Why is Bilbo Baggins invisible? This study suggests that Tolkien’s knowledge of philology, theology, philosophy, literature, history, and his own life experience all contribute to the development of the symbolic, moral, and psychological significance of invisibility in The Hobbit. On one level, Tolkien’s theology is informed by his philology, so that being invisible (or “not able to be seen”) becomes a way of symbolically representing the Augustinian concept of evil as the absence of good in the world. On another level, Tolkien’s use of invisibility in The Hobbit demonstrates his knowledge of the philosophic and literary tradition associated with the story of the ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, a story that suggests that when people’s actions are not visible and open to the moral scrutiny of others, people may become self-serving and cease to be virtuous. Finally, in his historic role as a signals officer in World War I, Tolkien was often, in effect, invisible to those he was serving and seeking to save on the battlefield. Like Bilbo when he was invisible, he could be heard, but not seen. So invisibility in The Hobbit may correspond to the psychologically traumatizing experience of being in combat. At each of these three levels, invisibility in The Hobbit relates to a hidden war: the conflict between good and evil in the macrocosm of the universe, the resistance to temptation in the microcosm of the heart, and, in a sense, to World War I itself. Readers who understand the deeper symbolic, moral, and psychological significance of invisibility in The Hobbit will no longer see it as a mere magic trick to move the plot forward, but will instead appreciate the deeper meaning of the motif.



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