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NOTE: This is only a rough draft. Edits are still occurring, the conclusion has yet to be written, and all constructive comments are welcome!
Edited: version 4/7/13

Ring Thieves: The Hobbit as a Defense of the Trickster
By illwynd

It is well known that Middle-earth, the world of Tolkien’s sprawling fantasy epic, draws heavily from real-world mythology, and particularly from Germanic mythology. From direct usages (such as names from the Eddas for his Dwarves) to the merely suggestive (like parallels between the Valier and the Asynjur), Tolkien’s background as a philologist and a scholar of Germanic mythology is readily apparent. However, this is not to say that Tolkien’s works are merely an uprooting of these elements to place into his own potted soil for an invented mythology; the Lord of the Rings is not the Poetic Edda of Pierre Menard. Many elements are repurposed, their poetry and impact channeled into new meanings, or reenvisioned to fit better into Tolkien’s own worldview.[1] There is one case, though, in which the use of these mythological elements can be read as an explicit defense of a character type: that of the much-maligned trickster. This is accomplished largely through the characters of Bilbo Baggins and Gollum and their roles both in The Hobbit and in the wider arc of the fate of Sauron’s ring.

So what makes Bilbo and Gollum tricksters? In fact, what is a trickster at all? They’re a familiar archetype, one found in mythologies and other stories from various traditions around the world, but this broad array of trickster tales means that it is nearly impossible to pin down a precise set of characteristics to delineate and define the group. Instead, though, we can take a couple of different approaches. We can look at a number of traits and underlying motivations that are commonly shared by trickster characters and see if, holistically, the label appears to make sense for these two of Tolkien’s characters. And also, we can look specifically at the trickster character who Tolkien might have been most familiar with—Loki from Norse mythology—and seek parallels between their stories. Once their status as tricksters has been established and after their relationship with Loki has been described, we can then investigate how these two characters in Tolkien’s works both illuminate a particular view of the trickster’s place in the world and critique a popular treatment of the trickster as inherently malicious, dangerous, and irredeemably evil.

As stated above, it is difficult to pin down precisely what makes a trickster. It is not merely the playing of tricks and the working of deceptions; if it were, every con artist and magician in the world would be a trickster, but that can hardly be said to be the case. However, tricksters all overlap to some extent, sharing parts of an array of traits and a more limited cluster of underlying motivations. They are resourceful problem-solvers, quick and clever, particularly with words; they can talk their way out of trouble. Moreover, they are quite frequently able to come up with solutions that others miss, and this is possible because they are not constrained by societal norms and expectations—to invoke a terrible cliché, they can think outside the box—and they are willing to breach protocols, cross boundaries, and poke holes in the pretensions of the powerful to achieve their objectives. They are usually not the typical fighter type, yet they survive by their wits—and can also be quite dangerous when threatened, as their lack of regard for boundaries means they will fight dirty if necessary. On the other hand, they have a unquenchable hunger for amusement, which is where the more lighthearted pranks often come in, and they often have exaggerated appetites in other areas as well. They also tend to be self-focused,[2] mostly concerned with their own wellbeing and satisfaction rather than broad-scope issues (which is not to say that they never behave altruistically). One final and very telling trait is that their cleverness and inquisitiveness winds them in hot water as often as it gets them out of it. Their tricks backfire, unintended consequences erupt in unexpected places, and even when they harm others they are likely the one who ends up suffering the most.

These characteristics put together do create a seemingly whole picture; however, there is another level that often goes unmentioned: all of the above traits tie into the substrate of the trickster, which is that they are marginal, liminal outsiders.[3] They are border-dwellers, not quite part of any community in which they find themselves. This allows them to see clearly the social rules that are prohibiting those transgressive solutions (and just how arbitrary and nonsensical they really are)—but their status on the margins means that they are never quite accepted, and they are vulnerable to being run out of town (or worse) when they cross the wrong line or offend the wrong person. (This is why tricksters in stories are often wanderers: they have been driven off, completely rejected by wherever they came from. Being marginal also means that they are, by definition, not leaders or holders of institutional power and are thus unable to resist the force of the community—although the trickster has a close cousin who does typically hold such power: the shaman figure. More on that later.) Yet it doesn’t mean that they have no desire to belong. Quite the opposite, in fact. And oftentimes the rejection and ostracism they face breeds terrible resentments—which can lead to the more mean-spirited sorts of tricks, breeding yet more rejection and ostracism. All of this can create for the trickster a perpetually tenuous position characterized by conflicting wants and impulses thwarting their own fulfillment

So how well does Bilbo fit this set of traits? How well does Gollum? At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo seems to fit not at all: he is a Baggins, which means he never does anything unpredictable.[4] He is a respected member of the insular community of the Shire. His Tookish side seems well-buried. Yet he is somewhat isolated and somewhat unusual by dint of being a bachelor and being upper class. And anyway, Gandalf is able to see that there is more there within him, and Bilbo’s trickster characteristics come into bloom when he begins his adventure with the Dwarves. Once he joins the party, he fits many more of the above traits before he so much as attempts to pick a troll’s pocket: he is, among the Dwarves, indubitably the oddball, a member of Thorin’s company yet not quite one of them. Not to mention that he is given the decidedly trickster-flavored job of being the burglar: a transgressive, rule-breaking role that is all about deception, quickness, and cleverness.

As time goes on, and particularly after he gains the ring, he displays even more trickster characteristics: time and again, he rescues the Dwarves through transgressive, rule-breaking solutions. In some cases, the nature of the transgression is the use of the ring itself: even before it takes on its more sinister aspect (far later, in LotR, when Gandalf realizes what precisely Bilbo’s ring is), Bilbo keeps its existence secret, hiding how he accomplishes the seemingly impossible tricks of wandering around Thranduil’s dungeons unseen or stealing cups from dragons. In other cases, it is different: sneaking the Dwarves out of prison by hiding them in wine barrels seems the epitome of the sort of clever, out-of-the-box solution that tricksters excel at—at least until his later trick, in which he attempts to con the Dwarves, Elves, and Men into reaching a peace through the theft and exchange of the Arkenstone. He has to violate the bonds of trust and friendship that had grown between him and the company to do it (not to mention violating standards of honorable behavior in favor of his own ideals), but no straightforward method would have worked with all sides eager for a bloody and terrible war that no Hobbit would want to be involved in, much less lose friends to. So that was what he did. With all this in mind, it becomes simple to see Bilbo as a trickster character, albeit a benevolent one. And if one had any doubts, the later legend that became of him after he was gone from the Shire—the tale of the Mad Baggins who disappeared in a firework flash and returned with chests full of treasure—seems to seal the deal: instead of settling back into respectability upon his return home, he is forever after his adventure an eccentric in the Shire, never quite an accepted member of that staid community again.[5] And finally, his greatest trick does at last begin to backfire as the ring takes deeper hold. Without Gandalf’s timely intervention, it seems likely that Bilbo would have come to a bad end.

And what, then, of Gollum? From what we know of Smeagol’s life before the ring came to him, he was always a bit of a weirdo among his own Hobbit-ancestor people along the banks of the Anduin. He was extremely curious and inquisitive, and interested in the roots of things, in digging down into the earth; through these interests and traits he is marginal. When the ring appears in his life, though, is when his trickster characteristics manifest more strongly. And from the first it is clear that this is not such a pleasant version of the trickster, beginning with the extremely transgressive solution he comes up with to acquire the ring: the murder of the friend who possesses it. What happens afterward, when he discovers that the ring makes him invisible, is equally telling:


“He was very pleased with his discovery and he concealed it; and he used it to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses. He became sharp-eyed and keen-eared for all that was hurtful… It is not to be wondered at that he became very unpopular and was shunned (when visible) by all his relations. They kicked him, and he bit their feet. He took to thieving… and his grandmother, desiring peace, expelled him from the family and turned him out of her hole.” (FotR 79)


There is of course less to say about his time in the depths under the mountain, except that even after all that time living as a recluse, when the opportunity comes to play a game—a riddle game, one that relies on both cleverness and skill with words—he is pleased at the company and the entertainment and enjoys it for more than the potential for a Hobbit dinner at the end. This is the first time in hundreds of years that he has spoken to anyone but himself, and we see that the more lighthearted side of him—the part that remembers friends and games and not being a murderer—is still apparently alive within him.

When he emerges later after the loss of his precious, his darker trickster characteristics come to the fore again: he uses cunning and trickery to escape from the Elves after he has been captured, and again to escape from Sauron’s Orcs. He survives by his wits, violating every rule necessary to stay alive (to the horror of villagers living at the edge of Mirkwood, apparently he finds his meals in cradles). Yet by this time, after so long as an outcast, brooding in the dark over everything that happened and that he brought on himself, he is wholly tormented by the trickster conflict of wanting to belong, wanting love and acceptance, yet resenting the world that rejected him. It is all heightened by the ring’s influence, to the point where he shows two separate personalities by the time Frodo and Sam take him as their guide—one that is obsequious and eager to please and another that is nasty and spiteful and sullen. And while he doesn’t know their true aim, Gollum’s service to Frodo as guide, as the only one able to help him find a way into Mordor, the only one able to solve Frodo’s problem through his cunning and guile, is just as much a trickster action as his secret plan of getting the ring back without breaking his promise by leading Frodo into a trap and then fishing out the ring from the bones left behind from Shelob’s feast. And finally, although it is not a matter of intent, Gollum’s accidental fall into the molten heart of Mount Doom is a perfect example of how the trickster’s plots so often backfire and wind up harming him more than anyone else: because he is an outsider, set in opposition to the desires and good of the group (in this case, Middle-earth as a whole), this sort of failure in which he nearly gets what he wants yet slips up or otherwise falls victim to unintended consequences has a tendency to work in everyone else’s favor. And it is so here: it is only through Gollum’s interference that Frodo’s quest succeeds.

So it does indeed appear that both Bilbo and Gollum can be classed among tricksters in these stories. But there is more to tell in the particular parallels between these two trickster characters and the main trickster in the mythology from which Tolkien pulled so heavily in creating Middle-earth. And there is a readily apparent point of contact at which Tolkien may have directly used elements of Loki’s stories in the creation of Bilbo and Gollum’s: the theft of the ring. The ring in question, in the case of Loki, was the ring Andvarinaut (as appears in the Volsung saga and Wagner’s Ring Cycle). We can be certain that Tolkien was quite familiar with this tale, as he wrote a translation of the Volsung saga using Old Norse poetic meter with English text (The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun).

It may be worthwhile at this point to summarize this part of the tale for those who may not be familiar with it: It begins in the early days of the world, when Odin, the Allfather of the Norse gods, wandered on adventures with Hoenir (another god, known for silence) and Loki (who is not originally one of the gods but instead a giant, one of the enemies of the gods. Yet he leaves Jotunheim for reasons that are never explained—perhaps like most tricksters he was driven out—and became blood-brothers with Odin). The trio find themselves by a river, and there Loki sees an otter that had caught a fish; seeing an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, he kills the otter and takes the fish as well. However, it turns out that the otter was actually a shapeshifter named Otr, so that night when the three gods turn up asking for hospitality at the house of Hreidmar, Otr’s father, carrying a brand-new otter-skin bag, there is trouble: Odin and Hoenir are chained while Loki is sent to fetch a ransom of gold, enough to cover the otter skin completely. To do this, Loki goes back to the river, catches a fish who happens to be the dwarf Andvari in disguise, and forces Andvari to take him back to his cave and give Loki all his gold. When Andvari tries to hold back a special ring that produces gold and with which he can rebuild his treasure, Loki demands it anyway; in a rage-driven response, Andvari curses the ring as he hands it over, saying that everyone who possessed it would be cursed with woe. This last ruthless action of Loki’s in the stickup, taking even the final piece of gold, turns out to be absolutely necessary, though, as it is the ring that covers the last hair of Otr’s pelt and wins the freedom of Loki’s friends. All told, Loki solves the problem he caused inadvertently caused, at least as far as the wandering trio are concerned. Yet this solution sets in motion great tragedy for others as the curse is passed from hand to hand.

At first glance, this story appears to have little to do with Smeagol or Bilbo’s acquisition of the ring of Sauron, aside from the fact that (as Tolkien said) both rings are round. Yet there are strong situational parallels between Loki’s killing of Otr and Smeagol’s murder of Deagol, and there are equally strong similarities between Loki’s theft of the ring from Andvari and Bilbo’s finding of the ring in Gollum’s cave. Some of these similarities might in other circumstances be dismissed as merely coincident details, but the nature of Tolkien’s frequent borrowing from Norse mythology makes this a notable marker: however they are reshaped, shared elements are undoubtedly present.

Loki’s killing of Otr and Smeagol’s murder of Deagol share a setting: the act of fishing by a riverside in a relatively isolated location, leading to a death. Looking deeper at the motives involved, there is one that is shared at least loosely—some form of greed is active in both cases. Loki is greedy to have both a fish to eat and a new otter-skin purse; Smeagol, on the other hand, is greedy to have the gleaming gold ring in his friend’s hand. It would be difficult to argue that the inherent malice in killing an otter and murdering a friend are equivalent. Yet despite the differences, there is a shared feeling of coldness in the acts in both of Tolkien’s descriptions. In Tolkien’s translation, Loki’s feelings and motives in this scene are described in very nonchalant terms: “With stone struck him, stripped him naked / Loki lighthanded, loosing evil” (Legend 67). Similarly, when Deagol says he intends to keep the ring, Smeagol answers with coldblooded murder:


“‘Oh, are you indeed, my love,’ said Smeagol; and he caught Deagol by the throat and
strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful” (FotR 78).


As such, despite the brevity of the scene in both cases, there is a clear parallel drawn between Loki and Smeagol in their self-centered focus on their own wants and their ability to be casually violent when motivated to it. In both cases, also, this act is the initiation of problems that Loki and Gollum later must solve.
   
Similarly, Loki’s theft of Andvarinaut and Bilbo’s discovery of the ring are united by setting. Both incidents occur in a cave, and in both cases the trickster is separated from friends who are themselves in peril. However, where Loki demands the ring in an act of purposeful robbery, Bilbo’s hand only happens to meet the lost ring as he gropes in the dark; all he means to do is get out and find his way to safety or to the Dwarves (or hopefully both). So what can these two actions possibly share? Here we should note that while Bilbo’s discovery of the ring on the ground is innocent enough, how he withholds it after realizing that it was Gollum’s lost “birthday present” and how he stakes his claim upon it in the context of a riddle game at which he, in a sense, cheated (as Bilbo acknowledges, his final question was not a riddle at all) begin to look far more similar to the ruthless opportunism in which Loki engaged. Both pairs are forced into violent antagonism by circumstances—while Andvari and Gollum naturally wish to protect their property, Loki must find a way to get the gold to rescue his friends and Bilbo must find a way out of the cave without getting eaten, and if that means they must lie, cheat, or steal, then that is what they will do. This final similarity is highlighted by, in both cases, the ring’s former owner invoking a curse upon its thieves.

With these points of contact, other connections between the three ring thieves can be discovered. One such is in the friendships and associations that they form—particularly as deep, lasting relationships are relatively rare for trickster characters. This is in part because they are strange, untrustworthy, prone to disregarding social rules, and likely to wind up upsetting those around them through their trickery, and in part because they find it difficult to really identify with others who are so unlike them and (in the trickster’s opinion) so dull and complacent. Only two really important, meaningful relationships seem to be formed between Loki and others in Asgard: with Odin, and with Thor. Although the myths leave many of the details hazy, it is known that long ago Loki and Odin spent a lot of time traveling and adventuring together, as quite a few tales involve these travels. It is also known that the two swore blood-brotherhood—an extreme step indicating a very strong bond. So what was it about Odin that made it possible for the two to become so close? The quality that seems the most likely factor is the fact that, in terms of archetype, Odin is a shaman: one who is in possession of mystical wisdom and who uses that wisdom in cunning ways to nudge others into desirable actions. As mentioned before, the shaman archetype is a close cousin to the trickster, often employing very similar methods and possessing a similar ability to cross boundaries and disregard social rules, although a significant difference exists in the underlying motives and ultimate aims of the two: the trickster is a loner out for his own good, while the shaman is a leader intent on giving the community the medicine it needs, even when it is unpalatable. Yet their similarities make it possible for the two to understand each other in ways that others cannot, and this is a feeling that both may crave, set apart from others as they usually are.

The parallel of Loki’s relationship with Odin is Bilbo’s relationship with Gandalf in The Hobbit. On a surface level, it is worth noting that Gandalf even looks much like the way Odin is usually depicted—an old, bearded wanderer with a cloak and staff—and this seems to have been an intentional translation of Odin into Middle-earth, as Tolkien himself once described Gandalf as “an Odinic wanderer” (Letters no. 107). In terms of character and actions, it is also clear that Gandalf fits the shamanic archetype well: while Gandalf is the direct doer of relatively few of the deeds of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he is the instigator of nearly all of them, bringing the right people together at the right time in the case of both Thorin’s company and the Fellowship, and providing wise counsel to nearly everyone who will listen. He is quite literally a border-crosser, wandering across all the lands of Middle-earth (and coming away with the array of names to prove it—another point of similarity with Odin), and as a Maia his access to mystical wisdom is unquestionable. And even when, as in his selection of Bilbo as the lucky number of Thorin’s company, his interference is at least initially unpalatable and lands the recipient in unwanted troubles, it is done not for Gandalf’s own good or amusement but for the benefit of all. (As an aside, Bilbo being lucky number 14 is another point of connection to Loki: it is believed that the number 13 is considered unlucky because Loki was numbered thirteenth of the gods of Asgard. One might speculate that Tolkien’s use of this number as a plot point to justify the need for Bilbo’s inclusion in the company is a direct indication that this depiction of tricksters in the character of Bilbo is meant to be corrective of the general view of tricksters as a type.)

So we have, in The Hobbit, a trickster character and a shaman character in close proximity, and they do indeed turn into very close friends, relying upon each other and coming to understand each other well. Gandalf has great faith that Bilbo will be exactly what Thorin’s company needs, and in his own words he is “quite fond” of him (Hobbit 287), but moreover he is able to understand and read Bilbo better than any of the rest of the company (or, likely, any other Hobbits) could. For instance, he is able to spot that Bilbo has left the ring out of his tale of his escape from Gollum in the cave, perhaps even guessing the nature of the omission, yet out of caution or shared respect between the burglar and the wizard of the company (the two who are set apart from the others) he keeps mum on what he has guessed. Bilbo, likewise, begins the tale with wary respect for the wandering wizard but otherwise barely remembers him, yet he comes to form a deep and lifelong friendship with Gandalf over the course of the adventure

However, shaman characters are not the only sort to which tricksters may be drawn. As mentioned, the other character with whom Loki formed an abiding relationship was Thor, god of thunder in Norse mythology. As with Odin, the pair frequently traveled together on adventures, yet the flavor of their interactions seems rather different from those of Loki and Odin. While with Odin we often see the two applying themselves to the same task in a way that demonstrates their similarities and their subtle but crucial differences (as in Loka Tattur), Loki’s interactions with Thor emphasize the complementariness of their vastly different skills and perspectives (as in Thrymskvida). This is because in terms of archetype, Thor can be classed as a heroic character more than anything else. Like most heroes, he frequently goes on journeys with a particular desired goal (such as reclaiming his hammer after it had been stolen by giants) rather than the aimless wandering of Loki or Odin. Also, he does not possess any particular mystic wisdom: his advantages lie in his great strength, his boundless fortitude, and his honest and straightforward outlook on life. While he has a ferocious temper, he is above all known for being a defender of others, and part of the explanation for his popularity among heathen worshippers was the fact of his trustworthiness, dependability, and compassion.

These, however, stand in stark contrast to the qualities of both trickster and shaman, as is demonstrated by one interpretation of the story of the journey to Utgard: on this journey, Utgard-Loki (not the Loki with whom Thor travels; the name may suggest that this person is the trickster figure of Utgard) challenges Thor to wrestle an old woman, lift a cat, and drain a drinking horn. Thor, shamefully, fails each challenge. It is only later that Utgard-Loki reveals that the old woman was in fact a personification of old age, which no one can best; the cat was in fact the gigantic serpent that encircles the world, whose tail Thor did incredibly manage to lift a few inches; and the end of the drinking horn was connected to the sea, which dropped slightly as a result of Thor’s mighty thirst. The meaning of this revelation is not just a vindication of Thor’s strength and ability: it is equally noteworthy that Thor was not able to see through these ruses, approaching them as physical challenges without any suspicion that he was being duped. Some scholars have suggested that Utgard-Loki may have in fact been Odin in disguise, rubbing Thor’s face in his naivety and guilelessness. Even if this is not so, the incident does serve as a good display of that part of Thor’s nature. These heroic qualities, while they do not lead to the same level of mutual understanding as exists between shaman and trickster, do make Thor an appealing companion to Loki.

The reason behind this is that, as has been mentioned, their qualities are complementary rather than parallel. While the trickster offers the hero his unique brand of sly and transgressive assistance on the hero’s tasks, the temperament of the hero offers the trickster a chance at acceptance and real friendship—things that have been thought out of reach for so long that the trickster has trouble believing that they are real, yet they are so deeply desired that the possibility is hard to resist. In Norse myth, this exchange is best depicted in Thrymskvida, in which Thor’s hammer is stolen by a giant and he must dress in drag to get it back, pretending to be the bride demanded by the giant as ransom. While the drag getup is not Loki’s idea (surprisingly), Loki is the one able to come along with Thor as his far-more-convincing “handmaiden,” answering the giant’s suspicious queries with quick-witted ease. And once Loki has weaseled them both into the giant’s trust enough for the hammer to be brought out, Thor’s strength and skill at fighting enable them to kill the giant and make their getaway.  In this tale, their skills clearly complement each other, but their needs likewise mesh in a similar way. For Thor, the need was to reclaim his hammer (and perhaps to not be the only one in drag, for the sake of his dignity). For Loki, the need being satisfied was somewhat subtler. The trickster certainly got a kick out of seeing the much-lauded thunder god compelled to dress as a blushing bride, yet it is not hard to imagine the hidden thrill beneath that: while well aware that Loki was laughing at his predicament, Thor did not hold it against him or retaliate in any way; instead he accepted it as part of Loki’s trickster nature. With Thor, Loki did not have to pretend to be honest or straightforward, yet he could feel assured of the thunder god’s true reacceptance of him after transgressions.[6] And that would have been rare indeed.

The parallel of Loki’s relationship with Thor for Gollum does not in fact occur until the time of The Lord of the Rings, and it comes in Gollum’s relationship with Frodo. It must be noted that this relationship diverges far from the relationship of Loki and Thor, yet a few crucial notes are still carried across. Some of the difference comes from the characters; the rest stems from the vastly different situations. Firstly, while he does indeed have a quest with a specific goal, Frodo is undeniably a different sort of hero from Thor. He is a dramatic hero rather than an iconic one.[7] He is kind, fair-minded, stout-hearted, and determined—but he is not a god, not the strongest, and comes from no special lineage. Frodo’s heroism is a quiet and unassuming kind—exactly what is needed to slip past the enemy’s defenses—and he is able to see intuitively that destroying the ring is the only real option. With a calm and straightforward understanding, he accepts that he has to do it and can’t shirk the duty; he protects others by not allowing fear to make him refuse or falter. And it is this heroic nature (combined with earlier tutelage from Gandalf) that allows him to trust Gollum when the two do meet: once he has seen him, Frodo understands what it means to pity Gollum, and instead of killing him, he trusts Gollum to lead him onward (at least, after a promise has been extracted that Smeagol can’t wriggle out of—something that tricksters are, after all, quite good at doing) and treats him kindly on the journey, thus offering Gollum a measure of acceptance and a chance to be “cured” as Gandalf once suggested might still barely be possible for him (FotR 80).

It has been noted that as two of the three living mortals who have possessed the ring for any real stretch of time, Frodo and Smeagol have a basis for understanding each other’s plight, and this is true as far as it goes: they are both able to understand the weight and the lure of the ring. Yet this understanding is limited in scope, and it might be better described as fostering an ability to feel compassion for each other and to respond to each other’s emotions. Frodo, as the hero, responds to Gollum’s wretchedness with pity, mercy, and a certain strain of protectiveness (as when he tells Faramir not to let his Rangers kill Gollum in the forbidden pool); Smeagol, as the trickster, responds to Frodo’s unexpected gestures of trust and acceptance with an eagerness to please, doing what he can to win Frodo’s approval, “like a whipped cur whose master has patted it” (TTT 266). The extent to which this relationship affects Smeagol becomes very apparent in the brief moment on the approach to Cirith Ungol. He comes across Frodo and Sam asleep and touches Frodo tenderly on the knee, seeming to regret his plan, and in that instant he appears as “an old weary Hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing” (TTT 382). Sam’s distrust in the next moment, though, calling him a sneak, reminds him of himself and undoes this change. Regardless, Gollum’s relationship with Frodo (while it lasts) is clearly the first thing approaching closeness that Gollum has shared with anyone since before he acquired the ring.

So we have seen that both Bilbo and Gollum fit the archetype of trickster, and likewise we have explored the connections between these two characters and the trickster of Norse mythology in terms of their important relationships to others and their original thefts of the ring. But what picture of tricksters does all this describe? And what interpretation might it be said to be struggling against? Again we can look to Loki for at least some of the answer, in the form of the popular and scholarly discourse around the Norse trickster god.

It is difficult to approach Norse myths without acknowledging the impact of history on the stories as we know them now.[8] This is of course true of any mythology (particularly in an oral tradition, where changes can occur subtly over time, leaving no evidence of the alteration behind) in that all such tales reflect the lived experiences and social world of the people who told them. But with Norse mythology, the lack of much solid information about the beliefs and practices of Norse heathenism is compounded by the fact that the Christianization of Scandinavia occurred at just around the time at which the first surviving versions of these myths were being written down. As such, most of the existing interpretations of the mythological figures must be understood to be influenced by this event, and it is an open question how much Christian influence is mingled in the waters of these tales. Loki in particular has been fertile ground for speculation in this area. It is known that upon contact with Christianity, the trickster gods of various religions—with their penchant for irreverence, shamelessness, and doing damage to the more respectable and comprehensible gods—have been reinterpreted as demonic and evil figures in line with Christian notions of the devil. And in the case of Loki, if one transplants the tales directly into a Christian worldview it isn’t difficult to understand why this occurred, given his role in the murder of the Christ-like god of light and beauty, Baldr, (not perpetrating it directly but orchestrating it far beyond the point of culpability) as well as his role in the final, world-ending destruction of the gods, Ragnarok (in which Loki leads the armies of the giants and the dead in a great war against the Aesir and personally kills the renowned Heimdall, guardian of the Bifrost bridge). As such, despite his anomalous, ambiguous, and ambivalent character in most of the myths, a common belief has been nurtured that Loki should be viewed as a being of inhuman evil, a force of purely malicious destruction. This is even true among some brands of reconstructionist Heathenism, who heavily discourage the worship of Loki and consider it a dangerous courting of untamable, vicious chaos.

And why not? What harm could these interpretations do? Tolkien, as a devout Catholic who explicitly intended his Middle-earth tales to be Christian stories in a pre-Christian setting (the lack of any churches or other evidence of worship among its inhabitants being but one aspect of this), might be expected to support the reinterpretation of tricksters into personifications of evil along Christian lines. Yet, given his treatment of the two trickster characters that we have identified, this does not appear to be the case. Tolkien’s treatment of Bilbo in The Hobbit instead seems to be designed to highlight the forgotten benevolent aspect of the trickster, while Gollum’s role in The Lord of the Rings as the worst case of a trickster character seems intended as a reminder of the distinction that is ignored in Christian framings of trickster gods as forces of pure demonic evil.

As explored above, in his traits and his actions, Bilbo exemplifies the trickster at his best, with his tricks falling on the range between beneficent and harmless (if annoying to his S-B relations): he uses his quickness and cleverness to extract his friends from scrapes, when not adventuring he amuses himself with harmless hobbies like using his trickster’s language skills for writing poems, and even as an outcast in his community he is merely a good-hearted eccentric. More importantly, at several points he serves as a catalyst for change—another trickster trait, for nothing can remain static for long when a trickster is around—and, particularly, positive change. Bilbo does this not only in the assistance he provides to the Dwarves, which helps them to regain Erebor and free the region from the dragon’s tyranny, but also in his “theft” of the ring, which sets into motion a series of events that in the end allows the whole of Middle-earth to be liberated from the threat of Sauron. In giving this crucial, central role to a trickster in his stories, Tolkien has offered a resurrection of the legitimately good and admirable trickster character who nonetheless retains the ability to be tricksy.

Yet the flip side of this is that Gollum, the essence of trickster characters at their worst, can also serve to reform the popular image of the trickster in a different and perhaps unexpected way. As we meet him in The Hobbit, Gollum is a very illaudable character: he lives a miserable, wretched existence in the bowels of the mountain, strangling stray goblins for food and muttering to himself about his Precious, the only companion he has left. In LotR, we see again his capacity for murder and his willingness to cheat and trick to get what he wants, with no regard for anyone else. Yet the reader is explicitly reminded by Gandalf that despite all this, we should not be too eager to see harsh and deadly justice dealt to him. And this is not because he wouldn’t deserve it; he does. Instead Gandalf suggests that mercy is the right answer for several reasons: because Gollum is not yet completely beyond reform, because his story is a sad one and his condition pitiable, and also because of his ability to serve as a catalyst for change: Gandalf says, “my heart tells me that he still has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end” (FotR 86). His point is proven with Gollum’s serendipitous end, which even Gandalf could not foresee: although it turned out that he could not be cured, still, even as a villain, he was able to unwittingly save all of Middle-earth with one clumsy misstep at the edge of the fire. But one supposes that even when the fate of the world does not hang in the balance, still this advice would hold.

And what, in fact, of the ring? We have already noted the connection between these characters in that they are all ring thieves, but is there anything to look at in their relationship to the ring itself and what it represents? The clearest and most relevant explanation of the ring’s significance in this case is as a metaphor for the lure of power—and power, of course, is a tricky issue for trickster characters, who are far more familiar with having it used against them than having it themselves. By the time of Lord of the Rings, the ring conveys a blatant offer of power, and every character who is exposed to it feels this pull and considers at least briefly what he or she might do with it—even if, like Samwise, all they envision is tending a garden in the tormented soil of Middle-earth. Yet in only a few cases do we get a chance to find out what they actually do. Bilbo, as we know, does little with it beyond his own homely sphere; he uses it to avoid capture on his adventure and to avoid his S-B relations once back in Hobbiton, and occasionally he uses it for a lighthearted trick. In effect, he uses the ring’s power mostly on himself, in small ways that simplify his life. We are given to understand that part of this is that the ring offers power suited to the stature of the one who holds it. We are also told that the ring took so long to begin affecting Bilbo negatively because he acquired it in such an innocuous way and used it for such moderate purposes.

Yet we can notice that Gollum in fact did not treat the ring’s power so very differently. Although he committed murder to gain this power, he apparently did not return to this extent of wickedness before being turned out of his familial home: he used the ring mainly on himself, to gain a very petty sort of interpersonal leverage by discovering secrets that he could use against members of the community and enacting little vengeances, all for his own gratification. Later, even after centuries of possessing it and being twisted and corrupted by it, Gollum’s intended aim if he were able to regain the ring... is merely to have it. He might imagine a Gollum-ruled paradise of plentiful fish and easy living, yet in this vision other people are no more than hazy shadows on the periphery rather than subjects, followers, or pawns.[9] At its core, Gollum’s desire for power is a dream of self-satisfaction rather than control of others for its own sake. The picture that this creates illuminates the final point in Tolkien’s defense of the trickster: even at his worst, the trickster is not Dark Lord material,[10] even if he might imagine himself as one. This is not because he does not crave power and the respect and material benefits it confers--he does. It is not because he is harmless--he isn’t. But imagining the trickster even at his worst as a demonic evil rather than an all-too-human one made of weaknesses, resentments, and pathetic ambitions does us all a disservice. And it seems that Gandalf, at least, would not have us confuse the two and respond to one as we would to the other.



[1] I am not attempting to claim that the ideas put forward in this essay are things that Tolkien intended to convey or even things he would have necessarily agreed with. Although to some extent it seems likely that both might be true, they are tangential to the argument insofar as the text as he wrote it supports the interpretation. Yay we are all postmodernists now.
[2] Where Paul Radin describes it as the trickster being focused on his own growth and maturation, I would instead call it a focus on his own satisfaction. This may be a case of cultural difference, since Radin was investigating Native American trickster tales and my study is looking mainly at Germanic and Germanic-fantasy tricksters: Wakdjunkaga does mature and develop from an being acting upon drives and instincts into a “fully differentiated” being (and possibly no longer a trickster at all), but such a maturation is not part of Loki’s tale (as it seems he is incapable of true change). It may be that this reflects wider cultural expectations and attitudes about people in general, not just tricksters.
[3] To some extent this essay gives a glancing treatment of many ideas that I hope to go into more fully in the eventual Grand Unified Theory of Loki thesis that I am writing for my Master’s in Tricksterology. (I wish that were actually a thing.) So it is possible that I have gone over some of them too briefly to be convincing; let me know if so and I’ll expand.
[4] At this point I haven’t bothered to cite much of anything beyond direct quotes, so you’ll have to nudge me if there’s anything you particularly need sauce on. All LotR page numbers are from the 1982 mass market Ballantine editions. All The Hobbit page numbers are from the 1973 mass market Ballantine edition.
[5] As something of an aside, it is worth noting that hobbits, as a group, can be seen as sharing some trickster traits in relation to the other species of Middle-earth. They are marginal to the rest of the world. They have bountiful appetites for food and good cheer, and they are willing to look to their own contentment and not care too much about what happens beyond the borders of the Shire. As a people, hobbits are quick and quiet and somewhat sneaky, able to avoid being spotted by the big people. But I digress.
[6] I realize this currently sounds weird. I’m still formulating.
[8] I’d like to mention that I don’t buy into the idea that the earliest possible version of a tale is the “authentic” one and that later versions or interpretations are somehow less important or valid. Particularly when speaking of mythology, the way the tales change offers us insight into the needs, views, and social circumstances of the people telling them, and the fact that they were still told at all after such changes means that someone still found them relevant to their lives. As such I think it’s foolish to spend a lot of time trying to point to a single version as “correct” for the purpose of dismissing any other interpretation. Of course, this line of thinking demands contextualization, which means work and complex answers and ugh.
[9] I have a vague recollection that there is an actual mention of Gollum’s ringlord fantasy in the text but I cannot find it. If anyone knows what I’m talking about, please tell me.
[10] Before anyone looks at me and says “but Annatar!” I’ll say that I don’t think that he actually fills the bill. For that stretch of time in Numenor he was indeed charming and deceptive, yet as I mentioned before, it takes more than that to make a trickster, or else the category would become so broad as to be meaningless. And the underlying strata of feeling and motivation that I have identified among tricksters do not seem to be present in Sauron.

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