train. Amazement and confusion fell upon them all Even as Gandalf had been speaking the darkness grew the dwarves halted and gazed at the sky. The elves cried out with many voices Come called Gandalf. There is time yet for council Let Dain son of Nain come swiftly to us! So began the battle that no one had expected and it was called the Battle of five armies and it was very terrible Upon one side were the Goblins and the wild wolves and upon the other were Elves and men and Dwarves.” Because the goblins are mutual enemies, they all unite to defeat them. Even characters who were not in the original armies show up. They defeat the goblins, who do not cause anyone trouble for a long time after, distribute the gold, and make peace.
In the battle, Thorin Oakenshield nobly receives fatal wounds, and dies. As Beowulf dies in the passage I quoted earlier. [Thorin to Bilbo] “ ‘Farewell, good thief,’ he said. ‘I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.” Fili and Kili also die defending their uncle. Thorin is Buried as Beowulf was, with treasure. “They buried Thorin deep beneath the Mountain, and Bard laid the Arkenstone upon his breast. ‘There let him lie until the Mountain falls!’ he said. ‘May it bring good fortune to all his folk after!’ Upon his tomb the Elvinking laid Orcrist, the elvish sword that had been taken from Thorin in captivity. It is said in songs that it gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached, and the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise.” “Then a wagon was loaded with wound goldrings numberless bracelets borne beside the warrior…They raised skywards ready for their king a pyre on that point for their proud warleader hung it with helmets hard shield-bosses bright mesh-corselets as he bade them to do. They laid him in the middle their beloved gift-friend lifted with heartgrief the helm of their land. On the cliff the kindled a king’s balefire wavering death flames…In the barrow they placed bracelets and gems brought from the rock-den – each beaker and dish went back to earth bright gold meadcups stored once again where they still lie waiting as useless as they ever had been.” And so, the treasure was not used because Wiglaf had decreed, “that mighty dragon-hoard shall all go with him grimly purchased with his own lifeblood – for the last time now he has paid for goldrings. Pyre-flames shall eat them flame-roof shall thatch them no thane shall wear them treasures so dear no dressed hall maidens shell wear on their bosoms wound gold necklaces”. Which was true to a certain extent of the dragon’s hoard. “The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste deserted by his companions.” Dain takes his place as king under the mountain and restores it’s halls, just as Wiglaf did. “There now Dain son of Nain took up his abode, and he became King under the Mountain, and in time many other dwarves gathered to his throne in the ancient halls. Of the twelve companions of Thorin, ten remained, Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother. The others remained with Dain; for Dain dealt his treasure well.”
Everything turns out square. After a time, Bilbo journeys home with Gandalf. On returning, He finds all his stuff being auctioned off, his house being possessed by his relatives, and that everyone thinks that he is dead. (They never quite forgive him for it either.)
In The Lord of the Rings He gives the ring to Frodo, his younger cousin who also has some interesting adventures with it.
Afternote: I left out several things perhaps important quite probably some of my comparisons are stretched. However, I wrote it without the benefit of the knowledge that I could read other people’s reports. In addition, after reading the LOTR trilogy, I saw several other possible parellels. The ring which Bilbo found in the cave is similar to the sword Beowulf found in Grendel’s mother’s cave. Both dragon had armor. In the Hobbit, there were several hints as to the impending war of the rings (Gandalf visiting the Necromancer, going away to fight Sauron while they went through Mirkwood, and his long absence, reasoning with Sauraman to let them get at Sauron) This is quite similar to the fact that Geoltand’s enemies would probably attack after Beowulf was dead.