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The Undefinable Shadowland

Gollum is certainly the most complex and interesting character in Middle-Earth. To try to define his alignment is almost impossible. He does not belong to any of the categories discussed above, and yet you can place him in all of them. By studying Gollum's character, you see features in him that are good, bad and neutral. You can place him in the Good category because he, along with the other bad characters in Middle-Earth, once used to be good. He also possesses some likeable features that give you a kind of love/hate relationship towards him. C.S. Lewis commented on this fact: "Even the wretched Sméagol, till quite late in the story, has good impulses" (13). Also, some of his actions, even though they are made with evil intentions, serve the Good in mysterious and, sometimes, comical ways.

You can place him in the Neutral category simply because he does not serve any other master but himself. It is true to say that the Ring is his master, but he desires the Ring for himself and his petty cravings. He has no intentions of using the Ring to conquer the world, or its inhabitants. All he wants to do is to find his "precious" and go back to his caves under the Misty Mountains. Gollum calls Frodo "master", but since Frodo is the Ringbearer, he becomes Gollum's master because of this, not by the virtue of his own person.

Finally, you can place him in the Evil category for the evil in his character. He is a vile creature, full of mischief, and will not hesitate to kill, given the chance. He has killed many times before during the long span of his life9 , and his biggest wish is to kill the one who stole his "birthday present", i.e. the Ring. The only way to subdue him and make him "nice" is by force, and by threatening him. Not even Tolkien himself could truly understand the complex nature of Gollum. In a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin, his publisher, he wrote: "I do not rely on Gandalf [i.e. Tolkien] to make [Gollum's] psychology intelligible" (Letters 121). Just as Tom Bombadil is a mystery to the world, and to Tolkien, in many ways, so is Gollum. To do Gollum justice, you have to treat him in a category of his own.

Sméagol is a creature of hobbit-kind. He lives at the edge of the Wilderland, near River Anduin, together with his people. It is here that he first comes in contact with the One Ring. Out fishing on his birthday, Sméagol's friend Déagol finds a ring on the bottom of the river. When Déagol refuses to give him the ring, "I have given you a present already more than I could afford. I found this and I'm going to keep it", Sméagol murders his friend and takes the ring for his own: "he [catches] Déagol by the throat and strangle[s] him" (LR 66). Of course, he does not know that it is the One Ring of Sauron's, and that it has already started to take control over him. He discovers that it makes him invisible, and he starts to use it for thieving. Later, he is driven out of the village, rejected and despised. The Ring starts tearing on his mind, and slowly it turns him into a wretched creature. He begins to make guttural noises, and it is thus he receives the name of Gollum, as the noises he makes sounds like "gollum". One day he comes upon the Misty Mountains, and leaves the world of sunlight, which he has come to hate. He finds a cave under the mountains, and here he lives for hundreds of years, accompanied only by his beloved "birthday present".

It is at this point that we first meet with Gollum in the works of Tolkien. The Hobbit is written as a story for children, and Gollum is just one of the many characters that Bilbo meets on his long journey. Bilbo finds the Ring by accident, and manages to bring it with him, escaping from Gollum, and from a certain death, with the help of the Ring's invisibility. While writing The Hobbit, Tolkien had no deeper intentions with the Gollum character, or even with the Ring, for that matter. It was when he was requested to write a sequel to The Hobbit, that the Ring became the centre of the plot, and Gollum became one of the main characters: "Sméagol was not . . . fully envisaged at first, but I believe his character was implicit, and merely needed attention" (Letters 201).

In Lord of the Rings, we fully learn the significance of this chance meeting. The ring Bilbo finds, is not just any funny magical ring, but an important weapon to be used in the oncoming fight between Good and Evil. Gollum is not just a pathetic creature hiding under the mountains, but a character that still has an important role to play in the great matters of the world. This is a fact that Gandalf is well aware of. Frodo thinks it a pity that Bilbo does not kill Gollum when given the chance, under the mountains. To this Gandalf retorts: "[Gollum] is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet" (LR 73). Even though Gollum is an evil creature, Gandalf feels that he is connected with the Ring, and that he might be useful in the end. Gandalf cannot see in what way this will happen, but knows that there is some greater force controlling the destiny of the world. The wheels of the world can turn in mysterious ways.

Gandalf also stresses the importance of the fact that it is pity and mercy that stay Bilbo's hand from killing Gollum (LR 73). That is the reason that Bilbo is not more affected and hurt by the power of the Ring, than he really is. Gollum comes into the possession of the Ring by murder and deceit, and it turns him into a wretch. Bilbo shows pity and mercy, when he obtains it, and that is why he is not destroyed by the Ring. It is merely "growing on his mind" and he feels "thin and stretched" (LR 60). The act of treating Evil with Good is in fact one of the themes in Tolkien's mythology, and it has been observed by many critics. They all seem to be of the same opinion, and they stress the importance of this particular act of pity, and mercy, and that it is made out of free choice (Kocher 35-36, W.H. Auden 58, Helms 43, 87). Most important, Tolkien himself was of that opinion. Frodo's salvation is achieved by "his previous pity and forgiveness of injury" (Letters 234). An interesting fact about the question of free choice is that it is Bilbo and Frodo that are involved in these choices, but they always seem to concern Gollum.

Gollum is captured by Sam and Frodo. With the help of the Ring, they force him to guide them to Mordor, and to help them find a way in to this dark country. During their journey, Gollum starts to develop some feelings for Frodo. His hate for one Baggins (Bilbo), who stole his precious ring, turns to a fondness for another Baggins (Frodo). As their relationship develops into some kind of mutual affection, Gollum becomes more and more ambiguous. In our terms, we could even say that he develops schizophrenic features. The two sides of Gollum are named Slinker and Stinker by Sam. One side of him, Slinker, wants to do good, and help his new master. The other side of him, Stinker, only wants to get hold of the Ring and, with the help of it, continue his mischief. I would go so far though, as to say that the good side of him represents Frodo in him, and the evil side represents Sam. The two hobbits evoke such strong feelings in Gollum that his ambiguity is partly created by them. To him, Frodo is Slinker, and Sam is Stinker.

Gollum's attitude towards Sam is quite the opposite from his attitude towards Frodo. He hates Sam because Sam hates him. He treats Gollum with contempt, and in a very deprecatory way. Sam cannot imagine that Gollum possesses any good qualities. To protect his master from this wretched creature, Sam is always on guard against Gollum, never wasting a chance to reprimand him, or to hurt him. It is actually Sam's fault that Gollum finally decides to listen to his inner evil voice, Stinker. Having reached a point where he is about to repent and truly devote himself to Frodo, he is met by some very harsh words from Sam. Not able to accept this mistrust in him anymore, Gollum gives in to Stinker, and decides to get rid of the two hobbits (LR 742-743). This passage is very strong and emotional. Momentarily, while Sam and Frodo are asleep, Gollum becomes Sméagol again, and he feels the weariness of old age, and the heavy burden of being a slave under the Ring:

For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

Here we are shown that Gollum is not entirely evil. He is in fact tired of his wickedness, and wants to die peacefully, as he was supposed to do, many hundred years ago. He can still remember a time when he did not have any knowledge of the Ring. He is reminded of an ordinary and happy life, and knows that his life would not have had to be filled with never-ending misery. I for one, am moved by this apparent sadness and remorse that he feels. It makes you wonder how thorough Wilson and Muir have read Lord of the Rings, before writing their reviews.

A question that consequently arises is if we are to blame Sam for his mistrust. He is only trying to protect his master, and given the past of Gollum, Sam feels that they cannot trust him. Tolkien himself is not so forgiving. He is unnecessarily hard on Sam in some of his letters, and blames him for Gollum's failure to repent (110, 221, 234n). On the other hand, he also tells us that this was for the best: "Though the love [for Frodo] would have been strengthened daily it could not have wrested the mastery from the Ring" (330). In other words, they could never have trusted Gollum completely. "[Gollum] hated [the Ring] and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter" (LR 68).

In the end, it is Gollum who saves the day. At the top of Mount Doom, Frodo decides not to throw it into the fires where it once was forged. He claims it for his own, and by doing so, furthers Sauron's cause. Gollum jumps on to Frodo and bites off the finger with the Ring on. In his ultimate moment of joy, Gollum dances over the edge and down into the furnace. The Ring is destroyed after all. Again, we see that evil deeds further the cause of the Good. Without the help of Gollum, the Ring would never have been destroyed. Sauron would eventually have captured Frodo, and the world would have fallen into eternal darkness.

So are we to judge this last act of Gollum as an act of goodness? The answer is of course no. Had Gollum been able to prevent it, he would never have fallen into the flames. He would have run of with the Ring, and, in the end, Sauron would have found him too. Even if we feel sympathy for him, and gratitude, it is an act of evil that saves the world, not an act of goodness: "Gollum [is] pitiable, but end[s] in persistent wickedness" (Letters 234). Marion Zimmer Bradley suggests that it is an unconscious act of love that makes Gollum jump off the edge, and that "he genuinely saves Frodo, whom he loves as much as he hates" (123). On this point, I think Bradley is wrong. Gollum is beyond all feelings of love when he takes the Ring from Frodo. To suggest that he commits suicide for the love of Frodo is misleading. It is an act of Evil. It is not love he feels but desire, an overwhelming desire for his "precious". On the top of Mount Doom, he is past goodness. He has already made up his mind being reprimanded by Sam, and from here on there are only evil thoughts in his mind.

"Gollum is to me just a 'character' - an imagined person - who granted the situation acted so and so under opposing strains, as it appears probable he would" (Letters 233). Gollum is what he is, and nothing else. Again we have a character that does not live up to any preconceived stereotypes. We see a character that is a bit of a mystery to us, just like Tom Bombadil. When it comes to Gollum, Tolkien has no intentions of leading us into adapting a certain opinion, e.g. Gollum being ultimately evil. He leaves it us as readers to decide what we will eventually think of this creature. Gollum is complex because we cannot easily define him. He is Evil, Good and Neutral, all in one, and that is why we get so many different impressions of him.

Continue to: Conclusion

or go to the Table of Contents

9. Gollum is almost six hundred years old, but this is all because of the Ring. A Ringbearer does not die, "he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness". Gollum is only supposed to live for about a hundred years, but the Ring extends his life, though it does not give him more life. "If he [the Ringbearer] often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades" (LotR 60), i.e. in the end, he will be no more than shadow; a living dead.

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