Tolkien's legendary series The Lord of the Rings is centered around a magical artifact known as the "One Ring", and part of this story recounts the tale of a Hobbit traveling to destroy this Ring. The ring was first "re-discovered", if you will, by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

The One Ring is shown to be both very destructive and evil in the Lord of the Rings, but it doesn't seem to explicitly manifest itself in The Hobbit. Does the Ring's true nature appear/get foreshadowed in The Hobbit? If so, how?


In the original version of The Hobbit, no.

In any version of the Hobbit, the Ring is not shown to have much effect on Bilbo. He uses it as a useful tool, a way of turning invisible which gets him out of various scrapes and helps him through the story. A simple invisibility ring is an ancient trope in literature, and in The Hobbit the Ring doesn't function as anything else.

In fact, at the time he wrote The Hobbit, Tolkien hadn't yet conceived of the ring as being the vastly important artefact it becomes in The Lord of the Rings. He had already built up a lot of the Middle-earth backstory and mythos by that time, but not the Rings of Power, which were a later invention emerging while he wrote The Lord of the Rings. For this reason, there was certainly no authorial intent to foreshadow the Ring's malevolent power.

Can anything be interpreted from the story in this way, regardless of Tolkien's intent? Well, again sticking to the original (1937) version of the text, no: not only does Bilbo view it only as a useful tool, but even Gollum, who's had it for years, doesn't have any special attachment to it. He willingly offers it as a prize in the riddle contest with Bilbo, and is genuinely sorry that he can't hand it over when he loses:

"Both wrong," cried Bilbo very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. But funnily enough he need not have been alarmed. For one thing Gollum had learned long long ago was never, never, to cheat at the riddle-game, which is a sacred one and of immense antiquity. Also there was the sword. He simply sat and whispered.

"What about the present?” asked Bilbo, not that he cared very much, still he felt that he had won it, pretty fairly, and in very difficult circumstances too.

"Must we give it the thing, preciouss? Yess, we must! We must fetch it, preciouss, and give it the present we promised." So Gollum paddled back to his boat, and Bilbo thought he had heard the last of him. But he had not. The hobbit was just thinking of going back up the passage—having had quite enough of Gollum and the dark water's edge—when he heard him wailing and squeaking away in the gloom. He was on his island (of which, of course, Bilbo knew nothing), scrabbling here and there, searching and seeking in vain, and turning out his pockets.

"Where iss it? Where iss it?" Bilbo heard him squeaking. "Lost, lost, my preciouss, lost, lost! Bless us and splash us! We haven't the present we promised, and we haven't even got it for ourselves."

Bilbo turned round and waited, wondering what it could be that the creature was making such a fuss about. this proved very fortunate afterwards. For Gollum came back and made a tremendous spluttering and whispering and croaking; and in the end Bilbo gathered that Gollum had had a ring—a wonderful, beautiful ring, a ring that he had been given for a birthday present, ages and ages before in the old days when such rings were less uncommon. Sometimes he had it in his pocket; usually he kept it in a little hole in the rock on his island; sometimes he wore it—when he was very, very hungry, and tired of fish, and crept along dark passages looking for stray goblins. The he might even venture into places where the torches were lit and made his eyes blink and smart; for he would be safe. Oh yes! very nearly safe; for if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible; only in the sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that was a faint and shaky sort of shadow.

I don't know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo's pardon. He kept on saying: "We are ssorry; we didn't mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition." He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.

-- The Hobbit, 1st ed. (1937)

So in fact, where the original edition is concerned, we can go further than saying there is no foreshadowing: the text of The Hobbit (1937) is actually inconsistent with the Ring's malevolent nature as described in The Lord of the Rings. Even Bilbo and Frodo, after bearing the Ring for some years, are unable to relinquish it even when they know they must. Gollum is a pitiful wreck consumed by his desire for the Ring, and he had it for centuries longer than them; it's completely implausible, in the context of the portrayal in The Lord of the Rings, that he would be willing to relinquish it as a prize in a riddle game.

Tolkien actually retconned the text of The Hobbit.

After writing The Lord of the Rings during the late 1930s and early 1940s, of course Tolkien was aware of the discrepancy between the portrayal of Gollum's relationship with the Ring in the two texts. He wrote about it in a letter to his publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, dated 31 July 1947:

Rayner [the publisher's son] has, of course, spotted a weakness (inevitable): the linking. I am glad that he thinks that the linking has on the whole been well done. The is the best that could be hoped. I have done the best I could, since I had to have hobbits (whom I love), and must still have a glimpse of Bilbo for old times' sake. But I don't feel worried by the discovery that the ring was more serious than appeared; that is just the way of all easy ways out. Nor is it Bilbo's actions, I think, that need explanation. The weakness is Gollum, and his action in offering the ring as a present. [...] The proper way to negotiate the difficulty would be slightly to remodel the former story [The Hobbit] in its chapter V [Riddles in the Dark]. That is not a practical question; though I certainly hope to leave behind me the whole thing revised and in its final form, for the world to throw into the waste-paper basket.

-- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 109

In the same year Tolkien sent his publisher a revised version of the riddle chapter from The Hobbit, "for the possible amusement of yourself and Rayner" (Letter 111, 21 September 1947). He was not actually expecting it to be published in a revised edition, and the publisher did this on his own initiative. Tolkien's response to seeing the second edition was one of surprise, as seen in the following letter dated 1 August 1950:

The Hobbit: I return the proofs herewith. They did not require much correction, but did need some consideration. The thing took me much by surprise. It is now a long while since I sent in the proposed alteration of Chapter V, and tentatively suggested the slight remodelling of the original Hobbit. [...] However, I never heard any more about it at all; and I assumed that alteration of the original book was ruled out. The sequel now depends on the earlier version; and if the revision is really published, there must follow some considerable rewriting of the sequel.

I must say that I could wish that I had had some hint (in any circumstances) this change might be made, before it burst on me in page proof. However, I have now made up my mind to accept the change and its consequences. The thing is now old enough for me to take a fairly impartial view, and it seems to me that the revised version is in itself better, in motive and narrative - and certainly would make the sequel (if ever published) much more natural.

-- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 128

In the revised text, for the second edition published in 1951, Gollum's obsession and addiction to the Ring is knowingly foreshadowed. Other revisions were made in this and subsequent editions, but only minor ones: the main change in the text was this one to Chapter V, "Riddles in the Dark".

There is even an in-universe explanation for Tolkien's retconning regarding the Ring. In The Lord of the Rings, it is revealed that Bilbo originally lied about how he acquired the Ring, telling the story that was included as fact in the original edition of The Hobbit. As Gandalf says:

I wondered often how Gollum came by a Great Ring, as plainly it was--that at least was clear from the first. Then I heard Bilbo's strange story of how he had 'won' it, and I could not believe it. When I at last got the truth out of him, I saw at once that he had been trying to put his claim to the ring beyond doubt.

-- The Lord of the Rings, Chapter 2: "Shadows of the Past"

So in the end, as one might expect from an author as careful and diligent as Tolkien, everything fits together in a sort-of consistent way within the story even after a major retcon of the text.

Consistency yes, but foreshadowing?

All the above shows that Tolkien made sure the revised text of The Hobbit was at least consistent with the story of The Lord of the Rings, with Gollum's ring being a thing of immense corrupting power. But does the revised text actually actively foreshadow the revelations of The Lord of the Rings?

Here's the first time the ring is mentioned in The Hobbit (1951 edition):

He wanted it because it was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible; only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint.

"My birthday-present! It came to me on my birthday, my precious." So he had always said to himself. But who knows how Gollum came by that present, ages ago in the old days when such rings were still at large in the world? Perhaps even the Master who ruled them could not have said.

This is the clearest foreshadowing of the Ring being an important and powerful object, even referring directly to Sauron, the Lord of the Rings himself. It's notable that the original text "when such rings were less uncommon" has been changed to "when such rings were still at large in the world". The former phrase suggests that the ring was at some time nothing special; the latter phrase suggests that it is, at the least, one of a group of special things, "a ring of power".

It can also be argued that there's some foreshadowing in Gollum's obsession with the ring, "the only thing he had ever cared for" (then again, the only pretty thing down in that cave), and his insanity and talking to himself as a consequence of its effect (then again, perhaps natural for a strange creature living alone in a cave for so long), as well as in Bilbo's lying to the others about how he got the ring (then again, wanting to impress the dwarves could also have been his original motivation in not telling them about it). But, given my parentheticals above, I think the clearest hints towards the Ring's power are in the paragraphs I've quoted.

Further reading

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Once Tolkien revised it, it was (slightly) foreshadowed by the way Bilbo lied about the ring. In the first edition, once Gollum lost the contest, he tried to give Bilbo the ring and was ashamed that he could not

I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon. He kept on saying: “We are ssorry; we didn’t mean to cheat, we meant to give it our only only pressent, if it won the competition.” He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.

Revised, of course,

“Where iss it? Where iss it?” Bilbo heard him crying. “Losst it is, my precious, lost lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!”

This, of course, turns on the in-universe explanation that Bilbo wrote the story.

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