Feb 3, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 5: Riddles in the Dark

When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark with them shut.

We left Bilbo lying out cold on the floor of one of the goblins' tunnels. It has to be said that one possible reason for the complete lack of female characters in the story is that in traditional patriarchal and heterosexist terms, Bilbo has been playing the female lead: so far, his accomplishments are pretty much limited to screaming, fainting and being carried around. When he wakes up alone in a dark underground tunnel, however, Tolkien reminds us that this isn't quite as terrifying a situation for Bilbo as it might be for us. After all, hobbits live in tunnels, and eventually, cheered up a bit by the thought of having a blade from fabled Gondolin with him, Bilbo gathers his wits and gets moving. Oh, and incidentally, happens to accidentally come across the One Ring to Rule Them All. You know, ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul and so on.

Of course, at this point we have no idea that that's what Bilbo just found lying around on the floor of the tunnel. As far as I know, neither did Tolkien. Later, in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien develops a sort of theology of the finding of the Ring, which I'll go into when I get to it. it involves questions of what, exactly, luck and things that happen "by accident" are. But it's interesting to consider whether any notion of these things can be found in the Hobbit, especially in this chapter. I do use the word "theology" quite deliberately, as it bears reminding that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and expressed his faith in his writing. Ultimately the questions of luck and accident that Tolkien comes to deal with in this context later are so fundamental to faith that I don't think it's unreasonable to look for some unformed notions of his later ideas, as it were, here.

So Bilbo decides, quite reasonably, that the only way out is forward and sets off. And onward and downward along the tunnel he goes, past a plethora of side passages until he walks right into an underground lake. I love the way Tolkien sets the scene here as Bilbo makes his way further down, into the mountain. All the stuff about the "original owners" of the caves the goblins inhabit and the things "that have sneaked in from outside to lie up in the dark" is as good as anything by Lovecraft. Especially when one of those things comes paddling across the underground lake, its eyes glowing like witchfires in the dark: Gollum.

In terms of the larger story, especially the Lord of the Rings, this is a pretty heavy chapter: Bilbo gets his hands on the One Ring and meets Gollum. This basically sets the scene for everything that happens in the Lord of the Rings, so much so that in the context of the later work, everything else up to and including Smaug himself is a footnote. The Hobbit really suffers from this kind of hindsight, and for that reason I'll leave any discussion of Gollum or the Ring beyond what happens in this chapter for later, barring a few notes.

For now, here's who we meet:

Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don't know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum - as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quite quietly on the lake; for lake it was, wide and deep and deadly cold. He paddled it with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make. Not he. He was looking out of his pale lamp-like eyes for blind fish, which he grabbed with his long fingers as quick as thinking. He liked meat too. Goblin he thought good, when he could get it; but he took care they never found him out. He just throttled them from behind, if they ever came down alone anywhere near the edge of the water, while he was prowling about. They very seldom did, for they had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain. They had come on the lake, when they were tunneling down long ago, and they found they could go no further; so there their road ended in that direction, and there was no reason to go that way - unless the Great Goblin sent them. Sometimes he took a fancy for fish from the lake, and sometimes neither goblin nor fish came back.

If I said in the previous chapter that the goblins are hardly introduced to us as pure videogame villains, here that notion is completely subverted: how can you not feel a little bad for the goblin sent to fish in Gollum's cold lake at his master's whim? Here's something the previous chapter's villains are scared of.

The description of Gollum is just excellent. Really, there's almost a horror aspect to this, especially as Gollum spots Bilbo and glides out from his island on a little boat, in complete silence, curious as to who Bilbo is and anticipating that he'll make a very tasty meal. Having said this, though, when Bilbo finally spots Gollum, what breaks out is a conversation. It's interesting that as dangerous as we've seen the world Bilbo travels through is, it's remarkably civilized in that so far, everyone but the storm giants has at least had the courtesy of talking to people they meet, no matter what their ultimate intentions may have been. The giants, we can imagine, just didn't notice the poor shivering dwarves. So it isn't really surprising at all that Gollum and Bilbo should have a reasonably civil conversation; unless, that is, one has subscribed to the vulgar interpretation of Tolkien's stories as morally unambiguous orc-murdering epics. I realize I keep going on about that, but frankly, it's always annoyed me.

A startled Bilbo quite politely introduces himself to Gollum, blade prudently in hand, and a combination of curiosity and unease with the elven dagger makes Gollum positively convivial. He suggests a game of riddles:

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.

There's characterization in a sentence for you.

The two of them riddle away, with high stakes: if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out, but if Bilbo loses, Gollum eats him. They both exchange fairly similar riddles, with Gollum's usually having rather darker themes than Bilbo's. A few times Bilbo is saved by what seems to be pure luck: when he can't guess that the answer is fish, one jumps out of the lake at him, and when he tries to beg for more time he inadvertently gives the correct answer. Lastly Bilbo wins the entire contest by muttering "What have I got in my pockets" out loud, which Gollum can't guess. Defeated, he agrees to show Bilbo the way out, only he just has to pop back to his little island for a bit.

Of course, Gollum's plan is to fetch his magical invisibility ring, murder Bilbo and eat him. He doesn't find "his precious", though, and has a bit of a fit over it. Bilbo hears Gollum screaming about what it has in its pocketses and decides to slip the ring onto his finger. He's rather surprised when Gollum charges right past him, and realizes the ring he picked up earlier is indeed Gollum's magical ring of invisibility. He then follows the enraged Gollum to the exit of the cave, and after a tight squeeze makes it out into the sunlight. So in the end, Gollum did do what he promised!


Let's sum up. First Bilbo falls down and knocks his head, both basically by chance; they were being pursued but no-one was making an effort to knock him out. He's then left behind in the fighting and missed by the goblins, purely by luck as he's unconscious at the time. As he's recovering his wits, he tries to light his pipe, which the narrator points out really doesn't seem like a good idea, but luckily he's lost his matches. He then sets off further into the caves, and luckily doesn't get eaten by anything until he runs into Gollum. He gets lucky three times with the riddles, and the ring he lucked into finding saves him from Gollum and eventually gets him out of the caves altogether.

In the context of the story, this string of lucky coincidences is believable and makes an amount of sense, even. Tolkien will return to this theme of luck in the Lord of the Rings, so I'm leaving this summary here for later reference. But to answer my question: is there some notion present here that maybe this sequence of events is more than a fairy-story telling of a hero's customary luck? I have to say no. I didn't really see any signs of Tolkien's later "theology of luck" here.

In more general terms this underground escapade is the first time we see Bilbo venturing out on his own for a longer stint as something other than baggage for the dwarves, and through luck he in fact does quite well. I'm sure psychoanalytical types would make much of this journey deep underground and all it signifies, but I'd really rather not. Certainly it marks an important step in Bilbo's personal story. And at this point that's really all it is. On re-reading this chapter, there's very little to hint at any of this being any more than an interlude in Bilbo's story: he's met adversity, prevailed and been rewarded with a magic item; an item whose origins are a mystery, and the history of its previous owner even more so. Said previous owner is also left screaming Bilbo's last name in a vengeful rage, so there's something there to hang a sequel on. Having said that, though, this is definitely a part of the Hobbit that's very much worth reading on its own merits, not just as a "prequel" to later events.

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