I've been reading The Hobbit since I was in fifth grade and it's the first book that really sparked my life-long interest in reading. Along the way, I've also developed a love of Ancient Greek literature and I am currently in the middle of a book on Homer's Odyssey. With the upcoming installment of Peter Jackson's Hobbit on the horizon, I also decided to go back and read The Hobbit. This brought about and interesting intersection of my two literary loves, Greece and Middle Earth, and I have started seeing The Hobbit with new eyes.
Before Tolkien studied Anglo-Saxon, he was a Classics scholar. The official change came about during his sophomore year of college. Early influences are, however, hard to shake, and I believe that there may be quite a bit of to hellenon hiding out under the anglo-nordic surface of Tolkien's first great tale. Let's take a brief look at some of the key scenes of The Hobbit and see how they match up with Greek myth.
First, there's those three pesky trolls. Trolls are quite properly nordic, but look at the episode they appear in. The dwarves are weary and miserable and seeing evidence of a fire they send Bilbo ahead in hopes of gaining shelter and provisions. When Bilbo is discovered and caught, the rest of Thorin's followers go looking for him and are each taken captive in turn. It then falls to Thorin to save his companions from being eaten and he pulls a great log out of the fire and puts out one of the troll's eyes. Of course, the other two then tackle him and it is only the clever intervention of Gandalf that saves the day. Can you see the underlying episode yet? It's Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops. Lost and weary, Odysseus and his men come to a strange coast where they can see smoke rising from fires. Hoping for a gift of food and provisions, Odysseus and a search party set ashore. They are captured by Polyphemus, who makes a supper of some of the men. Odysseus retaliates by blinding the Cyclops and then uses a clever ruse to orchestrate his men's escape. Tolkien has modified the original by adding two more flesh-eating giants, thus nullifying Thorin's Odyssian eye-jab and requiring the intervention of the wizard to save the day.
Interested yet? Notice that Smaug's cave repeats the Cyclopes motif with greater concurrence and divergence. Bibo encounters the dragon with Odyssian riddling being careful, like Odysseus, to guard his true name under a pseudonym. After the enraged dragon pummels the mountain, the dwarves are trapped in the "cave" this time with stones blocking the entrance that they cannot move. In the original draft of The Hobbit, Bilbo was supposed to stab the dragon himself (Corey Olsen points out that this is still vestigially present in Smaug's dream) as a sort of Sigurd-Odysseus figure. Wisely going for something a bit more plausible, Tolkien changed the encounter in the final draft and gives the victory to Bard, allowing the dwarves to simply walk out of the cave by the intact front door. There is still a little Homeric nod in Bilbo and the dwarves final resolution to leave the dark tunnel so that they may at least die in the light mirroring Aias' request in The Iliad that Zeus let the light shine on them before they die -one of Lewis' favorite quotes.
Looking elsewhere at the original draft discovers another echo of Greek myth. Bilbo describes himself to Smaug as the "clue-finder" which Corey Olson points out is a reference to the first draft of the book where Bilbo follows a "clue" of spider thread to the Spider's lair. Our use of the word "clue" goes back to the legend of Theseus and the Labyrinth where the hero must use a clue, or ball of thread, to find his way out after killing the minotaur.
As a final icing on the cake, after his Odyssian adventures Bilbo returns to reclaim his home from a host of neighbors who are in the process of pillaging it. Bilbo is too bourgeois and too English to engage in an Odyssian killing spree, but he does have a bit of doing to reclaim his house. In the parallel scene in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, however, there is a violent struggle to reclaim the shire from the ruffians who have occupied and despoiled it.
So there you have it: Greek echoes in Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'm convinced that more can be found on examining The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. For instance, has anyone looked at Elendil as and Aeneas figure? However, I'll save those parallels for another time. For now, its sufficient to remember that Tolkien was a truly learned man with wide-ranging interests. These interests seem, by author's intent or the leaf-mold of the mind, to have each found their place in Tolkien's legendarium. Much attention has been payed to the obvious Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, and Nordic elements. Maybe it's time for a more careful consideration of the Classical elements as well.