If you’ve ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or if you’ve seen any of the film adaptations, I’m sure you can recall the famous “Riddles in the Dark” scene. In it, Bilbo and Gollum engage in a game of riddles, and the winner either gets to avoid being eaten or gets to be the one doing the eating.
Whether you were aware of them or not, there are even more riddles in The Hobbit, and they are derived from a unique combination of Tolkien’s imagination and the traditions of the past, particularly from Old English and Norse cultures.
Palgrave Macmillan has just released a new book on this subject, titled The Riddles of The Hobbit, by Adam Roberts, that offers a critical study of a great writer who takes his playfulness seriously. It explores and embodies ingenuity and comes to some original and startling new conclusions.
Please enjoy some exclusive excerpts provided by Palgrave Macmillan and Middle-earth News from The Riddles of The Hobbit–out today, November 1, 2013!
The Hobbit is a deeply riddling book. In saying so I am suggesting that ‘the riddle’ runs deeper through the novel than merely providing some of the matter for its fifth chapter ‘Riddles in the Dark’, in which Bilbo and Gollum swap riddles. There are, for one thing, other riddles in the book. When Bilbo encounters Smaug he talks to the beast in riddles, and the narrator assures us that riddling ‘is of course the way to talk to dragons…no dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk’. When Bilbo meets Gandalf for the first time, right at the start of the novel, the wizard treats the hobbit’s simple greeting of ‘Good Morning’ as a riddle. And throughout Tolkien styles his story as a series of problems to be solved, or riddles to be unriddled: obstacles, set-backs, mysteries and secrets structure the storytelling. This, I argue, is a way of embodying a larger vision; for it is not just that The Hobbit is a novel that contains riddles. It is a riddle in a larger, formal sense. It is a text that articulates a number of very big questions.
One of the things implicit in my approach in this book is that ‘the riddle’ is a trope for reading itself. Of course not all texts present themselves as riddles, and not all critical interpretations are best viewed as ‘the right’ answer to the questions the texts pose. But there are several reasons for taking The Hobbit as more than just an entertainment. It is full of riddles, but it also constellates ‘riddling’ in a larger sense; and this is because of its roots in Tolkien’s understanding of, and love for, Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as his desire to story-forth lived-through solutions to the ‘riddles’ posed by fundamentally religious mystery.
Tolkien considered himself wholly English, but he was well aware that he bore a German surname. He knew too what his name meant–I mean, the semantic content of the elements of his name. The ‘tol’ part of ‘Tolkien’ means ‘foolish, stupid, rash’ (Tölpel is modern German for ‘fool’). The ‘kien’ part is a version of the German word Kühn which means ‘brave’ or ‘bold’. Indeed, Tolkien himself played on the meaning of his own name: he wrote a characters called ‘John Jethro Rashbold’, a version of Tolkien himself, into his ‘The Notion Club Papers’ (published posthumously in Sauron Defeated). ‘Rashbold’ is one way of articulating the—to Tolkien, pleasing—oxymoron of his surname. Another might be ‘Dull-keen’, which has the advantage of retaining much of the sound of the original. ‘Dull’, another linguistic descendent from the Old High German tol, ‘foolish’, originally meant ‘foolish’ or ‘stupid’, and later came to be applied to edges and blades, meaning blunt. ‘Keen’ is, in a way, more interesting. Originally this word meant ‘sharp’, as in sharp-witted, clever, skilled—and of course it still means literally sharp, having a sharp edge, for we still talk of a ‘keen blade’, just as Chaucer talked of ‘a knyfe as a rasour kene’ in 1395. But ‘keen’ also means eager, bold, brave. Indeed, the OED thinks the later ‘sharp’ meaning precedes the ‘brave’ one (‘this ON sense [‘sharp’] is the original one, the connecting link with the other [‘bold, brave’] being the idea of “skilled in war” “expert in battle”.’)
Foolish-sharp. Dull-keen. Tolkien. In Old Norse (a language in which Tolkien was, of course, expert) the word for ‘sharp’ or ‘keen’ is: bitr. The modern English word ‘bitter’ retains a spectral sense of this; for something is bitter, originally—like a bitter wind, or a bitterly cold morning—because it bites; because it is sharp, because it is keen. Similarly the Old English bîtan means ‘biting, cutting, sharp’. Hob, on the other hand, means originally ‘rustic’, ‘homely’, ‘clownish’. Spenser calls the simple-minded rustic peasant in his pastoral poem The Shepheard’s Calender (1579) ‘Hobinall’ with this meaning in mind; and clumsy, awkward, absurd fellows were called ‘hobbledehoys’ well into the nineteenth century. The dullness of the ‘hob’ is of a rural homely sort; but it is a dullness for all that. And it would be as oxymoronic as liking ‘dull’ and ‘keen’ to put the two forms together into: hob-bitr.
It seems to me that this particular riddling answer (‘what is a hobbit? ‘he is dull-keen—that is, ‘he is Tolkien’) accords with the larger logic of the tale. We connect to the story through the ordinariness of Bilbo; and Bilbo’s experiences are Tolkienian. More, this manner of etymological decoding, the reading through of modern words and names to get at their aboriginal significances, was meat and drink to Tolkien. To ask ‘what is a hobbit?’ is to ask both ‘what does the word hobbit mean?’ and to ask ‘what is the hobbit “about”? What does it signify in the largest sense?’ The answer to both questions is: hob-bitr is cognate with Tol-kien.
About the Author
Adam Roberts is Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is also the author of more than a dozen science fiction novels: his most recent, Jack Glass (2012) won the BSFA and Campbell awards for the year’s best science fiction novel. He has published a number of critical and academic works on science fiction, 19th-century and other topics.
You can purchase The Riddles of The Hobbit from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk today!