Pity for a Creature As Dark As Darkness
The meeting of Bilbo, the dreadfully and fearfully lost hobbit, and Gollum, a creature “as dark as darkness” (Hobbit 88), their riddle-game and what happens after Gollum loses are among the most iconic scenes of children’s literature. But how many readers know drastically different the aftermath of the game is from the original version? Bonniejean Christensen notes:
J. R. R. Tolkien’s fallen hobbit, Gollum, is an interesting character in his own right, but the changes in his character that Tolkien made between the first edition of The Hobbit in the 1930s and second edition in the 1950s make him one of his most fascinating creations. … In The Hobbit he is one of a series of fallen creatures on a rising scale of terror. In The Lord of the Rings he is an example of the damned individual who loses his own soul because of devotion to evil (symbolized by the ring) but who, through grace, saves others” (“Gollum’s Transformation” 9, 10).
The transformation of Bilbo is also tremendous, and his actions in the second edition directly and profoundly affect the history of all Middle-earth.
After Bilbo suffers separation from his dwarven companions as they flee from the goblins, the hobbit crawls along the pitch dark tunnels in search of a way out and puts his hand down on a ring. “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it” (Hobbit 86). A splash into water pulls him up short. With no way to tell how deep or far across it is, he stops and comes across the dark and dreadful creature who lives on an island in the lake.
The potentially lethal riddle-game Bilbo and Gollum engage in that would result in the lost hobbit’s death if he did not win reveals the worldview of both hobbits. Bilbo speaks of life, light, and beautiful things, while Gollum focuses in retaliation for the most part on death, darkness, and decay. Bilbo likewise counters Gollum’s despair with hope. Both stump each other more than once, but luck remains with the Ring-finder. With his life in immediate peril, Bilbo cannot think as clearly as he would if not under such stress. Some answers come to him without his conscious thought. Gollum’s hasty lust to have a dinner that for once does not consist of fish or goblin disturbs a fish that leaps out onto Bilbo’s feet and provides one answer. In a desperate bid to ask for more time to solve another riddle, all Bilbo gets out is “Time!” which is exactly the right answer. His last riddle is not a riddle at all but a question that comes to him as he fingers the Ring. Gollum protests the breach in the rules, but he opened the door himself by saying, “It’s got to ask uss a quesstion, my preciouss, yess… Jusst one more question to guess…” (97)
The creature makes four attempts to guess what Bilbo has in his pocket, but after he cannot, he finally cedes victory to his opponent. At this point the second edition deviates greatly from the original narrative after Tolkien discovered Bilbo had not truthfully recorded this part of his tale, especially the aftermath of the game. In the first edition, Gollum promises Bilbo an unspecified gift if the hobbit won the riddle-game. After Bilbo does, he asks Gollum to hold up his end of the bargain. The wretch searches hard for the ring he meant to give, but he finally comes back empty-handed. “I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon. He kept on saying: ‘We are ssorry; we didn’t mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only present, if it won the competition.’ He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation” (Anderson 325). Bilbo refuses and states instead he will let Gollum out of his promise on the condition that the creature guides him out of the tunnels.
“Now Gollum had to agree to this, if he was not to cheat. He still very much wanted just to try what the stranger tasted like; but now he had to give up all idea of it. Still there was the little sword; and the stranger was wide awake and on the look out, not unsuspecting as Gollum liked to have the things which he attacked. So perhaps it was best after all” (Anderson 326).
Gollum guides Bilbo out until he is too afraid to go any further, and Bilbo must continue on his own. “So Bilbo slipped under the arch, and said goodbye to the nasty miserable creature; and very glad he was. He did not feel comfortable until he felt quite sure it was gone, and he kept his head out in the main tunnel listening until the flip-flap of Gollum going back to his boat died away in the darkness” (ibid).
John Rateliff notes of this first version:
Without discounting his cowardice, or prudence, in the matter of the sword, we should nonetheless give [Gollum] his due: having lost the contest, he is pathetically eager to make good on his debt of honour (‘I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon’), offering a substitute reward (‘fish caught fresh to eat’) in place of the missing ring. Remember too that Gollum had not yet specified what the ‘present’ was; a less scrupulous monster might have been tempted, upon discovering the ring’s absence, to substitute some other prize, such as the fish, for the unnamed prize – but not Gollum. We are thus faced with the amusing depiction of a monster who is considerably more honorable than our hero. For Bilbo soon realizes that he already has Gollum’s treasure but goes ahead and demands a second prize (being shown the way out) in addition to the one he has quietly pocketed – a neat parallel to Gollum’s earlier trick of ‘working in two answers at once’ on that final attempt to answer the last question. The narrator, moreover, applauds his duplicity (‘Finding’s keeping’ he said to himself; and being in a very tight place I think he was right, and anyway the ring belonged to him now.’) with spurious logic that sounds so much like special pleading that Tolkien eventually decided it was just that: Bilbo’s own attempt, in writing this scene for his memoirs, to justify his claim to the ring… (History of The Hobbit 167).
After Tolkien discovered more about the ring Bilbo found, that it was indeed the One Ring lost so long ago, and about the terrible hold it had on its bearers, he knew Gollum would not willingly part with it. Rateliff reprints what Tolkien wrote for an Introductory Note to the 1951 version of The Hobbit but which was not used. “I have thought it desirable to give now the true story of the ending of the Riddle-Game, in place of the somewhat ‘altered’ account of it that Bilbo gave to his friends (and put down in his diary). This weighed on his conscience, as notes in his private papers show, and he was uneasily aware that Gandalf did not believe it.” Tolkien notes this need not concern those who discover in this second edition the tale for the first time, but for those who had read the original version, “…I felt that some immediate explanation was due to those who may possess older copies, and might suspect me of wilfully [rewriting >] altering the story, in one version or the other. I have not. The older version is the account in Bilbo’s diary; the later is the truth as told to Gandalf and revealed in the Red Book” (752).
In this new and improved version of Bilbo’s adventures, and despite the fact that “the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it,” Gollum decides to do just that (Hobbit 98). Just as in the first version, Gollum goes back to his island to fetch his ring, but this time, not as a present to give Bilbo, but as a way to conceal himself so he can kill the hobbit. “He was angry now and hungry. And he was a miserable wicked creature, and already he had a plan. … ‘It won’t see us, will it, my precious? No. It won’t see us, and its nassty little sword will be useless, yes quite’” (100).
After hearing Gollum wail with loss for Bilbo know not what, the hobbit is anxious for the creature to show him the way out as promised if Bilbo won the game. He tells Gollum the search for whatever was lost could continue after that. “Utterly miserable as Gollum sounded, Bilbo could not find much pity in his heart, and he had a feeling that anything Gollum wanted so much could hardly be something good” (101).
Gollum belatedly divines the answer to Bilbo’s question about what he had in his pocket is in fact the object “in whose shining symmetry is encased Gollum’s dark soul” (O’Neill 61). “But now the light in Gollum’s eyes had become a green fire, and it was coming swiftly nearer. Gollum was in his boat again, paddling wildly back to the dark shore; and such a rage of loss and suspicion was in his heart that no sword had any more terror for him” (Hobbit 102).
As Bilbo sees his opponent remains intent upon his meal, he flees. Luck remains with him throughout his flight. The Ring slips on his finger, so after he trips and falls, Gollum goes past him without seeing him. Bilbo stealthily follows in the hope of finding the way out rather than blindly running away in the dark. He sees his hope fulfilled, and then it appears snatched from him. Gollum gets him far enough to get out, but then blocks his way and detects by senses other than sight the fact the thief of his precious is nearby. A terrible desire to kill Gollum as the only way to save himself surges through Bilbo.
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 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. (106)
Bilbo’s sudden insight into Gollum’s inner life here is on par with the unwitnessed moment outside Shelob’s lair when Gollum briefly appears as ‘an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing’ (LotR 742) – not surprisingly, because both were written at about the same time… Most significant here is the change in the original [draft of this revised scene that had ‘put his eyes out, kill him’] to its, it when Bilbo is preparing to kill ‘It’, literally depersonalizing his intended victim… [But then] Bilbo begins to treat Gollum as a fellow-creature again and therefore is unable to murder him, even in self-defense. (History 745)
Louis Markos observes:
The pity that stays Bilbo’s hand is a pure expression of caritas that is born out of Bilbo’s ability to move out of himself (out of his fear, hatred, and disgust) and feel a sympathetic (even empathetic) connection with the loathsome and deceptive Gollum. …[Gollum] does not, in any human sense, deserve pity, love, or mercy. But then the pity that wells up within Bilbo at this decisive moment is not human but divine. In a flash of what can only be described as divine insight, Bilbo is enabled to see Gollum’s misery though Gollum’s eyes, to experience vicariously, and therefore understand, the horror of his dark, hopeless condition. It is that insight that allows him to love Gollum as a suffering thing in need of grace. …Bilbo takes pity on Gollum, not because he deserves pity but because Bilbo allows himself to be a conduit of a higher pity. (On the Shoulders of Hobbits 136-37)
The Ring unwittingly provides the source for this. Joe Kraus notes that Bilbo’s “invisibility gives him a glimpse into another’s humanity. The power to see and not be seen…liberates him and allows him to show mercy in a way that…proves essential to Sauron’s downfall” (Hobbit and Philosophy 246). Bilbo knows Gollum is plainly up to no good, but he has not actually harmed him, even though he knows the creature intends to. Rather than giving into fears of what might happen or even is likely to happen, Bilbo refuses to kill simply out of his terror, even if this places himself in great peril. What also helps the Ring-finder to decide is that Gollum is defenseless and unaware of the danger he is in, which is the same reason Frodo later gives to Faramir for sparing the creature’s life at the Forbidden Pool.
Of Gollum’s state before he met Bilbo, Gandalf tells Frodo in an earlier draft of The Lord of the Rings, “‘Don’t you realize that he had possessed the Ring for ages, and the torment was becoming unendurable? He was so wretched that he knew he was wretched, and had at last understood what caused it. … Half his mind wanted above all to be rid of the Ring, even if the loss killed him. But he hated parting with it as much as keeping it. He wanted to hand it on to someone else, and to make him wretched too’” (Treason of Isengard 24-25). Gollum would not have given it to the goblins, but then Bilbo came. The creature saw his chance: either to give up the Ring and have someone else enter his hell or have Bilbo for dinner. Gandalf says, “It was lucky for Bilbo that things were arranged otherwise” (25).
The wizard hints at another Power at work in his mention that both Bilbo and Frodo were meant to be the Ring’s guardians. Gandalf notes that Gollum did not give up the Ring of his own free choice, and if anyone other than Bilbo had found it, it would have likely meant Gollum’s death. So it becomes clear that not only was Bilbo meant to find the Ring, but the Power that chose him had also arranged for the hobbit to meet Gollum at that precise moment before any goblin could come by and happen on the Ring. The timing of this helps ensure that Gollum will be around to fulfill his own part as Ring-destroyer decades later.
Upon this knife edge of Bilbo’s choice to save a life when he could have taken it, a most critical point in the history of the Ring and of all Middle-earth pivots. Because he did, Gandalf can tell Frodo of it, and because the younger Baggins takes the wizard’s words to heart, he can exercise the same restraint and pity and beg Faramir to do so also. He teaches Sam the importance of it, too, so Sam can extend it as well. All these different instances of pity, culminating in Sam’s outside the Sammath Naur, allow for the Ring’s destruction. No foreknowledge of this moves Bilbo’s heart to do what he did. Rather, he responds even more admirably, for he shows “mercy for mercy’s sake alone” (Ware 53; italics in original). Tolkien notes, “[Gandalf] did not mean to say that one must be merciful, for it may prove useful later—it would not then be mercy or pity, which are only truly present when contrary to prudence” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 253). Even though Bilbo knows Gollum fully intends to murder him, he willingly enables this possible future by sparing him. This choice allows him to escape without shedding blood or taking a life and so preserve the purity of his own soul.
…Tolkien’s chief alterations in ‘Riddles in the Dark’ change the stakes in the riddle-game, introduce the ring as a ring as power…define the opposing powers in the universe and convert Gollum from a simply lost creature to a totally depraved one. Any one of these changes could have been achieved in, at most, a few sentences, but the transformation of Gollum occupies most of the space devoted to revision. ….
…the changes in Gollum’s character are as significant as they are interesting. The alternations clearly increase Gollum’s role and remove the story from the realm of the nursery tale. The variety of techniques and the amount of space devoted to the transformation of character indicate that Tolkien attaches great importance to Gollum – more than is necessary or even suitable for his function in The Hobbit. But his prominence is appropriate to his expanded role in The Lord of the Rings” (“Gollum” 26-27).
Not only is Gollum transformed in this second edition, so is Bilbo. Thousands of years before Jesus tells His followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Lk 6:27) and “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:36), Bilbo and all those who show pity and mercy to Gollum already live out this wisdom.
This is Bilbo’s defining moment of spiritual maturation, the point at which he ceases to be an ordinary hobbit and finally grows into a heroic adventurer. … While many heroes are praised for their feats of strength and violence, Bilbo’s act of mercy anoints him as a true hero for the opposite reason: it is a willful demonstration of self-control, peace, and in its deepest meaning, love. Bilbo’s simple act of compassion – his choice to preserve the life of another at the risk of his own – completes his metamorphosis from a creature of routine to a being of will, and would ultimately change the fate of Middle-earth. (Marotta 75)
The pity and empathy that blossom in Bilbo’s heart is a moment of grace that blesses not only Gollum but in the end the whole world. Such rewards him with “a new strength and resolve that literally propel him back to the light he was desperate to regain. His moral choice becomes a leap of faith, a ‘leap in the dark’ and out of the dark, and he successfully rises above both of the dark ends that awaited him there, either to be killed by Gollum or to become him” (Olsen 108). But he must still get past the goblins guarding the entrance. The door is almost fully closed, though the hobbit can see light through it. The Ring attempts to betray him by exposing him, but it cannot win against the Power that guards him. Because Bilbo is a small hobbit, he can squeeze through, just barely, even though he loses all his coat buttons. Ilúvatar could have rescued Bilbo by making sure the opening in the door was big enough for him to get through without a problem, but instead the hobbit has to work hard at it. The will and courage to do this makes the exit possible and strengthens him for the trails to come. We can use his example as well to give pity and mercy to our enemies when possible and also to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.
Anderson, Douglas A. The Annotated Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Christensen, Bonniejean. “Gollum’s Character Transformation in The Hobbit.” In A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, 9-28. La Salle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1975.
The Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition. Edited by Alexander Jones. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.
Kraus, Joe. “There and Back Again: A Song of Innocence and Experience.” In The Hobbit and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, 235-249. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
Markos, Louis. On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.
Marotta, Ray. “An Unexpected Hero.” Silver Leaves … from the White Tree of Hope (Oloris Publishing, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) 5 (2013): 73-77.
Olsen, Corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012.
O’Neill, Timothy R. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the Archetypes of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Rateliff, John D. The History of The Hobbit Part Two: Return to Bag End. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Illustrated by Jemina Caitlin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.
———. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
———. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965-66.
———. The Treason of Isengard: The History of “The Lord of the Rings,” Part 2. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Ware, Jim. Finding God in “The Hobbit.” [Colorado Springs, CO?]: SaltRiver, 2006.
Art: The Riddle Game by Ted Nasmith. This is one of the many papers I wrote to fulfill my Master’s Degree at Signum University. It also appeared on Fellowship and Fairydust. I also cover this pivotal scene in my book, Chosen: The Journeys of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire.