Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (The Hobbit Read-Along, Chapter 5)

This blog is part of The Hobbit Read-Along at The Warden’s Walk. I’ve been assigned Chapter 5: Riddles in the Dark. Feel free to comment on any of the blogs in the series.

Here is a riddle for you:

Besides food and ice, what have I got in my deepfreeze?

Give up? I don’t suppose it is a very fair riddle, and certainly isn’t a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws. Truly, a person could have just about anything in a deep freeze. I have an external hard drive that gets overheated, so twenty minutes of freezer time fixes it up. I once put a valuable hockey card in the freezer to get the gum off of it without ripping it. And I have a friend who freezes her credit card in a block of ice so it takes a long time to melt, ensuring her purchase has been given much thought. A freezer could hold most anything.

In my case—and here I will give you the answer to this clever riddle—I’ve got my copy of The Hobbit in the deepfreeze. Purely by accident, of course. This fall, when I began reading The Hobbit to my son, I searched high and low for my old, ragged copy. I have read it many times as it has been in my collection from time beyond memory. It may even have been a birthday present. It is precious to me. Alas, I must have loaned it to someone who is not a genuine book-borrower according to the ancient laws. “Where iss it? Where iss it?” my family heard me crying among our basement bookshelves. “Losst it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!”

Once I recovered myself, I purchased a copy from a local bookseller and left it in our back porch beside the dryer. When I went to bring it on our (Canadian) Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it was gone. I was scrabbling here and there, searching and seeking in vain. I was inconsolable as I left the house for the car. “It’s no good going back there to search, no,” I said to myself in the driveway. “We doesn’t remember all the places we’ve visited.” Suddenly I sat down on the back step and began to weep, a whistling and gurgling sound horrible to listen to. My wife, having kept her presence of mind, suggested we pick up another copy. After all, there were dozens at the store. I was okay after that.

Having the faintest sliver of hope I would save $10.99 (Canadian), I did not purchase another copy, but read to my son from the e-reader. When we returned home from the weekend I stood in the back porch, determined to find the missing precious, I mean book. I looked in all the cupboards, in the washer and dryer, and in the hidden spaces in between. It simply wasn’t there. Almost by pure accident, I opened the deepfreeze, and my hand met what felt like a paper book lying in the dark on top of the honey garlic chicken wings. It was a turning point in my career, but I did not know it. It was only ten minutes ago, after all.

The riddle of my missing book aside, this chapter is truly a turning point in the story, and the hinge that locks the entire mythical world of Middle Earth into place. This is the chapter where Bilbo (or Bilboy as my young son calls him) finds the ring of power, setting the stage for The Lord of the Rings epic. It is also the chapter where we meet Gollum—that psychologically complex shadow of a mind in stretched skin, slinking in the inky darkness within the heart of the mountain, pouring all his love and hatred into one thing: the ring.

What strikes me about this chapter, however, is the accidental nature of the “turning point in his career.” Forgetting for a moment how The Fellowship of the Ring film bends our minds on what is taking place in Bilbo’s discovery of the ring, and leaving behind what we know of the epic that Tolkien writes years later, accidents and cheats abound in this little chapter.

Bilbo finds the ring in absolute darkness—“When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut”—and absentmindedly puts it in his pocket. In the darkness he follows a tunnel that, after a journey of many hours where Bilbo chose no other paths, leads to Gollum’s lair. Gollum, as it turns out, has just eaten a goblin, so his curiosity is greater than his hunger. Bilbo, then, finds himself in a battle of wits—to the death!—a contest of riddles according to ancient traditions that even this fallen creature would respect. Bilbo was immensely fortunate that he wasn’t “throttled from behind” as was Gollum’s customary hospitality.

Even the game seems chanced in Bilbo’s favour. He is good at riddles, and finds the first few easy. But Bilbo finally gets stuck on this one:

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

Bilbo is absolutely flummoxed until, at just the right moment, a fish jumps out of the water and lands on his lap. The answer is, of course, “fish,” and Bilbo is saved just in time.

And this is not the only extremely fortunate accident. Faced with an impenetrable riddle, faltering in the dim light, Gollum decides it is time to eat this hobbit that has lost the riddle contest.

Gollum began to get out of his boat. He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: “Give me more time! Give me time!” But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:
“Time! Time!”
Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer.

Pure luck, again, is Bilbo’s friend.

Even the final play of the game, the riddle that seals the fate of each of them (and all of middle earth), comes by chance:

Bilbo pinched himself and slapped himself; he gripped on his little sword; he even felt in his pocket with his other hand. There he found the ring he had picked up in the passage and forgotten about.
“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset.
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nassty little pocketses?”
Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. “What have I got in my pocket?” he said louder.
“S-s-s-s-s,” hissed Gollum. “It must give us three guesseses, my preciouss, three guesseses.”
“Very well! Guess away!” said Bilbo.

What Gollum would later know to be a certainty—that Bilbo had a ring in his pocket—at this particular moment was not even a possibility in Gollum’s imagination. Moreover, the riddle is not a fair one—no more than the deepfreeze question above. It takes a game of cleverness and symmetry and turns it into a game of chance. Granted, the stakes were not fair: if Gollum won, Bilbo would be eaten; if Bilbo won Gollum would show him the way out. Still, though, the entire story turns on a cheat.

The number of accidents and the layers of “pure luck” are too much for the reader to imagine there are no other forces at play. When Gollum discovers that the Hobbit has his precious ring, he chases after poor Bilbo, who bumbles breathless away in the darkness.

“What has it got in its pocketses?” [Bilbo] heard the hiss loud behind him, and the splash as Gollum leapt from his boat.
“What have I, I wonder?” he said to himself, as he panted and stumbled along. He put his left hand in his pocket. The ring felt very cold as it quietly slipped on to his groping forefinger.
The hiss was close behind him. He turned now and saw Gollum’s eyes like small green lamps coming up the slope. Terrified he tried to run faster, but suddenly he struck his toes on a snag in the floor, and fell flat with his little sword under him.
In a moment Gollum was on him. But before Bilbo could do anything, recover his breath, pick himself up, or wave his sword, Gollum passed by, taking no notice of him, cursing and whispering as he ran.
What could it mean?

Accidentally, the ring of power “quietly slipped on to his groping forefinger” and made him invisible. It is quite a series of coincidences. What could it all mean?

We know from the epic that the will of Sauron is at play, but what is the invisible opposing hand? Is it pure chance, or something else? I don’t really know what other name to call it other than Providence: the invisible working of small chances and great tragedies—eucatastrophes—that seem in retrospect to be the guiding hand of Something or Someone from without. The Hobbit up until chapter 5 is a series of happy and unhappy accidents. Which accidents lead to fortune, we can only know when the story is entirely told.

Meanwhile, I need to thaw my copy of The Hobbit with a hair dryer—if I could only remember where I left it. I am not too worried, though. It is not a hair dryer of power. We bought it at Wal-mart.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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33 Responses to Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (The Hobbit Read-Along, Chapter 5)

  1. jubilare says:

    “Gollum—that psychologically complex shadow of a mind in stretched skin, slinking in the inky darkness within the heart of the mountain, pouring all his love and hatred into one thing: the ring.” This is the best description of Gollum in one sentence that I have ever seen. He’s one of my favorite characters of all time. Fascinating, tragic mess.

    “many hours where Bible chose no other paths” typo?

    I wrote a research paper on Gollum and Providence in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in high school. I am tempted to track it down and see what I think now.

    Like

    • brentondickieson says:

      Thanks for the great words on that line. Reading it again I like it more.
      And my spell check kept changing Bilbo to Bible, so I missed one–anymore? Thanks for the tip.
      This is hardly a full study of Providence. But it struck me that Tolkien’s theistic influence is a “latent Christianity,” to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, throughout this work. I suspect there are whole libraries of studies on Providence in literature.

      Like

      • jubilare says:

        That’s the only one I saw. I thought that spell-check was probably to blame.
        That “latent Christianity” is something I particularly love about Tolkien’s writings. It feels as natural to the story as anything else rather than something constructed or forced. This is why, for me, Tolkien gets away with things that would feel contrived in the hands of most other authors. I love the works of C. S. Lewis, but I prefer the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and I think the primary reason is the difference between allegory and “applicability.”

        Like

        • brentondickieson says:

          Tolkien’s worldview subtly informs his work. I heard that Tolkien was on the editorial board that rejected Orwell’s “Animal Farm”–it was too obvious for his taste.

          Like

  2. jubilare says:

    That amuses me. 🙂 I’m not as opposed to allegory as he was, I just prefer his way of going about things.
    I would love to have been a fly on the wall for some of the back and forth between he and Lewis, but I imagine thousands, at least, wish the same thing.

    Like

  3. David says:

    Reblogged this on The Warden's Walk and commented:
    So many tricksy little accidents of great importance in “The Hobbit” that we begin to wonder whether they truly are accidents after all.

    Like

  4. emilykazakh says:

    Reblogged this on WanderLust and commented:
    Thoughts on luck, Providence, and the will of evil.

    Like

  5. Rob says:

    “Bilboy.” God bless your young son. That is, indeed, precious. I love the fact that parents are reading this to their children. They are doing it for a reason. The Hobbit is truly a children’s story, and whatever depths can be sounded in it, the tale is ultimately for them.

    I want a T-shirt with “Bilboy” on it!

    Like

  6. Mary says:

    I have to admit that I rarely lend books out to friends unless they have proven themselves trustworthy. The loss of a book would be far too likely to bring out my Gollum-ish behavior.

    Like

  7. David says:

    Ah yes, Providence. Tolkien managed well a careful balance between the dangers of having too many contrivances and too few, either of which would strike us as unrealistic. In doing so, he let us know that his world, as our own, was constructed intentionally and with order, but is enough beyond us that much of what happens feels like accident and luck!

    I’m glad you foregrounded the fact that this clever riddle contest is won by a cheat rather than a proper riddle! It’s hard to blame Bilbo, since his life is at stake and Gollum is the one who takes the question “What have I got in my pocket?” to be a riddle and holds himself to answering it, but there’s no escaping the fact that Bilbo takes the (relatively) easy out by breaking the rules of the game. He’s not a perfect fellow, and not yet mature in the ways of honorable heroics.

    Also, the portrayal of Gollum here is quite striking. His villainous nature is apparent, with his murderous ways and eating of sapient creatures like the goblins, but you can tell there’s this more childish part of him (I don’t say innocent, for Smeagol is quite aware of the evil that Gollum does) still there, which provokes the pity that stays Bilbo’s hand. All those flashes back to Gollum’s previous life in the world outside, showing us that he’s no mere monster, as the goblins are, but an actual person, are brilliant little touches for what is often taken to be a simple children’s fairy tale. Tolkien may not yet have conceived his plans for LotR or Gollum’s part in it, but he clearly saw the character as important enough to really flesh out. And the book is all the better for it.

    This is a real turning point for Bilbo, though I’m not sure he realizes it yet. Fending for himself amongst monstrous enemies, thinking clearly amidst danger and working his own way out, being prepared to fight if necessary without the backing of friends (though with the aid of a magic ring), and being exposed to enemies who are also pitiful — these are important steps in his maturation!

    Like

    • brentondickieson says:

      Someone mentioned that Tolkien is making this up as he goes along. I agree. But I think that Gollum runs deeper. My son said, “I think Gollum will be important later.” He’s quite right.
      Well said David.

      Like

  8. You could write an entire fan-fic parody novel. I love it.

    Like

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