The character of Gollum, as read in The Hobbit, matches up perfectly with the Gollum we know from The Lord of the Rings. But this was not always so. In 1951, Tolkien heavily revised his original 1937 version of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, completely changing Gollum’s story.
In the original 1937 edition of The Hobbit, Gollum’s motives and demeanor were markedly milder than in Lord of the Rings. In doing this, he made the two Gollums one. The changes, which we’ll be uncovering today, are as curious as they are drastic.
In a Damp Hole There Lived a Glip
It was the summer of 1930, and on a blank page in a student’s exam book Tolkien had written “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He soon followed this mysterious little line, allowing it to lead him where it would: to a wizard named Bladorthin and a brood of dwarves whose leader was named Gandalf (there was still a bit of name-shuffling to do). They took our Hobbit, Mr. Bilbo Baggins, on a quest which soon saw them separated in the caverners under the mountains. This was, of course, where Bilbo met Gollum who “lived on a slimy island in the middle of the lake.”
There’s a small hint, however, that Gollum’s character was based upon one of his own poems from two years prior. “Glip” was the poem’s title, as well as the name of this “slimy little thing.” It was part of a series entitled “Tales and Song of Bimble Bay.”
It is there that Glip steals his bones.
He is a slimy little thing
Sneaking and crawling under fishy stones,
And slinking home to sing
A gurgling song in his damp hole….
– From “Glip” by J.R.R. Tolkien (c1928)
Perhaps with this in mind, when Tolkien brought Bilbo, the Dwarves, and the Wizard into the dark caverns of the Misty Mountains, he might have brought old Glip along too.
His first pen strokes about this odd creature were:
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum. I don’t know where he came from or who or what he was. He was Gollum, as dark as darkness except for two big round pale eyes.”
Even in this early draft several features of Gollum’s character can already be found. For starters, we learn that he said “Gollum” when “he swallowed unpleasantly in his throat – that’s how he got his name.” Also, Gollum “only spoke to himself not you,” we’re told. He sometimes referred to himself as “precious” (though in the early versions, never called the ring “precious”).
And there was also the riddle game.
The Riddle Game
Though Bilbo and Gollum played the riddle game, it was much different from the version in the currently-available Hobbit. When originally written in 1931 and originally published in 1937, the riddle game was drastically different than the later revision in 1951 (three years prior to the release of The Lord of the Rings).
While the riddles themselves were basically the same from the beginning, Gollum’s origins were a great deal different.
“Asking (and sometimes answering) riddles had been a game he played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long long ago before the goblins came, and he was cut off from his friends far under the mountains. It was the only game the old wretch could remember.”
This bit from the original manuscript painted a picture of Gollum as having always lived under the mountains. The Goblins came into his home, not the other way around.
When it was published in 1937, the above origin was nearly identical, with Gollum’s home still being the caves and lake under the mountains. The bit about the riddle game being the only game “the old wretch could remember” was cut.
Then, in 1951, Tolkien forced an important transformation:
“…before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains.”
This was a completely different origin for Gollum. He was now not born under the mountains, but was from somewhere else. The Goblins did not come and separate him from his friends, rather, he lost his friends and was driven away into the caves.
Of course, readers of Lord of the Rings know exactly why all of this was – Gollum had found the One Ring, murdered his cousin, and was exiled by his family.
Tolkien wished to bring the Hobbit story more in line with its sequel, Lord of the Rings, which was about to be published (1954), so he simply changed it completely.
Honor and Fear
In the original 1937 edition, Gollum promised to give Bilbo a present if he answered the riddles correctly. Of course, Gollum still wanted to eat the hobbit if Bilbo lost, but more than that, he wanted to play a game as he did long, long before.
We were assured that Gollum would honor the results of the game: “For one thing, Gollum had learned long ago that he was never to cheat at the riddle game.” It was more about tradition and fairness than anything else.
In the 1957 revision, Tolkien altered this as well. A similar passage is there, but the subject is Bilbo, not Gollum. It was Bilbo who knew “that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it.” Because of this, Bilbo wrongly believed that he could trust Gollum to keep his word.
But what word was that? Again, it depends on the version.
Gollum and the Present
As written in the original edition, Bilbo won the riddle game and Gollum went to retrieve the present he promised him at the start. This present, as Bilbo would find out at the conclusion of the game, was Gollum’s ring.
“Must we give it precious; yes we must – we must fetch it precious, and give it to the thing the present we promised.”
Gollum then paddled over to his island, but couldn’t find the present – “we haven’t the present we promised, and we haven’t even got it for ourselves.”
The narrator then explained that finally “Bilbo gathered that Gollum had had a ring – a wonderful, beautiful ring that he had been given for a birthday present, ages and ages before in old days when such things were less uncommon.”
Gollum begged for Bilbo’s pardon, apologizing profusely. “We are ssorry; we didn’t meant to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition.” Bilbo quickly figured out the this was the same ring that he had picked up and put in his pocket.
Rather than receiving the present, Bilbo agreed to let Gollum off the hook on one condition: “Help me to get out of these places.”
And even though Gollum still wanted to eat Bilbo, he agreed to be his guide in order avoid cheating at the riddle game. Gollum agreed and with a bit of walking, he showed Bilbo the way out.
Gollum and “We Shows It The Way Out”
In the 1951 revision, in order to make it align with the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien changed Gollum’s almost innocent gift-giving to a false-promise to show Bilbo how to escape from the caverns.
When the game was won, Gollum promised to show Bilbo the way out, but had to go over to his island to get something first – as in the first edition, it was the ring.
Except Gollum had not promised to give it to Bilbo as a present. In this new version, Gollum wanted to slip it on, become invisible, and kill Bilbo, just as would catch and kill small goblins from time to time.
This time, when he couldn’t find the ring, rather than apologizing to Bilbo, Gollum decided to attack him, demanding to know what was in his pocket. The ring effortlessly slipped onto Bilbo’s finger, he vanished, and Gollum could not find him.
With that, Gollum guessed for sure that Bilbo had his ring. Bilbo then escaped Gollum and followed some Goblins out of the caverns.
Tolkien wrote some of his best Gollum stuff for this passage – and all of it was written after he finished writing Lord of the Rings. Yet, because of this, it’s here we see Bilbo’s pity, mentioned by Gandalf to Frodo in “The Shadow of the Past” chapter.
Tolkien originally wrote Gollum as a sympathetic creature, willing to give Bilbo his birthday present, an invisibility ring, specifically to honor the rules of the game Gollum himself suggested they play. When he could not keep his promise, he apologized and then willingly lead Bilbo out of the caverns.
Following his writing of The Lord of the Rings, but before it was published, Tolkien returned to The Hobbit and rewrote Gollum in his new, LotR identity.
In our next post, while Gandalf is still spending most of the spring in the Shire, we’ll take a look at whether these changes were even necessary. We’ll also examine the changes made to the Ring and see if this forced Tolkien’s hand.