Bilbo stumbles upon a metal ring while flailing around in the dark. The finding of the ring is a “turning point in his career” an odd phrase, I think, for this book. As it will turn out, the finding of the ring will be the turning point of all of Middle Earth. But that is a tale for another time. For now, the ring as described in The Hobbit is just a simple magic ring, that makes its wearer invisible. Bilbo slips it in his pocket almost without thinking about it.
He wants to light his pipe, but is prevented from doing so because he has no matches. But he remembers his small sword that was found in the troll hoard, which is glowing a pale blue, since goblins are around. Bilbo decides to press on in the dark, because what else is he going to do. And then he meets Gollum.
Gollum is described as “dark as darkness.” What a way to say Gollum was evil, without using the word evil. Tolkien is so good at using poetic descriptions. Notice again he introduces a character by describing personality traits or alluding to the nature of a character rather than using physical descriptions. In Gollum’s case, Tolkien uses limited physical descriptions, so much so that illustrators could never draw Gollum the way Tolkien envisioned him. This prompted Tolkien to write a short essay on what Gollum should look like.
Gollum’s escapades and his going-abouts are mentioned, and we find out that he is a sinister little creature, throttling goblin’s throats and then eating them, but only in such a way that won’t endanger Gollum’s own life. In short, he is like the goblins who snatch sleeping parties away in the dark, but he is worse than they are. Fortunately for Bilbo, Gollum is not quite hungry right now, he is only curious about Bilbo.
He announces himself to Bilbo (something he regrets later in the chapter- “otherwise he would have grabbed first and whispered afterwards”) with snake like hisses, that put Bilbo at great unease, as well as ourselves. Gollum has no clue what Bilbo is, and Bilbo likewise hasn’t a clue what Gollum is. Gollum proposes a game of riddles to find out more about Bilbo. The riddles then turn into a competition. If Bilbo wins, Gollum shows him the way out; if Gollum wins, well, he eats Bilbo. Much has been written elsewhere on the riddles themselves, and where Tolkien got his inspiration from for them. I cannot improve upon those observations, except to say that the riddles one asks correspond to the asking character in some way. For example, Bilbo asks about “sun on the daisies” something Gollum would not know much about since he lives in the dark, but that Bilbo would be quite acquainted with back at Bag End. In fact, Gollum struggles a bit to answer that riddle. Gollum asks a riddle about the dark, something Gollum is all too familiar with.The point is, that the riddles are not just a plot point, but are an exploration or perhaps a commentary on the respective characters. Gollum initiated the game to find out more about Bilbo, and Bilbo agreed to it to find out more about Gollum.
As the riddle game progresses and nears its end, Bilbo realizes that Gollum is quite dangerous, and Gollum realizes that he is hungry after all. Gollum poses a riddle that Bilbo has trouble answering. Gollum thinks he’s got him, steps out of his boat to get at Bilbo, and a fish jumps out of the water, which turns out to be the answer. Gollum’s next riddle almost stumps Bilbo, but as Bilbo pleads for more time, he inadvertently says the answer and is “saved by pure luck.” If you’ve been paying attention these last few chapters, there is no luck in Tolkien’s world. Is this another example of divine providence in the book? If it is, and you realize what this incident with Gollum and the ring means for the future of Middle-Earth, I think it’s safe to say that we have the best evidence of a helping hand at work here.
The riddle game ends with Bilbo’s question, “What have I got in my pocket?” The rest of this chapter after this question is significantly different than how Tolkien originally wrote it. In the final version, Gollum goes back to his lake island to get his ring, which would make him invisible, to kill Bilbo. After finding out it is lost, and realizing Bilbo has it, he chases him down to kill him. In Tolkien’s original version, Gollum goes to his island to give Bilbo a present, not to be sinister, but to be honorable, because those were the agreements to the game. Gollum lost, so he would give Bilbo a present, i.e. the ring. Unbeknownst to Gollum, Bilbo already has the ring and when Gollum can’t find it, Bilbo asks for another present, the way out. Bilbo extracts two prizes from Gollum despite the agreed upon terms. In fact, originally Gollum was very apologetic at not being able to give Bilbo the ring, so he offers him fish. In this original version, Gollum is more honorable than Bilbo! Clearly, none of this squared with what would be later written in LOTR about Gollum and the ring, so Tolkien had to go back and revise it all. It is clever how Tolkien does so though, stating that the latest version is what truly happened, but the original version is what Bilbo told everyone initially, so as to keep knowledge of the ring hidden from others, thereby showing the sinister corrupting work that the ring has begun upon Bilbo. A very clever retcon.
Bilbo runs for his life as he realizes Gollum is out to murder him and he trips and falls, but not before he has slipped the ring upon his own finger. Gollum runs right past him, and Bilbo learns of the ring’s invisibility powers. Very convenient for a burglar.
Gollum, always talking with and to himself, reasons that Bilbo does know the way out, and he unwittingly leads Bilbo to an exit. Gollum goes as far as he safely can (there are goblins about), with Bilbo following behind. He stops, leaving Bilbo trapped with Gollum blocking the way to the exit. Gollum can’t see Bilbo, because he’s still invisible. Now Bilbo has a choice, and his mind begins to sort it out. He can easily kill Gollum, thereby essentially gaining his freedom.
But in another act that will have far reaching consequences, Bilbo “suddenly” takes pity on Gollum, decides not to kill him, and leaps over him.
Why does Bilbo take pity on him? I think the text tells us why. First because, if Bilbo were to do so, he would become like Gollum, sneaking about in the dark, killing unsuspectedly. But also because he saw how miserable, lost, and lonely Gollum was. Bilbo’s heart probably, though not fully, went out to Gollum, wishing he could help him. In other circumstances Bilbo might have tried to do so. To see those in a miserable state, even if brought upon their own self, or thrust upon them from outside influences, (as we learn later that this is what the ring has done to Gollum) invites opportunity for compassion. To bring the suffering to a state of joy is the right thing to do and it is the loving thing to do. Bilbo has these thoughts in a split second, and ultimately, it saves the world. Is this not what Jesus did for sinners?
Bilbo makes it past Gollum safely and contends with some goblins, dodging invisibly past them to the partially opened door. He gets stuck in the door and the goblins see his shadow. He squirms and thrusts hard to get out. He gets away, bursting the brass buttons off his coat. These brass buttons are a symbol of his Baggins side, the side that wants to sit in his comfortable hobbit hole and enjoy food and drink. They have now been stripped away, and the Tookish side has finally come out. The old Bilbo, though not completely gone, has been squeezed out amidst turmoil and adventure, and a new buttonless Bilbo emerges from here on.