If you’re reading The Hobbit as a prequel to Lord of the Rings, this is the chapter you’re looking for. The original version of this chapter is one of the few things by Tolkien that I’ve never read. After writing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien rewrote much of this chapter to bring the two books into alignment. It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t curious about the original version of this chapter, but this version is so iconic that I can’t imagine it any other way.
If you haven’t guessed, this is the chapter where Bilbo finds the Ring. We don’t know it in this book, but it is the One Ring, the Ring of Power, the ring forged by Sauron to control the nine, the seven and the three. It’s kind of a big deal. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
After Bilbo awakens from being knocked unconscious, he gropes his way down a long passage and accidentally picks up the ring. He doesn’t know what it is or think anything about it. He is desperate for a way out of the goblin tunnels. Unfortunately, he hits a dead end in the form of an underground lake.
Much to Bilbo’s surprise and terror, there is a creature living on a small island in the lake. The creature is known as Gollum. Normally, Gollum would have snuck up on Bilbo, killed him and eaten him. Luckily for Bilbo, Gollum had just eaten and had never seen anything like a hobbit before. The two wind up in a game of riddles. If Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo. And if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out.
Reading this on its own, it appears that Bilbo wins by pure luck. He pats his pocket with the ring in it. Having completely forgotten about the ring, he says aloud, “What have I got in my pocket?” Gollum assumes the question is a riddle and tries to answer, but cannot. He doesn’t intend to honor his promise to show Bilbo the way out. In the next stroke of luck, the ring finds its way onto Bilbo’s finger and Bilbo turns invisible. Outraged, Gollum tries to follow Bilbo and accidentally shows Bilbo the way out of the tunnels.
Having read the Lord of the Rings, it is clear that none of this was luck. The ring had been with Gollum for too long and wanted to escape. It dropped in the tunnel where it could be found and made sure that whoever found it would be able to escape. But, in this story, it just appears that Bilbo is awfully lucky. And he will put the ring to good use later on.
The chapter ends pretty simply with Bilbo escaping the tunnels with the help of a magic ring that makes him invisible. Although he’s safe from Gollum and the goblins, he is still lost with no supplies and he doesn’t know where his friends are. He’s better than he was, but he is still in a tough spot.