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  • Updated 17 October 2021
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Clue-finder

One of many riddling titles claimed by Bilbo Baggins

"I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number."
Words of Bilbo Baggins to Smaug
The Hobbit 12
Inside Information

When Bilbo made his second stealthy journey into the chamber of Smaug in Erebor, he found the Dragon waiting for him, and a difficult conversation ensued. Desperate to avoid giving away information about himself, and also careful not to rouse the Dragon's anger, Bilbo devised a series of titles for himself based on events in his adventures. The meanings of most of these titles are immediately obvious (he was the 'web-cutter' and the 'stinging fly', for example, in reference to his adventures with the spiders in Mirkwood, and the Dwarves chose him so that their party would not have thirteen members, hence his being the 'lucky number').

Bilbo's evasive list of titles for himself is followed by a comment from the narrator, who says: 'I expect you [understand them] since you know all about Bilbo's adventures...' (The Hobbit 12, Inside Information). Nonetheless, the claimed title of 'clue-finder' is rather more vague than the others, and its meaning is not immediately clear. The fact that it is grouped with names relating to the spiders in Mirkwood might suggest a connection to that adventure, though no finding of a clue is immediately obvious in that context.1

There is no categorical need to assume that all of Bilbo's titles followed any kind of rational order (indeed, he immediately follows those relating to the spiders with a mention of himself making up a lucky number, which refers right back to the beginning of his quest). On that basis, the 'clue' in question could be almost anything. Perhaps the most obvious reference would be his spotting the thrush cracking a snail on stone outside the secret Dwarf-door into Erebor, and realising that this was the clue that showed how to open the door. The term is ambiguous enough, however, that other reasonable alternative connections could also be made.


Notes

1

In The History of the Hobbit, John D. Rateliff describes the idea that the 'clue' here might be an etymological reference. In its old spelling clew, the word originally meant a ball of string or thread (in Greek myth, Theseus escaped the labyrinth of Minos using a ball of thread, and so the word clue developed its modern meaning). The implication is that there is some kind of connection with the threads of the spiders, but it is difficult to point to any particular event in Bilbo's experiences in Mirkwood that quite matches this interpretation. What's more, given that the narrator apparently thinks that the meaning should be obvious to the reader, a connection through etymology and Greek myth does seem a little implausible.

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About this entry:

  • Updated 17 October 2021
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