Riddles in Rhetoric: Learning from Bilbo and Gollum about Linguistic Segregation
“It likes riddles, praps it does, does it?”—Gollum to Bilbo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Thus Gollum invites Bilbo Baggins to the iconic game of riddles in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. 2 A fan favourite for many reasons, Tolkien relies on linguistic tells to define these characters’ relationships with each other. On the one hand, Tolkien unites Bilbo and Gollum through their shared cultural roots as hobbits; on the other, he establishes them as adversaries. This deliciously multidimensional exchange moves away from the grandiose physical battles that pepper Tolkien’s work, focusing instead on our most rudimentary skill—communication.
Language has already faced many revolutions. Writing, for example, changed our speech patterns, word usage, and memory. Today, the introduction of keyboards challenges the very act of writing while our digital communication platforms and the growing use of diction tools alter our vernacular. Living amidst this technological revolution, we are coming to rely on gadgets like Alexa, Google, and Siri. They become our personal assistants, sometimes taking the place of another person. So, how are these behaviours changing the way we communicate, and what do Tolkien’s linguistic constructions in “Riddles in the Dark” teach us about speech patterns today?
Tracing the scene from Gollum’s motivation for the game through the players’ establishment and conflict, we join Tolkien on a linguistic journey through the various levels of meaning—exploring the trust that communication inspires. Let’s begin with Gollum’s motivation for this riddle game. Bored and lonely, he recalls that he used to play riddle games before he succumbed to the Ring’s malice, and thus invites Bilbo to play with him. After Bilbo answers his first riddle with ease, Gollum challenges the hobbit to a game. What begins as an entreaty for company and entertainment evolves into a life-or-death competition.
As the scene unfolds, Tolkien uses layered linguistic meanings to create a rising tension between the two characters and to clue the reader into Gollum’s deceitful nature. According to linguists Michael Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, Tolkien is invoking the three functions of language, “the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual.” 3 In other words, Tolkien draws on our understanding of meanings, implications, and language usage to steer our interpretation of the scene and its players. Together, these underlying elements guide our perceptions of individuals and govern our judgements of a situation.
Creating a Comforting Familiarity
Familiarity often comes as a source of comfort. We have sayings like “better the devil you know” that capitalize on the construct that the unknown is scarier. Especially within a fantastic setting, readers may turn to familiar icons to situate themselves—regardless of whether they are conventions within our world or tropes of the genre. These reader comforts can be expressed physically through appearance; however, as Tolkien highlights, linguistic tells can also serve as critical indicators of difference—hinting at which characters are trustworthy.
Throughout The Hobbit, Tolkien leads his readers to sympathize with Bilbo, encoding his token hobbit with behavioural and linguistic patterns intended to make him seem familiar. From his waistcoat to his pipe, Bilbo’s appearance often embodies an upper-class English gentleman. However, it’s Bilbo’s longing for home with its comforts and his bumbling attempts to fit in that draw a reader’s sympathy. Conversely, Tolkien encourages readers to mistrust Gollum not only based on his physical appearance but because of his inconsistent speech patterns and foreboding language.
Using Linguistic Figures as Identifiers
While the use of riddles is amusing, the game’s presence serves a much more complicated linguistic purpose—establishing the characters’ identities and their relationship with each other. Specifically, Tolkien uses the game to demonstrate Bilbo and Gollum’s similarities, while relying on the riddles and clues to emphasize their differing motives. By engaging in the game, Bilbo and Gollum recognize a shared background in riddles, and by making it a competition, Gollum is insinuating that he sees Bilbo as an equal. However, Tolkien highlights how tenuous riddle games can become if they venture too far into unfamiliar territory. As Bilbo and Gollum each realize this, they capitalize on their opponent’s weaknesses, exemplifying their differences. Nevertheless, the game’s parameters rely on Bilbo and Gollum’s commonalities to be a successful competition of wit. Tolkien goes as far as to demonstrate that, if answers are not given, instead of enhancing players’ enjoyment, the game becomes wearisome. To this end, Tolkien relies on these linguistically based logic puzzles to define who Bilbo and Gollum are as individuals—exposing their opposing opinions and experiences via the riddles’ clues.
Bilbo and Gollum’s use of language and choice of topics also mirrors their motives in the scene. For example, Bilbo’s riddles capitalize on natural phenomena—teeth, sunshine on flowers, and eggs—frequently invoking body-centric imagery like “white horses” for teeth and “golden treasure” for an egg. By contrast, while Gollum’s riddles about mountains, wind, the dark, fish, and time may evoke thoughts of natural things, he frames them with distinctly nefarious wording. For example, his clues use the foreboding phrases such as “ends life, kills laughter” and “cold as death.” Within the context of a life-or-death competition, Bilbo’s riddles and clues are filled with reminders of vitality, whereas Gollum’s fixation with death becomes explicit.
Tolkien uses these differences in wording to reinforce the danger, twisting a child’s game into a battle of their wills. Gollum’s status as an adversary is further emphasized through his deviant habit of speaking to himself. Another linguistically-based tell, Tolkien emphasizes this unfavourable trait by inconsistently misspelling words like “precious”—which has at least four different iterations, ranging from one to four’ s’-es (i.e. “precioussss”). The variation of spellings is representative of the character’s own untrustworthy nature, his erratic speech mirroring his inconsistent intentions.
Meanings, Implications, and Usage
Returning to layered meanings, in their book Cohesion in English, linguists Michael Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan explain that language has “three major functional-semantic components.” Formally, Halliday and Hasan name these “the ideational, the interpersonal, and the textual.” In short, these elements represent language’s meaning, social implications, and usage. Tolkien capitalizes on these functions by encoding the riddle game based on our understanding and application of language to create a dynamically threatening environment.
The ideational component, Halliday and Hasan explain, makes up the base meaning of language, focusing on “the expression of ‘content’” and our ability to understand it based on shared experiences and logic. Tolkien invokes the ideational as he tells his story, implying that Bilbo and Gollum are logically able to engage in a game of riddles and to place wagers because they are at a roughly equal skill level. Building on this first level, Tolkien relies on the interpersonal meaning (the social implications) to clue the reader in to which character we ought to support. Bilbo’s mannerisms and language in this scene paints him as more ‘civilized,’ drawing empathy, whereas Gollum’s unreliable speech deters readers. The last indicator, the textual component, focuses on the use of language. Tolkien relies on the previous interpersonal level, building on our social perception of Gollum as ‘Other’ and reinforcing this sense of mistrust with Gollum’s irregular grammatical patterns.
Gollum’s misuse of language and abuse of grammar vilifies him. His meaning is both foreboding and inconsistent, indicative of an inability to communicate clearly or to interact according to social expectations. Tolkien uses the levels of linguistic meaning and word choice to cultivate this unfavourable impression. While Gollum is not the first character to be Othered, it is vital to consider how Tolkien achieves this affect—not only through his narrative but, specifically, through speech patterns. His layered grammatical choices immediately create distance between the characters, making the riddle game more contentious. The competition, which initially implies that Bilbo and Gollum had commonalities, instead creates a distinct intellectual hierarchy.
Lessons from Rhetorical Riddles
Halliday and Hasan’s principles about language complexity govern our everyday communications. For example, a grammatical error or odd speech pattern may lead us to perceive someone as less educated or even less intelligent. Although this “verbal class distinction” is demonstrated in a comedic setting in the musical My Fair Lady, it nevertheless persists as a very real sociocultural issue. 4
Such inconsistencies within a language may indicate a difference in education; however, they are also geographically based. For example, American English uses ‘color’ whereas all other English-speaking countries prefer the variant ‘colour.’ In this case, the appropriateness of the spelling depends on location—and becomes almost arbitrary when one is familiar with both iterations. Today, our digital ways of working breach international boundaries with unprecedented ease. Simultaneously, we bring more attention to these divergences of dialect while we trivialize their differences through routine communication and the act of collaborating with international authors. This turn to digital communication is also forcing us to reconsider what is acceptable vernacular. For example, we are constantly challenging previous rhetorical distinctions as texts and IMs replace letters, memos, and even emails in personal and professional spheres.
Vershawn Ashanti Young developed an argument for the wider acceptance of linguistic diversity propelled by a re-haul of grammatical standards. 5 Young defines “code switching” as the use of multiple grammatical systems, including cultural vernacular and slang. The switch, he identifies, is when we change our speech patten to match our social situation. In this context you are “code switching” when you use a different tone and vocabulary to email your boss compared to what you text your friend. Young argues that these judgements are a persisting form of “linguistic segregation,” and questions why we perceive certain dialects as inferior.
By these standards, an argument could be made that Gollum’s speech should not be condemned as lesser but instead acknowledged as different. It is for this reason that Tolkien’s scene remains pertinent today. He relied on readers’ perceptions of language to clue them into Gollum and Bilbo’s differing statuses—a system of judgement that we continue to perpetuate. Although a regulatory system is imperative to clear communication, we nevertheless must consider how we use grammar and whether such linguistic segregation is still applicable. After all, as our use of language evolves, shouldn’t we also adapt our perceptions?
The scholarship and prevalence of linguistic differentiation and distinction demonstrate the impact of these seemingly slight differences. They shape our perception of a person’s character and guide our ability to interpret and judge a scene. As our language and communication methods evolve, it seems critical that we consider not only how we want to be perceived, but that we question what systems are responsible for such judgements.
These linguistic tells are also a vital component when it comes to the successful development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As our verbal exchanges grow in number and complexity, we are inadvertently training our virtual assistants like Google, Siri, and Alexa. They are learning not only how to recognize our unique speech patterns and accents but also how to communicate with us. Other AI seeps into our writing, shaping our communication from simple autocorrections to editing tools, like Grammarly. Some programs not only suggest these ‘corrections,’ but also craft our messages with features like Gmail’s Smart Compose. Therefore, as AI grows in prevalence, we must consider the impact of the speech patterns that we are imbuing them with and ask what implications these linguistic tells may have.
- Featured image by jim bryson. ↩
- Tolkien, J. R. R, and Douglas A Anderson. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin, 2001. ↩
- Halliday, M.A.K., and Ruqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. Longman, 1976. ↩
- My Fair Lady Broadway Cast. “Overture/Why Can’t the English.” My Fair Lady, Columbia Masterworks Records, 1956. CD. ↩
- Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “‘Nah, We Straight’: An Argument Against Code Switching.” JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, vol. 29, no. 1, ser. 2, 2009, pp. 49–76. 2. ↩
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