More Riddles in the Dark
We’ve all played guessing games, some people detest them! But guessing games come down to knowledge. One party knows something the other doesn’t. Guesses are not approached blindly, you always venture a guess based on the available information. It’s always informed. Sometimes you can deduce.
Gollum’s poser, of course, was ‘what is in Bilbo’s pockets?’ I adore his first guess: ‘Handses’. Almost as much as I love Bilbo for feeling relieved that he had only just taken his hand out of his pocket. The idea being if his hand had still been there he would have lost and been eaten!
The whole riddle game is a pretence. Gollum wants to kill and eat Bilbo, the only reason he didn’t do it by stealth, like he usually would, is curiosity. Or it is fate, you could suggest that the ring has protected Bilbo in some way. Guarding its new owner, its ride out of obscurity? The game is a stall. Bilbo is dealing with a being intent upon violence. Bilbo himself does not want to strike, he might be pushed to defend himself, but he will not instigate violence. These facts speak to the nature of each character. All of this places the advantage squarely with Gollum. He will turn to violence eventually, he cannot be trusted to keep his word even if he loses. Bilbo plays a risky game hoping against hope Gollum will keep his word or he can delay the inevitable long enough that he can get some guidance before the turn comes.
This is shown when Gollum cannot guess (cheating by adding an extra guess at the end) and Bilbo is wise enough to raise his sword suspecting that Gollum might defy the rules of the ‘ancient riddle game’. Even knowing all of this Bilbo actually feared he might be held accountable for technically cheating in the game because his last question wasn’t a riddle. This is a situation where neither party is in the right but if you strip everything away, one still wants to eat the other and one really doesn’t want to cause any harm. That dynamic is inescapable and always the subtext behind everything that happens between the pair until all else is stripped away to leave the inevitable.
Gollum eventually asks an excellent question. What DOES Bilbo have in his pockets. He has lost the game with only the Hobbit’s word that he was in fact wrong. I’m kind of on Gollum’s side on this one.
Bilbo refuses to reveal what he has in his pockets. I wonder at that. He has no clue the ring might mean something to Gollum. Perhaps its grip on Bilbo has begun? That might be putting too much on the text we have in front of us, but with knowledge of the rings power in later books, knowing that this text has been changed to support what follows, it is very interesting to suppose why Bilbo hides the ring. Why not simply show Gollum and say ‘I found this in the dark, it’s the strangest thing!’
Gollum stalls, he says he needs to go and get something that will help him to show Bilbo the way out. The craft of the writing is wonderful, your mind begins to connect the dots begins to think of reasons why Bilbo hides the ring.
It’s all very subtle, if you pick it apart too much you can see the construction, how it all builds and falls into place for effect. The motivations are somewhat flimsy and totally suit the authors intention for the narrative. However, I love that the veneer that is used to shield it all is propriety and an adherence to ancient unknowable rules. Difficult to argue with that once you’ve weaved it into the fabric of the narrative lore. It’s all artifice, of course, and the internal logic of it hangs together, but its charm is what makes you not look deeper than you should.
Bilbo is rightfully scared. He assumes Gollum will simply slip away, but the creature had a plan. For he had a ring of power that made him invisible. There are some very nice hints about the history of Gollum and how he obtained such a thing and mention of ‘the master who ruled them’ not knowing the fate of them. At first he wore it all the time ‘until it tired him’ then he kept it in a pouch until it ‘galled him’ then he kept it on his rock in the middle of the lake where he would regularly go to look upon it. It’s such an elegant description of the ring’s hold over it’s possessor.
Gollum planned to use his ring to kill Bilbo by stealth, only to discover his ring was gone. As the reader, we are quite certain where it might have got to!
Gollum returns to Bilbo in anger, they begin the debate again. What does the Hobbit have in his pocket? Now it is edged with suspicion. It is an accusation. Gollum lets slip in his furious self-talk that he has lost something. The two reach an impasse. One demanding to know what is in the others pockets. The other demanding to know what what the former has lost. Both dealing with the growing realisation they are talking about the same object.
This debate is held at a distance, Gollum’s murderous intent, the constant element that has been bubbling at the heart of the chapter has ignited and Bilbo sees there is no more putting off the inevitable and he must run.
Bilbo flees in the darkness and pondering Gollum’s question properly he wondered what, in fact, he had in his pocket. He tried the ring on and fell over in the dark (conveniently covering his sword that might suddenly give out light – nice loophole closing there JRR!) Gollum, giving chase passes right by without noticing him. Of course he is invisible.
There’s a really interesting interplay at work in this chapter now. It’s the storytellers grasp and balance of what everyone knows. What the characters know and what the reader knows. Tolkien has a habit of obliterating suspense, giving you what happened on a plate then explaining it in detail. It works, mostly because the way he tells it is still entertaining. It’s the whole journey over the destination metaphor (that might actually be the best metaphor for this entire book!) Until this moment in the chapter Bilbo is the only party that isn’t aware that the ring makes it’s wearer invisible. Gollum already knew and the narrator made sure the reader knew. The push and pull of who knows what tracks through this chapter to keep the reader on their toes, make them wonder, set them up to enjoy the information dawning or being revealed to the character. The flow and control of narrative information for maximum, or at least desired effect is really apparent to me here. It’s something I’ll try to keep an eye on as I continue to read through.
Bilbo follows Gollum, who by now is accidentally fulfilling his promise of leading the Hobbit out of the tunnels and caves. Gollum’s self-talk is a really useful narrative device here as he explains out loud what must have happened, how he must have dropped his ‘birthday present’ (the ring) when he was out earlier killing a goblin for dinner (a reminder that this is considered a children’s classic). Gollum’s speech quirks by this point seem really natural so it doesn’t feel like forced exposition, which is a really neat trick.
Gollum stops and begins to weep to himself. He has guessed that Bilbo has found his ring but he is still banking on the Hobbit being unaware of what it can do. He is in despair, but still his mind is quickly turning to solutions and plans, still figuring out a way he can retrieve what he feels is rightfully his. The supposition that Bilbo is lost and ignorant of the power he has betrays Gollum, his chief fear is that the Hobbit will be captured by Goblins and they will find his ring and it will be used against him. He sits and talks aloud about what the ring does, and that is how Bilbo discovers he is invisible.
Gollum begins to head for ‘the back door’ a way out, presuming that if Bilbo would lie and cheat him in the game he might be lying about not knowing the way out. I think it’s great that at every turn of Gollum’s reasoning he screws himself. By trying to gain the upper hand he is aiding Bilbo accidentally. If he had simply done nothing and been quiet, there is a good chance he would have successfully hunted the Hobbit down. He had home advantage and didn’t use it!
As Gollum gets closer to the exit and Goblins we begin to see his true colours. He becomes afraid. He’s only dangerous and confident on his own turf when he has full control of the environment and the advantage over anyone unfortunate enough to enter it. Now without his ring and outside his small domain he is shaky and scared.
Gollum crouched in the passage that led to the exit. He dared go no further but decided to wait to see if he might catch Bilbo on the way out. Bilbo had followed and wondered how he might get past the creature. Gollum was alert, and even though he could not see the hobbit, his ears and nose were sharp.
Bilbo considered killing Gollum, but hastily decided against it, deeming it an unfair fight, even though the creature undoubtedly would kill him in an instant if the chance presented itself. That distinction was set from the start of their meeting. The text actually says that Gollum had not threatened to kill him, which I find confusing as the creature has clearly spoken about eating Bilbo right to his face, and questioned how he might taste!
An understanding of pity is what settled it. A wave of empathy for the creature and his lot. It is such a vital moment in the wider lore, and something that can be easily skipped over in this book. A simple, isn’t Bilbo a nice chap, character moment, but it would go on to define so much.
Instead, Bilbo jumped right over Gollum, nearly hitting his head on the arch of the passageway. Somehow Gollum sensed it and groped out narrowly missing the Hobbit.
Gollum screams and cries, he refuses to give chase; his fear trumping his desire to retain ‘his precious’, which in itself is an interesting moment. I wonder if it was tempting to edit this in retrospect as Gollum gives up the ring a little easily? Considering the lengths the creature eventually goes to to get it back. Then again, it might be an underestimation of the effort of will it took to force Gollum out from the darkness of his caves. He had been there so long that it would have taken a great longing to leave. It isn’t a snap decision, that isn’t how the effect of the ring seems to work. I’m reminded of a similar passing on of the ring at the beginning of Fellowship. It only takes a moment to give it up.
Bilbo races along the tunnel wary of the goblins that Gollum was so frightened of. He spies natural light and races around a corner to find the way out guarded by goblins.
The goblins see him! ‘Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, the ring was not on his finger.’ Just a small hint that the ring has agency and an agenda of its own. It might be supposed that it has looked into the heart of its new owner and witnessed goodness. Bilbo didn’t strike a killing blow when he could have done, he showed pity and mercy. For the ring that isn’t the sort of person that will help it achieve its goals. It would much rather be held by a goblin, nasty and easy to bend to its will and purpose.
Bilbo fumbled in his pocket for the ring and sipped it back on disappearing from sight, confusing the goblins that gave chase up the passage presuming the strange little creature they saw had run back that way.
In the text it seems that there are rather a lot of goblins guarding the door. I had always previously imagined only a few but there is enough to suggest many with the clamour and activity described. Bilbo hid so as not to be tripped over or caught.
In the end Bilbo attempted to wave in, out and between the scrambling goblins. He got knocked over and crawled through legs eventually making it to the great stone door that was barely left ajar. He tried to squeeze through then got stuck, his precious buttons of all things snagging on the edge. Then a nasty twist of fate, the sun shone from behind a cloud casting his shadow into the cave for the goblins to see. A cry went up!
Bilbo squirmed and the buttons burst and tore off his waistcoat and he was away. I always cast my mind back to the beginning of the book here and imagine what the Hobbit would think to know about lost buttons and ripped waistcoat, these things that were so important to him then nearly caused his end.
The goblins gave chase, but of course Bilbo was well hidden. The sun bothered the goblins so their chase was limited. He had escaped the mountains.
I said it in the previous essay, I think it’s my favourite chapter in the book. It has so much about the characters; Gollum is fascinating, even here there are hints at his depth and complexity. So much of my thinking is informed by what happens in the Lord of the Rings though, there is no escaping it. That is what makes this chapter so captivating. But if you strip some of that away and look into the interplay of the characters and how Tolkien involves and inserts the reader into it all, it’s wonderful.
The reader, at least THIS reader, gets played and enjoys every moment of it.