The Hobbit has grown in popularity in many ways, but one of the most surprising started in the Seventies. That was when the game Dungeons and Dragons emerged. This was very much a cult thing, I can remember that there was a small group of us at school who knew about and enjoyed D and D. There was another small group who knew about and loathed D and D. But most were totally unaware of it, which gave it a delicious exclusive feel.
Since then of course the world has changed beyond recognition, and I imagine most people have some kind of notion of what it is about, even if they have only seen Sheldon and his friends playing it on The Big Bang Theory. A quick sentence for anyone who doesn’t know what I am talking about – a game of Dungeons and Dragons is created by and presided over by a dungeon master who draws up an imaginary world full of traps, puzzles and obstacles. The players assume roles in the game and navigate the dungeon master’s world following a set of rules. It is possible to improvise almost all the aspects of the game, even devising your own rules if you feel the inclination. But most people follow the published version. This comprises of a couple of books that lay down the rules of play. The most interesting one is the monster manual which gives you a guide to the different creatures you can play in the game.
The advent of computers has made the actual game seem rather tedious by comparison with full colour high speed graphics. Dungeons and Dragons gave rise to a whole genre of computer experiences where the processing power of the PC made the use of dice of any number of sides unnecessary. Later as the Internet appeared it also enabled fellow players to be found anywhere on the globe. Games like World of Warcraft now offer high quality graphics and instant communication and one heck of a lot more action than the table top low tech predecessors. The only thing that has been lost is the camaraderie of participating in something that few people knew about or would understand the appeal if they did. And of course, the games have now evolved so far that it is almost impossible to detect their origin way back in the work of an obscure Oxford professor.
The chapter that most invokes the world of Dungeons and Dragons is the chapter Riddles in the Dark. When Gandalf rescued the dwarfs in the previous chapter Bilbo had got separated from the rest of the party. He finds himself deep under the mountain, lost and trying to find a way out.
Bilbo was never intended as an archetype for a game, but the predicament he finds himself in is very much one where he has been presented with a problem that he has to solve, so it is easy to see why it might inspire people who enjoy those kind of brain teasers. But there is rather more to it than that in the book. Tolkien has him fumbling about in the dark, which as a hobbit he is more used to than you or I would be as he describes it. The idea of a creature having a natural habitat is one that comes pretty much straight from the Classical world of the elements. Hobbits live in the ground and are therefore earthy and at home in the earth.
We get a bit more of this when Tolkien describes the fish that have ended up in a lake under the mountain. They have enormous eyes that have grown thanks to their straining to see in a dark environment. This isn’t Darwinian selection at all. Like most innovations, Tolkien doesn’t go along with the theory of evolution. Bilbo finds the lake in the caves under the mountain, but doesn’t have time to adapt to his new environment. But he does meet someone who has, everyone’s favourite Tolkien villain Gollum.
Gollum lives on an island on the lake where he is safe from being discovered by the goblins. He has a little boat that gives him access to the main cave complex so he can supplement his diet of fish with the occasional goblin. His eyes too have grown in size to accommodate the lack of light. Interestingly they also emit light. This is another throwback to a worldview that predates modern science. Plato was one of many ancient thinkers who ascribed vision to the ability of the eye to emit light. This crops up in quite a few places in Tolkien’s writing, where particular characters’ have an ability to exert power through nothing more than their gaze.
Gollum turns out to be a character whose main weapon is guile rather than brawn. On encountering Bilbo, who he assesses to have a reasonably high nutritional value, he proposes a riddle game. If Bilbo wins Gollum will show him the way out, if Gollum wins Bilbo becomes lunch. As he is lost Bilbo agrees. The riddle game takes place over several pages. The riddles are frankly not particularly entertaining. They are presented in poetic form. This is how the oldest riddles in English have been recorded but while it adds colour to the scene it does make it heavy weather. They all rely on relationships between words which is the kind of thing that Tolkien liked and also avoided any incongruities between Tolkien’s world and the real one.
The interesting point is whether either party would have broken the agreement had the game gone according to plan. Gollum was playing to either avoid the trouble of working for his dinner by having to kill Bilbo. He didn’t have much of a downside if he lost since he wouldn’t be too much put out by letting Bilbo go. Bilbo on the other hand would have been facing certain death.
But it didn’t materialise into a problem because the game breaks up in disorder with Bilbo resorting to a straight question rather than a proper riddle, leaving the outcome of the game disputable. Relations break down and Gollum attempts to attack Bilbo. But Bilbo is wearing a ring that he has picked up.
In fact, Gollum reveals, accidentally, that this is in fact a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. So using this new ability, Bilbo is able to follow Gollum to the way out and escape both him and the goblins. Having done so he follows Gollum who leads him to a door that leads back to the outside. As luck would have it he runs straight into the dwarves who themselves have managed to fight their way out of the goblin city, though they have, as usual, lost their kit.