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** The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”** 3. – “It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!”


Aug 11 2012, 9:52pm

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** The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”** 3. – “It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!” Can't Post

At this point, Bilbo has accepted Gollum’s offer to play at Riddles. He lets Gollum go first, for lack of any ideas of his own. Gollum opens with:

R1G. “What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?”

[I have identified the Riddles with a short code for reference: R for riddle; 1 for the sequence of paired riddles in the story; in each contesting pair G is for Gollum going first and B is for Bilbo responding.]

Bilbo claims that is easy, and says “Mountain, I suppose.”
A. Is it easy? Did you get it when you first read it, before reading the answer in the next line? Why does Bilbo get this one instantly, but will struggle to think of several of the others?

Gollum seems pleased that Bilbo has a competitive spirit for Riddles, and proposes “a competition”. Based on the rule of “the one asks…the other doesn’t answer”, either Gollum wins and eats Bilbo, or Bilbo wins and gets a present from Gollum.
B. Does it make sense that Gollum expects Bilbo to abandon his sword and agree to be killed and eaten, if he loses a game – even a game of honor?

WAIT! Hold the phone! Did I say Bilbo “gets a present” if he wins? No, of course not – if Bilbo wins, Gollum will do “what it wants…We shows it the way out, yes!”

Yes, this is the beginning of the famous re-write. In 1947, Tolkien sent a typed copy of the first book of The Lord of the Rings to his publisher to show them that his sequel actually existed after ten years of work. One comment that Rayner Unwin made was that Gandalf’s explanation of Gollum’s finding the Ring and losing it to Bilbo did not make much sense compared to the account in The Hobbit. Tolkien (in Letters, #109) grumbled that Gandalf was doing pretty well given the circumstances; that probably he, Tolkien, would shorten and rewrite LotR I.2 (‘The Shadow of the Past’) to elide the problem, but the better solution would be to revise the ‘Riddles’ chapter in The Hobbit – a solution that was out of the question due to costs, he supposed.

Nevertheless, later that year he sent along some minor proof-type corrections for a future reprinting of The Hobbit, and with these, “(for the possible amusement of yourself and Rayner) a specimen of re-writing of Chapter V of [The Hobbit], which would simplify, though not necessarily improve, my present task [of finishing LotR].” (Letters, #111).
C. Why did Tolkien do this? What does he mean by “specimen”?

Well, the rest is history, of course. Three years later the publishers had decided to re-issue The Hobbit in the improved post-war economy, and they sent Tolkien the proofs. He was shocked, shocked to discover that his notes on a re-write for Chapter V had been set in type, radically changing the story of Bilbo and Gollum and the Ring. He pissed and moaned that now he would have to rewrite Chapter 2 (“most of a chapter”, he speculates) of LotR I, because it had been written to work with the original Hobbit. (Letters, #128)
D. Does anyone know if he did, in fact, re-write ‘The Shadow of the Past’ in 1950-53 to catch up with his own changes to The Hobbit?

But in reality, he almost immediately convinced himself that the new version was “better, in motive and narrative” (Letters, #128) and after passing the proofs around, he somewhat grudgingly conceded that “Such people as I have consulted think the alteration is in itself an improvement (apart from the question of a sequel). That is something.” (ibid., #129).
E. We have just begin to read the altered portion of the chapter – but do you have a feeling, based on what we’ve read of The Hobbit so far, that the new and more aggressive Gollum and the more sinister Ring are “better” from a literary point of view, and not just because they cohere with the LotR?

Well, that question can’t really be answered unless you’ve read the original version, can it! I confess I am in the now-tiny minority of readers who were raised on the old Hobbit – I have an aging child’s sentimental soft spot for the creepy but endearing “old Gollum” and his “present”. So, for reference, here is a chart of the comparative changes, which I will refer to going forward.
F. This chart aside, have you read the earlier version before? Straight through as part of the chapter, or in excerpt?

So, to continue! Bilbo agrees to Gollum’s contest, and “nearly bursts his brain” to come up with riddles that “could save him from being eaten.”
G. What exactly is a “riddle”? Do they have to rhyme? Is there a format or length? How does one differ from a “puzzle” or, as it happens, a mere “question”?

Bilbo says,

R1B. “Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.”

This the narrator tells us is “an old one” that came to Bilbo’s mind because he was hungry. Gollum, it seems, “knew the answer as well as you do.”
H. As well as who does?

My sources (Tolkien and John Rateliff) agree that this is the one riddle in the chapter that was a commonplace example from our real world, at least at the time of writing.
I. Does this place Bilbo’s world and our world on the same plane, and take us out of the fairy-tale world of hobbits, dwarves, wizards and dragons?

Gollum gets that the answer is ______________ (you already know it, right?), and comes back with:

R2G. “Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.”

Bilbo at first is flustered, but “got his wits back” because “he had once heard something like this before”. It is (“of course”) the wind.

Ah. We may say that the wind mutters, or flutters; the wind cries; it bites. Yet it doesn’t actually do any of those things, which are actions of a body. Doesn’t it seem that riddles, at least as Tolkien presents them, are playing with the power of language to make metaphors? Thus, to imagine a riddle, think of some picturesque phrase or phrases that can’t be taken literally. Then make a verse asking the listener to identify the subject of the phrase, entirely from clues in the metaphorical usage.
J. Just speculating here – any takers or comments?

K. Do such riddles become easier or harder if one is listening rather than reading on a page?

Bilbo starts to strategize: knowing that Gollum lives underground, he “makes one up on the spot” that refers to a setting Gollum won’t imagine easily:

R2B. “An eye in a blue face
Saw an eye in a green face.
“That eye is like to this eye”
Said the first eye,
“But in low place,
Not in high place.”

Truly Gollum is puzzled, but finally he brings up childhood memories of “ages and ages and ages before, when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank by a river”. Then he realizes that the answer is “Sun on the daisies.”
L. It turns out that “daisy” is descended from “day’s eye”, a reference to the sun – did you get that?

Just to speculate on a riddle whose twist is a detail of English etymology. If as Tolkien would sometimes have us believe, this book was “translated” by him from Bilbo’s memoirs which were written in (according to the LotR appendices) Westron, a Third Age patois of Númenórean, Sindarin, and the Valar only know what else –
K. If not Daisy as a wordplay on Day’s Eye, then what was this riddle about originally?

At this point comes the first emendation of the text to accommodate the change in Gollum’s terms of competition. Originally, while Gollum struggled to remember the outside world, “Bilbo was beginning to wonder what Gollum's present would be like”. That doesn’t work now, and the present reading is “Bilbo was beginning to hope that the wretch would not be able to answer”.

L. Which version fits the story better: Bilbo imagining a pleasant reward for his victory, or Bilbo imagining the defeat of an enemy?

Gollum fights back hard. The riddles up to now have been of the “aboveground everyday sort.” These are “tiring” him, and also remind him of better days, when “he had been less lonely and sneaky and nasty”. He resents this and is also starting to get hungry!
M. How does the idea of a monster wishing he was less awful, but hating the feeling that results, fit into The Hobbit? Is this a typical nursery tale for kids?

N. In what other books might children of the Tolkien family have been exposed to the pathos of the human condition along these lines?

Anyway, Gollum is starting to feel mean, so he “tried something a bit more difficult and unpleasant”:

R3G. “It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”

Bilbo gets it immediately, partly because he “has heard that sort of thing before” (just as he had the “Wind” one, R2G above), and partly because he is sitting in pitch-black darkness – for the answer is “Dark”.

It is to “gain time, until he could think of a really hard one” that Bilbo asks his next short one, a “dreadfully easy chestnut” as he thinks, although “he had not asked it in the usual words”:

R3B. “A box without hinges, key, or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid,”

But Gollum cannot make it out! He hisses and whispers and sputters, until Bilbo actually makes a joke about the answer not being a tea-kettle. Again, a small change was made in the text here because Bilbo imagined winning the contest entirely in terms of getting a “present” from Gollum. Now instead of asking “what about your present?”, he asks “what about your guess?”
O. Does it matter much that Bilbo goes from assuming he’s won, to simply nagging his opponent?

Not to be too niggly – my point is I think Tolkien actually cared about such niceties of storytelling detail. To me, these changes confirm that they are from a first draft that went to publication without a chance for him to consider the full nuances of his rewrite.

Anyway, Gollum finally (again) remembers his childhood “thieving from nests” and “sitting under the river bank” teaching his grandmother to suck eggs – and “Eggs” is the answer.
P. What is the joke here?

Gollum is flustered, and asks one that he in turn thinks is too easy:

R4G. “Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.”

Bilbo, who is not a water-man and is feeling rather threatened by the general situation, cannot think this one through. The narrator inserts this semi-helpful comment: “I imagine you know the answer, of course, or can guess it as easy as winking, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking.”
Q. Why does the narrator interject a comment like this, just now?

R. Is Bilbo in danger of being eaten alive? Or will Gollum kill him first, which is bad enough but not as purely horrifying and painful to contemplate. And why is Bilbo so lacking in confidence in his sword?

Gollum begins to talk about how Bilbo will taste! Bilbo asks for more time, as he gave to Gollum on the eggs riddle, but Gollum is getting greedy and starts to climb out of his boat “to get at Bilbo”.
S. Did you remember that Gollum has been in his boat the entire time? Because I didn’t – nor did any of the many illustrators of this iconic scene, as far as I can remember. But are there any actual clues in the text that have given us the impression that Gollum has been sitting on the ground next to Bilbo all this time?

In any case, this move of Gollum’s is ill-timed, because he disturbs a fish, who jumps out and lands on Bilbo’s feet. This inspires him to realize the riddle’s answer is – “Fish!” And quickly he calls out his own riddle, “so that Gollum had to get back into his boat and think”:

R4B. “No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some.”

The problem with this one is, the previous subject had been fish, and fish have no legs. Thus Gollum pieces it together quickly, when it might have quite tough otherwise. He gives it as “Fish on a little table, man at table sitting on a stool, the cat has the bones.”

This one has always reminded me of the Sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus.
T. Is it a common type of riddle – and if so, why would it have been trouble for Gollum at another time?

Gollum now plays to kill – or so we’re given to understand. “He thought the time had come to ask something hard and horrible.”

R5G. “This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”

This baffles Bilbo completely. He knows instinctively that the answer is not of the “giants and ogres” sort, but he can’t put his finger on it. His wits get muddled with the fear of losing. Gollum gets out of the boat, into the water, and paddles towards Bilbo – his eyes getting closer and closer in the darkness.
U. Is this the most suspenseful moment in the chapter? Do children get scared at this point?

But Bilbo saves himself by squealing for more time, and only getting out the words “Time! Time!” And that is the answer, “of course”.

And with our reading audience on the edge of its seat or hiding half under a pillow, that’s it for now – in my next post, the riddle game comes to its end and then the real drama begins. One final question:
V. If you’ve ever read this aloud to a child, does the writing lend itself to a dramatic performance or is it too complex to fight with? Do the kids ever get the riddles, or do you just give them a chance to think and then read on to the answers?

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary

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Subject User Time
** The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”** 3. – “It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!” squire Send a private message to squire Aug 11 2012, 9:52pm
    Riddles Hamfast Gamgee Send a private message to Hamfast Gamgee Aug 12 2012, 10:33pm
    A riddle I might guess Hamfast Gamgee Send a private message to Hamfast Gamgee Aug 12 2012, 10:46pm
    Riddles in the Dark Gold Grizzly Send a private message to Gold Grizzly Aug 13 2012, 12:47pm
    riddle me this... telain Send a private message to telain Aug 16 2012, 12:44pm
    Late Answers - part 1 sador Send a private message to sador Aug 19 2012, 4:56pm
    Late answers - part 2 sador Send a private message to sador Aug 20 2012, 3:03pm
    Found it! sador Send a private message to sador Aug 23 2012, 8:48am
        No pockets, though! // squire Send a private message to squire Aug 23 2012, 9:46am


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