115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Riddles in the Dark": Queer Desire in The Hobbit

Derek Pacheco, Purdue University

This essay argues that Gollum’s seemingly queer illegibility becomes intelligible within the framework of the discourse of privacy governing heteronormative masculinity.  In the process, the novel strips from normative masculinity the authority of convention and questions the costs of blindly adhering to it. 


            In the chapter of The Hobbit entitled “Riddles in the Dark,” Tolkien informs us: “Even in the tunnels and caves the goblins have made…there are other things living unbeknown to them that have sneaked in from the outside to lie up in the dark” (79). This is an apt description for Gollum, whose retreat “down, down into the dark under the mountains” (81) to live in solitude with his “precious” positions him as the riddle in the dark, the novel’s apotheosis of queer illegibility. Indeed, in the annals of bizarre creations, there would seem to be few queerer than Gollum, of whom the narrator himself—as if to throw up his hands at desires as inscrutable to him as the ring of power whose invisibility the creature wields—confesses, “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was” (79).

            We might be tempted to interpret Gollum’s erotic impulses, his existence on the margins and in “odd corners” (79) under the mountain, as analogous to what Tim Dean characterizes as queer theory’s fundamentally asocial posture, its resistance to the hegemonic forces of communal life. But, as Tolkien’s 1951 revisions accentuating Gollum’s wretchedness suggest, this is no utopian antisocialism. Rather, taking its cue from theorists ranging from T. Walter Herbert to Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, this essay argues that Gollum’s behavior is perfectly intelligible—if, in the novel’s rendition, no less queer—within the framework of the discourse of privacy governing heteronormative masculinity. Indeed, Gollum is but one of a spectrum of male characters, including dwarves, elves, men, and hobbits, who long for “gold beyond price and count” (234). But, in rendering these desires through the prism of fantasy’s “strange-making” powers (Turner & Greenhill 4), and placing them in a world virtually devoid of women, the novel queers normative masculinity, stripping from it the authority of convention and questioning the costs of adhering to it.