By a lake far beneath the Misty Mountains, a creature named Gollum spends a lonely existence in the darkness. He spots Bilbo, who is wandering lost, and intends to eat him. When Bilbo introduces himself and shows Gollum his sword, however, Gollum, stalling for time as he figures out whether the hobbit is safe to attack, challenges him to a contest of riddles: “If precious [Gollums name for himself] asks, and it [meaning Bilbo] doesnt answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesnt answer, then. [we] shows it the way out, yes!” Bilbo agrees. As the game progresses, Gollum seems to be on the verge of eating Bilbo, until the hobbit feels something in his pocket that he picked up earlier and asks himself aloud, “What have I got in my pocket?” Gollum mistakes Bilbos wondering for a proper riddle and Bilbo, because he has no better strategy, sticks with the question. It so happens that Bilbo has in his pocket Gollums prized possession: a ring that renders whomever wears it invisible. Frustrated by his inability to solve Bilbos “riddle,” and now very hungry indeed, Gollum returns to his rock in the middle of the lake to look for his ring. Its absence infuriates him; he realizes he must have lost it when hunting a goblin earlier. He returns to Bilbo, but Bilbo-who, hearing Gollums ravings about his lost “precious,” begins to wonder what he does have in his pocket after all-slips the ring on his finger. or, rather, as the narrator makes a point of saying, “it quietly slipped on to [Bilbos] groping forefinger.” At one point, Bilbo thinks to stab Gollum in order to escape but, at the last movement, pity for Gollum keeps him from doing so. Unseen, Bilbo eventually escapes from not only Gollum but also the goblins guarding an exit to the surface; the hobbits squeezes through a narrow crack and emerges at last into the light of day. Behind him, in the darkness, Gollum still cries: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!”
The ring that comes into Bilbos possession in this chapter is, of course, the One Ring at the center of The Lord of the Rings-the Ring of power that the Dark Lord Sauron secretly forged in order to dominate the world. Initially, however, Tolkien did not intend for Bilbos ring to be anything more than it appears to be: an expedient plot device, yes, but also “a natural receptacle for magic,” like so many other rings in fantastic literature (e.g., Wagners Ring Cycle) (The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p. 813). Only later, after The Hobbits initial printing, did Tolkien decide (or, as he might have said, discover) that Bilbos ring provided the means to link the hobbits story to Tolkiens larger personal mythos of Middle-earth: “On 21 September 1947, while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sent [his publisher] Stanley Unwin a list of corrections to errors remaining in the 1946 fourth impression [i.e., printing] of The Hobbit, together with a specimen of re-writing, a new version of chapter 5 which brought the story better into accord with its sequel as it had developed.” This “specimen” was inadvertently included in the next impression, however, before Tolkien had completely finished it. The author wrote to the publisher, “I did not mean the suggested revision to be printed off; but it seems to have come out pretty well in the wash.” In fact, however, “additional small corrections had to be made later” (for all direct quotes and information pertaining to the printing history of Chapter 5, see Wayne G. Hammond, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 1993, pp. 22-23).
In the chapters final form, then, we see hints that the Ring has a malevolent will of its own, most notably in the language the narrator chooses to describe how it comes to be on Bilbos finger (quoted above). Also note the debilitating effects the Ring has had on Gollum during his ownership of it.
Apart from Gollums role in the larger story of Middle-earth, he and Bilbo may function as foils in The Hobbit. Note the general similarity, for instance, between the books famous opening sentence (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”) and our introduction to Gollum (Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature”). Both Gollum and Bilbo are small creatures who live in holes-indeed, as we learn in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum hails from a race of people related to hobbits-but where Bilbo has chosen (albeit reluctantly) to engage the larger world outside his hole, Gollum (also reluctantly) has disengaged from that world to retreat underground. Bilbo has been summoned to leave the safety of home; Gollum (for reasons not revealed until The Lord of the Rings) has been driven to seek safety away from his home. Furthermore, Gollums initial reaction to Bilbo-“What iss he, my preciouss?”-mirrors the trolls response to the hobbit, and it foreshadows Beorns reaction to Bilbo in Chapter 7 (“And whats this little fellow?”). Tolkien may be suggesting that we must interact with others in our own larger contexts in order to determine our identity: by the storys end, Bilbo will know himself better, while Gollum will remain (at this point)-to him, and to Tolkiens readers-an enigma.
Finally, note the narrators remark when Bilbo finds the Ring: “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.” Readers will want to see in what sense this statement proves true. They may also wish to reflect upon turning points in their own lives that have only become apparent in retrospect.