The Riddles Of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts (book review).

  ‘…Sometimes the beautiful

  Peasant’s daughter, an eager-armed,

  Proud woman grabs my body,

  Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,

  Claims my head.’

Steady now! That’s an excerpt from ‘Riddle 23 of ‘The Exeter Book’, a collection of Anglo-Saxon riddles, dating from the tenth century. Its contents argues Dr. Adam Roberts played an influential part in the riddles found in JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. This is the subject of Roberts’ book ‘The Riddles Of The Hobbit’.


‘Riddles’, Roberts tells us, formed an integral part of Anglo-Saxon literature and thinking. ‘The Exeter Book’ contains some 95 riddles, amongst other writing, and often they confound as often as they amuse. The answer to the riddle above is an onion…or a penis.

The connection to ‘The Hobbit’ should be obvious, but for those of you yet to read Tolkien’s masterpiece, Bilbo Baggins enters into a riddle contest with a subterranean creature called Gollum. The pair spar with puzzles for Bilbo’s right to escape. While the contest is one of the book’s most memorable moments and its repercussions reaching far into the future of Middle-Earth, Roberts argues that there is more to Tolkien’s love of riddles than a pleasurable diversion. Roberts believes that there is a deeper appreciation of riddles at work in ‘The Hobbit’ that refers to Tolkien’s appreciation of Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth and literature.

Roberts’ critique is a fascinating if, at times, a complex literary one. He draws on a wide-range of sources such as the aforementioned ‘Exeter Book’ to compare the riddles found in Tolkien and provide context to their creation. Tolkien does ‘borrow’ riddles from one thousand years in the past and Roberts looks at his reasons for doing so. He also explores the wider nature of the riddling text. Why choose the Ring as the totem of power? ‘The Hobbit’ is a circular journey (‘There And Back Again’) and for a happily married, devout Catholic, a symbol of unity. Roberts is, however, careful to point out that Tolkien always insisted his books were not allegories and should not be read as such.

Perhaps harder to believe is that Tolkien hid the names of ancient texts within riddles contained within ‘The Hobbit’. Roberts presents an interesting case and it is certainly fun to see his reasoning, I’d rather believe it than anything created by Dan Brown for example.

‘Riddles Of The Hobbit’ is an intriguing and fun reading of Tolkien’s work. Fascinating from a historical and literary perspective, Roberts may well be an academic writer, but the text is no worse for it. Rather this is a very enjoyable journey into the puzzles that make reading ‘The Hobbit’ so memorable. There is plenty here to interest the most ardent Tolkien reader and casual fan alike.

John Rivers

October 2013

(pub: Palgrave Macmillan. 192 page small hardback. Price: £18.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-13737-363-2)

check out website: www.panmacmillan.com

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