As ever, dear readers, welcome.

We all know just how perilous that Ring of Power is—


won’t take it:

“Do not tempt me!  For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself…Do not tempt me!  I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)


offered it, like Gandalf, is aware of its seductive strength, regretfully declines it–

“I pass the test…I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)


who only has a dim understanding of it, won’t touch it:

Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said.  Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

There are others, however, with a different view—and it corrupts them:

“ ‘And why not, Gandalf?’ he whispered. ‘Why not?  The Ruling Ring?  If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

And that power has its effect, as well, on the author himself.

I don’t mean, of course, that Tolkien turned into Saruman or even Gollum,

(by Alan Lee)

but the Ring had its influence over him, as I discovered when reading, for the first time, the 1937 Hobbit.

and, in particular, the original Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”.  I had read the sections quoted in the margins of Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit,

which I can’t recommend highly enough, if you’re interested in more than just Tolkien’s story, but it was only in reading the whole chapter in the reprinted facsimile edition that I was struck by what a different book, potentially, it was.

It’s not that the Ring is different—it’s still just the little circle of gold with the power to make one disappear which Bilbo picks up and puts into his pocket at the beginning of the chapter—it’s that Gollum is different. 

So much is just the same, riddles and all, but note the initial conditions of the contest:

“ ‘Does it guess easy?  It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!  If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss.  If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, we gives it a present, gollum!’ ”  (“Riddles in the Dark”, 1937, 85)

Then the contest proceeds, including “What have I got in my pocket?” and Gollum’s attempt to cheat with two guesses, but then things go in a completely different direction:

“ ‘Both wrong,’ cried Bilbo very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword.  But funnily enough he need not have been alarmed.  For one thing Gollum had learned long long ago was never, never, to cheat at the riddle-game, which is a sacred one and of immense antiquity.  Also there was the sword.  He simply sat and whispered.” (91)

In the later, 1951, edition, the condition if Gollum lost was that he was then obliged to guide Bilbo out of the goblin tunnels and, while actually thinking to use the Ring to come back, avoid that sword, and kill and presumably then eat Bilbo, he says that he has to go to his island “…[to] go and get some things first, yes, things to help us.”

In 1937, Gollum has, surprisingly, a fragment of a conscience, saying to himself:

“ ‘Must we give it the thing, preciouss?  Yess, we must!  We must fetch it, preciouss, and give it the present we promised.’ ” (91)

He finds the Ring gone, of course, and he is upset, but it seems that his emotional disturbance is more about not being able to fulfill the conditions of the contest than the loss of the Ring itself:

“I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon.  He kept on saying:  ‘We are ssorry; we didn’t mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only present, if it won the competition.’  He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.” (92)

Bilbo declines the fish, and, instead, requests that Gollum guide him out of the tunnels—but that tone of abject apology now has an undertone which reminds us of the later Gollum:

“Now Gollum had to agree to this, if he was not to cheat.  He still very much wanted just to try what the stranger tasted like; but now he had to give up all idea of it.  Still there was that little sword; and the stranger was wide awake and on the look out, not unsuspecting as Gollum like to have the things which he attacked.  So perhaps it was best after all.” (93)

Gollum then leads him through a complex pattern of lefts and rights until:

“So Bilbo slipped under the arch, and said good-bye to the nasty miserable creature; and very glad he was.  He did not feel comfortable until he felt quite sure it was gone, and he kept his head out in the main tunnel listening until the flip-flap of Gollum going back to the boat died away in the darkness.” (94)

This is a far cry, of course, from that moment in the later version, when the frightened Bilbo, invisible and sword in hand, thinks:

“He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left.  He must fight.  He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it.” (1951)

We know that Tolkien rewrote whole sections of this chapter as early as 1944 and “sent [them] to Allen & Unwin in 1947 as a way to bring the earlier book into harmony with its sequel…” (Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit, “The 1947 Hobbit”, 731—this whole section of Rateliffe’s book, 731-762, is worth careful study to understand how, as he was deep in The Lord of the Rings, JRRT was thinking how to create a greater whole, using the earlier work.)  And, if you grew up reading the later version of the story (as well as Bilbo’s falsifications as noted in “The Shadow of the Past”), it’s a shock to see Tolkien’s original version, but it’s a good shock, as it shows so clearly not only the growth of the story, but JRRT’s growth as a writer, as well.  The Gollum of 1937 is small and spiteful and, for one chapter, dangerous, but, aside from providing the Ring which Bilbo uses again and again in his role as “burglar”, he is more the agent for providing that Ring than a major character.  In the revised version, perhaps his most important role is to provoke the inherent—and saving—humanity first of Bilbo and then, in turn, of Frodo.  When, wearing the Ring, Bilbo fleeing Gollum, has the opportunity to do away with his pursuer, this comes into Bilbo’s mind:

“No, not a fair fight.  He was invisible now.  Gollum had no sword.  Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet.  And he was miserable, alone, lost.  A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart:  a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.  All of these thoughts passed in a flash of a second.  He trembled.”  (1951)

And, instead, he leaps over Gollum’s head and is on his way to escape—perhaps in more ways than one.

 As Gandalf replies when Frodo says “…I do not feel any pity for Gollum” and that “He deserves death.”—

“ ‘Deserves it!  I daresay he does.  Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.   I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Besides that humanity, what would have happened if Gollum had remained that small agent when  Frodo, in the depths of Mount Doom, had been allowed to go through with his terrible statement:

“  I have come…But I do not choose now to do what I came to do.  I will not do this deed.  The Ring is mine!” ?  (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)

At the Cracks of Doom, by Ted Nasmith

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Look –and think—before you leap,

And know that there’s always




For a very useful side-by-side comparison of 1937 and 1951 , see: