“He knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust [Gollum]…And after all that question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.”
I love the riddles of The Hobbit very much, though I am not a riddler (either in guessing or in asking). They were often used as teaching tools in Anglo-Saxon England (which Tolkien must have known, though he doesn’t allude to this, and as far as I know the riddles of The Hobbit aren’t drawn from Anglo-Saxon examples). These riddles are puzzles, intellectual games that friends throw back and forth among each other. “Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with the other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago”. The stakes, of course, aren’t. “If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer we eats it my precioussss. If it asks, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”
In some ways, I would like this to be a chapter about riddles as teaching tools (I will have to wait for Treebeard, I think), or equally a chapter where some essential truth about Gollum is revealed. His riddles are about darkness and fish, death and mountains, but it is Bilbo who invents a riddle on the spot, and Bilbo who changes the terms of the game, and finally brings it to a close. In rereading this thoroughly delightful episode, I am struck by how small Tolkien’s imagination is. This “small slimy creature”, which was the “something unpleasant” that the goblins fear, is a riddle-player from above ground, who used to suck eggs with his grandmother. Too many of Bilbo’s riddles would immediately defeat a creature without common experiences to draw on, but having established that Gollum has distant memories of outside, there’s no good way to end the riddle-game. And so, in desperation, “What have I got in my pocket?” And the riddle-game ends in a decidedly unfair fashion.