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** The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”** 4. – “My birthday-present! It came to me on my birthday, my precious”

squire
Valinor


Aug 13 2012, 4:46pm


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** The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”** 4. – “My birthday-present! It came to me on my birthday, my precious” Can't Post

We are continuing from the point where Bilbo has just guessed Gollum’s last and hardest riddle, the one whose answer is coincidentally Bilbo’s panicked plea for more “TIME!”

Gollum is getting angry and hungry. He does not return to his boat, but sits by Bilbo, which unnerves the hobbit. Gollum demands, “It’s got to ask uss a question, my preciouss, yes, yess, yesss. Just one more question to guess, yes, yess.”

As at the beginning of the contest, Gollum here characterizes the riddle game as “asking a question” instead of “saying or reciting a riddle-verse.” And we are told that Bilbo “simply could not think of any question…”
A. Is this the author’s device for allowing Bilbo the leeway to get away with what is about to happen: literally asking a question instead of giving a true riddle? Or is it not an important distinction?


B. Why the additional hissing s’s in this speech of Gollum’s? Doesn’t he hiss like this all the time?

Repeatedly Bilbo “pinches himself”, and slaps and scratches himself, as he tries to think of a riddle. Meanwhile Gollum is “pawing and poking him.”
C. Why all this sudden physicality?

In his distracted and desperate state, Bilbo “even felt in his pocket” – and finds the ring there. He asks himself “What have I got in my pocket?” out loud, but not as a question to Gollum. According to the narrator, “he was talking to himself.” But Gollum takes this to be the “question”, that is, the riddle, he has been waiting for.
D. I find this musing out loud in the middle of a deadly-tense confrontation to be rather contrived and unbelievable. Do you? Why does Bilbo not simply make up a rhyming riddle on the spot, that is based on the ring in his pocket?

Gollum calls this “not fair!” but Bilbo goes with what he’s got and repeats the question, thus insisting that it counts as his riddle. Gollum accepts with an extended hiss, but demands three guesses and Bilbo agrees.
E. Is three guesses the traditional number? Why not two, or five, for instance?

F. Does Gollum’s ready acceptance of Bilbo’s question on condition of multiple guesses – along with his repeated use of the phrase “ask a question” in his setting of the rules of the game – indicate that this is an understood variation within the riddle game? Or does his first reaction (“Not fair!”) suggest otherwise?

The contest’s terms were “if you/I ask, and I/you don’t answer, you/I win”. There is no allowance for a contestant failing to ask. Yet it would seem clear that failure to ask constitutes a forfeit and a loss.
G. Why does Gollum accept Bilbo’s question as a riddle, if he doesn’t have to according to the “rules”? Couldn’t he just attack and eat Bilbo as soon as Bilbo asks a question instead of stating a riddle?

Gollum cannot guess what is in Bilbo’s pocket. He tries “hands”, and then “knife” – after inventorying the contents of “his own pockets” (“fishbones, goblins’ teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on, and other nasty things”) and racking his brains to “think what other people kept in their pockets”.
H. Wait… Gollum has pockets? Is this consistent with our mental image of Gollum up to this point?

I. Any comments on the items in those pockets? Why does he not remember his ring, which we will soon learn he had “kept in a pouch next his skin” for a time?

Gollum has one last guess, and goes through his own set of rather comic contortions: “He hissed and spluttered and rocked himself backwards and forwards, and slapped his feet on the floor, and wriggled and squirmed”.
J. Is this a joking description of a small child acting out his frustration with some impossible task?

Bilbo calls “Time’s up!” and Gollum yells (actually shrieks) “String, or nothing!”. The narrator comments this was “not quite fair” to state two guesses at once, but Bilbo cheerfully says “Both wrong”, thus accepting the validity of a double guess.
K. What if one of Gollum’s guesses had been right, but the other one had been wrong: “String, or a ring!” Could Bilbo honestly say “wrong a third time” by choosing which one counted as the third?

Bilbo backs up to “the nearest wall” and holds out his sword – unsure what Gollum will do now that he has lost. The narrator comments that Bilbo “knew, of course” that “even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it” – because the game “was sacred and of immense antiquity.”
L. How does Bilbo know that wicked creatures – goblins, dragons, trolls, etc. – play the riddle game honestly? And in any case, what could typically constitute "cheating" at a riddle game (besides asking a plain question)?


Bilbo’s problem is that, for all he knows, Gollum is even more evil than the standard “wicked creatures”, and more to the point, the last question had “not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws” so that Gollum had a ready excuse for not conceding his loss gracefully.
M. “Sacred”, “immense antiquity”, “ancient laws” – what kind of game is this? Are there any other games in the world of The Hobbit that are equally holy?

N. Is Tolkien having fun with children’s tendency to ascribe great antiquity to any custom they learn in the schoolyard from older children? Or how they put great authority in any casual rule their parents lay down, so that exceptions or holes in the rule can be cleverly taken advantage of?

O. Or, from his professional knowledge, is he referring to apparently childish games and rituals in our everyday lives that we unconsciously regard as sacred and that do in fact go back to the origins of our culture?

OKAY, at this point Tolkien seriously began to tackle the problem of the Ring in his 1947 revision of this chapter. The following section of the narrative, from Bilbo saying “Both wrong” to the goblin guards at the gate being amazed at his sudden disappearance, was extensively rewritten, and expanded from five pages (12 paragraphs) to ten (51 paragraphs). I will refer to the earlier version from time to time as part of our discussion of the later (and now authoritative) version, because I think the changes reveal interesting things about Tolkien’s process as a writer. They also illustrate the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – which, it is arguable, this segment of this chapter is actually a part of, since the rewrite was driven entirely by the need to make the episode consistent with the latter book.

To start with, in this passage the earlier Gollum never had the slightest intention of betraying his word – “funnily enough”, as Tolkien explains: “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. Also there was the sword.” The emphasis in the revised paragraph is on Bilbo’s fear of Gollum. The emphasis in the original is on Gollum’s fear of Bilbo. The emotional tenor of this first moment after Bilbo’s victory has changed.

What has happened, or rather, what is about to happen? Tolkien in his revision has to take a different route entirely from what he had written originally, where Gollum had promised to give Bilbo a “present”. At this point in the original he is realizing that he will have to follow through, in honor of his promise. The newer story lays down here the fundamental idea expressed by Frodo in LotR I.2: “Gollum meant to cheat all the time.”
P. As Gollum sits still, “shivering and whispering”, what is going through his mind? What was going through his mind in the original version?

Impatient and anxious to get on with the business of the competition, Bilbo in both versions demands that Gollum render satisfaction. What follows is the first substantial expansion of the text in the revision, with 11 paragraphs replacing one. First Gollum bitterly asks Bilbo what the answer was: what was in his pocket? “Not string, precious, but not nothing. Oh no! gollum!”
Q. What does Gollum mean by this kind of leading questioning? Does he suspect the truth yet?

Bilbo says, never mind, keep your promise. Gollum snidely says he can’t just go up the tunnels before he gets “some things first, yes, things to help us.” Although Bilbo thinks Gollum is making an excuse to disappear and not help him after all, in fact an indistinct but omniscient narrative voice takes over and seemingly gives us Gollum’s thought-processes as a form of exposition. Gollum intends to come back for sure, because “already he had a plan.” He thinks about the island where he keeps his “birthday-present”, a “ring, a golden ring, a precious ring.” Alternating with Gollum whispering to himself in dialogue (“My birthday-present!”), the narration explains that the ring is a “ring of power”, which makes you invisible when you wear it (except in full sunlight).
R. “If you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible…” Why does the voice of the writing slip into the second person (“you”) just here?

The “birthday present” is said to be Gollum’s term for it, but the narrator doubts the truth of that will ever be known, not even by “the Master who ruled [such rings].”
S. Is all this exposition relevant to The Hobbit, aside from its obvious foreshadowing of events and facts developed only in The Lord of the Rings? Did Tolkien rewrite in more depth than he had to?

Continuing with this inner/outer monologue…
T. Who is telling this part of the tale, the narrator or Gollum?

…we are told that Gollum at first wore it all the time “until it tired him” – then “kept it in a pouch next his skin, till it galled him” – and “now usually he hid it in a hole in the rock on his island”, although he is constantly drawn to look at it and wear it.
U. Hearing of the apparently toxic qualities of the ring, are we supposed to start worrying about Bilbo?

Gollum, we are told, used it to hunt goblins even in their lit quarters, because he was safely invisible. “Oh yes, quite safe.” He had in fact strangled and eaten “a small goblin-imp” just a few hours ago. Now he “wanted something softer,” i.e., Bilbo to eat.

A few thoughts. Now we know how the ring came to be found far away up the tunnels where Bilbo found it, but we still don’t know how the ring fell unnoticed from Gollum’s finger especially when he is so attuned to it that he cannot bear to be without it for long. Nor do we know why he goes from not being particularly hungry – having just eaten an entire small goblin, apparently – at the beginning of the contest, to surpassingly hungry near the end when begins to poke and prod Bilbo.
V. Are these contradictions legacies of the fact that Tolkien only rewrote this part of the chapter and neglected to fully rethink all the threads of story that he had laid down in the earlier parts?

We definitely come back to Gollum’s point of view now, when he gloatingly whispers that Bilbo’s sword will be “useless, yes quite” once Gollum becomes invisible. “That is what was in his wicked little mind” as he slips off in his boat to his island. Bilbo waits in the darkness, assuming Gollum is gone for good, and considers how he will escape now, when “suddenly he heard a screech.” Gollum is “cursing and wailing away in the gloom…scrabbling here and there, searching and seeking in vain.”
W. Does this exposition about the ring, expressed as part monologue, part narration, work well here or does it feel misshapen or misplaced?

To review the original writing at this point, all of the above from the point where Gollum asks what actually was in Bilbo’s pocket, is actually one paragraph. In it, Gollum admits to himself he will have to give up “the thing…the present we promised”, and he leaves Bilbo to go to his island; Bilbo assumes Gollum is gone for good and “was just thinking of going back up the passage”; and then he hears Gollum “wailing and squeaking away in the gloom… scrabbling here and there, searching and seeking in vain, and turning out his pockets.” In short, all of Gollum’s treacherous thoughts of murder and revenge and all of his reflections on the magical ring, are what was added here. Not only was the original Gollum going to give Bilbo the ring had he been able to, it seems that Bilbo, in the original, was quite prepared to find his own way out.
X. Although we will continue to explore this subject, what do you feel so far about the way in which the tone and dynamics of the chapter’s plot are changing due to the revision?



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”** 4. – “My birthday-present! It came to me on my birthday, my precious” squire Send a private message to squire Aug 13 2012, 4:46pm
    What has it gots in its iPodses? CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Aug 16 2012, 4:54pm
    Mom! He touched me! dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Aug 20 2012, 12:18am
    Late answers sador Send a private message to sador Aug 22 2012, 10:07am
        I''ve remembered correctly sador Send a private message to sador Aug 23 2012, 8:40am

 
 
 

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