Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 17


– Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 3.”

Bilbo’s encounter with the giant talking spiders is one of the most important episodes in The Hobbit for a number of reasons. I’ll focus on three of them today, and look at specific passages where Bilbo puts on and removes the Ring as I move through this episode.

  • In his encounter with the first spider, Bilbo saves himself without the help of any other character, including the Ring.
  • He locates and rescues the captured dwarves. He has the help of the Ring, of course, but it is really his wits and bravery that save the day.
  • The battle with the spiders leads to the dwarves discovering that Bilbo has the power to become invisible, and he tells them about the Ring.
Map by Deviant Artis silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

After being separated from the dwarves in the confusion of the elf-feast, Bilbo sits down and dozes. He wakes to find a huge spider binding him with webs. He manages to pull his sword and kill the spider all by himself. I can’t be sure without carefully parsing the goblin chapters again but I think this is Bilbo’s first kill, and it’s the encounter that prompts him to name his sword Sting. It’s clear that this is a significant moment for Bilbo:

Somehow killing the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. (1)

Bilbo is more confident now than he’s been since he left Hobbiton, and the Ring has nothing to do with it. He’s also in a position to search for the dwarves. He takes a lucky guess about the direction he heard their last screams come from, having first “slipped on his ring.” The role-playing nerd in me is thinking Bilbo just gained a level of experience. (2)

He finds the dwarves trussed up in webs. A swarm of giant spiders is having a conversation about how best to kill and eat them. This whole encounter echoes the incident with the trolls – only this time it’s Bilbo instead of Gandalf who comes to the rescue. (3)

Invisible Bilbo kills two spiders with thrown stones, then leads the spiders away from the dwarves just as they are about to kill Bombour. He taunts the spiders with silly rhymes, leads them into the forest, then circles back, surprises and kills the one spider who stayed behind to guard the dwarves, and frees the dwarves from their webs just as the rest of the spiders return. There’s a battle. Aside from their knives, the weary, poisoned dwarves have only sticks and stones. The spiders begin to encircle the whole group with a fence of webs. (4)

Bilbo, having taken off the Ring to free the dwarves, sees that he’s going to have to put it on again to win the battle, and has no way of doing it without the dwarves seeing him disappear. So he warns them:

I am going to disappear, he said. I shall draw the spiders off, if I can; and you must keep together and make in the opposite direction. To the left there, that is more or less the way towards the place where we last saw the elf-fires.

It was difficult for them to understand . . . but at last Bilbo felt he could delay no longer . . . He suddenly slipped on his ring, and to the great astonishment of the dwarves, he vanished. (5)

This is the first time Bilbo uses the Ring as part of a strategy. Up to this point, in every instance that he’s worn it, it’s either slipped onto his finger (seemingly) of its own free will, or he’s used it to hide from danger. In this instance, the invisibility is a sort of armor. And of course, now there must be a conversation about it with the dwarves when all this is over.

He tries to lead the spiders away again, but some of them pursue the dwarves, who are in no condition to run or fight. Bilbo circles back, flanks the pursuing spiders, and goes total badass on them.

He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed . . . but they had become mortally afraid of Sting and dared not come very near . . . It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their colony. (6)

Bilbo changes so much by the end of this story, it’s increasingly easy to forget he’s the same polite, nervous, comfort-loving creature Gandalf approached in An “Unexpected Party.” I locate the most drastic part of the change in this battle. Bilbo’s been lucky (I’d love to know how many times the word “luck” appears in the text – it seems to be on every page) and clever all along. Now he’s found his physical courage and proven he can keep his wits about him in a crisis. The dwarves are fortunate to have him, because they seem to have trouble with that. (7)

image by lucasmt

image by lucasmt

What I can’t say, really -– because the language of the text doesn’t give me much to go on – is how much the Ring influences Bilbo’s behavior here. Certainly, the invisibility is required to make his plans work. But the Ring seems to be lurking in the background and functioning as a simple magic item. If I did not know the story of The Lord of the Rings, I would probably have forgotten all that slipping on and off Bilbo’s finger from “Riddles in the Dark” by now. (8)

When the spiders flee, the company finds themselves in one of the circles where the elves had been feasting the night before. Bilbo explains the finding of the Ring to them. He’d told them about Gollum just after the escape from the Misty Mountains, but left the Ring out of the story. (I missed this one, and I am sure there are interesting things to say about it.) (9)

The conversation shifts to finding food and figuring out what to do next, and we get this gem.

These questions they asked over and over again, and it was from little Bilbo that they seemed to expect to get answers. From which you see that they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him (as Gandalf had said they would). Indeed they really expected him to think of some wonderful plan for helping them, and were not merely grumbling. (10)

The dwarves are suddenly looking to Bilbo for leadership. And this is interesting: if you follow the dwarves through the first half of this novel, they do not change. The trouble with the elves and the spiders is the same sort of trouble they had with the trolls. They are prone to being out-witted and vulnerable to ambush. In the absence of Gandalf, Bilbo is the smartest, most savvy person in the group at this point.

Sadly, Bilbo is too exhausted to think of anything, so they all pass out in the elf-circle. At some point later, Balin pops open an eye and realizes no one has seen Thorin since the confusion with the elves the night before and the narrative shifts to a descriptive passage explaining that he’s been carried off to the dungeon of the Wood-elves. (11)

We’ll leave them for here for now.

Notes (Bibliography)

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 9

– Originally posted at Part Time Monster as “. . . Thief! Baggins! We hates it . . . we hates it for ever!” The whole series is archived here.

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 GollumFinalencounters 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)

The Ring

  • 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.

Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 6

Originally published at Part Time Monster on March 7, 2014, as “The Death of Isildur.” This is the final installment on Isildur. We’re taking a break from these for the April A to Z Challenge, but they will start back up with Gollum in May.

I considered moving on to Gollum this week, but the Disaster of the Gladden Fields is too important to exclude from this series. It is in this episode that we first catch a glimpse of the One Ring as an independent character, and it connects the War of the Ring to the the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth.

Isildur’s position as the central figure here, and the fact that this is an event of his making, make him the most significant figure of the Second Age. They also make him a tragic hero (1).

As with most of the other events we’ve looked at so far, our most complete source for the death of Isildur is Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (2). We also have significant accounts from Gandalf (3) and Elrond (4).

First, let’s look at the “historical” account. After refusing to destroy the Ring and claiming it as an heirloom, Isildur returns to Minas Anor, plants the White Tree in memory of his brother Anarion, who was slain in the War of the Last Alliance, and counsels his nephew in statecraft. All this is covered in a few sentences in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, but, the events of LOTR make it clear that Isildur remains in the south for a couple of years (5). It is during this period that he authors the scroll that eventually allows Gandalf to identify the Ring. Finally, Isildur leaves the southern kingdom to his nephew:

But soon he departed, and after he had given counsel to Meneldil, his brother’s son, and had committed to him the realm of the south, he bore away the Ring, to be an heirloom of his house, and marched north from Gondor by the way that Elendil had come; and he forsook the South Kingdom, for he purposed to take up his father’s realm in Eriador, far from the shadow of the Black Land.

But Isildur was overwhelmed by a host of Orcs that lay in wait in the Misty Mountains; and they descended upon him at unawares in his camp between the Greenwood and the Great River, nigh to Loeg Ningloron, the Gladden Fields, fore he was heedless and set no guard, deeming that all his foes were overthrown . . .  Isildur himself escaped by means of the Ring, fore when he wore it he was invisible to all eyes; but the Orcs hunted him by scent and by slot, until he came to the River and plunged in.

Then the Ring betrayed him and avenged its maker, for it slipped from his finger as he swam, and it was lost in the water. Then Orcs saw him as he laboured in the stream, and they shot him with many arrows, and that was his end. Only three of his people ever came back over the mountains after long wandering; and of these one was Ohtar his esquire, to whose keeping he had given the shards of the sword of Elendil. (6)

Four phrases in this passage deserve close reading; I’ll cover them in order with bullet-points.

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 5

Originally published at Part Time Monster on Feb. 20, 2014 as “Isildur’s Bane: Why Did Isildur Keep the Ring?”

There are two accounts of Isildur and the Ring, one in Elrond’s own words, and another in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. Both accounts agree that Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s finger and kept it even though Elrond and Cirdan implored him to destroy it. Here is Elrond’s account:

I beheld the last combat on the slopes of Orodruin, where Gil-galad died, and Elendil fell, and Narsil broke beneath him; but Sauron himself was overthrown, and Isildur cut the Ring from his hand with the hilt-shard of his father’s sword, and took it for his own.(1)

In the next paragraph, Boromir registers his surprise and makes it clear that this story is not commonly known. Then we get this:

“Alas! Yes,” said Elrond. “Isildur took it, as should not have been. It should have been cast then into Orodruin’s fire nigh at hand where it was made. But few marked what Isildur did. He alone stood by his father in that last mortal contest, and by Gil-galad only Cirdan stood, and I. But Isildur would not listen to our counsel.”

’This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother,’ he said; and therefore whether we would or no, he took it to treasure it. But soon he was betrayed by it to his death, and so it is named in the North Isildur’s Bane. Yet death maybe was better than what else might have befallen him. (2)

Elrond’s story is helpful as an account of the event and the conversation. It doesn’t really tell us much about Isildur’s motive for keeping the Ring, but “he took it to treasure it” suggests the same desire for the Ring we see with other characters who are temped by it. The account from Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, which was authored in Gondor during the Fourth Age, is more useful:

“The Ruling Ring passed out of the knowledge even of the Wise in that age, yet it was not unmade. For Isildur would not surrender it to Elrond and Cirdan who stood by. They counseled him to cast it into the fire of Orodruin nigh at hand, in which it had been forged, so that it should perish, and the power of Sauron be for ever diminished, and he should remain only a shadow of malice in the wilderness. But Isildur refused this counsel, saying: “This I will have as weregild for my father’s death, and my brother’s. Was it not I that dealt the Enemy his death-blow?” And the Ring that the held seemed to him exceedingly fair to look on; and he would not suffer it to be destroyed. Taking it therefore he returned at first to Minas Anor, and there planted the White Tree in memory of his brother Anarion. But soon he departed, and after he had given counsel to Meneldil, he bore away the Ring, to be an heirloom of his house, and marched north from Gondor by the way that Elendil had come; and he forsook the South Kingdom, for he purposed to take up his father’s realm in Eriador, far from the shadow of the Black Land.(3)

The clear statement that Isildur “would not surrender it” implies that they asked him to do so. I find it interesting that this detail is excluded from Elrond’s account, and that it occurs before they “counseled him to destroy it.” I think it’s clear from the passage that Isildur is under the influence of the Ring – that’s why he finds it “exceedlingly fair,” and why he rationalizes his decision by claiming the ring both as “weregild” and as a spoil of combat.

The thing I wonder about when I read these passages is whether or not Elrond and Cirdan are also influenced by the Ring in some way here. Does the Ring prevent them from being more forceful about destroying it; or is it simply that they are wise enough to know that trying to force Isildur to give it up would have worse consequences than allowing him to keep it? There isn’t enough evidence to say one way or another, so you’ll have to decide for yourself. But clearly, there is a lot more going on in this scene than you’d think from a casual scan of the text, and a lot more going on that we see in Peter Jackson’s adaptation:

This is part of an ongoing series; and I write about Tolkien regularly. You can find my previous posts here, and my Tolkien bibliography here.


1. Fellowship of the Ring p. 256

2. Fellowship of the Ring p. 256

3. The Silmarillion p. 294