Out of everything that Tolkien has written, this is my favorite chapter. I suppose it’s only fitting (and probably causal) that it’s also one of the major lynchpins that the entire universe hangs on.
Because this, of course, is the chapter where The Hobbit finds The Ring. (I get chills just writing that sentence.) But, aside from being a moment of epic important in the universe (and a moment of pretty major importance in the story of this book), it’s also a delightful chapter because it introduces Gollum.
I don’t really remember what it’s like to read this chapter without knowing who Gollum is. That’s got to be so weird. Because, if that’s you, you don’t really know about the poor and pitiable wretch twisted by ages and ages of the Ring’s whisperings in his mind. You don’t know about the pleasant days of a certain Sméagol going fishing with his best friend. You don’t know about that little spark of good that still survives in his black and decaying heart. You just see a creepy little creature who hisses a lot.
Like I said, that has to be weird. If that is you and you decide to follow up this reading of The Hobbit with the much more serious Lord of the Rings, I strongly encourage you to come back to this chapter when you’re done. You might be surprised at just how much of Gollum is lurking beneath the surface of these pages.
But, I’m getting rather ahead of myself. Because before Bilbo (and we) can meet Gollum, he has to find the Ring.
He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.
The author understates things here: Bilbo finding the ring was a turning point for far more than his career as a burglar (of course, that belongs to another story). Knowing that larger story, however, we can see the common refrain of world events turning on the smallest of chances.
Here, it’s Bilbo finding a small ring and absentmindedly slipping it into his pocket. Popularly, this idea is often referenced by the phrase “For want of a nail…“. We’re all familiar with it because it’s such a common part of our lives. “I was ten minutes later than usual getting to the coffee shop and I meant my wife of fifteen years standing in line.” “On a whim I ordered chicken instead of a burger and avoided that outbreak of food poison that was in the news.” “The boss really liked the tie I picked out for the interview and offered me the job.”
As humans, this is mostly just selection bias at work. If you hadn’t been late to the coffee shop that day, you’d have met someone else somewhere else and tell stories about that funny coincidence. As a rule, we ignore all of the little details that don’t lead to something extraordinary and we can’t account for all of the many possible worlds where those details were just a little bit different.
This idea comes up in history class as well, with our teachers providing a sort of authority to it. We learn about some almost random guy, Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand but almost completely ignore the fact that Europe was a powder keg that was set to go up at any moment. If Princip hadn’t killed the Archduke, World War I would still have started and we’d be learning about some different little chance that caused it.
But we like the narrative of a singular (maybe even coincidental) small event having dramatic effects, so we keep telling our stories that way.
Yet, here in The Hobbit, it’s almost exactly the opposite. Dear, sweet, practically uncorruptable Bilbo Baggins being in those mountains and stumbling down that tunnel where Gollum had been so recently is a billion to one chance; yet in that billion to one chance, the fate of the entire world would change in a way that it could never have been otherwise. In this moment, that one small person with that one tiny and insignificant action made earth-shattering history.
And, where this is a major theme for our lives, it’s barely touched on by Tolkien. Indeed, most of Tolkien’s world is shaped by Great People doing Great Things: Melkor working against Ilúvatar, Fëanor crafting the Silmarils, Fëanor and his sons later swearing their terrible Oath, Eärendil braving the Valar’s wrath, and Sauron crafting the very Ring that’s in question are all some of the more prominent examples of this. With the exception of Frodo and Sam1 (and to a much lesser extent, Merry and Pippin, and maybe Bard of Laketown), the role of the less important people in Middle-earth is to be stalwart and faithful in their loyal service to their leaders.
And then there’s this moment. This moment, where Bilbo is scrabbling around on the ground, may be the most important moment in Middle-earth since Fëanor created the Silmarils. And all that Bilbo does is unthinkingly shove his hands into his pockets.
Other than to point out that it exists, I don’t know what else to say about it. Heck, it’s entirely possible that I’m misreading every word that Tolkien has written. If so, I beg you to correct me. But, maybe I’m right. Maybe this is a strange aberration in the legendarium. If so, is this an egalitarian side of Tolkien shining out from behind his class-based views of the social hierarchy? Or is this an artifact that The Hobbit started as a simple and self-contained children’s story and only later “grew in the telling”?
I won’t try to assign motivations to the Professor. But I do think it’s a fascinating departure from the rest of his writings that’s worth noting.
At any rate, Bilbo does lay hands on the Ring. And then he wanders down to the edge of an underground lake and meets Gollum. I love Gollum. I love the way he talks and I love the way he thinks and I love the way he moves. Gollum never just “walks” somewhere, no precious. He “slinks” and he “sneaks”. I can find faults with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films all day long, but the Gollum that he gave us was spot on. More than the other characters from those films, when I read Gollum’s lines I can’t help but hear Andy Serkis delivering them in my head.
(The admission fee for Jackson’s The Hobbit film this year will be worth it just to hear Serkis perform the “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” bit. My patience until it comes out is wearing thin based on that single line.)
But, as much as I love Gollum, there isn’t that much to talk about in his appearance in The Hobbit. Here, he really serves to scare Mr. Baggins good and proper, explain what this new magic Ring does, and lead Bilbo to the way out of the Goblin caves. Along the way, he and Bilbo have a good old-fashioned riddle game2 which, while fun to read3, doesn’t have a lot for me to write about.
Eventually the riddles conclude, Gollum decides to eat Bilbo anyway and Bilbo makes his escape. It’s at this point that he discovers that his new Ring is magic and can turn him invisible. It’s at this point that Bilbo starts to wonder, just a bit, about fate.
It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring…but it was hard to believe that he really had found one, by accident.
If Tolkien didn’t spend a lot of time on the minor chances that make up our lives, he more than made up for it by writing about Providence. I talk a lot about Tolkien’s ideas of Providence because I think it’s one of the most important themes in his writings (though it’s rarely stated overtly.). As Gandalf says in a different book, “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
As I can’t help but keep stressing because it’s so important, Tolkien’s Catholicism made him extremely comfortable with — even dependent on — the idea of a divine plan. Yes, Melkor’s wickedness brought terrible darkness with it, but it was all part of the Plan. And yes, Fëanor’s Oath had dire consequences, but it was all part of the Plan. Yes, Smaug has killed countless numbers of dwarves and me, but it was all just another part of the Plan. Because for every Melkor there is a Manwë and for every Fëanor there is an Eärendil and for every Smaug there is a Bilbo Baggins of Bag End.
For, in Tolkien’s world, all of that darkness is another opportunity for the light in the hearts of the stalwart to shine all the brighter. And that’s all according to plan.
There’s more to it, of course. Sauron forged the ring and it was cut from his hand and taken by Isildur who lost it in the Anduin where it was found by Gollum who carried it deep under the Misty Mountains where he lost it in a Goblin tunnel where Bilbo Baggins of all people stumbled in and picked it up so that he could leave it to his heir Frodo who would carry it to Mordor. It’s an unbroken chain of those small coincidences, but each and every one of them was another step in the Plan.
Even when the Ring acts of its own volition and slips out of Gollum’s reach in the the tunnel or off of Bilbo’s finger when he’s trying to go unnoticed by the Goblins (or, indeed, when it slipped off of Isildur’s finger at the end of the Second Age), it can’t help but follow the Plan.
Tolkien lived through two world wars, seeing the horrors of the first one from the front lines. It’s small wonder that he drew a great deal of comfort in his knowledge that the All Knowing was overseeing everything and that good would triumph in the end. As such an important part of his life philosophy and character, it’s also small wonder that his secondary world shows such strong evidence of a divine Plan — even when it’s in something as small as a little hobbit picking up a little metal ring.
And even with the exceptions of Frodo and Sam, Tolkien makes a large point that they both *became* larger-than-ife heroes in the process of fulfilling their missions. In the end, they weren’t small people doing a small, but important thing. They were bonafide heroes saving the world. ↩
This scene will be referenced (I assume) in Stephen King’s The Wastelands, book 3 of The Dark Tower saga, with much better riddles (not to mention an insane monorail; gotta love King!). ↩
If you’re alone in the house (or live with tolerant people), I *highly* suggest you do a dramatic reading out loud. Tons of fun! ↩