Review: The Riddles of the Hobbit

Riddlesby Adam Roberts

Palgrave Macmillan, Out 1 November

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a loving look at the use of riddles in The Hobbit (and, to a lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings) as well as a scholarly rumination on the significance of riddles in life and literature.

When a word like “hermeneutic” gets dropped in the introduction, you know you’re in for some serious scholarliness. If that seems like a heavy word to hang from a generally light-hearted children’s book, I think author Adam Roberts wouldn’t entirely disagree, as he frequently says things like, “I can only ask you to bear with me.” Giving a bit of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink as he unpacks deep meanings from riddles does make the text more accessible than some literary criticism.

In the opening chapters there is enough talk of how Tolkien’s Christianity informed his work that I was a little worried that Riddles was going to look at The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings through only that lens. My concern was unfounded, however, as Roberts stresses Tolkien’s own statements on disliking allegory. This is not a book that proselytizes Tolkien’s Christianity through his fiction; Roberts simply addresses those beliefs when he feels they are germane to the discussion at hand.

Said discussion is quite wide ranging, not surprising for a book of about 180 pages that is ostensibly about less than a dozen riddles. The importance of riddles in Old English culture is explained, including extensive examples from relevant texts, which provides the foundation for discussing Tolkien’s work. The famous “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit is, of course, much explored. A chapter on the introduction of pockets in clothing (“What have I got in my pocket?”) is interesting if a bit tangential. Chapters on the two editions of The Hobbit and on the fantasy genre are also well done.

Roberts finds riddles far beyond just the ones spoken by Gollum and Bilbo in the Misty Mountains, and although I occasionally felt like saying, “Sometimes a riddle is just a riddle,” or “Not everything is a riddle,” he illuminates some fascinating details about Tolkien’s sources. He also comes up with a few unique interpretations of the material that, even if reading a lot into the text, are entertaining to the diehard fan.

Verdict: Not for casual fans of the movies who have perhaps read the books once, but if you’re the kind of Tolkien aficionado who has read the History of Middle-Earth series, including all the notes, you will find much to like in The Riddles of the Hobbit. 8/10

Scott Pearson

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