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The Riddles of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts

Tolkien (misc.)Posted by Morgan Thomsen Tue, October 15, 2013 16:30:02

Nearly a month ago, Pieter Collier wrote a review at the Tolkien Library about the forthcoming The Riddles of The Hobbit by Professor Adam Roberts (Palgrave Macmillan; to be published in November 2013). Thanks to the publishers I also got a chance to read the book before its publication, and will here try to note a couple of points not already brought up by Mr Collier, that I hope could be of interest to potential readers.

To my knowledge, The Riddles of The Hobbit will be the first book-length, academic study about the theme of riddles in Tolkien's works. The latter is important to point out: contrary to what one could be led to believe from its title, the book is not only and simply about the riddles in The Hobbit – Roberts start out (Chapter 1) by tracing the use of riddles in Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, and he devotes a whole chapter (2) to riddles contained in the Exeter Book. This historic contextualisation (which certainly is relevant when it comes to Tolkien) gives Roberts a valuable perspective when analysing (Chapter 3) the riddle-game found in the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” in The Hobbit. In Chapter 4, Roberts tentatively suggests an apparent “meta-riddle” (a sort of synthesis of all the riddles exchanged between Bilbo and Gollum), which he constructs out of a reading of a certain Celtic riddle, the Exeter Book, and the Elder Edda. A quite fascinating suggestion, which no doubt will be discussed further among Tolkien scholars and fans!

After a transitional chapter (5) presenting the different versions of The Hobbit, Roberts discusses (Chapter 6) the manual and hands-on quality of the Old English poem Beowulf in order to investigate Bilbo's question “What have I got in my pocket?”. This discussion goes on (chapter 7) to an analysis of the enigma of the One Ring: here I believe Roberts makes an interesting (and apparently formerly unnoticed) connection between the Ring and a particular riddle found in the Exeter Book.

The remaining chapters are more diverse, and touch on subjects such as riddles of writing and characterisation in the works of Tolkien, and the “Enigma of Genre Fantasy”.

Initially, since this is Roberts’s first contribution to Tolkien studies, I was worried that the author would have failed to take account of what are often considered to be the preeminent analyses of the Tolkien's riddles, namely the discussions found in Douglas A. Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit, John D. Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, and the works of Tom Shippey. However, this turned out to be a false worry: Roberts not only includes references to all of these, but also expands upon and, at times, questions certain aspects of their work – all of which makes for a rewarding read.

Note [added 5 December 2013]: Over at Jason Fisher’s blog Lingwë I just discovered a long discussion (see the comments field) about how the topic of the riddles in The Hobbit is noteworthily brought up in several works (that I failed to take account of above). Such include The Tolkien Encyclopedia (entry for “Riddles”) , Marjorie Burns’s Perlious Realms, and Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit .

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