- My Most Precious Riddle: Eggs and Rings Revisited
Tolkien enjoys the reputation of having been a “niggler”1 with his texts, which is, in the case of his legendarium, mainly due to his wish to solve textual contradictions or explore the origins of words and names.2 The overall effect achieved, however, is not that of a coherent “monomyth” but rather of a “great chain of (re)reading,” to use Gergely Nagy’s term.3 Yet while Tolkien could and would change, revise and develop the manuscript texts of his legendarium at will or at least within self-imposed limits, the same freedom no longer applied to those that had been printed and published. The case of The Hobbit, which originated as a tale for his children yet later changed into a “prequel” for The Lord of the Rings, is the most prominent example.4 But even the existence of a printed and published text did not stop Tolkien from changing it in subsequent editions.5
Within The Hobbit, it has been the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” that has undergone the most extensive re-writing in the second (1951) and later editions so that the account of the finding of the Ring and of Gollum’s character is now more in line with what we know about them from The Lord of the Rings. However, the existence of a new second edition did not mean that the original text had been obliterated from public memory. So Tolkien hedged his bets and inserted Bilbo’s confession at the Council of Elrond (FR, II, ii, 262) to set things in the right perspective.6 Thus, ever since the publication of Tolkien’s magnum opus in 1954/55 we have a corpus that comprises the text of the first edition of The Hobbit (1937), the revised one of the second edition from 1951, and the new information from The Lord of the Rings. And while John D. Rateliff (175) correctly warns against “unconscious[ly] import[ing] more sinister associations for the ring into the earlier book [i.e. The Hobbit] than the story itself supports,” I would like to do a conscious re-reading of the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” in its original form in light of the new information provided by The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo (to remain within the framework of the fictional authorship) may have deviated from the truth in his first account of his encounter with Gollum, yet even the “doctored” and “superseded” text can be profitably queried from a post-Lord of the Rings point of view. Within such a framework it is not so much an untruthful report of what had happened, but rather contains the remnants of an “alternative scenario” that has been superseded and replaced by the author Tolkien’s later accounts. [End Page 89]
As we know from his texts, Tolkien responded readily and with great enthusiasm to the challenges posed by puzzles (and not only of the crossword-puzzle variety, which he loved and of which we find some specimen among his notes), enigmas or riddles.7 It may therefore come as no surprise that riddles proper take a central place in the first part of The Hobbit, where Bilbo, after having lost both his companions and his way in the tunnels and caves beneath the Misty Mountains, finds a golden ring and a short time later finds himself face to face with the creature Gollum. Bilbo’s elvish sword saves him from being eaten on the spot yet cannot help him with his other problem: how to find the way out. Realizing that they have reached a momentary stalemate, Gollum proposes to play a game of riddles. After a “warm up” riddle, which Bilbo had no problem answering (mountain), Gollum spells out the rules and determines the stakes for the competition: if Bilbo cannot answer a riddle, then he will be eaten by Gollum. If Gollum is not able to find the answer to a riddle, then he will show Bilbo the way out.
The idea to solve a conflict or to establish the status of the protagonists by means of an opposition of wits in...