Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Hobbit Read-Along: Chapters 5-8!

Today, we continue our group read of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, preparing ourselves for the movie coming out next month. Return tomorrow for chapters 9-12!

 “…till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel.”

Did JRR Tolkien have any idea what he was getting us into when he wrote those words? Eighty years later, when someone says “the Ring” they’re probably not talking Wagner.

The chapters we’re discussing today are Riddles in the Dark, Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire, Queer Lodgings, and Flies and Spiders. In addition to introducing us to the One Ring and Gollum, these are the chapters in which Bilbo (and hobbits) come into their own in the wide world.

The summary: Bilbo awakes alone in the dark, having been knocked out and left behind while he, Gandalf, and the dwarves fled the goblins. Groping around in the dark, he finds the ring and sticks it in his pocket, thinking nothing of it. He stumbles upon the underground lake that is home to Gollum, whom Tolkien describes as “a small slimy creature . . . dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.”

You can watch Gollum take hold of his author’s imagination. At first, the narrator is dismissive, saying, “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was.” A page later, we learn that Gollum had once played riddle games “with other funny creatures sitting in their holes.” A page after that, we find out Gollum once had a grandmother and remembers sun on daisies.

A high-stakes riddle game ensues—if Bilbo wins, Gollum shows him out of the goblins’ maze of tunnels; if Bilbo loses, Gollum eats him. The score’s tied when, desperate for a new riddle, Bilbo fumbles in his pocket, feels the Ring, and muses aloud, “What have I got in my pocket?” Gollum takes this as a riddle question, can’t guess, then makes an excuse to fetch his own ring—a magic one that, to his horror and despair, turns out to be gone. “What has it got in its pocketses?” he hisses, and the chase is on. Bilbo learns that the Ring makes him invisible, and Gollum unwittingly shows him the way out of the goblins’ realm.

In one of my favorite scenes—bursting with typical Tolkien humor—an invisible Bilbo squeezes through a doorway gap to escape, mystifying the pursuing goblins when his waistcoat buttons pop into view scattered on the ground.

Bilbo reunites with Gandalf and the dwarves—tellingly, he neglects to mention the Ring. Our heroes are treed by wolves and goblins, who set the trees on fire. The eagles come to the rescue—foreshadowing future events not only in this book but in The Lord of the Rings.

After an utterly charming scene in which Gandalf wins hospitality through a good tale, the troupe enjoys a little R&R with Beorn, the shape-shifter and animal lover. Beorn helps them find the entrance to the path they must follow through Mirkwood. As this exceedingly mysterious and dangerous leg of their journey is about to begin, Gandalf leaves for mysterious duties elsewhere.

Despite Beorn’s warnings, the dwarves are lured from their path by the sounds of elvish feasting, then captured by giant spiders. (And may I just say . . . ew). Bilbo, who has been growing in cleverness and bravery the deeper he journeys into the woods, uses the Ring to save everyone but Thorin, who is captured by the elves.

Discussion questions: The Bilbo who emerges from these four chapters is a very different little chap from the Bilbo who got left behind as the chapters started. Which events do we think contributed most to his growth?

Tolkien is careful to build in rest periods: Rivendell in yesterday’s chapters, the Beorn sojourn in today’s. How important is this to you as a reader? Are you charmed or bored?

Bilbo’s uncharacteristic attempt to keep the Ring secret has great significance in The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf cites the lie as his first clue that this wasn’t just any magic ring.  In this book, though, it strikes me as an odd loose end. Gandalf gives Bilbo a funny look when he initially misleads everyone, but never refers to the incident directly again. Is this a flaw, or just Tolkien playing a deep game? (We do know he’d started the trilogy before The Hobbit was published.)

What about old Gandalf? Why’d Tolkien choose to send him away at this juncture?

In addition to the ring, Gollum, and the eagles, what other aspects of these chapters do we think foreshadow events in The Lord of the Rings?


Ellen Booraem is the author of the middle-grade fantasies THE UNNAMEABLES, SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS, and TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD (coming in August 2013). She lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She's online at www.ellenbooraem.com.


  1. I vote for long/deep game! I love when something so crucial is set up with such delicacy. I think we feel it as readers, too, even when we're kids. We know something's wrong at that moment, even without Gandalf's look--we just don't know what yet.

  2. Well, Tolkien obviously knew what the Ring was at that point, since I think he'd already written a lot about it in his notes. I read the Hobbit after LOTR, so I'll never know if the gap would've bothered me as a reader. I have to say, I don't think my editor would let me get away with something like that!

    My favorite thing about this book is the way Bilbo gradually comes into his own. That's so skillful and well observed and heartfelt, I'll forgive Tolkien just about anything else.

  3. I was so struck (this time through) by Bilbo's mightiness in the battle against the spiders! He really is a hero in that episode. Go, Bilbo! It's interesting to compare the original version of "Riddles in the Dark" to the post-LOTR version, too. Originally Tolkien has Gollum willing to give up the ring to Bilbo when he wins the riddle game, but the Gollum of LORD OF THE RINGS would never do that--COULD never do that!--so Tolkien went back to this scene in the HOBBIT and tidied things up a bit, making Gollum sneakier and changing the stakes of the game. These are interesting chapters, for sure.....

  4. That's fascinating. I knew he'd changed that chapter but didn't know what the changes were.

  5. I never thought about the rest periods before, but I think they are very important. By breaking up the action scenes, the suspense builds from the start each time. Great post, Ellen! I really enjoyed it.


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