Jun 17, 9:32am
For the 1947 Second Edition Hobbit (which from now on I’ll call just ‘2e’) Tolkien made various revisions to bring this chapter in line with his new LOTR thinking about the ring. (At this point LOTR was well under way, but it would not be published until 1953.)
**Tolkien's unusual changes to the second edition, and their significance - subthread
I’ll say briefly what the substantive changes were, so that we can discuss them without requiring everyone to find a text of the first edition. If I miss any changes you think important, please raise them for discussion.
In the first edition (‘1e’), Gollum proposes a riddle game but the prize should Bilbo win is ‘a present’ (rather than being shown the way out). When Bilbo does win, Gollum sets off to his island to get the present (which is his ring). Finding it missing, he’s very upset, but for a different reason:
For one thing Gollum had learned long long ago was never, never, to cheat at the riddle-game, which is a sacred one and of immense antiquity.
I don't know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo's pardon. He kept on saying: "We are ssorry; we didn't mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition." He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.
The Hobbit, 1e
SO, in 1e, Gollum is principally afraid of the consequences of cheating at the riddle game. Thus when Bilbo proposes that Gollum is ‘let off on one condition’ (that he shows Bilbo the way out) Gollum is compelled to agree. Compare Gollum’s furious, even insane, reaction when he finds that his ring is lost in 2e, and the speed at which he suspects the truth; that Bilbo has his Ring.
In 1e, Gollum explains what his now lost magic ring did (never realising that Bilbo has it in his pocketses). This saves Bilbo (and us readers) having to work it out. Gollum shows Bilbo the way out as promised, and they part amicably. I suppose all this would never do once Tolkien had ‘realised’ that 'A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. (Gandalf to Frodo in LOTR/Book 1 Ch2, Shadow of the Past).
It is of course Gollum’s inability to give up his ring in 2e that forces Bilbo to chose between killing him and sparing him (a decision which will of course have very big consequences in LOTR).
This business of cheating in’ a sacred game of immense antiquity’ is something that Tolkien handles differently in 2e, I notice:
"Both wrong," cried Bilbo very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. He knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.
That is, it’s possible that Bilbo was the one to cheat, but Tolkien is ready with a loophole:
“The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ … but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise".
In another rather clever bit of back-filling, Tolkien suggests that the 1e version of the story is the one that Bilbo told the dwarves, and the true (2e) version only came out later. Bravo!
The business of ‘cheating comes up again in LOTR Ch 2 when our current adventure is reprised. Frodo doubts that Gollum could ever have been anything at all hobbit-like, and suggests Gollum was intending to cheat anyway (so ‘cheating’ back was justified?) Anyway ‘hobbits don’t cheat’ so (Frodo assumes) Bilbo can’t have:
‘They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an Orc, or even an Elf. Think of the riddles they both knew, for one thing.’
‘Yes,’ said Frodo. ‘Though other folks besides hobbits ask riddles, and of much the same sort. And hobbits don’t cheat. Gollum meant to cheat all the time. He was just trying to put poor Bilbo off his guard. And I daresay it amused his wickedness to start a game which might end in providing him with an easy victim, but if he lost would not hurt him.’
LOTR Ch2 Shadow of the Past
I think that Frodo's 'Hobbits don't cheat therefore Bilbo can't have' is the kind of bad argument known as a 'genetic fallacy' (like arguing 'English people take tea at 4pm, so no English person could have committed a burglary at that time'.)
I also wonder what would have happened had Bilbo lost the riddle game fairy – did he really intend to surrender his neck passively to Gollum’s throttling fingers? Or do you think he would have tried to save himself (and if so would that make it fair to say ‘Bilbo meant to cheat all the time’)?
Do you find these defence of Bilbo's behaviour convincing? Are they intended to be convincing?
Why does Tolkien make so much of this business of cheating (intentional or excusable or neither) and of false accounts?
How seriously ought I take the idea that the riddle game is ‘sacred’ – would cheats expect to be cursed– as in damned or doomed? Does Tolkien seem to take this idea any further (do you think anything bad happened to Gollum or Bilbo because they cheated)? Or is it a plot device used to explain the lack of more flagrant cheating, and then forgotten?
Another change to 2e is to include some subtle hints that Bilbo is already affected by his ring. For example, when surprised in visible form by goblins:
A pang of fear and loss, like an echo of Gollum’s misery, smote Bilbo, and forgetting even to draw his sword he struck his hands into his pockets. And there was the ring still, in his left pocket, and it slipped on his finger.
As I understand it, such big revisions in a new edition were an unusual thing for Tolkien to be allowed to do. Apart from the whole business of making substantive changes to the story, there would have been a cost factor. In those days of hot metal typesetting (physical letters cast in lead that were fitted into a frame to make the page, and then stamped onto the paper) it meant that many pages would have to be broken up and rebuilt - much more labour than making similar changes today. Tolkien was asking his publisher to react as if Hobbit were a textbook, and substantive new information had come to light, requiring it to be updated. Does this tell us anything interesting about Tolkien’s attitude to inventing (or discovering) Middle-earth? Are we grateful to Unwins for allowing Tolkien to behave in this eccentric and expensive manner?
The changes are important from the point of view of consistency with LOTR, and so will automatically be welcome for those who prize that. But imagine that you are reading Hobbit without any knowledge that LOTR is to come: did Tolkien’s changes improve the storytelling of this work?
Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm
(This post was edited by noWizardme on Jun 17, 9:39am)