Slinker and Stinker
A Study of Sméagol in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Although JRR Tolkien is notorious for his numerous, and often seemingly irrelevant, minor characters – the necessity of an index of names in The Return of the King proves this without a doubt – one of the most crucial and fascinating characters of The Lord of the Rings physically appears in barely more than one-sixth of the novel. The character Sméagol, often referred to by his alter ego Gollum, on a basic level serves only to guide Frodo and Sam to Mordor, as well as to destroy the Ring when Frodo cannot. However, in the course of doing so, we are revealed, hint by hint, of the enigmatic and contradictory character who "hates the Ring and loves the Ring – just as he hates and loves himself" (Sibley 170). In The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien uses the character Sméagol, forged from a collection of historical and historically mythological tales, as a foil for the central hero Frodo Baggins as well as the Christian example of hope, despite the powerful corruption of evil.
Tolkien, Oxford’s Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, was an avid fan of history; the ancient past of his beloved Europe fascinated him to such a degree that it is little wonder the history of Middle-Earth mirrors our own. Sméagol’s lust for, reverence to, and even fear of the One Ring bases its roots, most especially, in the ancient practice of Dactyliomancy, or the use of rings for divination and magic. In the first century AD, Apollonius of Tyana, a major figure in the Gnostic religion and early alchemy, received seven rings from the Brahman Indian prince Iarchus, which he believed gave him healing powers if he would "[revere] them as divine… and [make] them partakers of his greatest secrets" (Day 154). While Sméagol’s reverence of the Ring can be seen here, his devotion despite fear of it can be seen through another famous instance. In fifteenth century Venice, a sculptor named Pythonickes obtained an enchanted ring, which he claimed honed his artistic skills to their finest. Although he initially believed the spirits within the Ring were charming and intelligent, he soon began to fear that they were demons after his soul. He consulted a priest, who advised him to destroy the ring immediately. Pythonickes, however, was unable to do so, despite his fear of the demons within the ring, because of the ring’s powerful hold upon him (Day 22-23).
Yet history was not Tolkien’s only passion, nor was it his only influence. Historical myth also played a key role in creating his characters, Sméagol not the least. The Volsunga Saga, the most famous ring legend of Viking literature, features the character Fafnir, who is driven to murder his own father by the desire of a cursed ring. After retreating to the mountains, Fafnir broods over the ring for many years, eventually taking the form of a huge dragon (Day 50-51). From this story may have originated Sméagol’s history: how he murdered his best friend Déagol for the Ring, then withdrew to the Misty Mountains, where the Ring twisted his mind and body into a shape far different from its original form. The Icelandic narrative poem Völundarkvitha also gives basis for his skulking form; in this legend, Sóte the pirate steals a cursed ring which he becomes obsessed with and, deathly afraid the ring would be stolen, buries himself alive with it, dagger drawn in warning to any who would take it from him (Day 88).
Although these initial influences were vital to the character’s creation, Sméagol became a far more psychological character than his early counterparts. While Sóte, Fafnir, and the members of the Dactyliomancy cult lusted after their rings, little attention was given to the state of conflict within their souls as they did so; they were often painted as pure evil by the community around them or by the authors of the myths and were condemned immediately. On the contrary, Tolkien casts Sméagol in a pitiable light, showing the audience the power the Ring has asserted over Sméagol’s very mind. Gollum, the evil and scheming half of Sméagol’s schizophrenic self, is simply a manifestation of the Ring taking full control of Sméagol’s soul: the Ring speaking through an alter ego in Sméagol’s psyche. Presenting the psychological aspect to Sméagol’s character in the novel gives him a more powerful impact on the reader, as well as creating the building blocks for a dynamic foil.
Frodo Baggins, the central hero of The Lord of the Rings, finds in Sméagol an invaluable guide, as Sméagol has been to Mordor before; however, he also finds a compelling foil, as Sméagol bears a surprisingly striking resemblance to Frodo. Besides the obvious similarities between the last two Ringbearers, both are inquisitive and curious about the world around them, to the confusion of the small-minded hobbits of the Shire. Where family is concerned, Sméagol’s clan of hobbit-kind, the Stoors, eventually moved from their home on the Anduin River - where Sméagol first laid eyes on the Ring - to the East Farthing, near Buckland. As Sméagol spent the years wasting away within the Misty Mountains, the Stoors married into the families of Buckland, eventually becoming the Oldbucks and the Brandybucks (Tyler 454). Circumstances therefore show that because Frodo’s mother was a Brandybuck, Frodo is half Stoor – in other words, half akin to Sméagol. Finally, it is worthy of note that both Ringbearers received the Ring on their birthday – though neither of them as a birthday present (Chance 34).
But similarities are not all that make Sméagol and Frodo fascinating: it is the dissimilarities between the two that make their relationship so dynamic. Although they are both curious about the world, Frodo is curious about the beautiful and the intellectual: he listens to Bilbo intently, learning from him of cartography, history, and the Elvish language. Sméagol, on the other hand, is only curious to learn secrets: wearing the Ring in order to become invisible and sneak about is the reason he was eventually driven from his home. Frodo and Sméagol both gained the Ring from another; however, Frodo inherited the Ring while Sméagol murdered his best friend for it. Because of this, Frodo is pulled into the history of the Ring as an innocent and, through the trials of destroying the Ring, becomes serious and solemn: "a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in a grey cloud" (Lord 643); whereas Sméagol joins the tale in sin, and becomes a twisted and warped creation: "a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage" (Lord 979). Although Sméagol and Frodo had many similarities before the Ring entered their lives, it is the branching paths they take as the Ring influences their existences that makes the character contrasting so interesting.
Although their lives began in analogous places and their differing choices led them down differing roads, it is at the end of the novel that their fates become fascinatingly intertwined, as Tolkien deviates from the classic epic finale. Although his sweet and innocent nature is replaced with cynicism and a bitter fatalism, Frodo manages to remain relatively true to himself while Sméagol guides the two hobbits through Ithilien. This may be attributed to Frodo’s resistance of the Ring, but also to Sméagol’s proximity. Sméagol is a visual reminder to Frodo of what the Ring causes one to become: he is less likely to believe the Ring’s lies of power when he sees a previous Ringbearer groveling at his feet. However, once Sméagol is out of sight and mind, Frodo’s soul takes a drastic turn for the worse. Worn out from the physical and mental torment the Ring has inflicted upon him, he becomes a mere wraith of himself: unable to truly see, hear, or even understand. When Sméagol and Frodo meet for the final time, they have become complete opposites – yet indistinguishable. "Thus the grappling of Gollum and Frodo on the path to Mount Doom in a locked embrace even Sam cannot disentangle suggests a symbolic oneness, as if we are witnessing the darkest night of the soul and one side attempting to master the other" (Chance 102). Frodo began as half-Stoor: he could follow the path of innocence (the Baggins side of him) and refuse temptation or follow Sméagol’s path (The Stoor side of him) and be taken in by the Ring’s lies. Although Frodo manages to hold out against evil for quite some time, this only heightens the power the Ring allots to him when at last he does fall under its spell; the Ring only gives power according to the strength of its bearer and Frodo, originally stronger-willed than Sméagol, is given more power than Sméagol, who was quick to fall into temptation. As they stand upon the mountainside, Sam perceives Frodo as a "figure robed in white" as Sméagol grovels at his feet, "scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing" (Lord 979). Nonetheless, the trek to Mordor had taken its toll at last, and the Gollum within Frodo is revealed, just as the Gollum within Sméagol finally manages to take control. However, one last ironic twist is given: the last time their fortunes were equal, Frodo took the road of hero while Sméagol took the road of villain. In the fiery cave of Sammath Naur, their souls are once again equal; this time, however, Frodo claims the Ring for his own, thereby dooming the world, while Sméagol inadvertently finishes Frodo’s quest and frees Middle-Earth from Sauron’s rule.
"Evil is not possessed, but possessing," claims the authors of Finding God in The Lord of the Rings (Bruner 69). True evil does not wear a black cloak, nor does it sport a curly moustache. Evil is nothing more than a tiny voice that offers the world: it promises to make everyone and everything your slave, all the while making you its slave. The Ring promised Sméagol power: in the desolate land before Mordor, Gollum considered taking the Ring, so he could, "grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths" (Lord 659). He evens considers the grand names that would be given to him, such as ‘Gollum the Great’ and ‘Most Precious Gollum’. Yet, in the end, the Ring never once helps Sméagol in any way; on the contrary, it drives him away from his family, forces him into the shadows, and then abandons him there when he can be of no further use to it (Tyler 446). Such is the nature of evil.
Yet there is always hope, even for the most destitute and broken. Despite the countless years the Ring had poisoned Sméagol’s mind, a small ray of sunlight existed there. "Even Gollum was not wholly ruined … There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past" (Lord 68). This light was brightened when Frodo showed Sméagol mercy and pity, treating him honestly and fairly, which caused Sméagol to gain a small foothold in the fight between Sméagol and Gollum; love and respect, Tolkien seems to be telling us, is the one thing that could strengthen Sméagol while silencing Gollum. Tolkien, in one of his many letters to curious fans, even made a conjecture about the outcome of the novel if Sméagol had been shown pity and kindness by Sam as well as Frodo: "I think that in some queer twisted and pitiable way Gollum would’ve tried (not maybe with conscious design) to satisfy both [the Ring and his love for Frodo]. Certainly at some point … he would’ve stolen the Ring … but possession satisfied, I think he would then have sacrificed himself for Frodo’s sake and have voluntarily cast himself into the fiery abyss" (Letters 330). Within even the darkest of hearts remains always a hint of immortal goodness.
But even Gollum manages to accomplish some good, albeit inadvertently. By taking the Ring from Frodo, Gollum had taken over Sméagol for the final time – Sméagol no longer existed to speak up in protection of the master he loved. He wanted the Ring for the power and immortality that it promised, but the forces of good used that evil to destroy the very thing Gollum wanted to protect (Bruner 89). In addition, by taking the Ring from Frodo, Gollum spares him from death. Again, Tolkien speculated on an alternate ending to the book: "Frodo too would then probably, if not attacked [by Gollum], have had to take the same way: cast himself with the Ring into the abyss" (Letters 330). The Ring had too great a grasp on Frodo as well; he was unable to destroy the Ring and, were it not for the intervention of Gollum, would have had to claim the Ring for his own (and doom Middle-Earth) or destroy himself along with the Ring. Again, hope remains triumphant in the face of evil; for evil will, eventually, destroy itself.
"[Sméagol] is the dark side of humanity, but I tried to look at him in a non-judgmental way – not as a sniveling, evil wretch but from the point of view of ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ My view is simply this: we can choose to demonize anyone with uncontrollable obsessions, but if we don’t seek to understand them, then we can never hope to grow as human beings" (Sibley 171). Sméagol may have sprung from the legends and tales of the ancient past, but he is a creature made very real in the course of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Used as a foil for the Ring’s influence over the protagonist Frodo Baggins, Sméagol manages to fascinate us, disgust us, and make us laugh – all while reminding us of the dangerous power of evil, but the everlasting, and far greater, power of good.
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