In the novel The Hobbit, towards the start of the story Bilbo wishes Gandalf a good morning:

"Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

"What do you mean?" he said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of them at once," said Bilbo. "And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.

Now I've always found that dialogue strange, but likely an author of Tolkien's calibre doesn't put passages in for no reason. What is the purpose of this? What are we supposed to learn about the characters? That Gandalf is a pedant?

I'd be interested to hear insights.

  • 28
    Why do you say "pedant" and not "would-be humourist" (who would be well advised to keep his night job of lighting fireworks)? Gandalf's repartee doesn't seem very funny to me, but the book was written for children. Anyway, does everything in a book have to have a Purpose, either to tell us something about the Characters, or to Advance the Plot, or give us some Insight into the Human Condition? Writing a children's book is not like designing a payload for a space mission.
    – user14111
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 23:38
  • 41
    Wasn't The Hobbit originally for his kids? Having heard audio of Tolkien, i would have imagined that reading this to his young children in a gruff-ish voice, waggling of eyebrows included, would have raised a bit of a giggle among the young uns. No in depth analysis would have likely occurred.
    – Marakai
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 0:26
  • 5
    @Spencer film Gandalf is a nice guy, book Gandalf is a douche. He can't seem to take a joke and is always acting like a school teacher. "Don't be so quick to deal out death in judgement" and all that.
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:28
  • 22
    @Charlie - “Don’t be so quick to deal out death in judgement” actually sound like something a nice person might say. It’s the opposite one needs to worry about. ;)
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:56
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    It sets up an longer play on the conventional phrase, with Gandalf finally remarking "What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!" said Gandalf. "Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won't be good till I move off.”
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 17:11

10 Answers 10


I think you are very close when you say it might be telling us that Gandalf is a pedant.

As this is at the start of the book, Tolkien is (as you suggest) introducing the characters to us. This is our first introduction to Gandalf, and I think the impression Tolkien wants us to get is that he:

  • Is surprising - he doesn't react the way you expect him to.
  • Takes seriously things that others consider trivial.
  • Likes to be precise when he speaks.
  • And, yes, is a pedant.

As Ghoti and Chips points out. The exchange also functions as lighthearted comedy.

  • 69
    Don't meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are pedantic and will correct your grammar? Or something like that.
    – Marakai
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 0:42
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    You hint at this in your second bullet-point but, to me, it reveals an otherworldly nature in Gandalf. The sort of person who doesn't react to "Good morning" by knowing what it means is probably unaware of social norms. This may be because they are not from here, or because they were otherwise very sheltered from socialisation - in either case, it indicates to the reader an otherworldliness that they should be suspicious of - it's a characterisation which helps reinforce that he is a wizard later on (the classic "show don't tell"). Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 7:32
  • 14
    Another point could be a simple, "Because it's funny". A comedic interchange between a hobbit and a wizard early on can help characterise both characters, will continue setting the light-hearted tone that the story takes this early on in the story, in The Shire, and superficially also simply entertains the reader. Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 7:34
  • 4
    Yay for pedantry!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 12:19
  • 8
    Another point (related to some of these but not quite the same): it helps establish the contrast between the peculiar, rather academic wizard and the simple down-to-earth hobbit.
    – PLL
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 21:56

In addition to showing Gandalf as a relatively unusual character, I think it also reveals that Bilbo is quite carefree and perhaps does not fully consider the weight of his words.

It also begins to introduce Bilbo as a hobbit who is well within his comfort zone and does not wish for any disruption to his carefree and relaxed life. This particular sentiment is reinforced later in their conversation:

"Good morning!" he said at last. "We don't want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water." By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

  • 9
    Yes, and Gandalf is trying to challenge Bilbo's normal habits, even down to the way he speaks. Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 0:37

Out-of-universe, this indicates that J. R. R. Tolkien was the kind of person who likes wordplay. He was intensely interested in the origins of words and how they could be used. Which was probably why he spent part of his time writing dictionaries and part of his time making up languages. Writing stories was what he did since he didn't have any other way of getting people to pay attention to his conlangs.

In story terms, he was presumably trying to indicate that Bilbo and Gandalf shared his interest in wordplay.

He may also have had a goal of interesting others, especially children, in wordplay. Remember that Tolkien initially wrote The Hobbit for his own children. He shared it with his friends, like C. S. Lewis, and it eventually reached a publisher.

Consider Tolkien as Gandalf and one of his kids as Bilbo. Bilbo responded as Tolkien wanted his children to respond. Since most kids find Wizards cooler than fathers, couching this in story terms might be more effective than real world interactions.

  • Ahem, but he wrote (some of) his stories to give his languages a home. He shared his languages with close friends, but he preferred to keep the major body of Quenya private. Even now, only very few privileged scholars have access to the majority of his notes. He wrote the TLOTR on demand for a sequel to The Hobbit, and with it tied The Hobbit to Arda; there is some evidence that he never purposed the Silmarillion for publication. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 5:35
"Good Morning!" said Bilbo,
 ...and he meant it.
 But Gandalf...
"What do you mean?

This is probably a literary device designed to act as a 'hook' to get the reader interested. The point was to cause a heartbeat worth of suspense: nice hobbit haplessly offends potent wizard.

But as the sentence finishes the reader realises with relief that:
1. Potent wizard is not at all offended by nice hobbit
2. They both enjoy playing games with semantics
3. They are old friends at ease with one another
4. Witty hobbit is witty (even with wise, old wizards)

  • 5
    Change 3 as they've never met before
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 14:17
  • 3
    @Carlie really? Not old friends, but Gandalf knew Bilbo from when he was younger, and Bilbo vaguely remembered Gandalf's fireworks (can't find exact reference atm) Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 3:34
  • 3
    @DavidRoberts my bad, they have met before. Bilbo remembers Gandalf, but they're certainly not old friends
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 14:37
  • 1
    @Charlie and DavidRoberts, to be fair i probably had the equivalent scene from LOTR stronger in my head, since i just used it for a video editing assignment before school ended (so was thinking Gandalf 'n' Frodo)
    – lpt
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 3:01

Gandalf arrives, intent on recruiting Bilbo as a burglar. To do this, Gandalf must more or less blast Bilbo out of his normal frame of reference. Bilbo's normal frame of reference is nearly completely one of complacent contentment with his situation. Gandalf needs to give Bilbo a shake and stir up the footnote to that contentment; Bilbo's (perhaps ancestral) curiosity and desire to leave his routine existence behind. Refusing to take 'good morning' at face value is his opening shot.

  • Interesting :) Makes sense
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 12:02
  • Actually, I think this is more of part of his interview process. He knew Bilbo's family history, and thought him a good prospect, but hadn't decided until after Bilbo's soliloquy about what he remembered about Gandalf. Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 11:53

Exploring the various meanings of words is a theme in The Hobbit and Tolkien's other books and studies. A related theme is the contrasting mindsets of the various characters, and this scene is an example of both, and also a way to naturally convey the personality of the characters.

And for people humored by and interested in words and the various ways they can be thought of, it's an entertaining, interesting exchange.

Of course, too, Gandalf is a wizard, and Tolkien's magic is often based in words, rules, and riddles. In order to discover and use magic, often it is necessary to remember the exact words and their specific meanings, as seen later in various inscriptions, some of which can only be read in moonlight on specific days, or only make sense in context, such as the doorway to Moria, without whose interpretation of specific meaning, the Fellowship might have been thwarted.

Bilbo too has his fate determined by his clever use and interpretation of words during the riddle game that wins him the ring (and which also drives the fate of the world in The Lord of the Rings).

The scene also conveys the usual mindset of hobbits (which leads into the recurring theme of Bilbo's thoughts and feelings as a reluctant adventurer), and Gandalf's moral code and thoughts about enlisting Bilbo.

  • 2
    i remember reading that Tolkien was an avid student of semiotics, and the idea that all of his works are dialectic thinly disguised as fantasy fiction might be a hard assertion to refute. also totally agree that this scene acts as dramatic foreboding for the later revealing of Bilbo's world-saving talent for seeing the blatantly, if naively honest, interpretation of the password hint for the mines.
    – lpt
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 20:49
  • 1
    @lpt: Frodo's talent, I believe you meant. Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 2:36
  • 2
    @PieterGeerkens i did! i did mean Frodo! :P
    – lpt
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 2:56

In The hobbit, these words may refer to riddles (that play on words). It is there to show that each word can have several meanings. Here Good morning can mean three things.

And riddles play a lot on that : a word can mean a lot of things and you may have to see it from an other point of view to get the answer.

Let's take one of the riddles for exemple

A box without hinges, key or lid, Yet golden treasure inside is hid.

I will not spoil the answer but it is not something you usally think as a box If you took an other approach on words, that you break it to see all the posibilities hidden by this word (like Gandalf did here), it can be seen as the answer to this riddle.

On an over hand (that's just me overthinking here) it may refer to Bilbo's lies and arrangement with truth. he meant it then What do you mean ?. And at some point, Bilbo hide the truth behind his words, saying Gollum offered the Ring to him (and it will be seen as a lie by Gandalf later)

The book exists in several versions. Tolkien rewrote some of it to keep it in line with The Lord Of The Rings, the first version being Bilbo's lie on the Ring influence and the second being the "truth".

Here we see Gandalf seeking the real meaning of Bilbo's words. In the LOTR, he seek the real meaning of Bilbo's story about the Ring (on this book The Hobbit) and his lies make Gandalf suspicious.

It also shows that Gandalf is looking for clear and precise answers.

  • 1
    I don't understand how this is relevant to what the purpose of the dialogue was? Could you edit it to clarify it a bit?
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 16:09
  • 3
    100% agree that the exchange was written to let the reader know that Gandalf perpetually views all things from all (im?)possible angles and as such approaches a kind of functional omniscience. not that he is aware of all things at once, but that he 'milks' every one of his own perceptions for every drop of data / insight / perspective / association it contains.
    – lpt
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 20:40

There is power in the spoken word. As a wizard, constructing spells requires a precise definition and intent to achieve the desired outcome. Using a phrase for so many purposes would have been antithetical to a wizard such as Gandalf. "Say what you mean, mean what you say."

  • Can you support the claim that magic works this way in Middle-earth with some quotes?
    – Annatar
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 15:23

It is completely in-character for both Bilbo and Gandalf. As mentioned in other answers, Bilbo meant it when he said "Good morning". Gandalf's reply is also consistent with his reply here:

‘Is that the person you are taking us to now?' they asked. ‘Couldn't you find someone more easy-tempered? Hadn't you better explain it all a bit clearer?' - and so on.

‘Yes it certainly is! No I could not! And I was explaining very carefully,' answered the wizard crossly.

Wizards are subtle, as famously noted. They are often also mysterious, and this kind of thing shows Gandalf is intended to be mysterious.


Tolkien was a linguist. He studied languages and even invented them for his books. Languages fascinated him. He was a huge nerd about languages. You know what nerds do when they're really into something?

They take every opportunity to be a little shit about it.

That's what Tolkien was doing here. He saw an expression he found odd, thought about all the ways in which it could possibly be construed, and made a joke about it.

He did this to amuse himself.

  • 5
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. I'm not sure your language is firstly appropriate, and secondly, at all clear. In my experience that expression refers to someone being petty, discourteous and a bully. I don't really see how that applies in general to "nerds" (which is also a fairly derogatory term) or specifically to Tolkien or Gandalf. Your last line is an answer, but your argument could use some work.
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 14:10

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