Riddles in the Dark

When J.R.R. Tolkien Changed Gollum Canon Forever

The continuity of Gollum's story is anything but precious.

2nd December 1955: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien ( 1892 - 1973) the South African-born philologist and a...
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In 2026, the story of the Hobbit formerly known as Sméagol will get twistier and stranger than ever before. Shocking fans of Middle-earth, it's been revealed that Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis are working on a new Lord of the Rings motion picture called The Hunt for Gollum. But what is this movie actually about? Who is hunting for Gollum and why? And more importantly, will The Hunt for Gollum end up retconning both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Well, even if it does, here’s the thing: Gollum basically lives to be retconned.

For a week since the announcement, Tolkien-heads have already spent several second breakfasts pondering questions about the movie. And with details scarce, it’s hard to come up with convincing answers. Back in 2009, a fan film with the exact same title followed Strider as he tried to locate Gollum, prior to meeting Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. The new film is almost certainly not a big-screen remake of that story, but, then again, it has to be a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy because Gollum is very much alive. (Unless the movie is about the hunt for Gollum’s ghost, which seems unlikely, but vaguely possible? Middle-earth Ghostbusters?)

“We really want to explore his backstory and delve into those parts of his journey we didn’t have time to cover in the earlier films,” Peter Jackson told Deadline. “It’s too soon to know who will cross his path, but suffice to say we will take our lead from Professor Tolkien.” And it’s in this last little detail that Jackson is revealing the deeper retcon magic from before the dawn of time. He and Serkis can kind of do whatever they want with Gollum’s character and backstory, because the truth is, Gollum is an extremely malleable character, one who Tolkien himself radically changed between 1937 and 1966.

Gollum, the most successful retcon, ever

A 1990 paperback version of The Hobbit, which would contain all the revisions Tolkien made after 1951, even though the book was orignally published in 1938.

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Published in 1937, The Hobbit transformed fantasy literature like no other book before or since. Presented as an intricate middle-grade children’s chapter book, The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit, as he is pulled into a great journey beyond his cozy home in the Shire. Along with a company of Dwarves, and Gandalf the Wizard, this proto-fellowship encounters various threats, which all get scarier and scarier as the book progresses. The world-building of The Hobbit is shockingly vivid, and, nearly thirty years later, in 1954, when Tolkien decided to expand his world of Middle-earth into a larger epic with his trilogy of novels — The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King — very little adjustment to his landscape was needed. Only two elements had to be heavily revised to make the setting of The Hobbit click: The Ring of Power itself, and its bedraggled former owner, Gollum. And so, in 1951, three years before The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien published a new version of The Hobbit.

As extensively revealed by Bonniejean Christensen in the 1975 nonfiction book A Tolkien Compass, “Gollum’s function differs in the two works. In The Hobbit, he is one in a series of fallen creatures on a rising scale of terror. In The Lord of the Rings, he is an example of the damned individual who loses his own soul because of devotion to evil...”

Gollum is not the big bad of The Hobbit and is left behind by Bilbo roughly midway through the book. Crucially, in the original 1937 and 1938 editions of The Hobbit, Gollum is not a depraved maniac addicted to the Ring’s power. Nor is the Ring suggested to be sentient in the original Hobbit. All of those details were altered by Tolkien by 1951 when he changed the text and meaning of Chapter 5: “Riddles in the Dark.”

There are several examples of these changes, but the most relevant alteration is the later suggestion to the reader that Gollum is a crazed murderer and can’t be trusted to be bound by the rules of the riddle game. In the 1937 version, Gollum is just a weird creature.

From the original Hobbit (1937):

But funnily enough he [Bilbo] need not have been alarmed. For one thing Gollum had learned long ago was to never cheat at the riddle-game, which is a sacred one and of immense antiquity.

From the revised Hobbit (1951, 1965, et al.):

He knew of course, the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played it. But he [Bilbo] felt he could not trust this slimy thing [Gollum] to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.”

Tolkien tinkered with “Riddles in the Dark” up until 1966, making him something of a George Lucas; continually modifying his story to fit with his other books. This retcon of Gollum’s character was so entirely successful that if you read The Hobbit now, you will only find the latter text. The 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, published in 2012, acknowledges the changes to “Riddles in the Dark,” briefly, in a section toward the front of the book, but the only way to get your hands on the first version of “Riddles in the Dark” — short of buying an extremely expensive 1937 or 1938 Hobbit — is to read Douglas A. Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit, where he elucidates some these changes.

Gollum’s ever-changing story

Gollum, a wretched creature, who we just can’t get enough of, apparently.

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In the first, 1937 Hobbit, Gollum’s love of the Ring isn’t connected to any, deeper, sinister meaning. Tolkien initially mentioned in passing that “...if you slipped the ring on your finger, you were invisible...”. But in the 1951 revisions, when Gollum’s attitude became more intense, it became a “ring of power,” and the after-effects of using the ring would make you “shaky and faint.”

Without Tolkien utterly revising Gollum — and thus, revising the Ring — nothing about The Lord of the Rings would make sense, and arguably, the entirety of Middle-earth would be far less interesting. If Gollum had remained a curious, silly little creature who possessed a whimsical magic ring, it's doubtful we’d all be obsessed with this wonderful fantasy world today. It’s also unlikely that, had Tolkien not utterly retconned Gollum and the One Ring, we’d even be talking about the careers of Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis.

So while the impending creation of The Hunt for Gollum might, for some, feel like a strange, unnecessary prequel at best (and a blasphemous retcon at worst), there is a massive and pivotal precedent to mess with Gollum’s story, straight from Professor Tolkien himself. Whatever anyone might think of The Hunt for Gollum, in delving back into the story of Sméagol, Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson are in very good company.

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