Riddles have lost none of their power over us: we are as fascinated by mysteries, from sudoko to whodunnits, from jokes to philosophical conundrums. The Hobbit is a book threaded through with riddles; most obviously in its central “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, but everywhere else too—what does “Good Morning” mean? What is a burrahobbit? How many versions of the Hobbit are there? What is the buried secret in the nine riddles Bilbo and Gollum swap between one another? What are Ents? Dragons? Wizards? What is the magic of the magic ring?
All these questions, and more, are answered in Adam Roberts’ The Riddles of the Hobbit, the first critical engagement with Tolkien’s great work to take “the riddle” seriously as a key structuring principle of the novel. This is a critical study of the playful aspect of a great writer that takes his playfulness seriously; it explores and embodies ingenuity; and comes to some original and—on occasion—startling new conclusions. The Riddles of the Hobbit is available November 1st from Palgrave Macmillan.
The Puzzle of the Two Hobbits
How many The Hobbits did Tolkien write?
The short answer is that Tolkien wrote two versions of the story. In the first, a troop of (to use what Tolkien insisted was the proper plural form of the word) dwarves are planning to trek to a distant mountain in order to steal a great pile of treasure guarded by a lethal, fire-breathing dragon—or more properly, to steal it back, since they claim it belongs to them. They are looking for a professional thief to help them in this dangerous business. The wizard Gandalf, for reasons that appear largely capricious, tricks the dwarves into hiring Bilbo Baggins, an ordinary, sedentary, unadventurous hobbit. He likewise tricks Bilbo into going along. This situation is played broadly for laughs, because Bilbo is so patently unfitted to the business of adventuring. Actually, ‘unfitness’ also seems to characterise the dwarves: the party stumbles from disaster to disaster as they journey, escaping death by hairs’ breadths half a dozen times at the hands of trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders and hostile elves. They are saved from their early misadventures by Gandalf’s interventions, for though eccentric he is considerably more competent than they. Later, though, Gandalf goes off on his own business, and the party has to get into the habit of rescuing itself. They stumble through a series of potentially fatal pickles, somehow managing, by a combination of luck and hobbit-judgement, always to get away. Indeed, tracing Bilbo’s development from massively incompetent to marginally incompetent is one of the readerly pleasures of the narrative.
The titular hobbit happens to have picked up a magic ring during the course of his travels. Ownership of this ring, and a rather shallow learning curve, gradually make Bilbo better at thieving and sneaking about. When, against the odds, the party reaches the dragon’s mountain, the quest is achieved, much more by luck than judgement. Bilbo uses the magic ring to creep into the dragon’s lair and to steal one cup from the great hillocks of piled pelf; but that is as much as he can do. Luckily for all of them, the loss of this single piece happens to enrage the dragon, causing him to leave the mountain with the furious intention of burning up the local town of men. One of the defenders there, warned by a talking bird, shoots a lucky arrow that kills the beast. After this there is a big battle: armies converging on the mountain and its now undragoned hoard. The leader of the dwarf-band is killed, but otherwise things work out well for everybody. Finally, having spent almost all the novel adumbrating the ‘there’ of the novel’s subtitle, the story sprints through the ‘and back again’, hurrying the materially enriched Bilbo home in a few pages.
I stress the ‘incompetence’ angle in this retelling because, really, that is what characterises the main players. It is an endearing incompetence, used partly for comedy, partly for dramatic purposes (by way of racketing up the narrative tension and keeping things interesting) and partly to facilitate the readers’—our—engagement. Because we can be honest; we would be rubbish on a dangerous quest. We are hobbitish types ourselves, and our idea of fun is snuggling into the sofa with a cup of cocoa and a good book, not fighting gigantic spiders with a sword. Or more precisely, we enjoy fighting giant spiders with a sword—in our imaginations only. The Hobbit has been as commercially successful as it has in part because the hobbits are able (textually-speaking) so brilliantly to mediate our modern, cosseted perspectives and the rather forbidding antique warrior code and the pitiless Northern-European Folk Tale world.
That there is something haphazard about the larger conception of this adventure is part of its point. Obviously, it makes for a jollier tale if a clearly unsuitable comic-foil is sent on a dangerous quest, and a less jolly tale if that protagonist is some super-competent swordsman alpha-male. The bumbling, homely qualities of Bilbo, and the pinball-ball bouncing trajectory from frying pan to fire to bigger fire of the narrative, are loveable aspects of the whole. It also expresses a larger truth. The motor of the story is the idea that adventure will come and find you, and winkle you out of your comfortable hidey-hole. It is a beguiling idea, in part because it literalises the action of story itself. We settle ourselves to read, in physical comfort; but the story itself transports us imaginatively out of our cosy cubby and away, upon all manner of precarious, exciting, absorbing and diverting journeys.
This is The Hobbit that appeared in 1937, to both acclaim and commercial success. But there is another The Hobbit; a second The Hobbit written by Tolkien, comprising revisions to this first edition, additional material written for The Lord of the Rings and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, plus other material. The most significant of these latter are two separate prose pieces, both called ‘The Quest for Erebor’ first collected in the posthumously-published Unfinished Tales (1980). Tolkien’s first revisions were confined to the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter. After writing the first Hobbit Tolkien came to the conclusion that ‘the Ring’ was more than just a magic ring conferring invisibility on its wearer—that it was indeed the most powerful artefact in the whole world, one with which people could become so besotted as to lose their souls. Gollum, he reasoned, would not freely give up such an item. So he rewrote the scene, and all subsequent editions of the novel treat the encounter in a less light-hearted manner. This is symptomatic of something larger, a reconceptualising (Tolkien purists might say: a distillation or focusing) of his now-celebrated legendarium. No longer a folk-story, it now becomes a grand sacramental drama of incarnation, atonement and redemption.
The Riddles of The Hobbit © Adam Roberts, 2013