Riddles in the Dark

17 Aug

Although like everyone else I’m very much looking forward to The Desolation of Smaug, the first part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, left me a little cold. It was overlong, self-indulgent and sorely lacking the absorbing quality which made its predecessor trilogy such a delight. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that for me the stand-out scene in the first Hobbit film involved one of the most triumphant elements of the Lord of the Rings movies – the character of Gollum, realized onscreen. In truth, though, I’ve always had a soft spot for Gollum, ever since I encountered him on the page when I first read The Hobbit years and years ago. The chapter Riddles in the Dark works on so many levels – a superb two-handed character study of both Bilbo and Gollum, an ingenious riddle contest, a prelude of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, and a moral lesson concerning the importance of pity. As the years went on and I began to study seriously the fabulous world of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Finnish legend from which Tolkien drew much of his inspiration, my appreciation for Riddles in the Dark only grew. It became clear to me that Tolkien was not simply making this stuff up – he was drawing upon the tradition of ancient and aristocratic literature of Northern Europe where the whole idea of testing by riddles came from. Gollum asks five riddles and Bilbo four – of these nine, several have definite and ancient sources. As Bilbo (and Tolkien himself) knew: “the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it”.


There is a distinct difference between Bilbo’s nursery rhyme style riddles and those of Gollum, which tend to be ancient ones. For example, his last riddle, delivered when he thinks “the time had come to ask something hard and horrible”, derives from a poem in Old English, the riddle-game (or more precisely the wisdom-testing exchange) between Solomon and Saturn in the Old English verse of the same name. In this Saturn, who represents heathen knowledge, asks Solomon: “What is it that goes on inexorably, beats at foundations, causes tears of sorrow, into its hands goes hard and soft, small and great?”. The answer given in Solomon and Saturn is not ‘Time’ as in Bilbo’s desperate and fluky reply, but ‘Old age’, which is then explained in terms similar to those of Gollum’s riddle: “She fights better than a wolf, she waits longer than a stone, she proves stronger than steel, she bites iron with rust: she does the same to us”. Then there is Gollum’s ‘fish riddle’ (“Alive without breath, As cold as death; Never thirsty, ever drinking, All in mail, never clinking”), which is echoed both by a riddle set in the Old Norse wisdom contest in The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise and in a medieval poem from Worcestershire, Layamon’s Brut: in this dead warriors lying in a river in their mail are seen as strange fish. Gollum’s riddles, cruel and gloomy, associate him firmly with the ancient world of epic and saga, heroes and sages.


But Bilbo can play the game too, even though his riddles are significantly different in their sources and nature. Three of them, ‘teeth’, ‘eggs’, and ‘no-legs’, come from traditional nursery rhyme. But then, as a philologist, Tolkien held the firm conviction that, just as children’s fairy tales of elves and dwarves had some long-lost connection with the time when such creatures were material for adults and poets, so modern playground riddles and rhymes were the last descendants of an old tradition. This was a serious matter for Tolkien, who wrote extensively on so-called ‘modern’ nursery rhymes and the reality of their ancient antecedents. When Bilbo replies to Gollum’s ancient riddles with ones that, to our ears at least, sound more familiar, they are not then so very far apart after all. As Gandalf was to say to Frodo many years later, “They understood one another remarkably well… Think of the riddles they both knew, for one thing”. Even in The Hobbit, however, it is clear that Bilbo does not simply regard riddles as nursery rhymes fit only for children. He has not lost his grip on an old tradition – one in which such contests were regarded as sacred. As for Gollum himself, unlike many of Tolkien’s other ‘creations’ (wargs, ents, woses etc.) there is no known source for him other than Tolkien’s own mind – he was the author’s very own idea, and a brilliant one at that. Wretched, noble, ambiguous, deranged, schizophrenic, murderous, addicted, pitiable – all of these objectives and more have been used to describe old Smeagol, yet none of them have come close to encapsulating the character. Whatever else the second Hobbit film offers it won’t be more of Gollum, and it will be all the poorer for that.

5 Responses to “Riddles in the Dark”

  1. colemining August 17, 2013 at 2:14 am #

    What a great post! Loved the examination of the tradition behind the riddle contest from one of my favourite chapters from 20th century Literature. This is why Tolkien’s stories endure- all were meticulously and consciously constructed upon the traditions, themes and motifs that came before. Smeagol/Gollum is certainly the most complex of characters- how interesting to find out he had no source other than Tolkien’s vast and beautiful imagination.

  2. James August 17, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    Likewise, this is a fantastic analysis of undoubtedly one of the highlight moments in ‘An Unexpected Journey’. Wonderful post!

  3. bethtrissel August 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Fascinating post. Thanks so much for all these insights.

  4. Nathan August 19, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    “Teeth” and “an egg” seem to quite frequently be the answers to old riddles in verse. As Boy Willie says in Terry Pratchett’s The Last Hero, “It’s always teeth in poxy old riddles.”

    I agree that the riddle scene was good, but An Unexpected Journey a bit disappointing overall. Too many battle scenes, for one thing. There just wasn’t that much fighting in the book.

  5. VOID RPG Admin September 16, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    What an awesome post! I am so glad I found your blog. Definitely following.

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