Dissecting Gollum’s Riddle Game

In The Tragedy of Arthur–Arthur Phillips’ brilliant novel about the finding, or forgery, of a supposedly lost Shakespearean play–Phillips boldly questions the genius of ol’ Billy Shakes. Specifically, he argues that Shakespeare has been attributed too much credit by his critics, who have, in large part, done a great deal of work for him.

Here, Phillips explains it best:

“Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”

Similarly, I’ve always thought The Hobbit benefited from a bit of revisionist history. In the 80 years since its publication, Tolkien has, almost without exaggeration, been deified. The brilliance of The Lord of the Rings has penetrated everything he ever touched, any speech he ever delivered, any piddling little riddle he ever concocted. Thus, to quote Phillips, “he wrote it, so it must be right.”

But is it, really? The Hobbit is, at times, so childlike it’s difficult to call it art. Its poetry is so simple it’s hard to give it much credit.

At least, that’s what I used to think.

In chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark,” we’re treated to the most iconic event in The Hobbit, and perhaps in all of Tolkien’s writings: the riddle game between Gollum and Bilbo deep within the depths of the Misty Mountains. Given the understated brilliance of the chapter, and its significance in relation to later events, Riddles in the Dark served as the fulcrum to the lever that’s raised my opinion of The Hobbit over these past few weeks.

Our introduction to Gollum begins with his tragic personal history: he had friends much like hobbits, who lived in holes, but he’s since lost them, and is now alone. In fact, his friends may have actually been the ones who drove him away.

He’s become, in the time since, “a miserable, wicked creature.”

This background information is incredibly important, as it positions Gollum as Bilbo’s foil, a dark, hideous mutation. Nowhere is Gollum’s depravity expressed more starkly than in the riddles, where we find reflected two warring points of view. Bilbo in particular plays the part he will continue to play throughout the rest of the novel: a conduit of life and joy.

Gollum begins the game with the Mountain Riddle.

“What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?”

As a work of creation by Tolkien, the riddle is almost off-puttingly simple. It certainly doesn’t strike the reader as particularly brilliant. At least until we dig a bit deeper. The riddle obviously has some personal relevance to the mountain-dwelling Gollum. He is emphasizing the grandeur of mountains, how they’re taller than mere trees. He references the fact that no one can see the roots of the mountains, except, in fact, himself. He alone knows about the bowels of the mountain, and the long passage of time it’s taken to grow (Gollum is hundreds of years old, even though that fact doesn’t yet exist in The Hobbit). Gollum is the exception, the knower of secrets. The last two lines hint at a despair, however. The mountain is not alive. It’s stagnant, lifeless, lonely even.

Bilbo responds with the Teeth Riddle.

“Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.”

Again, an underwhelmingly simple riddle. Bilbo has been thinking about eating (as he often does), so he comes up with a few lines about chewing food. The important thing to note here is the comparative brightness of Bilbo’s lines. White horses, a red hill. It’s much more majestic than Gollum’s image.

Gollum’s second riddle is the Wind Riddle.

“Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.”

Look at how Gollum portrays the wind: creepy, biting, muttering. All emphasis is placed on what the wind doesn’t have. There’s a hopelessness to Gollum’s riddle. The wind doesn’t roar, it cries. It doesn’t soar, it mutters. It has nothing, and is always crying and screaming. Much like Gollum himself.

Bilbo’s second riddle, the Sun Riddle, couldn’t be more dissimilar.

“An eye in a blue face
Saw an eye in a green face.
‘That eye is like to this eye’
Said the first eye,
‘But in low place,
Not in high place.'”

Where Gollum’s riddle spoke of pain and darkness, Bilbo’s repartee is quite literally about the sun and a daisy it’s looking down upon. It personifies the sun, in fact. Gollum’s wind cannot speak. Bilbo’s sun literally does speak. Gollum’s is grim, Bilbo’s is beautiful and cheery. According to Corey Olsen–the venerable Tolkien scholar whose book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit helped me immensely with understanding the complexity of this chapter–the word “daisy” actually referred, in the Middle Ages, to “the day’s eye” and “the eye of the world” because a daisy’s petals close in on itself during the night and open again during the day. By comparing the daisy to the sun, Bilbo is drawing a line between ordinary things–like hobbits–and the greater order that surrounds them. Thus, as Gollum speaks of emptiness and solitude, Bilbo speaks of the greater purpose his actions are in service of (which is evidenced in the many, many examples of luck in The Hobbit.)

Gollum’s third riddle is in direct retaliation to the daisy riddle: the Darkness Riddle.

“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”

Frustrated and irritated about Bilbo’s light riddle, Gollum literally tells a riddle about darkness. And that darkness can be viewed as an idealized version of Gollum, himself. It is hunting, undetectable. Again, he tries to aggrandize himself and his position. Darkness is a more powerful force than light, here. It’s beneath daisies and above the sun. It is both below and above brightness. It is larger, more encompassing. The darkness also comes first and follows after. It is better in space and time. It is the destroyer of life and liveliness. Thus, Gollum isn’t even being nihilistic. It’s not an empty dark, or an absence of something. It is a powerful, active force.

Bildo’s third riddle, the Egg riddle, is almost a comical letdown after Gollum’s.

“A box without hinges, key, or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid.”

The irony of this riddle is delicious. Yes, Bilbo is speaking of an egg, but he could also be describing the Lonely Mountain and the treasure that’s hidden inside, or the Misty Mountains, and the golden treasure that he’s already found: the ring.

As a reference to an egg, though, Bilbo is speaking of the beginning of life just after Gollum spoke of the ending of lives. Again, their back and forth reveals so much of who they are and what they represent. Their differences are even further magnified by the fact that Gollum has the hardest time of all guessing something so simple and pleasant. And when he does, he does because he imagines sucking on an egg. Not the simple, refined pleasure of eggs and bacon.

Gollum’s fourth riddle is the Fish Riddle.

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

Gollum parodies life here. It’s a live thing, but Gollum makes the fish sound like a zombie. The water isn’t nourishing, it’s an unwanted drink continually forced upon it. Bilbo, upon hearing the riddle, imagines the ancestors of the fish who live under the mountain in his time, how they had to grow wider eyes over time to see in the dark. They became slimy and nasty, wriggling things. Gollum too has been physically altered while underground.

Bilbo’s fourth riddle is the Leg Riddle.

“No-legs lay on one-leg,
two-legs sat near on three-legs,
four-legs got some.”

This riddle describes a man at a stool, eating a fish, feeding the bones to the cat. You can practically see the fire blazing in a hobbit hole. This is an image of camaraderie between man and beast. It’s warm and pleasant. No wonder Gollum had a hard time guessing.

Gollum’s final riddle is the Time Riddle.

“Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountains down.”

Time is described as a thing that eventually devours all things (as the old saying goes). But look at how he orders the destruction: in line 1 it destroys living things, in lines 2/3 it destroys iron/steel/stone (i.e. the dwarves), in 4 it destroys civilization and society. Finally, high mountains are beaten down.

The mountain–the kingdom of Gollum–is the last to go.

Gollum’s last riddle is of utter hopelessness. The end of all things. It reeks of stubbornness and despair. The world, ultimately, is horrible.

To it, Bilbo has no response. His final riddle is muttered by accident.

2 thoughts on “Dissecting Gollum’s Riddle Game

  1. Do you know how much of this chapter was reworked by Tolkien?
    I’m wondering if he changed any of the riddles in this edit or whether they were his original ideas for The Hobbit. Either way you’ve given me a whole lot more to think about. I had noticed that Tolkien early on, had a chapter of action and danger followed by one of respite and ease. It would seem that the riddles follow a similar contrasting pattern.


    1. It’s definitely a trick of his to moderate darkness with some levity. Until the end, that is. Couldn’t believe how “real” things got near the end! It was pretty awesome.

      As for how much of the chapter was re-worked, I seem to recall that some of it was. But I don’t think the riddles were changed much. Like, the part about the treasure under the mountain was not re-worked. That was there from the beginning.

      Liked by 1 person

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