Unable to find the ring, Gollum suspects the hobbit of stealing it and runs at him in a rage. Through sheer luck, Bilbo happens to slip on the ring, and Gollum runs right past him. Realizing the ring’s power, Bilbo follows Gollum, who heads toward the exit thinking that Bilbo is ahead of him. When Gollum gets near the exit, he stops because there are goblins crowded around it. Bilbo leaps over him, runs past the goblins unnoticed thanks to the ring, and just barely manages to squeeze through the door into freedom and fresh air.
The uniform wickedness demonstrated by the goblins in Chapter 4 affirms the connection between race and moral tendencies in Tolkien’s fantasy world. The different races of Middle-Earth possess specific moral characteristics, so that goblins, who are infamous for their ability to make cruel weapons and instruments of torture, are evil, and elves are good. There are no exceptions. The races of Middle-Earth also possess qualities that have little direct bearing on their overall moral standing. Hobbits love food, for instance, and dwarves love gold. Again, there are no exceptions.
The characteristics of the races result primarily from the mythic theology of Middle-Earth. Under this theology, the gods create certain creatures for very specific purposes. Each race also has a particular relationship with nature. Of the various characters Tolkien depicts, Bilbo seems to be the only one capable of making complex moral choices that test the boundaries of his race.
Bilbo’s heroism is somewhat dubious, for though he behaves heroically, his acts seem to be the result of luck, or else destiny, rather than effort on his part. He seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In his first encounter with the goblins, for example, Bilbo proves useful by shouting enough to awaken Gandalf, who, in turn, ends up saving the whole company. Bilbo is credited for helping the whole party when his companions were unable to do so, even though it was only his chance awakening that enabled him to warn everyone.
Bilbo’s unintentional heroism is most evident in his discovery of the magic ring. In the history of Middle-Earth, this discovery is the most important event in the novel. Though neither Bilbo nor Gollum (the ring’s previous holder) are aware of it, the ring is in fact an object of awesome power. Created by the Dark Lord Sauron, who appears in The Hobbit as the Necromancer of Mirkwood, the ring is central to Sauron’s attempt to conquer and corrupt the world. The ring is pivotal to the plot of The Lord of the Rings. In The Hobbit, its greater importance is only hinted at when Tolkien cryptically comments that Bilbo’s discovery of the ring is a turning point in his career.
Gollum’s whiny, hissing style of speech marks him as one of the novel’s most unique and memorable characters. Gollum’s riddle game is itself another example of Tolkien’s interaction with epic literature in The Hobbit. Riddles and riddle games are familiar features of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian epics, in which heroes are defined almost as much by their prowess with words as they are by their prowess with swords. In fact, many of the riddles exchanged by Bilbo and Gollum come directly from ancient Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon poems. Bilbo’s victory in the riddle game is an important step in his development, but the eccentric manner in which he wins is closer to that of modern comedy than to that of ancient epic. Bilbo baffles Gollum with the question, “What have I got in my pocket?,” which is, of course, not a true riddle at all. A true riddle must contain clues necessary to solve it. Gollum, with his purely ancient sensibilities, cannot even challenge Bilbo’s question, let alone answer it.