Gollum serves as the book’s most significant indication of a much vaster and more dangerous world than what Bilbo would ever have encountered in the Shire. The existence of trolls, goblins, spiders, elves, dwarves, and dragons are known, in theory, to Bilbo, but Gollum offers a far more insidious, less definable danger than what Bilbo has so far encountered. While Gollum and his ring set the stage for much more nuance and backstory to explore in Tolkien’s follow-up trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, his origins remain mysterious in The Hobbit. Even though the primary quest in the book involves the treasure-hoarding dragon Smaug, Gollum offers something different: intellectual and psychological depth.

Keeping in the spirit of epic poems and mythology from which Tolkien drew his inspiration, the characters of The Hobbit are primarily archetypes with clear worldviews and narrative roles. Gollum, by contrast, immediately presents a sense of mystery; his origins are unclear, his speech patterns are very distinct, his obsession with his ring is fanatical and troubled, and even his species is unknown. Gollum appears capable of a more human or hobbit-like logic, as he opting for a riddle-telling challenge rather than something like brute combat. However, his instability is unsettling, even if the book never explicitly goes into detail about the ring’s corrosive powers that occupy much of Tolkien’s next work. Though the payoff won’t come until later, Gollum’s defeat at Bilbo’s hands serves another purpose narratively, in addition to introducing Bilbo to mysterious dangers heretofore unseen: bequeathing upon Bilbo the magical artifact that will be crucial to his efforts throughout the rest of the novel, and beyond.