Acquisitive Imitation and the Gift-Economy: Escaping Reciprocity in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
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Acquisitive Imitation and the Gift-Economy:
Escaping Reciprocity in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Thirteen dwarves and a wizard invade the quiet abode of Bilbo Baggins in an effort to recruit him for an expedition, the purported purpose of which is to recover stolen treasure and exact vengeance on Smaug the dragon, the robber who had cruelly killed a large portion of Thorin's family and friends. Although most readers and critics approach J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit as a children's story, an unserious dress-rehearsal-sketch of The Lord of the Rings at best, and in spite of the fact that, as Nicholas Boyle notes, "there is something embarrassing" about discussing Tolkien's work in an academic context, for "it is so obviously not real literature," The Hobbit, with its "Secondary World" of fantastical creatures, may yet come bearing gifts of insight into, of all things, human nature itself, especially the mimetic nature of much desire.1 Of course, as in Virgil's Aeneid when Laocoön, priest of Troy, tells his countrymen to Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes ("beware of Greeks bearing gifts"), we too may yet be suspicious of that bourgeois burglar Bilbo Baggins, for the gift he bears—though not a Trojan horse—is stolen. Tolkien's enduring appeal involves, in part, the universality of mimetic desire. However, Bilbo's draw extends beyond his mere "relatability" as mediocre-made-heroic to the fact that [End Page 217] he is simultaneously enchanted-insider tangled in the web of mimetic desire and scapegoated-outside—and therefore able to reveal the mechanisms and monstrosities of mimesis.

It has taken a Marxist critic to seriously examine the problem of theft in The Hobbit. In "Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien's Political Unconscious," Ishay Landa argues that "Bilbo begins his inveighing against private property by stealing from the trolls, then from Gollum, then from Smaug the dragon, and, finally and most importantly, from the dwarves."2 How could a children's story be so rife with what at first glance might seem a case of kleptomania made heroic? In the tales that most deeply inform Tolkien's work—Sigurd and Fafnir in the saga of the Volsungs, or Beowulf and Grendel's mother in Beowulf—thieving from the hoard is typically dangerous. However, in The Hobbit, we witness a greater ambivalence toward theft. Tom Shippey sees this movement toward burgling as a departure from bourgeois existence. Bilbo's "heart is in the right place. … He likes flowers … is ample, generous, substantial of undeniably plain and old-fashioned" and thus has "not entirely lost his passport into the ancient world, and can function in it as our representative, without heroic pretensions but also without cynical ironies. He is admittedly a bourgeois. That is why Gandalf turns him into a Burglar."3 However, the problems raised by Bilbo's burgling cannot be resolved by our seeing it as merely a counterpoint to his initial comfort-loving malaise. Tolkien is not working beneath the Marxist dictum that "private property is produced by theft," so much as he is working within the Girardian dictum of "prized property is preceded by desire." To this end, the origins of Bilbo's desire to burgle and his "reason" for becoming a thief are especially important for our investigation.

In order to examine this, it is first necessary to determine whether dwarves themselves are primarily motivated by reciprocity or something else entirely. In "The Ambivalence of Scarcity," Paul Dumouchel develops a Girardian critique of modern economics. He contends that desire precedes the object of desire. If mimesis eventually escalates to make people violently clash around a single object, mimesis "emerges before the object, and even, at the limit, creates the object, it is inseparable from the illusion that the object came first."4 According to Thorin, during a period of exile his family brought "all their wealth and their tools" to the Lonely Mountain, where "they mined and tunneled and they made huger halls and greater workshops—and in addition I believe they found a good deal of gold and a great many jewels too."5 They "grew immensely rich and...