Riddles in the Dark
This chapter is always the one that sticks in my head. It had the most profound affect on me in the first reading, mostly because it was tough to measure the rest of the book against. There is a real danger that this story peaks far too soon, and it’s a wonderful incident of an author not realising how important a fringe creation would become.
As I’ve stated before, I’m only dealing with the text I have in front of me. I’m not going to delve back into past editions and changes. That essay is for another day. This series is a commentary to compliment the reading of the narrative before us without too many sidebars and outside references.
The beginning of the chapter is terrifying! Imagine waking up in utter pitch black darkness, just the sensation of rock beneath you but not knowing what might be close to you as soon as you dare move a muscle. We’ve already been told of the keen eyes of a Hobbit and their skill for moving quietly. This situation is a testament to both traits. Bilbo could see nothing, the darkness was complete, however he began to move around in the still silence without attracting immediate attention.
Then the most unassuming thing happens. Coincidence, happenstance… Fate? His hand lands of what ‘feels like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It is, in fact, a metal ring!
Bilbo picks it up and puts it in his pocket, seemingly without a second thought. He doesn’t question the occurrence. Doesn’t think upon how odd a place it might be to find jewellery. Doesn’t think how odd it might be to not think about these questions.
It can be assumed he had much more pressing things on his mind. Like being stranded and alone in the dark with no real prospects of being saved. He once again (and not for the last time) thinks of home and food, he gropes for a pipe of tobacco and only goes without through the luck of not having a light. This further disappointment brings Bilbo to his senses a little as he imagines who or what a light and the distinct scent might attract to him in the tunnels. Eventually he takes further stock of what he has and rediscovers his sword. It glows with a pale light making Bilbo conclude that it too is an Elven blade like the ones Gandalf and Thorin took from the Troll cave.
The blade lifted his spirits a little and stoked his courage. To think that he held a sword (or dagger) that had been made at a time told in Legend and song. He decided to go forward… Though it is clear he has no idea what direction that actually is. I guess he decided that whichever direction he chose, for the time being would be forward.
Tolkien now gives many good reasons why Bilbo was not in quite as bad a state as it first seemed. He stresses that a Hobbit has an uncanny sense of direction underground, being natural tunnellers.
Bilbo carried on into the dark, feeling openings leading away from the main course he was travelling. Always heading down and down. He seemed to be falling into a tired stupor only to be juddered out of it when he put his foot into icy cold water.
His sword barely gave out any light. Both reassuring because it meant Goblins weren’t near, while at the same time being distressing that it was harder to see what else might be lurking close by in the dark.
Then there comes a wonderful couple of paragraphs that lead into an introduction of ‘old Gollum’. It speaks of fish that swam into underground waters and became stuck, growing old and their eyes changing and getting bigger to deal with the lack of light, it speaks of creatures crawling into the tunnels beyond the mountains that were there before the Goblins came to claim them as their own. He uses the words ’sneak’ and ‘slink’. It all speaks to great age and unknown, hidden danger.
There is a huge amount of power imbued within the name ‘Gollum’. It’s guttural, onomatopoeic. It is also an all encompassing descriptor. ‘I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum.’
There is minimal physical description too. ‘A small slimy creature… as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes… large feet… long fingers.’ I think the rule of letting the readers mind fill the very well constructed gap in the story is particularly effective. There is such an ominous feeling to the setting (which is obviously Gollum’s home) that to be prompted into imagining the creature that lives its life there is a daunting task.
He moves silently being a creature perfectly adapted to his environment. Tolkien tells us that he enjoys eating Goblins… The same Goblins that Bilbo could barely bare to look upon. It is even suggested that the terrible Goblins fear something living in the dark depths of their mountain.
The glorious cherry on the top of Gollum’s characterisation is revealed in his speech. It’s so odd and quirky, almost alien in the context of the story. We soon discover Gollum isn’t simply a name it is a throaty expulsion of a noise the creature makes.
Now, Gollum is delightfully up front about his intentions from the offset, he says out loud that he wants to eat Bilbo.
The genius of Gollum talking to himself because he never had anyone else to speak to, is a deep and interesting device in later works. Here it is a simple display of loneliness and isolation.
Gollum is described as curious about what Bilbo is. So curious that he resisted simply attacking the Hobbit and eating him without warning. Bilbo had yet another lucky escape by dint of his nature being strange in the wider world he had ventured in to.
Like most creatures a strong instinct for self preservation falls upon Gollum once it becomes very clear the strange fellow he’s discovered on the shore of his lake has a sharp blade between him and it. He goes for a bit of diplomacy, which from his initial description is somewhat of a left turn.
Maybe Gollum isn’t as formidable as he has been built up to be? Or did he forfeit his usual natural advantages, the things that have weaved his sense of fear and danger because he was so curious about something/someone new entering his secluded and static domain? There is a huge duality to this creature, at once dangerous and to be feared while at the same time vulnerable and scared when taken at a disadvantage.
Then comes a few lines with heavy subtext that I have missed in nearly every reading of this book previously. Gollum suggests a game of ‘riddles’. ‘Asking them and guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago.’ This plus the fact that Bilbo agrees to this proposition without missing a beat is hugely suggestive.
First of all ‘sitting in their holes’ feels like a big tip towards creatures that burrow. It is also mentioned (later) that long ago he lived in ‘a hole in a bank by a river with his Grandmother.’ Secondly, Bilbo and Gollum treat this riddle game as a kind of shared past-time. A timeless, universal game? Or one that is important to certain cultures or races?
I surmise that Gollum, a long time ago, if not actually a Hobbit, was a being very close to one, or was an early descendant of what would eventually become the Hobbits as we see them in this story.
So we launch into the ‘Riddles game’ which becomes a competition. Bilbo bets his life against being shown the way out of the mountains. This fact is strangely underplayed. Bilbo is literally betting his life. Gollum has been very clear that he wishes to eat the Hobbit. It’s strange that Bilbo doesn’t use the weapon he has to strike this strange creature down as the clear mortal threat he is.
Perhaps Bilbo figured he had the upper hand being armed and thought the risk worth taking to acquire a guide? That isn’t really explained in the text, at least not clearly to my mind.
I won’t go into the in’s and out’s of the riddles. They are very entertaining. I never got anywhere close to solving them when I was a kid. I wasn’t all that clever. I did delight in learning the answers and re-reading them for the clues they sowed and connecting the dots.
The game ebbs and flows. Both players thinking they have the upper hand. My favourite line of dialogue in the book (possibly any book) is Gollum mulling over what the Hobbit might taste like… ‘Is it nice, my preciousss? Is it juicy? Is it scrumptiously crunchable?’
Bilbo gets saved by pure luck by asking for more time when the word ‘time’ itself was the answer to the riddle. Another little stab of fate.
All the way through the game there are small hints that there are complex rules and tactics involved in the riddle game. Comments like ‘it wasn’t really time for this one…’ Suggesting that there was far more nuance than the author was showing in the telling of the story. I wonder if that is for effect or if there really is a wider riddle game in the higher echelons of classical education?
I’ll leave this essay here, at the point that Mr. Baggins throws out convention by feeling in his pocket and asking himself innocently ‘What have I got in my pocket?’
Not a fair riddle according to the ancient rules, it seems. But a challenge Gollum decides to accept with the condition of three guesses.
The chapter begins with our hero finding a trinket in the dark. The middle of the chapter then has that trinket save his life. The end of the chapter will have that ring change Bilbo’s fate forever.