J.R.R. Tolkien may have created a vast fantasy world in which the footsteps of gods and monsters made its history tremble, but when it came down to the works he is best known for, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the choices that carried the most weight were ultimately made by some of the smallest people in it: hobbits.
Although Tolkien began his rich history, cosmology, languages, and geography of Middle-earth in the myths that would be published posthumously as The Silmarillion, he gave special attention when writing The Hobbit to a scene which could have been just one of many episodes in the story.
While Bilbo Baggins is fleeing goblins in the deep caves of the Misty Mountains, he becomes separated from his companions, the dwarven company of Thorin Oakenshield and the wizard Gandalf. In the depths of the mountains, he must match wits in a game of riddles with Gollum in which Bilbo’s life is at stake.
Tolkien rewrote this scene a number of times, and with each revision (including changes after its original publication — see The History of The Hobbit, edited by John Rateliff), the choice Bilbo must make becomes more critical.
In the version we have today, he finds the One Ring in the deep caves prior to meeting its owner, Gollum — who is intrigued by him, but also wants to eat him. Bilbo doesn’t know the Ring belongs to Gollum, while Gollum doesn’t even know he has lost it, much less that Bilbo has it. So Gollum offers to play at riddles to see whether he will get what he wants (to kill and eat Bilbo) or Bilbo will (for Gollum to show him the way out of the caves).
In an earlier version, the prize of the contest was to be a present from Gollum to Bilbo — the Ring.
But in the version Tolkien ultimately settled on, Bilbo doesn’t realize the importance of what he has found until he can’t think of a riddle, and is at risk of forfeiting the contest — and his life. Then he puts his hand in his pocket and wonders out loud what he has in it. Gollum thinks it’s a riddle and demands three guesses.
Ethically, Tolkien makes it clear Bilbo is on thin ice — he should ask a fair question. But Gollum can’t guess, and Bilbo refuses to tell him he has the Ring — still not realizing it belongs to Gollum. Gollum then forces the matter by deciding to kill Bilbo. Since Bilbo is armed, he’ll need an advantage: the Ring, which will turn him invisible.
Luckily for Bilbo, he slips the Ring on and discovers its power, before Gollum can catch him.
Of course, the Ring takes on much greater significance in The Lord of the Rings, in which Gandalf deduces it is the One Ring forged by Sauron, who, if he gets it back, will reclaim a great part of his former power and enslave the peoples of Middle-earth. If the Ring is destroyed, it will mean the end of Sauron.
Bilbo’s choice in the depths beneath the mountain to not kill Gollum when he has the chance will later haunt Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, as Gollum reveals to Sauron that the Ring has been found; and also when Gollum finds Frodo and Sam on their quest to destroy the Ring.
An exchange from The Fellowship of the Ring is telling, when Frodo laments, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!”
But Gandalf turns it back on him, saying, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” Gandalf later adds, about Gollum, “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.”
(Gollum’s choices carry great weight indeed, since his initial decision to murder his friend Deagol for possession of the Ring is what sets all the events to come in motion.)
Why is such attention given to creatures who, plainly, are overlooked and dismissed by nearly everyone else in Middle-earth?
Bilbo is, of course, the main character in The Hobbit, so the narrative follows his choices; but Tolkien could have as easily chosen Thorin as the main character, as it is the dwarves’ quest to restore their lost kingdom that is the main point of the plot. Or he could have chosen Gandalf, the most powerful character in the group and who clearly had a greater agenda than merely helping Bilbo and the dwarves.
But Tolkien, for whatever reason, went with a character who, like the Ring, belied appearances — there is much more to the hobbits than meets the eye.
Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, the theme is developed more fully as the Ring is passed down to Frodo, and destroying it becomes his responsibility. Again Tolkien avoids the obvious or perhaps more “likely” developments in such a situation. He makes it clear that taking the Ring by force or out of desire for it leaves a person open to its corrupting influence. Gandalf, as a powerful wizard who had evaded Sauron in the latter’s stronghold of Dol Guldur, would have been the logical choice to bear the Ring and cast it into Mount Doom.
But Tolkien makes the danger of the greatest for his most powerful characters. Galadriel refuses to take the Ring for fear of becoming a dark and powerful queen. Boromir, however, a paragon of Gondor, tries to seize it from Frodo and his moral failure leads to his destruction.
The advantage the hobbits seem to have over the others is their inner strength — such that Elrond compares Frodo to Hador, Húrin, Túrin, and Beren, great heroes of an earlier age.
Tolkien doesn’t let it rest at such simple moral good-vs.-evil, however. As Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring shows its corruptive influence, Frodo sets out alone for Mordor. Sam risks his life to go with him, and this leaves them open for Gollum to catch up with them.
The dynamics of mistrust, fear, loyalty, and mercy play out in the trio of hobbits (for Gollum was once a hobbit, if different from Frodo and Sam). Despite the massive events unfolding in Middle-earth, as nations march to war, the wizard Saruman betrays his allies, and the ancient power of the Ents is reawakened, the real outcome is determined by what Frodo, Sam, and Gollum do.
Sam chooses to take the Ring only after he believes Frodo is dead, in order to destroy it alone. Later, discovering Frodo is alive, he gives it back freely. By this point in the story, it’s clear both choices demand incredible courage and strength.
And, of course, ultimately, when Frodo and Sam finally reach the fiery abyss in Mount Doom, Frodo’s failure to give up the Ring and decision to keep it is what drives Gollum to finally try to take it from him. This results in Frodo’s mutilation, as Gollum bites his finger off to get the Ring, only to fall to his own — and the Ring’s — destruction in the fires in which it was made.
When compared to the scale of events in The Silmarillion, those of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may seem small. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s mythic creator figure and gods shape the world; elves wage a centuries-long war against powers they could not possibly overcome, and the wrath of the mighty literally cracks the world.
And yet, it is in the story of the latter days of Middle-earth that Tolkien went deepest into the hearts of his characters — and showed that size and scale are no measure of a person’s significance.