This may be the best-known chapter in Tolkien’s entire works, and is certainly one of the most highly regarded. Within the pages of the spookily titled “Riddles In The Dark”, Tolkien presents an incredibly vivid and remarkable episodic adventure, and through this we get three crucial things: the real start of Bilbo’s rise to become the heroic character he ought to be; the introduction of one of the most iconic fantasy characters of all time; and our first look at the singular object that will dominate the remainder of Tolkien’s bibliography.
I’ve always really loved the opening paragraph of this chapter, that I feel is just so good at emphasizing the kind of tone and tenor that Tolkien wants to set for this chapter. He starts with the sheer darkness surrounding Bilbo: “When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut.” He extends this by commenting on Bilbo’s loneliness: “No one was anywhere near him.” He injects some of his signature author commentary to make clear Bilbo’s panic at his circumstances: “Just imagine his fright!“. And he concludes his opening with a typically excellent use of repeated words to really emphasise the bleakness: “He could hear nothing, see nothing, and he could feel nothing except the stone of the floor.”
Tolkien doesn’t need to elaborate too much of course, because the horror of Bilbo’s situation – trapped in a lightless tunnel at the root of a mountain with no idea of where to go – is plainly obvious. It reminded me, then and now, of Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and how the character of Axel finds himself in a similar situation:
“No words in any human language can depict my utter despair. I was literally buried alive; with no other expectation before me but to die in all the slow horrible torture of hunger and thirst…How to get back! Clue or landmark there was absolutely none! My feet left no signs on the granite and shingle. My brain throbbed with agony as I tried to discover the solution of this terrible problem. My situation, after all sophistry and reflection, had finally to be summed up in three awful words:
Lost! LOST!! LOST!!!
Lost at a depth which, to my finite understanding, appeared to be immeasurable. These thirty leagues of the crust of the earth weighed upon my shoulders like the globe on the shoulders of Atlas. I felt myself crushed by the awful weight. It was indeed a position to drive the sanest man to madness!”
Bilbo will have a very similar feeling, albeit not quite as bombastic:
“He did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while. He thought of himself frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen at home — for he could feel inside that it was high time for some meal or other; but that only made him miserabler.
He could not think what to do; nor could he think what had happened; or why he had been left behind; or why, if he had been left behind, the goblins had not caught him; or even why his head was so sore. The truth was he had been lying quiet, out of sight and out of mind, in a very dark corner for a long while.”
In the midst of dealing with all that existential terror, Bilbo puts his hand out into the dark, and finds an unadorned ring, just lying on the tunnel floor. Tolkien, in line with his previous trait of hanging a lantern on such moments (like with Gandalf’s imminent arrival in “Roast Mutton“) says directly that “It was a turning point in his career”, which is arguably an unnecessary thing to say, given his own words on the Ring later in the chapter when its use becomes clear. For now, with the hindsight provided by what the Ring becomes in The Lord Of The Rings, we should note the manner in which Bilbo happens upon this thing, seemingly at random. But, as events unfold in “Riddles In The Dark”, it becomes clear that there is too much going on, regards Bilbo’s survival, the finding of the Ring and his eventual escape, for you to be comfortable chalking it up to happenstance or coincidence. As Gandalf himself will outline in “The Shadow Of The Past“:
“It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark…There was more than one power at work, Frodo…beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought.”
Gandalf’s implication seems to be that a higher power – Illuvater, Middle-Earth’s version of God with a “G”, presumably – had a hand in Bilbo stumbling on the Ring, when a goblin would presumably have been a more appropriate bearer, if it was the Ring in control of such matters. And while The Hobbit will make no such allusions, there is a lot of stuff going in Bilbo’s favour here, too much to ignore.
In the darkness, there is still the light of hope, figurative and literal. Bilbo draws the dagger he took from the trolls hoard, a short sword of Gondolin that, like Glamdring and Orcrist, glows blue when goblins are close. Tolkien specifically notes that Bilbo had practically forgotten about this weapon up to now, and so has the narrator, it not being mentioned in the “Over Hill And Under Hill” when blades were being drawn and used. The glow of this “splendid” blade gives Bilbo some cheer, as well as some light.
The rediscovery of what will become Sting allows Bilbo to also find some of his innate hobbit sense, that Baggins sides of him taking over a tad when the Took side has hit the brick wall. In a moment where you can almost imagine that Bilbo is quoting some fatherly advice he declares “Go back?…No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” This straightforward down-to-earth attitude is endearing to the reader, while also reminding us of just where Bilbo has come from.
Interestingly, Tolkien makes a rare break in the word-flow here, as if he really wants to underline what has occurred. Looking ahead, we can surmise that a part of Bilbo has been left behind in the tunnel where he found the Ring: the hobbit going forward will be a different individual, with a bigger part to play and a larger impact to make on the story.
When the author goes on, he also takes the time to outline some facets of the hobbit race, as if feeling the need to comfort the reader, who might feel that Bilbo is in a bit too much peril. “Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people” the narrator says, before noting that hobbits do well underground, recover quickly from injuries and have a good store of wisdom to fall back on when the need arises. This all seems to be foreshadowing for what is to come in this chapter, where Bilbo’s sense of direction, vitality and knowledge are all going to be critical to his survival.
All the same, Bilbo is heading into unknown territory. The paragraph following uses negative words and imagery over and over again, really wanting to make its point: the tunnel has “no end“, “going down…steadily” with “half-imagine dark things” plaguing Bilbo’s perception as he goes “down and down“, aware of “no sound” save bats, “hating to go on…until he was tireder than tired“. He passes side-passages that he carefully avoids, much like Frodo and Sam will in “Shelob’s Lair“. By the end of the paragraph, it’s not hard to feel Bilbo’s exhaustion, fear and worry coming off the page.
And we, and Bilbo, have reason to be worried. Stumbling into a subterranean lake, Bilbo has reason to think of “nasty slimy things“, the kind with “big bulging eyes” that grow “bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness“. The mind instantly jumps to sea floor anglerfish, though they have normal sized eyes really. They still have that repulsive look, and it seems that the author is trying to unnerve the reader a bit, to get you in just the right mood by discussing “fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again“, before he introduces, arguably, the most important character in all his works.
Gollum is no ordinary character, or adversary. Tolkien doesn’t make him have to come up with his own name, but gives him the honour of a formal introduction: “Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum“. Very quickly, the narrator waves away any thought of an origin story – “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was” – but in truth we’ll get plenty of hints and clues in the following pages, that would indicate the author had a more detailed backstory ready for Gollum that he wasn’t prepared to reveal to the world just yet. For now, Tolkien wants us to be revolted of this “small slimy creature…as dark as darkness” who, like the disgusting fish just discussed, has “two big round pale eyes in his thin face“. So, he’s clearly been down here a while. And, very importantly noted, the seemingly fearsome locals who so terrorised Bilbo and the company in the previous chapter are terrified in turn of this shadowy menace in the lake: “They had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain” and sometimes those sent to do some fishing don’t come back. Before Bilbo and Gollum actually speak, the threat of this creature is made very much apparent.
Gollum’s initial words to Bilbo give us an instant picture of this wretched, uncomfortable being, who elongates his s’s, seemingly revels in being horrifying and openly talks about eating Bilbo right from the off. And he has a guttural noise that comes from his throat, that almost seems intentional as opposed to some kind of chronic condition. Bilbo is so astounded by the appearance of Gollum that he starts being far too open, yammering about the intimate details of his journey and his companions. Bilbo, in much the same tone as he had when he got flustered with Gandalf in “An Unexpected Party“, seems at pains to be polite, civilised in this uncivil setting, while Gollum is only inclined to be the same due to a relative lack of hunger, a perverse curiosity towards this unexpected prey, and the dagger that Bilbo carries.
In a twisted decision, Gollum, essentially, decides he’s going to play with his food before eating it, suggesting a riddle competition between the two, where if Bilbo wins he’ll show him the way out, and if Gollum wins, well, “we eats it“. The author, or, at least, the narrator, has a high opinion of riddle contests. The use of riddles in literature goes back a long way of course, to the extent that there is a recognized sub-genre of “riddle-tales”, going as far back an ancient Sumar and Egypt. These typically take the form of a “wisdom-contest” between opposing rules, or sometimes as a test of a suitor. We all know the story of the riddle of the Sphinx for instance, but the concept pops up all over the place: in the Bible with both Samson and Solomon, in the One Thousand And One Nights with the tale of Turandot, in old Norse tales where Odin challenges an earthly King, in Grimm fairy tales with “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter”. The general thread between them is riddles as a test of true wisdom – or maybe lateral thinking if we want to put a more modern term on it – and as a means of preserving knowledge of the past.
And the idea is just a simple, yet entertaining, way of pitting two foes against each other, instead of just having Bilbo stab Gollum, or Gollum throttle Bilbo. Bilbo isn’t ready to be that kind of hero yet, and this structure allows him to showcase his bravery and ingenuity in other ways, while Gollum’s knowledge of riddles elevates him from just a lake-side monster to something much more potent and memorable. Tolkien values intelligence in his antagonists, and we’ve been ramping up slowly on that score, from the dim-witted trolls, to the more capable goblins and now to the chillingly effective Gollum.
It’s here that the first hints of what Gollum really is start dropping. The author notes that “…riddle competitions had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago…“. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that, only a few paragraphs before this, Tolkien wrote “Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people; and after all if their holes are nice cheery places and properly aired, quite different from the tunnels of the goblins…“. “Holes” being used in both descriptions is, to me, clearly meant to be taken as a connecting thread, to imply that Gollum, who isn’t a goblin or dwarf and certainly not an elf, might just be something a bit more familiar to the reader.
We might also look at Bilbo and Gollum’s initial appraisals of each other, that demonstrate a certain familiarity in approach (and in writing): “He was anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit, whether he was quite alone really, whether he was good to eat, and whether Gollum was really hungry…[Bilbo] was anxious to agree, until he found out more about the creature, whether he was quite alone, whether he was fierce or hungry, and whether he was a friend of the goblins.”
The narrative moves very quickly suddenly, starting from this point. Tolkien takes his time with the introductory sections of the chapter, but when the riddle competition gets going, it’s rapid back-and-forth between the two principals. This frenetic pace increases the tension nicely, as we roll from riddle to riddle like a penalty shoot out, just waiting for someone to mess up.
The fourth wall is also broken a little bit here again, as the narrator addresses the audience – “Gollum knew the answer as well as you do” – in a neat bit of interaction that tries to place the reader, or listener, right in the heart of the story.
Bilbo varies a bit through the course of this contest, starting timid and fearful, but becoming a little bit more confident, even brash, as we go along. At first, Bilbo is nearly “bursting his brain to think of riddles that could save him from being eaten”. But then he “made up one on the spot” to “puzzle the nasty little creature” and later still he dares to get impatient with Gollum: “The answer’s not a kettle boiling over, as you seem to think from the noise you are making.” While Bilbo still flirts with a sense of overriding panic during these sequences, we still get the feeling of a person who isn’t going to take all this for much longer, which is important to explain some events later in the chapter.
The second hint of Gollum’s origins comes during the contest as well, as Gollum is reminded of “when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank by a river“. Again, the “hole” reference naturally makes one think of hobbits, and Gollum’s general thoughts on these memories – “…they reminded him of days when he had been less lonely and sneaky and nasty” – indicate that Gollum was not always what he is currently, laying the groundwork for, astonishingly, a sympathetic viewpoint on the character, one, crucially for what comes soon, of pity.
On the riddles themselves, Tolkien seems to want to emphasise that simple is better. Ten are exchanged in the course of the contest, and the one that troubles Gollum the most, besides the controversial final one, is the simplest that Bilbo comes up:
“A box without hinges, key, or lid,
but golden treasure inside is hid”
And Bilbo, in turn is seriously tripped up by Gollum’s abstract reference to something as basic as time.
The variation of the riddles is also telling of the characters. The answers to Bilbo’s, in turn, are largely pleasant, or at least not negative: teeth, sun on the daises, eggs, a man eating fish at a table with his cat, the Ring. While Gollum’s tend towards the morose: mountains, wind, dark, fish and time. The nature of how the riddles are told is also telling, with Gollum repeatedly couching his offerings in negative terms, with expressions like “never grows“, “toothless bites“, “Ends life, kills laughter“, “As cold as death“, “Slays king, ruins town” while Bilbo’s include “white horses“, “green face” and “golden treasure” in response.
Gollum becomes increasingly aggressive as the game lengthens, pressuring Bilbo when he hesitates with his answers, and pointedly getting out of his little boat when it appears that he might be close to winning. Bilbo’s continued survival begins to irritate him, and it’s clear that, regardless of the conclusion of this contest, Gollum fully intends to kill and eat Bilbo anyway. After all, who is going to stop him? We’re beyond the Edge of the Wild here, in a place older than recorded time, where the rules of civilisation are not going to be applied. Gollum is portrayed in somewhat childish terms in a way, petulant and stroppy, wanting to both demonstrate his superior intelligence and skill at killing, and being foiled in the first instance.
Throughout the course of the riddle contest, Bilbo gets his fair share of luck, whenever he finds himself unable to grasp an answer quickly. When he can’t figure out “fish”, one happens to plop up on his feet, and later, when he panics and yells for more time, it comes out so shortened that it becomes the actual answer. Later still, Bilbo will trip up at the exact right moment to avoid a chasing Gollum. Is Tolkien merely trying to present Bilbo, like so many heroes in literature, as extraordinarily lucky? Or is he indicating that, as Gandalf will posit later, a higher power is involved in this whole incident, saving Bilbo wherever it can? Whose to say really. Given Tolkien’s background and religious faith, I would deem it likely enough that he meant this to imply some manner of divine intervention on the behalf of Bilbo (and, in a larger sense, the world in terms of the Ring), as he would make clear later in The Lord Of The Rings. Or, contrastingly, maybe the Ring is throwing its weight around.
The riddle competition ends on a very iffy note, connected to, as the narrator puts it, the fact that “…the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it.” In other words, there are rules and conventions to these kind of things, which makes the conclusion of this contest questionable.
It starts with Gollum using somewhat odd wording, a weakness in the text I feel, as it looks a bit cooked up to make what follows more convenient for Bilbo:
“It’s got to ask uss a quesstion, my preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Jusst one more question to guess, yes, yess,” said Gollum.”
Is Gollum literally saying “I want to be asked a question, not a riddle” when he says this? Or is he merely exchanging the word “question” for “riddle” when he means the same thing? Bilbo appears to take him at face value straight away: he “simply could not think of any question“. When, by sheer luck (again!), he blurts out his own internal thought process – “What have I got in my pocket?” – Gollum, it is noted, immediately thinks this is meant as a riddle. And he’s unhappy about it:
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nasty little pocketses?“.
And he has a right to be unhappy really. Notwithstanding his own poor choice of words, he’s looking for a riddle to be proffered, not to be asked to guess what Bilbo has in his trousers.
Bilbo presses the point though, and, crucially, Gollum relents, and goes along with it, with the quickly agreed compromise that he get three guesses. Gollum’s acquiescence would appear to make it all fair-game. He could have continued his objections, and insisted on a true riddle. But even if he didn’t, it still leaves you with a bit of a strange impression. Bilbo himself, internally acknowledges that this isn’t really acceptable practise: “But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.”
Why did Tolkien do this? Well, we have to remember that “Riddles In The Dark” has actually been re-written a bit. In the original version of the first edition, Gollum wasn’t as villainous as he was in the second edition, and the object of the riddle contest was the Ring itself, a “present” Gollum was willing to present to Bilbo:
“I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon. He kept on saying: “We are ssorry; we didn’t mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition.” He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.”
That’s taken from this excellent side-by-side comparisons of the opposing versions.
Later, in a bid to match things up with his other writings, Tolkien changed the chapter to the present form, where Gollum is treacherous and sly, and the prize for Bilbo winning is to be shown the way out of the tunnels. Tolkien would justify this change, in-canon, as a combination of translation error (The Hobbit originally framed as a translation of Bilbo’s diary) and unwilling deceit on the behalf of Bilbo, already under the evil Ring’s influence, and wanting to justify his “claim” to the Ring, by making it the prize of the contest that he subsequently won, as opposed to something that didn’t belong to him that he took when he happened upon it. The nitty-gritty of this will actually come up a couple of times in the remainder of The Hobbit, first in the next chapter, and later when Bilbo reveals the Ring to the rest of the company.
But to sum-up, what we’re presented with here is the truth of the matter: that Bilbo, possibly under the influence of the Ring, unintentionally tricks Gollum a bit by asking a question as opposed to a riddle, and that Gollum goes along with it after an objection, probably because he’s going to kill and eat Bilbo anyway. Tolkien’s final word on the subject can be taken from the prologue section of The Lord Of The Rings: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ … but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise“.
Gollum still frames his first and last answer in the form of what you might expect from someone in a riddle-contest, embracing some lateral thinking by suggesting “Hands” and “nothing”. His other answers – “knife” and “string” – are a bit more desperate, indicating his lack of ability and frustration at how things have fallen out. Bilbo rightfully fears that Gollum will attempt to kill him then and there, but Gollum is an intelligent practical creature, and he is fully aware that Bilbo is armed, and thus a bit more dangerous than his usual prey. Especially because Gollum doesn’t have the Ring. He’s not so calm and collected that he is able to control himself entirely – referring to Bilbo as “nasty little Baggins” here – but he isn’t going to let this hobbit have the last laugh. His curiosity over just what Bilbo does have in his pockets is noted, and then he is off to enact his own villainous plan.
It is here that we get a little bit more into the “ring of power” as Tolkien calls it, not quite the portent of doom that it will later be. It is, to Gollum, a “very beautiful thing, very beautiful, very wonderful” demonstrating his idolation of the object very quickly, that he refers to as “my precious“, words he has used already, before we realized Gollum was the Ring’s bearer, indicating that this mania goes beyond immediate exposure. Mysteriously, Gollum dubs the Ring his “birthday present“, a title that will go unelaborated upon at the present time. In the moment, it would be natural for the reader to distrust these words, coming from Gollum, and the reader would be right. Gollum is “a miserable wicked creature“, a murderer and a sneak: it’s easy to envision that he stole the Ring, and maybe even killed for it.
And in this moment Tolkien also offers a hint towards his magnum opus:
“But who knows how Gollum came by that present, ages ago in the old days when such rings were still at large in the world? Perhaps even the Master who ruled them could not have said.”
It is interesting to wonder if Tolkien had this ringmaster fleshed out in any form when he wrote The Hobbit, and what he envisioned for the future: whether it would be Sauron, whether they were an evil figure and what role Gollum played in the history of the Ring exactly.
The idea of the Ring as a malevolent, drug-like force will not be expanded upon much in the pages of The Hobbit, but we do see glimpses of that here, in the author’s description of Gollum’s obsession, and in the way that he blindly panics when the Ring is not where he thinks it is. His dependence on the Ring is partly a thing of practicality, as it allows him to murder goblins with ease, but it does seem to go beyond that, with Tolkien noting that, like a junkie, Gollum seems both obsessed and weary of the thing he is dependent on:
“Gollum used to wear it at first, till it tired him; and then he kept it in a pouch next his skin, till it galled him; and now usually he hid it in a hole in the rock on his island, and was always going back to look at it. And still sometimes he put it on, when he could not bear to be parted from it any longer…”
Gollum’s panic is both fascinating and terrifying, and it sends a “shiver down the back” of Bilbo, and we can well imagine why. Gollum hasn’t been in control of himself totally in the course of this episode, but this is something different. Gollum rants and rails about his “precious” and only gets more unhinged when Bilbo has the temerity to question what it is going on. Bilbo’s predicament is unenviable: trapped at the roots of the world, and relying on an insane dangerous creature to find a way out. And it’s clear the creature is really only interested in Bilbo as a morsel.
“Then suddenly out of the gloom came a sharp hiss. ‘What has it got in its pocketses? Tell us that. It must tell first.‘” These scary words again show the intelligence and the insight of Gollum, and it’s a prelude to a murderous moment, where Gollum comes scrambling back from his island at speed, coming at Bilbo with no good intentions, with “the light of his eyes” burning “like a pale flame“. In the face of losing the Ring, all ideas of self-preservation have gone by the wayside: “…such a rage of loss and suspicion was in his heart that no sword had any more terror for him.”
Bilbo is smart enough to know that this is a moment when he must flee or die, and flee he does. But it all seems so pointless: he doesn’t know where he is going, and his ignorance of the caves is in stark contrast to Gollum, who comes on like a chasing predator. But Bilbo, thanks to more aforementioned luck, is saved twice over: when he trips up just as Gollum is about to pounce, and when he absent-mindedly – or maybe by influence – slips the “very cold” Ring onto his finger.
This allows Bilbo to escape Gollum on this occasion, and the hobbit has enough sense to have an idea of what has occurred to him. From there, all he can do is follow Gollum, and via this he gets to witness one of the classic Gollum moments, one that will be replicated in The Lord Of The Rings and “The Passage Of The Marshes”: a debate between his personalities. “Slinker” and “Stinker” need some fleshing out to differentiate them at this point, but there are signs there. “Slinker” is fearful and cowardly: “It’s no good going back there to search, no. We doesn’t remember all the places we’ve visited…We shan’t ever be safe again, never, gollum!“. And “Stinker” is hard, and capable: “…it can’t go far. It’s lost itself, the nassty nosey thing…let’s stop talking, precious, and make haste.”
Bilbo’s final conundrum, and one of the most defining moments of his character, comes here, as he is presented with a way out of the mountains, but with Gollum in his path. The obvious pathway is clear:
“Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him.”
And, much like his initial reaction to the trolls, and how his delusions of grandeur in terms of his action hero prowess were dismissed quickly, Bilbo realises that he cannot do what his darker side is suggesting:
“No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second.”
Gandalf, in “The Shadow Of The Past” sums up the heroism of this moment, to be moved by pity to take the more difficult dangerous path, to reject the easy and brutal, in a manner so great I can’t help but quote it again:
“‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’
‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’
‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.
‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.'”
Bilbo will never be a great warrior, or a wizard or a King. But he is still a fundamentally good person, and will not lay aside his moral compass, even in this desperate situation. Tolkien resolves the problem with a very convenient escape for Bilbo, as he literally leaps over Gollum and flees where his enemy will not follow. It can, perhaps, be taken as a non-literal note on the evolution of Bilbo’s character, who goes from crawling in the dark to jumping over his opponent. It isn’t the only time that Tolkien would write about such a thing. Here’s a paragraph from “Of Beren And Luthian” in The Silmarillion:
“Even as they spoke together of these things, walking without heed of aught else, Celegorm and Curufin rode up, hastening through the forest; and the brothers espied them and knew them for afar. Then Celegorm turned his horse, and spurred it upon Beren, purposing to ride him down; but Curufin swerving stooped and lifted Lúthien to his saddle, for he was a strong and cunning horseman. Then Beren sprang from before Celegorm full upon the speeding horse of Curufin that had passed him; and the Leap of Beren is renowned among Men and Elves. He took Curufin by the throat from behind, and hurled him backward, and they fell to the ground together. The horse reared and fell, but Lúthien was flung aside, and lay upon the grass.”
The last words of Gollum will ring long in the memory, a haunting expression of sheer contempt, fear and vengeance: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!” The words echo down the tunnel after Bilbo, and while the revenge that Gollum has promised will not catch up on Bilbo in this adventure, the reader will assuredly feel that it will someday.
There is only one last thing for Bilbo to do, one final ordeal: the guarded exit from the mountains. Escape is tantalisingly close with a “a glimpse of light” down the corridor. But the goblins lie in wait. This shouldn’t be a problem, what with the Ring and all, but here the object’s terrible sentience shines as bright as the outdoor sun. Perhaps seeing a chance to be put in the hands of creatures that would serve its purposes better, “Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger.” Bilbo is left with a brief moment of fear before he vanishes, with Tolkien curiously noting the pull of the Ring, already effecting Bilbo: “A pang of fear and loss, like an echo of Gollum’s misery, smote Bilbo, and forgetting even to draw his sword he struck his hands into his pockets.”
The chapter ends on a strange scene, as Bilbo hurriedly puts the Ring back on, to the befuddlement of the goblins, who are left running back and forth looking for the disappearing hobbit, with one goblin actually bumping into Bilbo “who could not make out what he had bumped into“. Bilbo imagines it as a bizarre game of “blind-mans bluff” and it seems an almost comic moment to end an otherwise taut chapter on.
In another somewhat transformative instant, Bilbo is able to escape, but only by shedding one of last visual signs of where he has come from, the buttons on his garments, that come flying off as he squeezes through the stone doorway, leading to an animalistic allusion as Bilbo flees “down the steps like a goat“. The chapter ends on one of Tolkien’s typically excellent closing lines, succinct, simple but full of meaning: “Bilbo had escaped.”
“Riddles In The Dark” is a giant highlight in the works of Tolkien, not just in The Hobbit. It helps that he was able to revise, refine and improve it of course, but I will give the master the leeway he deserves. Episodic to an extreme, this chapter tells an intriguing three-act story in the course of its pages: of Bilbo being lost in the tunnels, of his riddle-contest with Gollum, and of his heart-stopping escape from the same. There are only minor things to pick at: the somewhat inconsistent pace, especially once Gollum enters the scene; the strange conclusion of the riddle-context, which seems needlessly murky; and the convenient nature of Bilbo’s final escape from Gollum, where he displays physical skills hither-to unseen that prevents any awkward confrontation.
Other than that, this is pretty much flawless fantasy writing, with great descriptive flair, remarkably vivid characters and a tense plot. Tolkien excels here and takes what has been an entertaining fantasy story, and sends it into the stratosphere of the genre. And there will be little in the way of slowing down or looking back.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.