When literature achieves renown and ubiquity—Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter—the result is an avalanche of convoluted literary interpretations.
The Lord of the Rings, a recent example of such prominent literature, is no exception.
With so many interpretations, it is unsurprising that a Marxist analysis of The Lord of Rings exists, and there is one of The Hobbit in particular by literary scholar Jack Zipes in his Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.
The stories we tell reveal much about what we believe, so it is worth asking: can The Hobbit accurately be described as Marxist?
I would argue to the contrary – The Hobbit portrays free enterprise in a positive light, as I hope to show with some insights from Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards in their book, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot.
I lack the space to address every point Zipes makes, but mentioning one or two will suffice.
Smaug, Capitalist Exploiter?
In matching major characters with Marxist economic classes, (Zipes claims Bilbo is “described [in the novel] as a lower middle-class shop-keeper” and the dwarves are part of “the working class”), Zipes identifies Smaug as “the picture-image of the capitalist exploiter.”
Putting aside the other characterizations, consider Smaug. Greed is unquestionably one of his defining character traits.
When Smaug is asleep he has “dreams of greed and violence.”
After Bilbo steals a cup from him he erupts into “the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk…lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”
But does it follow that he embodies the “capitalist exploiter”?
No, for as Witt and Richards argue, capitalism is defined not by greed, but by the entrepreneurial spirit:
The capitalist invests and risks in order to support a business enterprise. The miser hoards his wealth, stuffing it in a mattress, locking it away in a safe, or, in Smaug’s case, heaping it in a pile and sleeping on it in the dark.
Equating capitalism with greed is a “caricature,” they say, and Smaug’s greedy nature is more reflective of an “unproductive aristocracy” than of capitalism:
Smaug has wealth that could be turned to capital, but he doesn’t capitalize it. He sits on it, a contemptuous aristocrat with a smug belief in his own invulnerability. He is a miser rather than an entrepreneur, risking nothing, investing in nothing, clutching everything.
Smaug’s greediness does not justify identifying his character as a shot against capitalism, and Tolkien’s treatment of other greedy characters—“Thorin Oakenshield (at his worst) [and] the money-grubbing Master of Lake-town”—does not show he is being critical of capitalism or entrepreneurialism either.
One can be both entrepreneurial and greedy, but entrepreneurialism is essential to capitalism while greed is not. You might say greed is a “bug” of capitalism, not a feature.
So Is ‘The Hobbit’ Marxist?
Another point against Zipes is that the Wood-elves and the people of Lake-town engage in trade.
As Witt and Richards point out, Bilbo and the dwarves are only able to escape the Wood-elves’ kingdom because Bilbo learns of “the wine and other goods [that] came up the rivers…to the Long Lake.”
Later, Bilbo hears some raftmen talking about “all of the trade that came and went on the waterways.”
Apparently the two communities share a healthy commercial relationship, presumably based on the free exchange of goods (i.e. capitalism).
It could be said that Tolkien’s acknowledgment of this arrangement is not approbation.
After all, the Master of Lake-town is a shady character. His mind is constantly occupied with “trade and tolls…cargoes and gold.” He seeks to flee when Smaug attacks the town, and the townspeople are so disgusted they talk of deposing him and crowning Bard king:
We have had enough of the old men and the money-counters….Up the Bowman, and down with Moneybags.
In the end, after Bard gives him gold to help rebuild the town, he runs off with most of it and “[dies] of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions.”
Does this not indicate at least some degree of anti-capitalist sentiment?
The idea would be more plausible if the book ended there.
However, it ends with Bilbo, Balin, and Gandalf conversing around the fire, and part of the news shared among them is that with a new master in charge, Lake-town “was more prosperous than ever, and much wealth went up and down the Running River.”
Commercial exchange is even greater than it was before, again implying that Tolkien is critical of greed, not capitalism or wealth per se.
I concede this is a limited analysis of The Hobbit, and to focus on such details in stories may seem trivial, even agenda-driven.
But all creative acts unavoidably bear some imprint of the world the artist sees. It is not senseless for us to attempt to discern that vision as part of a larger conversation about the truth of our world.