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The Riddle Game by Ted Nasmith

Riddle-game was an ancient game of the Hobbits, used as a means of settling disputes.[note 1] The players continued to ask each other riddles until one failed to provide a correct answer.



The origins of the game are not known, save that it was very ancient and its rules were agreed by the Authorities[1] and respected as sacred.[note 2]

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?[note 3]


The most famous riddle-game was the one in which Bilbo Baggins and Gollum competed. If Gollum failed to answer a riddle, he would show Bilbo out of the Misty Mountains. However, if Bilbo lost, Gollum would eat him. The two exchanged several riddles, and Gollum's knowledge of the answers suggested to Gandalf years later that he had possibly been a hobbit once. At last, strapped for riddles to ask the loathsome creature, Bilbo, touching the ring he had found in the tunnels, asked "What have I got in my pocket?". Gollum failed to answer correctly, despite being given three guesses. Reneging on his promise, Gollum plotted to use his "Precious" to murder and eat Bilbo, but when he found it missing, he too late guessed the right answer to Bilbo's "riddle".[2]


In a letter, Tolkien made the following comment concerning the riddles appearing in The Hobbit: "There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues".[3] Douglas A. Anderson has claimed to having identified eight out of nine riddles;[4] José Manuel Ferrández Bru has noted a resemblance between the remaining riddle ("Voiceless it cries") with a riddle published by Cecilia Böhl de Faber. While admitting that the similarity between the two riddles is "surely a mere coincidence", Ferrández Bru also speculates that Tolkien may possibly have read or heard the poem in his youth through Father Francis Xavier Morgan, Böhl de Faber's great-niece.[5]


  1. Robert Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle-earth says that the game was used throughout Middle-earth, although the narrative is not clear on that matter.
  2. Foster interprets this by saying that the rules "were held among the guardianship of the Valar"
  3. "Mountain" is the answer.


  1. Michael Martinez, "Are There Any Christian Themes in The Hobbit?", Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien News & Articles (accessed 20 November 2018)
  2. 2.0 2.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Riddles in the Dark"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 25, (dated February 1938), p. 32
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien; Douglas A. Anderson, (ed.), (2002) The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition
  5. José Manuel Ferrández Bru, "'Wingless fluttering': Some Personal Connections in Tolkien's Formative Years", in Tolkien Studies, Vol. VIII (eds. Douglas A. Anderson, Michael D.C. Drout, Verlyn Flieger), p. 54