The changes which war and industrialization inflicted on English society are mirrored in the experiences of Tolkien’s characters in the fantasy world, Middle Earth. Change comes whether characters want it or not; it is simply a consequence of the new powers which rule the world. Change is both destructive and constructive, but in the end, Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo, suggests that individuals still retain the ability to control their own fate. The cost of change, however, may be perilously high.
There are two fundamental types of characters in The Hobbit. Some, like Bombur, are static and their values and pleasures never change even in the face of peril. Such characters play very little part in moving the story forward, only serving as a contrast against which the reader can gauge the changes of more dynamic characters. For others, like Bilbo Baggins, everything changes around them. As Bilbo departs from his roots in Hobbiton, drastic changes reveal hidden facets of his character. His changes do not arise from an intentional desire to be someone different. Rather, instead of comfortably conforming to his somewhat backward society, as a member of Thorin and Co. he is thrust into adventures which challenge his character and require him to grow. The giving of new names shows how deeply change has affected his sense of identity. In Hobbiton, Bilbo is the son of Bungo and Belladonna Baggins from Bag End, The Hill. The names he assigns to himself reveal his newfound skills - “clue finder, web cutter, the stinging fly, ring wearer, luck bearer, and barrel rider” – and reflect his recent adventures with the dwarves. The only mention to Smaug of his old life - “I come from under hill and over hill” – is also a play on his travels. The country gentleman has become a worldly adventurer, a change which many people of Tolkien’s time welcomed as technology opened opportunities for travel and jobs. Like Bilbo, contented homebodies were offered new and lucrative positions away from everything they knew.
During Tolkien’s lifetime, automobiles and airplanes become more common in the United Kingdom, allowing an increasing number of people to escape their roots and embrace different experiences. While convenient, the newfound ability to travel long distances faster and more comfortably brought about a collapse of old customs, neighborhoods, and values. Industrialization, a movement which Tolkien deeply disapproved of because it removed people from their traditional identity, also began to prosper. The story of Thorin’s ancestors is one of Tolkien’s most obvious warnings about the dangers of the new focus on development. Thorin’s ancestor Thra ?in turned the Lonely Mountain into a sprawling dwarf fortress centered around a mine. From the mine, the dwarves obtained many precious metals and gems with which they became exceedingly rich. But their greed was so increased by each treasure that they took out the heart of the mountain itself. After meddling with what should have been left to support the mountain, the downfall of their once prosperous society began, culminating in the arrival of Smaug. Their lust for change, namely the desire to become ever richer and more powerful, eventually destroys them. As a metaphor for England, the mine parallels the new technologies which promised better life but threatened to destroy the culture of the mountain, England. However, despite the catastrophic results of some forms of change, even Tolkien must admit that change doesn’t always destroy. The old values can still shape the new opportunities. Unlike the Dwarves, when possible Bilbo uses his wealth and other assets to aide others. Because he is not simply motivated by material gain, he is able to successfully withstand change. One of the clearest examples of this is with the Arkenstone. He values it because of its beauty but even though he is willing to conceal it from Thorin, who loves only its priceless worth, he is willing to exchange it for peace. Bilbo intuitively understands what Thorin – and Gollum – do not: if one selfishly keeps wealth or power, it will warp other fundamental values.
The breakdown of relationships is Tolkien’s biggest concern about the changes wrought by new technology and industrialization. Hobbits as well as Englishmen shared the dangers of losing their knowledge of their past. Unlike the outside world of ‘big people,’ the Shire is clannish. Everyone knows each other’s history going back many centuries and such knowledge is the basis of opinions of their neighbors and relations. In stark contrast to this, when Bilbo falls in with the dwarves both parties have barely any knowledge of each other’s cultures or personal histories. Nor do they share a common motivation other than completing the quest. While this proves to be a sufficient ground for fictional friendships and loyalties to form, in Tolkien’s England and today’s society it is not. Without shared roots or sometimes even a shared language, the characters of other people become less important. Without character, the only value that can be assigned to people is material worth. We value signs of wealth and proof of productive activity. If this is true, then today’s people are fools not to choose computers over other people as computers produce more material gain than living things. The news suggests that this is increasingly – and sadly – true.