Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Hobbit – Riddles in the Dark

An aptly named chapter that hints at the darker nature of man.

Chapter Summary

Bilbo finds a magic ring and then plays a riddle game with a odd creature called Gollum. Bilbo wins the contest with a questionable riddle, which Gollum does not appreciate. After a chase through the goblin tunnels, Bilbo eventually makes his way to freedom.

Analysis and Discussion

This is the famous chapter in which Bilbo finds the Ring. The Ring in The Hobbit takes on the appearance of a simple magic ring which grants the wearer invisibility. The true nature of the Ring is not full revealed until the Lord of the Rings. With the writing of the Lord of the Rings a substantial rewrite of this chapter was required to bring it in line with the larger story of Middle Earth.

Most of this chapter consists of the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. Although all of the riddles told are well known at this point, it is an interesting read through none the less. The game of riddles is an old one, with riddles appearing in a number of works with perhaps the most famous of the older works being Oedipus and the riddle of the Sphinx. I suspect that the good professor took a lead from Norse mythology, of which he was very acquainted with, as the riddle game appears in a number of the Norse mythologies. This is clearly a nod to the older works.

In The Hobbit the theme of greed and the destruction it brings, is liberally sprinkled throughout. The dwarves are haunted by it, and it is gold that is at the very core of their journey. The Ring is also gold, and as the text points out it was a very beautiful golden ring, and it inspires a similar type of greed. The full back story of Gollum is not shared in this story, but there are some bits and pieces scattered about. The narrator describes Gollum as “…old Gollum, a small slimy creature.” The key descriptors here are old and slimy. Forgotten by all, but possessing a mighty treasure with the power to conquer Middle Earth, yet Gollum is possessed by small greed, and he has been forced to live life buried in the bowels of the Misty Mountains. He has become slimy and can no longer be considered clean.

The question of the Ring is whether it creates greed in the possessor or simply brings it to the surface. I would argue that man’s sin of greed is already present, and the Ring brings it to the forefront is a horrific way. Gollum was once a hobbit, but that can now no longer be said of his current condition. He has been transformed into something else entirely. The sinful nature of greed has now been moved from an inner vice to his outward appearance, which is a reflection of his inner flaws. He can no longer escape what he has become. Such is the power of greed, and this is what the Ring brings out in people. I call Gollum’s greed “small greed,” as he does not wish to conquest, but rather he wants to possess that which does not belong to him. His mind has warped events around the Ring coming into his possession, and remains convinced that it was rightfully his birthday present. It is interesting how things can become twisted as we try to rationalize events in the past, which clearly has happened, and even the narrator remains suspicious of Gollum’s birthday present claim. Even the name he gives the ring, “my precious,” hints at the greed that is in his heart. It is a frightening reminder that even little character flaws can have terrifying results. Fortunately for Bilbo, he does possess good character, and does not possess the Ring long enough to fully corrupt him. Although, one does not half to look very far to see what would have happened if Bilbo held on to the Ring longer than he did.

The back and forth that follows turns into a tense game with freedom or something worse as the stakes in the game. Bilbo holds his own well enough, as he is in the hot seat throughout the game. With the game lasting longer than Bilbo would have liked, his luck runs out as it is his turn, and he does not have a riddle to ask. He blurts out a question that Gollum takes as a riddle. The questionable riddle is now on the table, and Gollum knows that he been played unfairly. Not at all happy with the way the game has turned out, Gollum retreats back to his hole in hopes to find something to even the score, only to find that he no longer possesses his “precious.”

A cat and mouse chase leads Bilbo to the exit. Bilbo finds himself behind Gollum, armed with a sword and a magical ring, with freedom just up ahead. It would be a quick end to a pitiful creature, but something stays Bilbo’s hand.

“A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment….All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped. No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark.”

That is quite a paragraph. Pity stayed his hand. It was the realization that Gollum was a victim of his own selfish nature, and the punishment was a severe one. Bilbo probably thought that he was unworthy to overturn a judgment that had been made. Whereas a knife in the back would have been so easy, he finds that he cannot do it. He takes a higher road, and with this realization comes strength and resolve. It was not a great leap, yet it was still a leap of faith into the unknown.

It is at this point, that marks a turning point in the journey for Bilbo, and he has moved from a passenger on a journey to an active participant in his own development. This is not to say that he does not face self doubts, or nagging notions of smallness, but rather he has discovered an inner source of strength that will guide him well in the trials that await ahead of him.


Sneb said...

Also if Bilbo did kill Gollum then, Sauron may have eventually gotten possession of the ring. The line "a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment" then takes on a feeling of grim prophecy for the whole of Middle Earth, not just Bilbo's personal conscious. I doubt Tolkien had it all planned out from this point, but it's amusing to interpret it that way.

Anonymous said...

I really like the imagery in this chapter. The dark tunnels and unknown creatures deep underground.

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