Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Throwback Thursday, and The Hobbit Read-Along, and Hobbit Day)

At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s, I find a blog post from the past and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think you might enjoy.

In scrolling through social media last night, I was inspired by Hobbit Day posts and thoughts. I have become enthralled by a heavy work period and forgot to take some time to reflect on Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, September 22nd. So, for today’s Throwback Thursday, I am returning to a post from nine years ago. Nine years! This little reading reflection was one of my first forrays into networking online with other writers and fans. In celebration of the then forthcoming Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy, David of The Warden’s Walk hosted The Hobbit Read-Along. I was assigned Chapter 5: Riddles in the Dark, a particular favourite of mine. While the piece strikes me as overly buoyant and a bit precious–it was nine years ago and I did create this blog to improve as a writer–I still kind of like it. Lovers of the book might even get the joke. It is also my most popular Hobbit post ever, read more than 4,000 times. I should note that Nicolas, now 16, no longer calls him Bilboy. I hope you enjoy this most shire-like of September days.

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 even if death is on the line—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!” Ah, well.

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 reshapes 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–and, in doing so, rewrites this chapter–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.

That, my friends, is a striking number of coincidences.

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 from the beginning: if Gollum won, Bilbo would be eaten; if Bilbo won, Gollum would show him the way out. Still, the entire story turns on a cheat–or, at least, chance.

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, Tolkien would later call it—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.

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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17 Responses to Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Throwback Thursday, and The Hobbit Read-Along, and Hobbit Day)

  1. Pingback: Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Throwback Thursday, and The Hobbit Read-Along, and Hobbit Day) – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. dalejamesnelson says:

    It’s not the main point of your posting, Brenton, but I for one could enjoy further stories from people who visit here, about the mysterious sojourns of books. Years ago I loaned my copy of The Tolkien Reader to a colleague. This Ballantine paperback was of sentimental value to me. It was bought on the day, back in 1969, when I was 13, that all of us in the family arrived in the town we were newly moving to. I wasn’t grieving over the change, but I wasn’t happy to leave the former hometown either. Well, we found that this new town had that wonderful thing, a bookstore, a nice one, downtown; and on that first day in town I got a copy of this book by my favorite author. That helped to get things off to a good start. This book was was, I believe, the copy of Tolkien I’d take with me on vacations so that I’d have something Tolkienian by me.

    Years later I loaned it to my colleague, who lost it. Eventually it was discovered. As I recall, it had fallen behind her office radiator. I was happy to get it back. Now this little story adds even more value to that copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sweet story, Dale. I have always believed in a Providence of Books–even when I struggle to believe in serendipity in other ways or be aware of God’s active grace and creation in the world. In this area, I am not a terribly logical thinker!
      I have some important books of no real value. I have my Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, from the ashes of my house fire, a wet thing that someone (I don’t know who) found and dried and gave back to me. All else was lost, but I was able to find three books in various places that were important: my boxset of Narnia, which I don’t think I finished as a kid; the Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton, probably unknown outside of Canada, not a global treasure but important to me; and a very particular children’s lit anthology that my mom had used when she went back to school when I was five. I don’t have her annotations, of course, but I spent hours reading that volume as a child and spent a decade trying to find it online. When I found it, I gave it to mom, who then gifted it to my son when she died. Intriguingly, I found another one about 6 months later from an online friend giving away his books, and was able to give it to my mother’s other grandson, my sister’s son.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Do ‘we’ know how it ended up in the freezer? My first thought was having heard of freezing water-damaged books… (though in the pressure of unexpected moments I often put things ‘down’ in the strangest places…).

    I often wonder what the histories of wonderful second-hand books that ‘reach me’ are, often dreading sorrow in an unknown and probably irrecoverable history – how or why would someone part with this book (glad as I am now to have it)? Then again, it is delightful to think of books going on being enjoyed rather than discarded, destroyed, damaged (I’ve encountered books bolted together in aid of selling bookcases tidily) .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I presume it just fell in? I’m not sure, of course.
      I always look at the signature pages and annotations of used books. I’ve thought of phoning the phone numbers, but have never tried it. I have googled some names, but never in earnest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Two of my fun finds were copies of The Abolition of Man and Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, Volume I, Israel and Revelation, both previously owned by Dennis Nineham, but I never tried to contact him to ask him what he thought of them and why he parted with them.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of eating Hobbits, I could not remember if we knew what happened to Frodo’s finger when Gollum bit it off… Rereading, I find Sam saw that Gollum “held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle.” With no further reference to it in the rapid events which follow, I presume it was immolated with the ring still on it… ” thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall […] carry thee whither thou wouldest not” springs oddly to mind – Frodo’s disembodied flesh bearing the Ring where he would not cast it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a great follow-up, David. I realize that it slipped from my memory. I’m reading Fall of Sauron, now, which has a lot of variants of ROTK, so I’ll watch for the disappearing finger.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        We checked the Jackson film – Gollum pulls the ring off the better to admire it, apparently letting the finger drop (though a syncopation with Gollum enjoying it as a tasty snack might have fitted Jackson’s sense of humour, but presumably not his better judgement…).

        Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Speaking more of eating Hobbits… Spoiler Alert: do not read on, if you have not yet read The Hobbit!..

      Bilbo is in danger of being eaten repeatedly – by Trolls, (by Goblins? – I’ll have to reread…), by Gollum, presumably by wolves, he wonders if by Eagles – and then if by a Bear, by giant spiders (together with his companions), by a dragon (who boasts of having eaten his companions relatives!)… In what sort of story is someone so often in danger of being eaten? A safari adventure? The Jungle Books? The Borrowers (or some other book where people are tiny in comparison to predators)? A book involving anthropophagi? (It turns out, it would have been pretty straightforward cannibalism, if Gollum had eaten him…) I’m astonished, when I think about it! (Any influence on – or hommage in – Watership Down?)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Upcoming Signum University and Mythgard Online Events (For Tolkien, Fantasy, SF, and Language Lovers) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  6. lolalwilcox says:

    I think most of the Old Testament recounts similar “lucky” moments… especially how many battles are won by trickery, lies … and some of those tricks seem like magic, like blowing horns while marching around city walls.

    On Thu, Sep 23, 2021 at 5:15 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: “At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional > feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or > someone else’s, I find a blog post from the past and throw it back out into > the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Throwback Thursday, and The Hobbit Read-Along, and Hobbit Day) — A Pilgrim in Narnia – Strider's Table

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