Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
First published: 1937 (2d ed., 1951; 3d ed., 1966)
Time: A mythical past
Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, the protagonist. Fifty years old when the story begins, Bilbo is respectable, unadventurous, and predictable. Forced into an unwanted role as burglar with Thorin's expedition, Bilbo encounters a series of monsters and learns with growing self-reliance to use his luck and his wits, becoming the leader of the expedition. By discovering Smaug's weak spot, Bilbo helps slay the dragon, though no one remembers his contribution. One year after setting out, Bilbo returns from his adventure a changed hobbit: No longer respectably predictable, he is a hero, with a true sense of his small but vital place in a wide world.
Gandalf, a wizard, almost a comic character, whose powers remain largely unrevealed. Gandalf chooses Bilbo to accompany the dwarves and travels with them in the early stages of their journey, rescuing them from the trolls, helping the dwarves escape the goblin tunnels, and introducing them to Elrond and Beorn. Gandalf leaves the company in Bilbo's care before they enter Mirkwood, thus letting the hobbit grow into his role as self-reliant hero. The wizard reappears at the end of the quest, helping in the Battle of the Five Armies, and later accompanies Bilbo back to Hobbiton.
Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf, rightful heir to his grandfather Thror, last King under the Mountain, whose kingdom Smaug destroyed. Thorin is both proud and brave. He proposed the daring quest, but he is also stubborn and prone to greed: He refuses to share the dragon treasure and becomes estranged from Bilbo. In the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin makes a valiant last stand with his kinfolk, but the great dwarf falls, badly wounded. Lifted from the fray by Beorn, Thorin dies after praising Bilbo and is buried with honor.
Smaug, a greedy, strong dragon. Long ago, Smaug destroyed the town of Dale and the kingdom under the Lonely Mountain. He has accumulated a mountain of treasure, which he uses for a bed. Smaug seems invincible, but Bilbo discovers a soft spot on his left breast; this information enables Bard to slay Smaug during the dragon's attack on Esgaroth.
Beorn, a skin-changer, sometimes a huge man and sometimes a great bear. Beorn, though suspicious, shelters Thorin and company after their escape from the goblins and Wargs. After confirming their story, Beorn offers the dwarves any help within his power. He appears as a bear in the Battle of the Five Armies and routs the goblins just when defeat seems certain.
Bard, a man of Esgaroth, grim of voice and face, the slayer of Smaug. Bard is descended from Girion, last Lord of Dale. After Smaug's death, Bard helps the Elvenking besiege Thorin but joins with elves and dwarves in the Battle of the Five Armies. Later, Bard rebuilds a merry and prosperous Dale.
The old thrush, a bird whose forebears were friendly to the dwarves and to the men of Dale. The old thrush helps slay Smaug, carrying news of the dragon's weak spot to Bard.
Elrond, the lord of Rivendell, where Thorin and company rest before crossing the Misty Mountains. Elrond is half-elven and is noble, wise, venerable, and kind. He finds the moon-letters on Thorin's map, revealing information crucial to Thorin's quest.
Gollum, a small, dark monster (named Sméagol and identified as a ruined hobbit in other books). Gollum is fond of fish and goblin meat, and his willingness to try hobbit gives Bilbo his first real trial. In the goblin tunnels where Gollum lives, Bilbo finds a ring, long possessed by Gollum, that makes its wearer invisible. Gollum engages Bilbo in a riddle contest, which the hobbit, by luck and not quite fairly, wins. Learning of the ring's power from Gollum's mutterings, Bilbo follows the monster to the goblins' back door. Choosing fairness over prudence, he does not kill Gollum, but leaps over him to freedom.
The Elvenking, lord of the wood-elves. He imprisons the dwarves in his dungeon, whence they escape with Bilbo's help. Thorin afterward bears a grudge against the Elvenking. After Smaug's death, the Elvenking, who has a weakness for treasure, marches with an army toward the Lonely Mountain, turning aside to help the people of ruined Esgaroth. With Bard, he besieges Thorin but joins dwarves and men in the Battle of the Five Armies.
Dain son of Nain, Thorin's cousin. Dain leads an army of dwarves from the Iron Hills to aid Thorin against the Elvenking and Bard but joins elves and men in the Battle of the Five Armies. Dain, a generous dwarf, becomes King under the Mountain after Thorin's death.