Riddles in the Dark

One in what I hope will be a juicy series of lecturettes from ancient and/or defunct online courses. This, from the DU course entitled “Hobbits and Heroes,” all on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I made them grad students read so much folklore I can’t even tell you…   ~Jenn


Riddles in the Dark

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

Poetry and song is an important part of the vividness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  All cultures sing songs of their people, which is a large part of our understanding of them through the action of the story.  For example, the pivotal character of Arwen Evenstar is barely seen in the trilogy, yet from what we hear of her and through the songs of the Elves, we understand Aragorn’s love.

Poetry takes the form of riddles throughout the LOTR prelude, The Hobbit.  From the old traditions of metaphorical introduction and naming (most specifically from old Norse and Celtic tradition), also the “trash-talk” poetry that would erupt as an essential beginning to every battle, comes the riddle-form talk as proper decorum in The Hobbit.


  • Gollum suggests the riddle-game in Chapter 5 as a way to get to know Bilbo, to decide whether he is good to eat, and whether he is really hungry.  When Bilbo cheats at the game, even a slimy, uncouth character like Gollum is mortified.  Even evil beasts understand the Riddle Game’s rules as sacred.
  • The goblins have proper old-world combat etiquette–when they and the wargs have our heroes trapped up in the trees, they create a metaphorical song to mock them:

Fifteen birds in five fir trees,
Their feathers were fanned in a fiery breeze!
But, funny little birds, they had no wings!
Oh, what shall we do with the funny little things?
Roast ‘em alive, or stew them in a pot;
Fry them, boil them, and eat them hot?

They even refer to our heroes after the song as “little birds,” continuing to mock and threaten them, to

Anyone remember this movie version of The Hobbit?

Anyone remember this movie version of The Hobbit?

which Gandalf replies, “Go away! little boys!” continuing the game the goblins started, threatening them in turn: “naughty little boys that play with fire get punished.”  This is an ancient form of battle: using poetry as much for fighting as physical combat—a word-one-upmanship.  Funny that the goblins chose that particular metaphor, as it’s birds who end up saving the party.

  • Gandalf’s visit to Beorn takes on the form of utmost old-time politeness.  Beorn is an ancient, magical, and mysterious figure, and the only way, Gandalf knows, he’d possibly allow all the dwarves into his home is if they are presented in the correct manner.  So Gandalf stages a great riddle – the dwarves come up in pairs, and every time the number of adventurers in Gandalf’s story doesn’t match those standing in front of him, Beorn is forced to guess the riddle.
  • When Smaug asks Bilbo who he is, Bilbo responds in riddle form.  In fact, Smaug guesses in part where Bilbo comes from using the metaphors he gives him.  Barrel-rider is obviously significant to Lake-Town, which is what causes him to attack there first.  We find that “this of course is the way to talk to dragons,” and that “no dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it.”  Between Beorn and Smaug, it’s plain that in order to talk to big powerful magical beings and come out unscathed, one must talk in riddles.

How many more situations in The Hobbit (besides Chapter 5) are actually Riddles in the Dark?

~Jenn Zuko, 2004



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