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Aug 14 2012, 3:46pm
Let’s continue at the point in the chapter when Bilbo hears Gollum, off on his island in the darkness, crying and wailing at the discovery that his ring is missing. “My precious is lost!” Wait, what is lost? The narrator quite clearly explained at the beginning that Gollum called himself “my precious”.
** The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”** 5. – “My birthday-present! Curse it! How did we lose it, my precious?”
A. Does the average reader of The Hobbit catch that this is the first time that Gollum refers to the ring, rather than himself, as “my precious”?
Bilbo calls across the water, “What have you lost?” and Gollum yells back, none of your business!
B. Why does Bilbo intrude on Gollum’s personal misery?
Bilbo insists that Gollum abandon his search for whatever it is. Since he could not guess the question, Bilbo cries, Gollum must return to the shore to redeem his promise: to show Bilbo out. By pushing the argument that Gollum must forget about his ring because he could not guess the contents of the hobbit’s pockets, Bilbo unwittingly helps Gollum make a dangerous connection. Gollum “suddenly” hisses sharply, “What has it got in its pocketses? Tell us that. It must tell first.”
C. Would Gollum have figured it out without Bilbo’s intervention here?
Now, if you remember the previous post, Tolkien in his 1947 rewrite had drastically expanded the section just before this one, where originally Gollum had gone to his island to find his “present” to give to Bilbo but found it missing. It was there that Tolkien inserted the backstory of the ring, as the narrator, more or less channeling Gollum’s thoughts, explained to us that Gollum was going to get his magic ring by which he intended to overcome the sword-armed Bilbo.
But in the original writing, it was actually at this point here – after Gollum finds the ring missing – where we learned about the ring. After the screeching and crying (“We haven't the present we promised, and we haven't even got it for ourselves"), he returned to Bilbo and explained that he had meant to give Bilbo his ring, with all its magical invisibility power which he explained in detail. Then he apologized profusely for his inability to fulfill the terms of the contest: “We are ssorry; we didn't mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition."
Briefly, the structural change is this:
Original: Gollum loses game – Gollum goes to island to find present – Bilbo almost leaves but decides to stay out of curiosity – present is missing – Gollum apologetically explains to Bilbo about magic ring.
Revision: Gollum loses game – Gollum goes to island to get equalizer – Bilbo has no choice but to wait – narrator/Gollum explains to reader about magic ring – the ring is missing – Gollum angrily realizes Bilbo has the ring.
Not surprisingly, of course, the explanation about the ring was considerably less developed before the revision: it was “a wonderful, beautiful ring, a ring that he had been given for a birthday present, ages and ages before in the old days when such rings were less uncommon.” He sometimes kept it in his pocket, but usually kept it on the island. He only wore it when he was tired of fish and went goblin-hunting, because (he reveals at this point) “if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible” (except for the sunlight thing). But there was nothing about a growing obsession mixed with unpleasant side effects of wearing it; nothing about the ring’s “Master”; and nothing about recently killing and eating a young goblin.
D. Do the additions – consistent with LotR, but irrelevant to Bilbo’s adventure – violate the rule of not telling more story than you have to?
Well, he may not have economized on details, but as was typical of Tolkien in revision, he economized his composition. Thus as much of the language of Gollum’s explanation of the ring to Bilbo (in original paragraph §72-1, start in left column at "usually") as he could use, was recycled and inserted into Gollum’s interior monologue (in revised paragraph §70h, start in right column at "usually"). Most of Tolkien’s revisions to this chapter involve subtle changes in the wording of a paragraph, or (as in this central section) wholesale cutting and rewriting but with the preservation of existing language wherever possible. This example here is actually the only significant place where he transposed much of a passage to a different place in the parallel narratives. (In my opinion, this explains the stylistic awkwardness of the exposition about the ring in the current version.)
E. Given the parameters, do you see any other ways Tolkien could have accomplished his goal here? How much does the reader have to know, that Bilbo doesn’t know, at any given point?
To pick up the story, Gollum has just challenged Bilbo to reveal the answer to his last riddle-question – a request Bilbo has already been asked once, which he refused to answer then (“Never you mind,” said Bilbo. “A promise is a promise.”) Now he refuses again, but not because he yet suspects his ring is what Gollum lost. Bilbo is still clueless. Rather, he is “annoyed at the delay” and feels he is owed his reward without a lot of revisiting the contest – “After all, he had won the game, pretty fairly, at a horrible risk.”
F. How does Tolkien seem to choose when to have his characters think silently, in dialogue form, and when to have the narrator state the thoughts in the third person, as in this instance?
Gollum is determined not to let it go. “But it wasn’t a fair question. Not a riddle, precious, no.”
G. Why didn’t Gollum stick to this approach during the game, when he could have?
Bilbo deflects once again: he points out that he had just asked a question himself. “What have you lost? Tell me that!” The answer comes right back: “What has it got in its pocketses?” Standoff!
H. Is this kind of combative verbal behavior characteristic of Bilbo?
Suddenly Bilbo can see Gollum’s eyes as “two small points of light” – because, we are told, his eyes are literally lighting up along with his suspicion about the ring being in Bilbo’s pocket. Bilbo tries again with “What have you lost?”
I. Does Bilbo really care at this point? Why ask again?
Gollum’s eyes are aflame like “a green fire” and he is “paddling wildly” from the island towards Bilbo on the shore. He is so angry and upset, we are told, that he is no longer afraid of Bilbo’s sword. Bilbo finally gets the message, and hightails it up the tunnel, using his left hand along the “wall” to guide himself. Gollum, leaping onto the shore, again asks what Bilbo has in his pocket, and Bilbo thinks about the question: “ ‘What have I, I wonder?’” he said to himself, as he panted and stumbled along.”
J. Since this is the same thought process that led him to ask the final game-winning “riddle”, is it possible that Bilbo actually does not know what it is that he has in his pocket?
K. Is this the time and place for Bilbo to be thinking like this, as he runs for his life? Why did he not think this through while Gollum was trying to guess his question/riddle, or the two earlier times that Gollum asked him afterwards?
He puts his left hand in his pocket and “The ring felt very cold as it quietly slipped on to his groping forefinger.”
L. Again, is this as plausible as we might like? (I.e., try sticking your hand into your pocket where a ring is, while running fast. See what happens.)
Suddenly, Bilbo trips and falls flat, with his sword under him. Gollum passes him right by and continues running up the slope. Bilbo is baffled, since he knows that “Gollum could see in the dark” – in fact, as Gollum runs on ahead, Bilbo can see the glow of his eyes faintly illuminating the walls of the tunnel!
M. What does it mean to “see in the dark”? And does that ability have any connection with the ability of eyes to give off light? – given that earlier, we know that Gollum could tell Bilbo from a goblin from across the lake, when his eyes were not giving off light.
As noted above, invisibility isn't everything, especially in the dark when trying to evade creatures who are fully adapted to lightlessness.
N. Why does Gollum not hear Bilbo fall, or smell him as he runs past him?
Bilbo, without knowing what’s happened to save him, chooses to follow Gollum, hoping the creature will lead him to a way out of the caverns. Now Gollum realizes that he has lost Bilbo, who was up ahead of him. As Bilbo listens, Gollum begins to talk to himself about how Bilbo has his “birthday-present”, and how it must have “slipped from us, after all these ages and ages” while Gollum was strangling the young goblin (just a few hours before, as we were told earlier).
“Oh, ho ho! You sly dog! You got me monologuing! I can't believe it...”
O. What is wrong with monologuing?
Gollum stops and has a good cry, which is “horrible to listen to.”
Then he begins to “have an argument with himself,” to which Bilbo listens attentively.
- Gollum A is in despair, saying “it’s no use”, the present can’t be found, it could be in too many places he’s visited, and in any case “the Baggins” must have it in his pocket now.
- Gollum B points out that that is probably true, but may not be. In any case, Bilbo doesn’t know what the present can do, and he doesn’t know the way out so he can’t get very far before Gollum can find him and kill him.
- Gollum A suspects Bilbo may know a way out, because he is a proven liar, as witness his trick question about the thing in his pocket; it’s probable that Bilbo knows about the “back-door”.
- Gollum B points out that that way is guarded.
- Gollum A says yes, but that means the goblins will get the present for themselves after they capture Bilbo. With the present, the goblins will be invisible and will be able to hunt and kill Gollum!
- Gollum B agrees that is the greatest danger, and that they should head for the back-door immediately and try to get the present back before the goblins get it.
P. How does this debate relate to the famous Stinker/Slinker debates that Gollum engages in during the journey with Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings? Do Gollum A and Gollum B as separate speakers (A and B are simply my terms of reference) represent anything?
Q. How does this method of exposition serve as a way for Bilbo to find out what the ring’s power is, compared to what we saw was in the original version: Gollum simply tells Bilbo what the ring can do.
R. If overhearing vital information from bad guy conversation is a classic device in adventure genre fiction, how does Tolkien make the device his own here? Or does he?
S. Where else does Tolkien use this device? Are the instances comparable, and is their frequency and variety acceptable to the reader?
As Gollum heads off “at a great pace”, Bilbo runs after him as quietly and carefully as he can. He is excited to realize the power of the ring, which he had “heard of, of course, in old old tales.” Now he knows how it is that Gollum “with his bright eyes” had passed him in the tunnel without seeing him, “only a yard to one side.”
T. This has come up in some rather scholarly articles, but which “old old tales” involve a ring of invisibility?
Well, we have just read 22 almost entirely new paragraphs in the revised edition, from the point where Bilbo unwittingly inspires Gollum to guess he has the ring, to this moment where Bilbo has discovered the nature of the Ring and realizes that following Gollum will get him to the “back-door”. This very long section replaces 11 paragraphs in the original.
The replaced segment has Bilbo cleverly keeping his mouth shut about the fact that he already has the ‘present’ Gollum has just told him all about. “‘Finding's keeping!’ he said to himself; and being in a very tight place, I daresay, he was right. Anyway the ring belonged to him now.”
U. Why does the narrator justify Bilbo’s failure to be honest with Gollum, who has just honestly apologized for failing to produce the present?
Bilbo, taking advantage of Gollum’s dishonor at “cheating”, said “I will let you off on one condition." That was to show him the way out. Gollum considered for one last time his ability to overcome Bilbo and eat him anyway, but realized he has no chance now that Bilbo was alert and aware of him – not to mention the “little sword”.
V. Is the sword/knife supposed to be so small, that both Bilbo and Gollum doubt its ability to settle the matter between them in a pinch?
Gollum explained to Bilbo that the tunnel stopped here at the lake, and did not go further; and that Bilbo ought to have taken one of the side passages that he passed on the way down. When Gollum tried to describe which passage was the right one, Bilbo couldn’t follow the directions. And so he compelled Gollum to lead him up to the right one. During the ascent, Bilbo put the ring on, and Gollum immediately missed him, “peering about with his long eyes”. Bilbo, pleased with himself for proving the ring’s power, took it off again and reassured Gollum that he was still there “following behind.” Gollum never suspected that Bilbo’s sudden disappearance was due to the ring.
W. Is it an irresistible temptation to try an invisibility ring out? Doesn’t your sudden disappearance kind of give away the trick?
Today’s discussion has covered the largest and most substantial differences between the original “Riddles” chapter and the post-LotR one.
X. It might be silly or meaningless to ask, which do you prefer? Or is it more fair to ask which is more consistent with the tone of The Hobbit as it is largely written?
Y. Is it an indication of the difficulty of updating The Hobbit to LotR’s “standards” that the new chapter is five pages longer than the old, and far more complex in its interior plot line and narrative style?
Z. Not fair perhaps: but is this the same difficulty MGM and Peter Jackson are having in trying to make a Hobbit film or films after making The Lord of the Rings?
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