The morality of revenge is often difficult to evaluate, and the struggle to determine whether it is the path to justice or evil subtlety permeates through J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. In the novel, the morality of vengeance does not fall into the clearly set lines between good and evil. This grey area is a hallmark of Tolkien's background, for his religion and academic studies have conflicting stances on revenge. His faith criticizes revenge and promotes forgiveness, yet he was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature which portrays revenge as the noble route to justice. Since these two aspects of Tolkien's life greatly influenced his writing, he did not eliminate the existence of vengeance from the minds of his indignant characters. Instead, the novel cautions against revenge and its inherent dangers, though there are exceptions in which revenge is carried out without harmful effects. However, in order to evaluate the various episodes where revenge is discouraged in the narrative, there must be a consistent criteria for analysis.
To begin, revenge is defined as:
A deliberate injurious act or course of action against another person, motivated by resentment of an injurious act or acts performed by that other person against the revenger, or against some other person or persons whose injury the revenger resents. Both motive (vengeful resentment) and injurious act must be present to constitute revenge. (Rosebury 451)
Although this definition is broad enough to include most cases of malicious retaliation in The Hobbit, there are acts of reactive violence that lay outside its boundaries. For example, Gandalf deceives the trolls into death and kills the Great Goblin, but he does not fulfill the criteria for revenge because these murders were not motivated by resentment. His exact motive for providing assistance to the dwarves is not officially stated in The Hobbit, but Thorin and Gandalf's dialogue in "The Quest of Erebor" illuminates Gandalf's intention; he did not want Smaug to ally with Sauron, for the outcome of this alliance would have grave effects on Middle-earth. Gandalf's injurious acts are performed in a consequentialist mindset because the total amount of suffering would have been just as great or greater if there was no resistance (Mason 19). He can accurately estimate when violence and killing is necessary because he is prudent, always “looking behind” and “looking ahead” (Tolkien 52). Furthermore, he trusts that divine providence ensure that the following events turn out for the best, admitting that his success in leading the troop through the mountains was due to “good management and good luck” (133). As a result of these virtues, Gandalf's retaliation against evil is heroic and does not sink to the level of vengeance, unlike other creatures in Middle-earth.
The dwarves' quest to get even with Smaug for taking their gold substantiates the underlying message warning against revenge. From a superficial point of view, the dwarves seem...