The Hobbit 5 | Riddles in the Dark

by Glenn on September 2, 2019

The previous chapter was a cliff-hanger. In an escape from goblins, Bilbo fell and bumped his head. Now Bilbo wakes up.

“When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut. No one was anywhere near him. Just imagine his fright!”

The narrator’s voice is interesting to me in this chapter. First of all, the narrator knows what’s going on inside the mind of Bilbo. The narrator is also very friendly to his readers and wants those readers to have empathy for Bilbo. And he already has the big contours of this story, though later I will come to understand that I can no longer think of him as omniscient.

Bilbo crawling around discovers a ring. The narrator tells us, “It was a turning point in [Bilbo’s] career, but he did not know it.”

I like the playful quality in the writing:

“[Bilbo] did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while. He  thought of himself frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen at home—for he could feel inside that it was high time for some meal or other; but that only made him miserabler.”

The narrator tells us that “Bilbo was in what is called a tight place.” But we learn that hobbits have some advantages in tunnels that the humans reading this story don’t, especially keeping a sense of direction while underground. But then the narrator confesses, “I should not have liked to have been in Mr. Baggins’ place, all the same.”

Bilbo heads down and down until he comes to water. Since it’s dark, Bilbo has no way of knowing if this is a puddle or a lake. (It’s a lake.) And this is where he meets Gollum, for whom the lake is his home, with an island in the middle. And this is where our narrator declares some gaps in his knowledge. Concerning Gollum, he writes, “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was.”

So, the narrator knows a lot, but not everything. But this is a little confusing because after he tells us that Gollum, to be friendly with Bilbo, decides to play a game of riddles, he writes,

“Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains.”

So what does the narrator know and not know?

Gollum is interested in eating Bilbo and is only held off by the blade that Bilbo has in his hand. Gollum seems to know some things about the blade—that it was a blade from Gondolin. He’s been around. Gollum and Bilbo agree to play a game of guessing the riddle. If Gollum wins, he kills Bilbo. If Bilbo wins, Gollum has to show him the way out of the tunnel.

The dialogue here with Gollum is just great. Gollum refers to himself as “my precious.” But there’s something else that he will refer to in this way. It’s a ring. Bilbo wins the riddle contest in what might be thought of as an unfair way. His mind went blank for a new riddle and he asked, “What do I have in my pocket?” The answer is the ring that he found quite by accident. Gollum is given three guesses but can’t figure it out. He agrees to show Bilbo the way out. But first he paddles back to his island in the middle of the lake to find his ring. He screams when he finds out that is gone.

The narrator tells us,

“[Gollum] wanted it because it was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible; only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint.”

Somehow the ring finds its way onto the finger of Bilbo. In this way, Gollum goes right past him and heads for an exit full of murderous pronouncements about Bilbo. He has concluded, correctly, that Bilbo has his ring. Following a muttering Gollum, Bilbo learns that the ring makes its wearer invisible. When Gollum sees goblins, he makes a hasty retreat, but Bilbo makes an escape from under the mountain.

*   *   *

I am reading The Hobbit and trying to remember better the outlines of the story. The only way I can think to do this is by rehearsing that story.

1 | In “An Unexpected Party”, a wizard named Gandalf contacts a hobbit named Bilbo and invites him to be part of an adventure. Bilbo doesn’t seem particularly interested in or well-suited for adventure and dismisses Gandalf. The next day thirteen dwarves and Gandalf show up to Bilbo’s house where they talk of retrieving gold that was taken away from their people by a dragon. A sense of adventure is awakened in Bilbo.

2 | It’s a challenging start to the adventure which begins in “Roast Mutton”. Bilbo awakens late and is shoved out on his way totally unprepared by Gandalf. The dwarves and Gandalf will travel on horseback; Bilbo on a pony. Rain makes the journey miserable. At some point the company discovers that Gandalf has slipped away. And then the party come across three trolls. The trolls capture the dwarves and hobbit, but before they kill them, Gandalf returns to save everyone.

3 | The company have to travel through The Misty Mountains, but they don’t know the way. So they make a detour to “the last homely house,” aka the home of the elf lord, Elrond. This chapter is called “A Short Rest.” The company is re-supplied and receives information about weapons they took from the trolls. Additionally, Elrond discovers secret writing on the map that the company is carrying. Finally, they are given a reliable path through the Misty Mountains.

4 | The company makes a journey “Over Hill and Under Hill”. It’s a difficult climb up and up. Then they encounter bad weather, again. This time with thunder and lightning. When the company finds a cave for shelter, they are feeling pretty good, but the cave turns out to be a trap. Goblins take their animals (which, we are told, is the last time we will see these animals) and capture  everyone except Gandalf. They are carried down and down to meet the Great Goblin. They try to talk their way out of a confrontation, but the sword that Thorin is carrying has killed hundreds of goblins. Just when things look really bad, Gandalf appears. He kills the Great Goblin and sends the other goblins into chaos. The company attempts to make an escape with the hobbit being carried by one of the dwarves, but as they do goblins catch up. Bilbo is knocked to the ground and goes unconscious.

5 | When Bilbo wakes up after a while, it’s dark and he is alone. As he feels around, he finds a ring which he puts in his pocket. He makes his way along a tunnel until he comes to water. This is a lake where on an island in the middle a creature names Gollum lives. Gollum wants to kill Bilbo, but Bilbo has his elf-made blade to keep Gollum temporarily at bay. “Riddles in the Dark” is the way it will be determined if Gollum gets to kill Bilbo or Gollum has to show Bilbo the way out. Bilbo ultimately wins with a dubious riddle, “What do I have in my pocket?” Gollum is going to show Bilbo out but first he goes to find a ring which makes him invisible. When he can’t find the ring, he comes unglued and worries that what Bilbo has in his pocket is the ring. The ring finds its way onto Bilbo’s finger which saves Bilbo from being killed. A muttering Gollum heads toward an exit trying to find Bilbo. Bilbo follows him and learns that he has a ring that makes him invisible. Goblins are hiding at the exit, so Gollum returns to the lake but Bilbo is able to make his escape.


In Middle-Earth, we’ve met
a hobbit
a wizard

and we are told, though we haven’t come across them, that large goblins are called orcs.