There and Back Again… Again: The Hobbit Reread

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”

Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Hobbit. You can find past posts at the reread index, or you can catch up with our previous re-read of The Lord of the Rings. As always, the discussion will contain spoilers for everything Tolkien (that is: The Hobbit, LotR, The Silmarillion, and various posthumous tidbits); if you haven’t read the book before and would like to remain unspoiled, I recommend reading along with Mark Reads first.

This week, we consider Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark,” which was excerpted in at least one commonly-used schoolbook and caused a number of you to read The Hobbit in the first place. I have to say, I’d have done the same.


What Happens

Bilbo regains consciousness in the pitch black. Crawling along the tunnel, he picks up a metal ring, “almost without thinking.” Taking comfort from the discovery that his little sword is also an elvish blade that shines when goblins are near, he starts walking down the tunnel, but stops when he walks into cold water.

Gollum lives in the middle of this lake on an island. He sees Bilbo and, curious and not very hungry (yet), comes to the shore.

Gollum’s sudden appearance and hissing voice startles Bilbo, who points his sword at Gollum. Gollum is quite polite at swordpoint and proposes a riddle competition: “If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”

Bilbo doesn’t dare to disagree, and they trade riddles of increasing difficulty. Gollum becomes angry and hungry; Bilbo becomes flustered, and cannot think of his next riddle. He happens to feel the ring in his pocket and asks himself, out loud, “What have I got in my pocket?” Gollum takes this for a riddle and demands three guesses. They are all incorrect, and he heads to his island, planning to get his ring, sneak up on Bilbo invisibly, and eat him.

When Gollum can’t find his ring, he guesses (correctly, this time) that Bilbo has it and comes to attack Bilbo. As Bilbo runs away, he puts his hand in his pocket to figure out what he does have there, and the ring slips on to his finger. Gollum runs past, and Bilbo follows Gollum to the “back door.” There Gollum stops, smelling many goblins, and blocks the passage. Eventually he senses Bilbo and readies himself to spring. Bilbo briefly contemplates killing him, but a “sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart,” and he jumps over Gollum instead.

Bilbo runs to the door and is seen by the goblins because the ring has slipped off his finger. He puts it back on, dodges goblins, and eventually squeezes through the door, leaving “his nice brass buttons” all over the doorstep.



This is a really great chapter, tense and with such a compelling character in Gollum. I somehow managed to forget, the first time through, that it had been re-written to be consistent with The Lord of the Rings, so my initial reaction was amazement at how fully realized and consistent Gollum was here! I spent a bit contemplating what this meant about the character and so forth, and then hung my head when I remembered that not only was it revised, but KeithS had provided a link to, and I had read, a very useful side-by-side comparison of the changes!

It’s been a long week, what can I say.

So first, I feel I should say something about the very fact that Tolkien rewrote this chapter in light of his better idea about the ring being the One Ring. I hated it when Stephen King did this to the Dark Tower series, and before reading the last book, I said,

On one hand, I can understand that tales grow in the telling, and sometimes (as Teresa Nielsen Hayden has said) “do three and a half somersaults in midair and come down wearing a different costume.” And I imagine that many artists feel very strongly about being able to control the way their work is presented.

Yet as a reader, the word that keeps coming to mind is “betrayal,” melodramatic as it sounds. I think it has something do with nature of fiction: once published, a fictional world and fictional characters live in the minds of the readers as well as on the page and in the mind of the author. In a way, they no longer belong solely to the author—so the author rewrites their history at his or her peril. A straight retcon is at least transparent; rewriting a book, such that the original is no longer in print, seems less . . . honest? Less desirable, at least, to remove the reader’s option.

In comments, a friend pointed out this very example, and I said, “I’m inclined to say, ‘Well, if you’re Tolkien you can do that,’ but his constant rethinking means that The Silmarillion wasn’t finished in his lifetime, which I think is too bad. All the same, I think it a rare happening that the revision will net something like The Lord of the Rings.”

I suspect that I don’t have strong feelings about this because I never read the first edition of The Hobbit, whereas I imprinted hard on the first three volumes of the Dark Tower series. Also, not to put too fine a point on it but, I like the result in LotR way, way better than I do in the Dark Tower series. (I realize that this is inviting a discussion of the Dark Tower books, but I’m going to ask people to refrain, because I can’t get into my issues without spoilers and it’s not fair to do that here. If there’s demand for it I’ll put up a post on my personal journal.) But I feel sort of bad about not having strong feelings, because the principle ought to be the same. Certainly, if anyone else wants to express their hurt or anger over the second edition, I’ll be sympathetic. Conversely, if anyone wants to make the case for an author’s right to take a mulligan, well, I see your point too.

(Time being what it is, it seems unlikely that many people here would have read the first edition instead of the second. Anyone?)

As a side note, Wikipedia has this information about Tolkien’s intentions:

Tolkien sent this revised version of the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” to (his publisher) Unwin as an example of the kinds of changes needed to bring the book into conformity with The Lord of the Rings, but he heard nothing back for years. When he was sent galley proofs of a new edition, Tolkien was surprised to find the sample text had been incorporated. . . . The revised text became the second edition, published in 1951 in both the UK and the US.

(Fellowship was first published in 1954.) I presume that Tolkien would have been able to veto the changes if he didn’t want just the revised chapter included, but it is interesting to imagine all our copies of The Hobbit having the original text of this scene still, and only Bilbo’s later explanation that it was a lie for what “really” happened.

Which makes this a good time to turn to that original text and its changes. The side-by-side comparison shows that not only is Gollum scarier at the end of the riddle game, he’s also sadder and more compelling. Beyond what this means for LotR, my other reaction is that no wonder this was such an effective textbook excerpt—Tolkien had two shots at getting it right! It’s not that prior chapters have been bad, but this one is really a noticeable step up. I’m not prepared to say it’s the high point, but I’d definitely like to hear how people who read this chapter first found the opening chapters.

After all that meta, I have very few comments about the rest of the chapter. The principal thing of note, of course, is that it is the bottom of Bilbo’s character arc, from which he becomes, at least in the chapter, wiser and more active. At the start of the chapter, he goes from crawling in the dark (if this were LotR, he would be compared to an animal) to deciding, “Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” Then he gets through the riddle game (with some luck, about which more in a moment), shows pity and empathy for Gollum, and takes the necessary but still scary active steps of jumping over Gollum and getting out the back door. (Leaving behind his brass buttons, which have “Hi! We’re symbols!” written all over them.)

I also noticed how much of a role luck plays in this chapter. It twice gets Bilbo through the riddle game: once when he can’t speak properly and “Time! Time!” comes out (“Bilbo was saved by pure luck,” the narrator says), and once when Gollum guesses that Bilbo’s hand is in his pocket, and Bilbo “had luckily just taken his hand out again.” Of course, the biggest piece of luck is Bilbo’s finding the ring in the first place—or, from the point of view of LotR, which here is actually appropriate given the revisions, the biggest piece of “luck” is Bilbo’s “finding” the Ring in the first place. As Gandalf says in Fellowship: “Behind that there was something else at work, 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.” There’s not really a hint of that here, though, unlike the suggestions of the Ring’s will and addictive effect: not only does the Ring pull its “now you don’t see me, now you do” game, but when it slips off Bilbo’s finger at the back door, “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.”

I don’t have much to say about the riddles, because I’ve known them since I was four years old and have entirely lost any ability to consider them objectively. One thing I only noticed this time, though, is Gollum’s response to one of the riddles:

But suddenly Gollum remembered thieving from nests long ago, and sitting under the river bank teaching his grandmother, teaching his grandmother to suck—“Eggses!” he hissed. “Eggses it is!”

I realize this reference has gone past me every time until now, but all the same, I did find a “teach your grandmother to suck eggs” joke a bit incongruous in the middle of a life-of-death contest.

Finally, can someone explain to me how Bilbo wears his sword inside his breeches? If it were a knife in a thigh holster, fine, but a short sword?

Running tallies/catalogs: No dwarves this time, so nothing to add to the dwarf characteristics list. Did this chapter contain a reference to Bilbo thinking wistfully of his hobbit-hole? Yes (4/4).

We’ll see if we learn anything new about the dwarves when we rejoin them next week. See you then.

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.


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