Reading The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark or Let’s Play with the Monster who wants to EAT Me!

Riddles in the Dark is probably the most famous and well-known piece of Tolkien’s writing. This is primarily due to the great character he introduced here which is wholly unlike anything to come before or after in literary history: Gollum.

What makes the chapter even more fascinating, beyond its own merits as a tale, is the fact that it played a crucial role in the creation of The Hobbit’s sequel, The Lord of the Rings. It is well-known that Tolkien returned to this book, and largely this chapter to revise the tale in line with its successor. However, rather than toss the original form, Tolkien makes of this revision a meta-narrative, folding the revision into the new and more sinister conception of the Ring.

The revision becomes part of Bilbo’s story. The original tale of Gollum’s “gift” is the story Bilbo tells the world, and initially reports in his diary (The Hobbit). The tale most of us are familiar with today, as currently published, is the true tale of the finding of the Ring by chance and the harrowing escape from Gollum.

I received a copy of John D. Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit this past Christmas, so of course I made a beeline for this chapter! Rateliff’s book publishes the earliest surviving manuscripts of Tolkien’s Hobbit. (Though not terribly different from the first edition text, I will be returning to this post to insert that text as well, where different from either edition).  The remarkable fact is that there is very little difference between the first story and the second history.

The wording of the finding of the ring versus the Ring is very interesting:

In the first:

Certainly he did find what felt like a ring of metal lying on the floor in the tunnel. He put it in his pocket; but that didn’t help much.” (THoTH p151 vol. 1)

And in the revised:

“...till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket, almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment.” (TH p81)

Notice the addition of the words “suddenly” and “without thinking.” These two slight changes are actually monumental in their implications. It is said later by Gandalf in the FotR that Bilbo was indeed meant to find the Ring.  His deduction is based on the fact that Bilbo finds the Ring by chance occurrence in the dark. How easy it would have been for his hand to slip past the Ring over the rock! So too the second change is crucial to an understanding of the fact that the Ring left Gollum and chose Bilbo. Here we see, as is much more pronounced in the LotR, the same association of the Ring with seemingly subconscious and automatic action. It may seem a stretch, but the wording is too similar to not imply the same relationship between Ring and bearer.

First, there’s Bilbo’s fire side scene:

“At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.” (LotR 34)

And during Frodo’s scene 17 years later:

“…then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away-but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.” (TH 59)

It is a very slight resemblance, yes, but it is there none the less, and begs the question if this was the reasoning behind the change in the wording.

One of the things I’ve always wondered at during the “Shadows of the Past” is when Frodo expresses such dismay at Gollum’s ownership of the Ring; surely he knew of this part of the Ring’s history. Yet if we look at the original draft, Gollum, though in some ways a very honorable monster (I’ll get to this later), is quite a bit more monstrous than the final version. This is how he was once described:

“…as dark as darkness except for two big round pale eyes…” with” …pale lamp-like eyes…like telescopes” and “long fingers” (THoTH p155 vol.1 ) and “long webby [feet]” (THoTH p158 vol. 1)

It is obvious from this description, Gollum is quite far from the depraved hobbit he will become. I wonder though, if this description somehow remained in Bilbo’s retelling of the true (revised) tale to Frodo. If so, this would certainly explain Frodo’s disgust upon the discovery that Gollum is indeed a hobbit just like Frodo and Bilbo, and maybe not such a monster after all!

Between the two versions, the riddle game largely remains unchanged, with one exception: the declared reward for the winner. Gollum remains quite enthusiastic about eating Bilbo in either case, but Bilbo’s reward is quite different:

“If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we gives it a present: Gollum.” (THoTH p156 vol. 1)


“If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!” (TH 87)

Unbeknownst to Bilbo, this proposed gift is the very ring he placed in his pocket earlier. The Riddle Game ensues, with the same result, Bilbo wins. How Gollum reacts is quite different in either version of the tale. In the first, Gollum is immediately ready and willing to hand over his present, Bilbo has nothing to worry about.

“For one thing the Gollum had learned long long ago was never to cheat at the riddle game.” (THoTH p 160 vol. 1)

So Gollum paddles off to his island to retrieve the ring, only to find it’s gone. As in the revised tale, he wails and shrieks and scrambles about it distress. However, in this instance it is to be wondered whether this is more due to the fact that he cannot fulfill his promise or due to the loss of the ring. Gollum, very apollogetically, explains the situation to Bilbo and the nature of his present, even so far as describing its powers. The narrator (presumably Bilbo) admits “I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon” (THoTH p160 vol. 1).

Gollum, in this incarnation, is perfectly honorable and nothing like you’d expect of the monster waiting to eat you in the dark. He holds true to his word, and when he cannot, instead of “offering a substitute reward” he is “pathetically eager to make good on his debt” (THoTH p167 vol. 1).  Though monstrous in appearance, and monstrous in appetite, Gollum is still honor bound by the riddle game and its agreed upon reward. It is hard, reading this segment of the original version, to see Gollum as a monster at all.

It is all turned around. Bilbo of course soon realizes what he really has in his pocket.  What does he do? Does he tell Gollum? No, “Finding’s keeping!” (THoTH p 160 vol 1) Not only that, but he guilts Gollum into giving him further reward, saying:

“‘Never mind, the ring would have been mine now if you could have found it, so you haven’t lost it. And I will forgive you on one condition…Help me to get out of these places.” (THoTH p161 vol. 1)

Gollum, now established as the more honorable of the two, docily agrees, and leads Bilbo to the tunnel leading to the back door. Bilbo does experiment with the ring in the tunnel following Gollum, but removes it and puts it back in his pocket after a short test. And so he is spotted by the goblins.

Now to return to the current or true version of the tale.

In the original tale, as in the final, upon winning the riddle contest, Bilbo places his back against the wall with Sting out prepared for devilry on Gollum’s part. In the first case, his worry was completely unfounded. In the second, he was right. Losing the contest, Gollum “[is] angry…and hungry…and he already [has] a plan” (TH 95). He convinces Bilbo he must return to his island to get some items in preparation for the journey out. As in the original, though now unknown to Bilbo, he returns to find the Ring.

Discovering the Ring is gone, Gollum soon jumps to the conclusion that the Ring is the answer to Bilbo’s last “riddle.” He returns in a rage, and Bilbo, now wondering and afraid, feels for the Ring in his pocket and it slips on. Again, as in the finding, this is not a conscious decision. And so Bilbo discovers the nature of his find.

Gollum rushes through the tunnels thinking Bilbo actually knows the way out, and all Bilbo has to do is follow. That is, until Golum reaches the final tunnel and can go no further. Here Bilbo is met with great temptation: to rid the world of this monster. An internal battle ensues:

“He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. 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.” (TH p 102)

All this courses through Bilbo’s mind, and just as quickly he makes his decision and makes his fateful leap to escape. Gandalf will tell Frodo later, when describing this moment:

“It was Pity that stayed his hand…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.” (LotR 58)

And so, with a few simple changes, Tolkien, or should I say Bilbo, has set the stage for the first eucatastrophic moment of the Lord of the Rings, established Bilbo as the more honorable character and primed Gollum for all his future deeds.

Let’s return to the final moments of the chapter in the “true” version. Bilbo leaps over Gollum and rushes up the tunnel to the goblin guard chamber before the back door, all while still wearing the Ring. Or so he thinks. Reaching the chamber, he is shocked to find the goblins can see him.

“Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger.” (TH 104)

As many of the other revisions, this one is quite small. Like the others, however, it bears great weight. This contrary aspect of the Ring: it’s apparent ability to change size and weight is of great import in the larger legendarium. This trait alone causes the death of Isildur and leads to Gollum finding the Ring, and much later allows the Ring to leave Gollum for Bilbo. It is a defining moment in the transition of the ring to the Ring, the one Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The comparison of the two texts is eye opening. Yes, some of the “tale” is related in the “history” in both The Hobbit’s current edition and in the Lord of the Rings, but it is really worth reading in full. What is really amazing is how well the meta-narrative ends up working. It follows the “truism” that the best lies are made of the most truth. Extremely little of the structure or sequence of events is changed. Really the only overt change is the addition of Bilbo’s great leap and his great decision which immediately precedes it.

This parity only lends further credence to the notion of the cover up by Bilbo. Also the nature of Gollum, and Bilbo’s logic in keeping the ring in the original lends itself well towards building up Bilbo as the burglaring type, at the same time as it should (and does) cause suspision. It is a rather weak tale, when the “monster” ends up more sympathetic than the hero. Tolkien painstakingly made these revisions, I’m sure, and I can only say I am thankful and amazed at his brilliant sollution: not to reject the original, but to explain its origin as a part of the fabric of the new tale that he was documenting in the LotR.


2 thoughts on “Reading The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark or Let’s Play with the Monster who wants to EAT Me!

    • Great to know. Thanks! Rateliff’s History of the Hobbit includes the full text of the surviving original manuscripts, which is what I’ve quoted here.

      Just skimmed through…that is a wonderful resource Troelsfo! I see the editions align even more versus comparison with the early draft I used in this post, other than (of course) the parts dealing with the present after the riddle game. Thanks for sharing this, I will be sure to study this, along with the manuscript text again in the future!

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