From Tolkien Gateway
Ted Nasmith - The Riddle Game

Riddle-game was an ancient game of the Hobbits, used as a means of settling disputes. 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 and respected as sacred.[note 1] According to Frodo, riddles of similar folk were asked by other folk besides hobbits, although Bilbo and Gollum knew the same ones.[1]

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?[note 2]

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 assumed it to be a riddle, and while he had the right to reject it, his attempt to answer bound him to the rules of the game.[3] Knowing it was an improper question, he was given three guesses, but he guessed incorrectly nonetheless. 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]

Other riddles

Gandalf recited a poem alluding to the Ents to Théoden, who described it as a riddle.[4] Gollum yet again incorporated his riddle about fishes in one of his songs.[5][6]


Asked about the The Hobbit{{{'}}}s links to Beowulf and other branches of mythology, Tolkien commented that "There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues" concerning the riddles.[7]

Douglas A. Anderson has claimed to having identified possible inspirations behind eight out of nine riddles;[8] 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-nephew.[9]

As for the riddle for "Time", John D. Rateliff suggests one more connection with the description of Old Age in the French poem Roman de la Rose.[10]

Portrayal in adaptations

1967: The Hobbit (1967 film):

Bilbo and Gollum never interact, so there is no opportunity for a riddle-game.

1977: Rankin/Bass' The Hobbit:

The encounter is very similar, although 2 exchanges are removed, The Dark Riddle is told via a song, and Bilbo's riddle that responds to it is missing. Bilbo Actually does say "Give me some time" but Gollum appears shocked and asks him to repeat that. Bilbo says "I said time! Time!" and Gollum interprets this as his attempt to answer. Bilbo also deliberately asks Gollum what he has in his pocket, to which Gollum willingly surrenders.

2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Riddle-Game is skipped, as Bilbo doesn't even properly encounter Gollum until after the latter notices the absence of the ring.

2012: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:

The exchange occurs simultaneously with the rest of the Company's encounter with the Great Goblin, as Bilbo and Gollum agree to play a game of riddles; if Bilbo won Gollum would show him the way out, if Gollum won he would eat Bilbo. Most of the riddles in The Hobbit are asked and answers in similar terms as the book, including Bilbo's questionable last "riddle", 'what have I got in my pocket?' Gollum fails to answer in three guesses but become enraged when Bilbo refused to tell him what he had in his pocket.
2014: Lego The Hobbit: The Video Game:
The scene plays out fairly similar to the film, with the only changes being the presence of the Confused Goblin to account for the multiplayer Lego format and the requirement to build the answer before you can say it in order to have the sequence be playable in the standard Lego form.

See also


  1. Robert Foster in The Complete Guide to Middle-earth interprets this by saying that the rules "were held among the guardianship of the Valar"
  2. "Mountain" is the answer.