Here we come to one of the most pivotal scenes in all of Middle-Earth history, where Bilbo finds the Ring. How pivotal is it? Tolkien completely rewrote this chapter from the ground up for the 1951 re-release of the book so as to accommodate the plot of the forthcoming The Lord of the Rings. It went from side adventure to linking story arc. The version that appears in our book now is essentially the third version. In version one, we don’t know that this ring Bilbo finds is the One Ring to Rule Them All. Tolkien doesn’t know that yet in 1937. Gollum is fair and even accommodating to Bilbo’s situation, in keeping with the lighter tone of the rest of this book. In version two, the One Ring becomes known to Tolkien, and Gollum is very much the character we’ve come to know, both in print and on screen, the tragic figure whose tale will come to feature prominently on the grand stage of this world. He is “a miserable, wicked creature.” Both of these aspects are important to keep in mind here and in LOTR. If anything, the version in LOTR is pulled out of that story and superimposed on the version Tolkien first gave us so as to make the stories line up.
When reading The Hobbit for the first time, it’s completely right and proper for us to not know anything about this One Ring other than what we learn here, that it’s magic, and it turns Bilbo invisible. That it is the One Ring doesn’t play a part here, nor do we get any of the information about the Necromancer and those who would hunt the Ring. All of that is found in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. The Appendices are where you’ll find much of the padding for Peter Jackson’s movies, because the Tolkien Estate wouldn’t let him use anything apart from these two sources. The Silmarillion and all other tales were off limits and scrutinized by lawyers. So to newcomers, this will seem a harmless ring, as it does to Bilbo. Those who know (like all of us) will see the foreshadowing of both the Ring and Gollum, even when it isn’t there to be seen.
And so, we are presented with our first appearance of Gollum and the Ring, “not knowing” what either is capable of, but we can be assured these things will line up when we come to them in LOTR. In typical Tolkien fashion, then, Gollum is presented here as a one-off character, one of many that Tolkien has in store for us. He just happens to be one with a prominent place in the larger mythos.
It’s also a turning point for Bilbo. It’s not just about finding the Ring. Up to this point, he’s really done very little. He’s been along for the ride, so to speak. Now he stands alone, face-to-face with another creature on equal terms, and he must rise to the challenge that Gollum presents. Nothing from his old life will help him here, but his sword brings him comfort. That his sword is his aid is so very Tookish of him. He draws it for the first time, and he finds that it too is an Elvish blade of legend that will glow when goblins are around. He is, at last, part of the adventure as he sees it in his head. Bilbo must become an adventurer for real here, or he will be food. Even the goblins fear Gollum. And yet, as Gandalf tells us in LOTR, it is pity that stays Bilbo’s hand.
As a medievalist and a linguist, the riddle game is so quintessentially Tolkien. Many of these riddles date back to the middle ages. The riddles themselves also serve to teach us about the characters and points of view of Bilbo and Gollum. There is so much personality here, reflective of the lives they’ve lived. Bilbo’s world view is positive, looking down from on high and recognizing a greater order to creation. In his egg riddle, for example, the golden treasure is life itself, yet here he is, under the mountain, on a quest for golden treasure of another sort. Gollum’s is from the bottom up, seeing life from the perspective of one who’s lived life kicked underground, alone in the darkness. For those looking for ultimate references to The Silmarillion, look to Gollum’s reverence of the darkness. This is how Sauron presents the darkness to the men of Numenor, as the lord of all and the giver of freedom.
So far from the end, we can already see what Bilbo has gained by this chapter as a direct answer to the same question asked way back in chapter one. But in Gollum, we show what could be lost in place of all that Bilbo has gained.