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Chapter V: Riddles in the Dark

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountains down.


So this chapter is the most important chapter to the coming sequels. It, in fact, made Tolkien come back and re-edit this chapter to make it fit with The Lord of the Rings. I found a site which had the original text to clarify a few things.

First of all, for the sake of The Hobbit, this chapter accomplishes a number of very important things for the growth of our main character. First of all he is separated from everyone else, so he can not trust on anyone else. There is also that whole death and resurrection theme running throughout this chapter. I would actually guess it is unintentional in this instance, but it is certainly there, and it is actually easily accidented when the writer is trying to bring a character into his own. So, yeah, there's the burying; even blacking out and falling. Awakening in darkness, and coming to water to find new life. You can accuse me of forcing it, but I am just saying.

However what truly empowers our Mr Baggins is a little trinket he stumbles upon in the dark after first waking up. Now this would lead to another discussion on luck, but this one is a little more complicated. First of all, in the revised account, luck is not a part of the equation, beyond the Ring's manipulation of it. In the original account it can be a harder thing to swallow, but there are still a couple points I would like to make. One: the Ring is one of the major reasons for Bilbo accomplishing what he does. This is an essential point in his adventure, not just a throw away moment to bridge plot points. Secondly, Gandalf continues to mention a very certain intention to bringing along Bilbo. In the next chapter he says, "I brought him, and I don't bring things that are of no use." Gandalf does not know exactly how his burglar will prove useful, just that he is useful, and receiving the Ring is essential to Bilbo becoming what he is. In the original account I still would have liked something a bit more dynamic than happening upon it in the dark in the endless caverns while his hands are groping the ground. This does nothing to expand the characters, story, etc. However in the revised version, it paints a vivid picture of the treachery of the Ring and its twists on fate.

The next question would be, does giving your main character such a powerful artifact and power impact the merit of the characters actions. It would be easy to say, Bilbo finds his power and strength through an artificial and external means. Which is not to say that finding strength through external means is necessarily bad, but a magic ring almost seems a cheap way to give your character power. Especially one he just happens upon in the dark, with absolutely no intentionality.

Now in The Lord of the Rings, the Ring would come with a heavy and deadly cost. Which it is important that power have a cost. But this is not the case in The Hobbit. Yes the revised version of this chapter begins to paint some of the corruption of the Ring, but it is far from the point of the book. Basically, Bilbo just was granted a free source of power he stumbled upon by accident. So does this weaken the power of his characters growth? I would say yes and no.

I think it does take away from Bilbo, in that he lucks his way into the thing that would grant him the means to accomplish what he does through out the rest of the book. But it does not take away from the courage he begins to show. It certainly is a tool for his cultivating his courage, but it is still his will and wits that get him through the coming dangers. What he ends up bringing to the table by the end of the book is himself. The Ring is an invaluable tool, but he is the mover by the end of the book. As I have said I am not much of a powers guy, so free power like the Ring kinda tweaks me a little, but Tolkien still does grow Bilbo himself; he does not just rely on the Ring.

It is also important to remember what it is Tolkien is writing. I could very easily be accused of taking this too seriously.

Additional Notes:
" 'My birthday-present! It came to me on my birthday, my precious.' So he had always said to himself. But who knows when such rings were still at large in the world? Perhaps even the Master who ruled them could not have said." This is obviously part of the revised chapter. It is interesting however that the revision seems to not know of the true story of how Gollum got the ring, even though that does in fact get revealed to the heroes in Fellowship. I don't know if this revision was before Tolkien had created that particular back story, or if in fact this was completely intentional. I could look this up... but it would likely take some doing.

Also: "Whether it was an accident, or a last trick of the ring before it took a new master, it was not on his finger." Introducing the will of the Ring. And: "A pang of fear and loss, like an echo of Gollum's misery, smote Bilbo, and forgetting even to draw his sword he struck his hands into his pockets." Introducing the corruption of the Ring.

An interesting discussion revolves around what exactly the power of the Ring is for non-Saurons. Everyone wants it, but all we ever see is it turning non-Saurons invisible. Surely a good power, but not one that would conquer nations. So can it grant other powers or is it just the greed-lust that it spawns which so enthralls everyone. Boromir seems to hint that it can truly be used, but honestly what would he really know. Anyways, this is technically a book too early for discussing.

I loved these riddles as a kid. Though I always thought the actions of Bilbo in relation to a game where his life was on the line was a little odd. Hmm, he'll show me the way out if I win, and he'll eat me if I lose. I am not being forced to decide this... but sure sounds like a good deal. I realize this isn't exactly the choice before him, but it never quite sat right.

Bilbo is a cheap little punk with that last riddle.

Favorite Quotation: Tolkien would make a big point of the choice Bilbo makes here. Both in The Lord of the Rings, and in his own letters to people.

"Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo's heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped."

1 comment:

Skip said...

Very well stated. Just to add to Bilbo's growth comment, I think the ring serves more as a secondary character, as you hinted at, in that it gives Bilbo that little nudge and opportunity he needed to show what he could do.

"Bilbo is a cheap little punk with that last riddle." Lol and I agree, he did stray from the established format just a bit.