Someone over on Quora asked what we learn of Gollum’s character from the Riddles in the Dark chapter. I think it’s a really interesting character study as we actually learn a great deal about Gollum from the riddle game.
First, let’s look at a summary of the riddles in their proper order, with Gollum’s in BOLD for easier identification:
1) What has roots as nobody sees, | is taller than trees, | Up, up it goes, | And yet never grows? [Mountain]
2) Thirty white horses on a red hill, | First they champ, | Then they stamp, | Then they stand still. [Teeth]
3) Voiceless it cries, | Wingless flutters, | Tothless bites, | Mouthless mutters. [Wind]
4) An eye in a blue face | Saw an eye in a green face. | “That eye is like to this eye” | Said the first eye, | “But in low place | Not in high place.” [Sun on the daisies]
5) It cannot be seen, cannot be felt, | Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt. | It lies behind stars and under hills, | And empty holes it fills. | It comes first and follows after, | Ends life, kills laughter. [Dark]
6) A box without hinges, key, or lid, | Yet golden treasure inside is hid [Eggs]
7) Alive without breath, | As cold as death; | Never thirsty, ever drinking, | All in mail never clinking. [Fish]
8) No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some. [Fish on a little table, man at table sitting on a stool, the cat has the bones]
9) This thing all things devours: | Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; | Gnaws iron, bites steel; | Grinds hard stones to meal; | Slays king, ruins town, | And beats high mountain down. [Time]
10) What have I got in my pocket? [Ring]
Next, let’s take a look at the types of adjectives used in Gollum’s riddles:
Those which I’ve highlighted in bold have arguably negative connotations to them. The voice, wings, teeth, and mouth are not present. The hole is empty. The temperature is cold (as death). To be thirsty is typically a negative thing (although the fish is never thirsty). The stones are hard. Even alive, which should be a positive thing, is warped. Alive, yes…but without breath.
Now let’s look at the nouns Gollum uses (including answers):
We can see a pattern of Gollum focusing on things which are familiar to him: dark, fish, roots, mountains, coldness.
But if we look a little more carefully at what is actually being said about these nouns, we see something even more interesting (and arguably disturbing). Those which I’ve highlighted in BOLD above again have negative context: the roots cannot be seen; the trees are not as tall as the answer to the riddle; the wind is not given a voice, or wings, or teeth, or a mouth, and it cries, bites, and mutters; the stars have a darkness behind them, and the holes are filled with it; the darkness ends life and kills laughter; there is an absence of breath; death is generally considered a negative thing and the absence of life; all things implies that there is no escape for anyone or anything (birds, beasts, trees, flowers); the iron is gnawed; the steel is bitten; the stones are ground to meal; the king is slain; the town is ruined; and the mountain is beaten down.
Which brings us nicely to Gollum’s choice of verbs:
I’ve already touched on some of these verbs above. But we see a tendency for negative context again. The mountain never grows. The wind cries, flutters, bites, and mutters, but without voice, wings, teeth, or mouth, respectively; the darkness cannot be seen, felt, heard, or smelt; it lies behind (not in front of) stars, and under (not above) hills, and it fills holes which are empty; it ends life and kills laughter; time is the absolute worst as it devours, gnaws, bites, grinds, slays, ruins, and beats literally all things.
What we can take away from this seems pretty clear: Gollum comes from a dark, lonely, cold, deadly, often violent place (mentally, emotionally, socially, physically).
But there’s more: consider the stakes of the riddling contest: Bilbo’s prize is to be shown out of this horrible place, whilst Gollum’s prize is to kill and eat poor Bilbo. Furthermore, Gollum is beyond wicked and deceitful. The riddling game is said to be of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. Yet Gollum cheated by taking four guesses rather than the agreed upon three for the final riddle (despite it not being a ‘genuine’ riddle) and also he has no intention of honouring his promise (in the current published text…this was not always the case).