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The group read of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy started! We’ve finished the first five chapters of The Hobbit, and discussion of those chapters (lead by the wicked-awesome and hard-working sj) is up over at Snobbery. Don’t worry if you’re just getting around to your reading — you can join the discussion at any time.
sj picked three particular topics for discussion regarding Chapters 1 through 5, but one stuck with me even after I gave my initial answer on her blog. Here’s the question:
How do you feel about the way Bilbo escaped from Gollum/the Goblins? Was he cheating? Or did he do what had to be done? This isn’t a question about the narrative aspects (because we know there would have been no story if he’d been gobbled up right away), but rather do you believe he could have clarified? Stopped Gollum from trying to guess what he had in his pockets?
My initial response was this (except for grammatical editing of my embarrassing mistakes that I did not properly proofread for the first time):
When I was young, my feelings about this were simple – Gollum was [a] gross, sneaky little bastard, so he got what he deserved. For that matter, so did Bilbo (especially if the alternative was Bilbo’s death.) Now, I still am inclined to give Bilbo credit for powerfully quick thinking (which means I realize now that HE was the actual “sneaky little bastard”) under some amazingly crappy circumstances. I don’t think the significance of this scene is really about a Hobbit’s moral dilemma between honoring rules and survival. Now, I think the scene illustrates that Bilbo maybe wasn’t in control of his mind at all. [I] think this whole scene (and Bilbo’s subsequent reaction to it) sets up [later] explanations about the Ring, its maker and its power. I definitely understand this now only because I know what’s coming. I guess, if anything, this whole scene is a good example of why it’s never a waste of time to re-read a good book.
When sj responded, I think she pretty much agreed with my assessment:
Yesssssssssss, Bilbo WAS the sneaky bastard here! I don’t know why I never really realized it before, but it’s fairly interesting how differently I’m perceiving things with this read.
So, I thought, Yep. Not just me. Must be right. But, that was before David showed up. David is an expert on a lot of things Middle-Earth. I have mad respect for the level of research he’s done on these books and Middle-Earth in general. (And you should check them out, here.) Here’s what he said:
I think you can read the scene both ways (on its own, without knowledge of the Ring’s true power, and Bilbo is making a moral choice; and as an example of the Ring exerting its influence). But I feel Tolkien wrote it the former way, then retconned it while writing LOTR to fit that story.
Well, damn. Now, I have to think about this again.
So, I did. And, here’s the thing.
I don’t think Tolkien retconned it at all, and I also** don’t think you can separate Bilbo’s choices from the influence – however new and weak — the One Ring wielded over Bilbo the moment it touched his hand on the cold, cavernous floor.
Consider this passage:
He guessed as well as he could, and crawled for a good long way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; it did not seem of any particular use at the moment. (Emphasis mine.)
When Bilbo and Gollum encounter one another, Gollum is ready to attack poor Bilbo and turn him into a meal but for two coincidences. If you don’t know Gollum, let me introduce you:
Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quite quietly on the lake; for lake it was, wide and deep and deadly cold.
First, Gollum was full of a recent meal so not hungry. Second, Bilbo wielded an elven dagger with which Gollum was none too excited to tangle. So, instead, the two decided on a battle of wits: a riddle contest. If Gollum stumps Bilbo, Bilbo is dinner. If Bilbo stumps Gollum, Gollum shows Bilbo safe passage out of the goblins’ caverns.
The riddles go back and forth, and it is Bilbo’s turn to ask a riddle after nearly being stumped by Gollum in the previous round:
But Bilbo simply could not think of any question with that nasty wet cold thing sitting next to him, and pawing and poking him. He scratched himself; he pinched himself; still he could not think of anything.
‘Ask us! Ask us!’ said Gollum.
Bilbo pinched himself and slapped himself; he gripped on his little sword; he even felt in his pocket with his other hand. Then 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 precious, three guesseses.’ (Emphasis mine.)
Ultimately, Gollum cannot guess what Bilbo has in his pocket. When Gollum’s final guess (which is actually two guesses in one – a no-no) is wrong, Bilbo immediately assumes a defensive stance, wielding his dagger and preparing for Gollum to go back on the agreement.
[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.
Bilbo’s fear is well-founded; Gollum already concocted a plan to return to his island in the middle of the lake to retrieve the Ring (which Gollum had not yet realized he lost), make himself invisible and attack the unsuspecting Bilbo.
Now, let’s go back to sj’s original question: Did Bilbo “cheat” or was he doing what “had to be done”?
Merriam-Webster defines “cheating” as a dishonest violation of the rules or the use of trickery that escapes observation to gain an unfair advantage. Bilbo acknowledges that asking Gollum, “What’s in my pocket?”, wasn’t a proper riddle under the ancient rules. So, the riddle is a “violation of the rules.” But “cheating” requires more; it must also involve a violation of the rules that is dishonest, that escapes observation and is committed to gain unfair advantage. As Bilbo was struggling mightily to come up with a riddle, he — without much thought — put his hand in his pocket and felt the ring, which was forgotten until that moment. Only after touching the Ring did Bilbo say – mostly to himself – “What have I got in my pocket?” Bilbo didn’t ask the question intending it to be a riddle at all. BUT — BUT! – when Gollum interpreted the question as a riddle and objected to its fairness, betraying his unpreparedness to answer such a question — Bilbo definitely capitalized upon that by goading Gollum into guessing, even acquiescing to Gollum’s demand for three guesses. So, it’s hard to argue that Bilbo’s violation of the riddling rules wasn’t a dishonest violation even if it wasn’t designed to gain an unfair advantage. But the last part of the definition – the requirement that the rule violation “escape observation” – that’s where it all falls apart. Gollum immediately recognized that the question wasn’t “fair” (e.g., in compliance with the ancient rules of riddling), but he didn’t demand a new, proper riddle. Instead, he demanded a further modification of the rule — three guesses instead of one. So, if Bilbo was dishonestly taking advantage of Gollum’s weakness brought about by the improper question, Gollum certainly knew it but played along nonetheless (although miscalculating whether he properly compensated for any disadvantage by gaining the advantage of multiple guesses).
So, no, Bilbo didn’t cheat. Which brings me back to my original conclusion — the entire episode is meant not to illustrate any moral or ethical dilemma for Bilbo but to foreshadow the dark power of the One Ring, even against a being of unflinching honesty or respect for rules/traditions.
To accept that this scenario involves a moral or ethical choice of any sort requires also accepting that Bilbo’s actions were volitional. That, I cannot accept. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think it’s okay to tell you this much about the One Ring: its power is so strong it exerts will. It is never lost, found or held by chance but by desire. Bilbo found the One Ring in a random dark cave, by means of a set of coincidences too numerous to mention (and even rightly to be called coincidences). To believe that Bilbo escaped with the One Ring by choice (or a series of choices) requires not just suspension of disbelief but a complete blindness to the reality of the One Ring’s power. The Ring wanted to be found. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it wanted to be found by Bilbo. Go back and read the emphasized passages above.
Which brings me to the real question I think Tolkien wants us, as readers, to ponder. Who (or what) controls the will of the One Ring? The easy answer is Sauron, because he is the father of the One Ring and desires its return with all the power, fury, lust, greed and black-hearted desire any being is capable of imagining. But, there is nothing about Tolkien’s story that begs an easy answer. The most complex of human emotions are expressed in the simplest of terms, and Tolkien is masterful at writing a beautifully nuanced, complex set of stories in the voice of a grandfatherly narrator recounting tales of his youth. And, if you know how the story of the One Ring ends, you know the answer cannot be so simple as the One Ring was under Sauron’s control.
I have to leave this analysis here for fear of spoiling these stories for first-time readers. But, I can say that – to me – these passages evidence Tolkien knew
from inception the fate of the One Ring and the fates of those who touched it along the way.
In any event, I certainly did not think this carefully about the exchange between Bilbo and Gollum on my first read. I was too anxious to know that Bilbo would escape unharmed, and my relief that such clean escape (sans several lovely brass buttons) occurred also relieved me of any further thought about the exchange until now.
**Postscript: I did not know when I first wrote this post, but have since learned, that the original version of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit was quite different. Gollum and Bilbo played a riddle game, but Gollum did not offer Bilbo escape from the caverns if Bilbo won; Gollum offered Bilbo a present. The “present” was to be the One Ring (although Bilbo does not at first know this). If you are interested in a side-by-side comparison of the original chapter and the version in the editions we likely all have read, go here. I also apologize to David for stating so emphatically that Tolkien did not retcon the book. I wasn’t aware – but probably should have researched – whether you were stating a fact or expressing an opinion. Clearly Tolkien did so, and clearly I made an assumption, and we all know what happens to people who assume. I fully admit asshattedness here. I’ve made edits to the original version of this post to show where my errors occurred.