We’ve covered Gollum’s backstory and his acquisition of the Ring. Now we’ve arrived at his first appearance. “Riddles in the Dark,” chapter five of The Hobbit, is one of the single most fateful encounters in all of Tolkien, though you’d never know it just from reading that book. Had Bilbo taken a different turn, the entire history of the late Third Age would be entirely different.
This is one of my favorite episodes. I enjoy it as much as I enjoy Gandalf’s encounter with the Balrog and Frodo’s meeting with Faramir. This post focuses on Gollum; I’ll return to this chapter when I discuss Bilbo. (1)
Synopsis (Here Be Spoilers)
The synopsis is simple. After an underground encounter with goblins (as orcs are referred to in The Hobbit), Bilbo is separated from the rest of the party and knocked unconscious. He comes to in darkness, discovers the Ring as he’s fumbling around, and pockets it with barely a thought. Eventually he recovers his wits. With the aid of the pale glow of his Elven dagger, he gets moving again and comes to a lake at the roots of the Misty Mountains.
There he encounters Gollum, who’s curious and wary at first. Gollum decides Bilbo would make a tasty meal, but Bilbo is armed and wants Gollum to show him the way out of the caverns. A high-stakes game of riddles ensues. If Gollum wins, he gets to eat Bilbo; if he loses, he has to show Bilbo the way out. Technically, Bilbo wins, but his last riddle isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the game, which is portrayed as an ancient and sacred tradition.
Gollum decides to eat Bilbo anyway and makes an excuse to go and retrieve the Ring from his secret hiding place. He discovers he’s lost it, and very quickly he begins to suspect that Bilbo has it. Bilbo flees with Gollum close behind. Bilbo puts his hand in his pocket, the ring slips on his finger, he stumbles, and Gollum passes him in the tunnel. Hijinks ensue. Eventually Gollum inadvertently reveals the Ring’s power of invisibility to Bilbo and leads him to the exit. (2)
- Even though Gollum is usually portrayed in visual media as having green, froglike skin, his skin is black according to this chapter. (3)
- It’s clear that Gollum came to the underground pool before this particular band of goblins made their home under the mountains and that he strangles and eats goblins from time to time with the help of the ring. (4)
- His appetite is voracious. He’s already eaten a goblin on the day he meets Bilbo, and he’s ravenous by the time the riddle game is done. (5)
- Gollum has a little boat that he uses to paddle around in the lake by hanging his feet over the side. Since he’s been here centuries by the time Bilbo arrives, I’ve always wondered how he came by the boat. (6)
- The riddle game is Gollum’s idea. It’s “the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago . . .” This line is interesting, because it suggests that Gollum doesn’t even remember what sort of creature he was before he took the Ring. (7)
- Gollum never refers to the Ring as his “precious” in this chapter. “Precious” is a name he uses for himself. He refers to the Ring throughout as his “birthday-present.” His shift to also referring to the Ring as “precious” in The Lord of the Rings suggests he’s so consumed by the Ring, he conflates the Ring’s ego with his own after he loses it. (8)
- I’ve suggested that the Ring possibly summoned the Orcs that attacked Isildur at the Gladden Fields, and that it may have somehow selected the fish that drug Deagol into the river. I find the idea that the Ring orchestrated this encounter beneath the Misty Mountains a bit far-fetched, though. The action of the previous chapter plays out over too much time and space, and involves too many individual characters, for me to regard that theory as viable. I don’t think it brought Bilbo to Gollum’s lake.
- This brings up an interesting question: How did the Ring know to slip off Gollum’s finger at the exact time and place for Bilbo to stumble upon it? I think the only answer is that at minimum the Ring has the power to see what’s going on for some distance – a mile perhaps, or a league? It may even have some limited form of prescience, and from this point on, I’m looking for evidence to support this theory.
- The Ring obviously slips onto Bilbo’s finger, slips off again once he escapes Gollum, then slips on again at the end of the chapter when the guards at the cavern exit see Bilbo. The language of the text is clear about this. In none of these instances does Bilbo act upon the Ring. The Ring acts on Bilbo. The Ring obviously wants out of the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo is its best bet for that. (9)
That’s all for this installment. This chapter is 20 pages long, so no way to cover it all in a few hundred words. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m interested to know if I missed anything in this passage that’s important to understanding Gollum.
This is Part 9 of an ongoing series. You can find links to previous installments here.
1. “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” in The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 344-45 and “The Forbidden Pool” in The Two Towers, pp. 292-302.
2. The Hobbit, pp. 76-95.
3. “As dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes . . .” p.79.
4. The goblins discovered the lake when they were widening caverns and connecting them with tunnels; they seldom go to the lake because they sense something lurking there, and they ended their underground road at the lake. p. 79.
5. p. 88
6. p. 79
7. pp. 80-81
8. The first reference I can find of Gollum referring to the Ring as “precious” is in “The Shadow of the Past,” The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 64. But curiously, this first reference is in a line from Frodo: “Surely the Ring was his precious, and the only thing he cared for?”
9. “The ring was cold as it quietly slipped on his groping forefinger,” p. 88. The passage at the exit, p. 94, suggests that the Ring might have slipped off as a “last trick” before it “took a new master.” Two sentences later Bilbo sticks his hands in his pockets, and it immediately slips back onto his finger.