Friday, May 6, 2011

Most Precious Gollum

As a small child, I watched the animated version of The Hobbit, and Gollum terrified me. As an 18-year-old, I watched the live-action Lord of the Rings movies, and Gollum continued to terrify me. Since the beginning of this course, Gollum has become incredibly intriguing, but I’m not quite sure why.

It is clear from our discussion on Wednesday that we have a problem with monsters. Are monsters natural forces, vices, animals or villains? Are they beasts, human or Other? Are they evil, or just misunderstood? Why are “monsters” so difficult for us to define, categorize or even agree upon? Perhaps most importantly, why are they relevant?

It is clear that Tolkien wanted tension between objective and subjective “evil”. This task of defining “monster”, of distinguishing between “good” and “bad”, is not supposed to be easy. Tolkien’s characters are, in a sense, real. They embody both good and bad characteristics, and thus are unable to be pigeonholed into stereotypical categories. Because of this, some monsters, like orcs or even Gollum, can unnerve us by appearing all too human. This humanness is part of what makes some “monsters” difficult to classify. It is easy to say “Yes, Glaranng and Smaug are dragons” because they are quite clearly dragons. The same can be said of Ungoliant and Shelob, for they too are quite clearly spiders. But what is Gollum?

In Wednesday’s discussion, Gollum was the point of most contention. There was very little defense of Gollum, but we weren’t sure what kind “bad” or “evil” Gollum really is. We can, however, trace Gollum’s corruption and examine his chance at redemption.

As we are all familiar, Gollum's story begins as Sméagol. Born a Hobbit, Sméagol spent the beginning of his life living with his extended family. On his birthday, Sméagol and his cousin, Déagol, go fishing. While underwater, Déagol finds the Ring, and Sméagol quickly demands it as a birthday present. Deágol refuses, so Sméagol kills him and claims the Ring for himself. He returns home, but Sméagol's family disowns him after he exhibits a long series of dishonest and thieving behavior. Gollum travels for what seems to be several years before settling into a cave in the Misty Mountains for several centuries.

Even though Elrond claims that “nothing is evil in the beginning” (Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”), it is striking how the Ring corrupts Gollum almost instantly. The Ring is known for its ability to corrupt even the purest of intentions (which is one of the reasons why Gandalf et al. refuse to possess it), but it can also be claimed that the Ring emphasizes what is already inside a person. When Bilbo and Frodo possess the Ring, they use it to hide or escape. When Sam possesses the Ring, he has thoughts of gardening. When Gollum possesses the Ring, he eavesdrops, lies, steals and murders. Was Sméagol already corrupt (or partially corrupt) before encountering the Ring?

We first meet Gollum in The Hobbit. By this time, the Ring has twisted his mind and body and he is no longer recognizable as the Hobbit he once was. Bilbo becomes lost in the Misty Mountains and finds the Ring. Shortly after, he plays the Riddle Game with Gollum and escapes. Gollum eventually leaves his cave to reclaim the Ring and travels across Middle Earth, eventually stalking the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings. When Frodo and Sam venture to Mordor alone, Gollum becomes their guide.

It is at this point when Gollum became a sort of anti-hero in my eyes. Before now, Gollum and the Fellowship have travelled the same physical journey under and across Middle Earth, but their interactions have been limited. Gollum’s relationship with Frodo provides a venue for his potential redemption. Gollum's promise to Frodo and Frodo's kindness towards Gollum allows the “Sméagol part” of Gollum to reemerge, just as it briefly did when Bilbo and Gollum played the Riddle Game. On the journey to Mordor, Gollum often experiences a struggle between his loving and hateful feelings toward Frodo, but he consciously commits to his hateful feelings after his encounter with Faramir.

Even so, the Gollum’s goodness has not completely dissipated. After returning to Sam and Frodo from his treacherous visit with Shelob, the sight of the sleeping hobbits causes Gollum to reconsider his plan to feed them to the great spider:
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee -- but almost the touch was a caress. 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. (Two Towers, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”) (My apologies for quoting such a large chunk of text, but I find this passage to be exceptionally beautiful.)
But Gollum does not repent, for Sam wakes up at that very moment and scolds him. Though Sam believed he was protecting his Master from harm, any hope of Gollum’s redemption was lost.

The ultimate twist or irony or whatever you may like to call it occurs on Mount Doom. Sam and Frodo reach the end of their journey, but Frodo is unwilling to destroy the Ring and claims it as his own. Enraged, Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off, Ring and all, and plummets into Mount Doom, Ring and all. The destruction of the Ring is ultimately Gollum’s doing. He performs the ultimate good, destroying himself and much of the evil in Middle Earth, even though he had malicious intentions. Gollum experiences both a literal and figurative fall in his life, but one can see a sort of redemption in his death.

- BLS

11 comments:

  1. I think you raise an interesting point about the suddenness of Gollum's corruption by the Ring. It is indeed startling to think of how quickly the Ring began to influence Gollum's behavior. I think one should be wary, however, of assuming that Gollum was therefore Evil before he found the Ring. The Silmarillion tells us that the Ringwraiths resisted the power of their rings according to their own goodness and strength of will; presumably, those Kings who were naturally inclined to Good resisted the rings' influence for a time, while those who were wicked submitted almost immediately. Perhaps Gollum was a nasty fellow to begin with (there are plenty of nasty but not strictly Evil characters, like Lotho and Bill Ferny) and so the Ring could influence him right away. But I think it was more a case of being "bad" than of being "Evil." If the Ring can, as you point out, corrupt even the purest and noblest of intentions, what reason have we to think that it could not corrupt the intentions of characters who are impure but not Evil? The key is that the Ring warps one's urges; it doesn't simply magnify them.

    -G. Lederer

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  2. It's interesting that Gollum gets corrupted by the ring so quickly when throughout the trilogy Gandalf keeps pointing out that hobbits seem very tough to the ring's corrupting abilities. In Part IV, III-Notes Christopher Tolkien refers to both Smeagol and Deagol as "Stoor Hobbits". While Frodo and Sam's characters have some part to play in their resistance to the Ring I always interpreted the books that it also had to do with their breed. Being hobbits gave them an unique advantage against the ring.
    For the Elves were bound to the land and the power of the Rings. and "men are week" (according to Elrond). And the Dwarves were also apparently captivated by the rings as well. The fact that Sauron never gave rings to the Hobbits is curious and unexplained. Was he not aware of hobbits? Did Hobbits not have a government system? Or did he know that they were supposedly resilient against the power of the ring?
    Regardless that is why I have always found Gollum/Smeagol's corruption of the ring so troubling. The only way I can explain it is that his character must have been an easily influenced one, he may have been easily manipulated or even just had a seed of bad within in him that the ring awoke.
    --JuPe

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  3. Given that we have such a difficult time struggling with the human/non-human nature of Gollum, I find it fascinating that Frodo (at least at the beginning of LotR) does not experience such a dilemma. For him, things are much more clear cut. Despite having never met Gollum, and knowing from Bilbo's stories that Bilbo and Gollum had much in common and that Gollum wasn't an Orc, he is unwilling to believe that there is any good or humanity (in this case, Hobbitness) in such a creature. He is quite vehement in his protestations: "'I can't believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,' said Frodo with some heat. 'What an abominable notion!'" (Fellowship of the Ring, The Shadow of the Past) I find it fascinating that Frodo feels a connection to Gollum- can recognize him as another individual worthy of Pity- only after he has borne the Ring for an extended period of time. The power of the Ring appears to be the connection between them, not necessarily any shared humanity or hobbit history. Just a thought. For some characters, he is very clearly an Other, as explicitly evil as dragons and spiders. But for others, that distinction is not so clear. Is this again a case of monstrosity is in the eye of the examiner?

    And a quick point to your question about how quickly Gollum was corrupted: can something be discovered in the fact that his possession began on his birthday? and that any subsequent story involving his possession centered on the fact that it was a birthday gift? It appears to me that Gollum's time with the Ring* was defined by a sense of entitlement. It was his birthday, his special day when everything existed for his enjoyment, and he should be able to have whatever he desired. Finally, Gandalf characterizes him as someone who, from the beginning, does appear to have a character flaw: "he ceased to look up... his head and his eyes were downward" (FotR, Shadow of the Past). Considering the elves were defined by their love of looking up at the stars and the Men by their desire to look up and follow the light towards the West, what does this indicate about Gollum?

    Ending with more questions than answers...

    J. Trudeau

    *I dare not call it ownership, although I can't find a good synonym for possession and am semi-okay with using that word

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  4. I agree that it seems odd that Gollum is (apparently) so quickly corrupted by the Ring, but I think that G., Julie and J. are right to point out that the Ring is supposed to intensify character, not just corrupt it.

    RLFB

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  5. Gollum haunts me too, probably more than any other character in LOTR. LeGuin gets at some of the reasons for his significance. Jacqueline makes a point in her comment about how Frodo only comes, over the course of acquaintance, to recognize Gollum’s painful existence. In a way, Frodo begins with a story about Gollum, and it is easy to classify good or evil when one hasn’t met an embodiment that is fully complex of both. Attraction to the ring splits the will, in Frodo or Gollum. But it’s not enough to say that they are brought together by the mutual corruption of the ring, but the ring shows something that is real. If it were to show only illusion, then it would change no one. But it does change, and the change is reflected in the latent images of things as they would have been, had this or that event never happened. This is the story that was not written, but it may also be a story that helps to give meaning to the story that was written. Frodo and Gollum live with a sense of double identity more than most. Frodo, and the other hobbits too, think about life in the Shire had they not made this journey. They’d’ve been wrong of course. More significantly, Gollum is a mirror of the actual extent of possibilities, unfathomable to those who live in the comfort of the Shire. Does the ring accentuate or create character? This question is close to the one that someone else asked about the journey: will it disclose or change character? If anything, the ring shows that this idea of character – Frodo’s initial idea of Gollum – is an illusion. Character is not so unified.
    JCT

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  6. Gollum haunts me too, probably more than any other character in LOTR. LeGuin gets at some of the reasons for his significance. Jacqueline makes a point in her comment about how Frodo only comes, over the course of acquaintance, to recognize Gollum’s painful existence. In a way, Frodo begins with a story about Gollum, and it is easy to classify good or evil when one hasn’t met an embodiment that is fully complex of both. Attraction to the ring splits the will, in Frodo or Gollum. But it’s not enough to say that they are brought together by the mutual corruption of the ring, but the ring shows something that is real. If it were to show only illusion, then it would change no one. But it does change, and the change is reflected in the latent images of things as they would have been, had this or that event never happened. This is the story that was not written, but it may also be a story that helps to give meaning to the story that was written. Frodo and Gollum live with a sense of double identity more than most. Frodo, and the other hobbits too, think about life in the Shire had they not made this journey. They’d’ve been wrong of course. More significantly, Gollum is a mirror of the actual extent of possibilities, unfathomable to those who live in the comfort of the Shire. Does the ring accentuate or create character? This question is close to the one that someone else asked about the journey: will it disclose or change character? If anything, the ring shows that this idea of character – Frodo’s initial idea of Gollum – is an illusion. Character is not so unified.
    JCT

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  7. I had never actually pondered on the fact that Gollum was corrupted so easily till I read your blog post. However, I do not think that this suggests that he was inherently evil but rather, as you rightly point out, it emphasizes certain characteristics that he possessed. This logically leads to the fact that different ring-bearers respond to the ring differently, and it accentuates different characteristics in them. This is what gives the ring its parasitic nature—it feeds off the bad in people, it in itself does not inject the bad in them. This is an extremely important distinction because it truly affects are judgment of the ring-bearers, and for that matter, members of the fellowship.

    Personally, this forms the basis of my opinion that Gollum is not a monster. For me, monsters are inherently evil—not the dichotomous mix of good/bad like humans, but in a more absolute sense. True that the ring corrupted Gollum far more than the others (Bilbo, Frodo), but we must put this in perspective with the fact that he possessed it for far longer. We cannot even hypothesize the impact that it would have had on Frodo had he had it as long as Gollum because the ring’s impact is difficult to predict. I think just in the fact that the ring accentuates the bad in Gollum, but we do see the conflict with good in him and his redemption suggests that he cannot be placed with Ungoliant and Shelob. The fate of Gollum is perhaps most appropriately termed ‘the fall of Gollum’. He is a fiend, not a monster.

    —Tarika Khattar

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  8. In tune with the current tones of our discussion of worship in LOTR today, I've been looking up specific monsters deeply rooted in religion. Something that came up in my searches was the Jewish "Golem" which seemed striking right away due to its similarity in name with "Gollum".

    Golems are rooted in Jewish mysticism as creatures built in a human likeness from clay and with proper ritual, they are "activated" by the use of the Hebrew word for "truth" on their forehead or in a piece of paper in their mouth. They are then servants to their master and go about their instructions very literally and in a single-minded fashion.

    Certain tales give examples of Golems eventually being corrupted and turning on their masters. (Frankenstein style-in that humans creating life plays God). Golems are the product of initially very holy men and these men are holy as a result of their devotion to God, bringing them closer to his powers, including the power of creation. The caveat is that anything made in this manner is but a shadow of that originally created by god.

    I'm not sure why I find this so striking and admittedly its far-fetched to assume Tolkien may have had this creature in mind, but like you I've always found Gollum to be a really troubling character. Is Gollum but a shadow of his former self --Smeagol who has been corrupted by a power (the Ring) which reaches close to an immense God-like power? We've already discussed Gollum as a servant, and one who turns on Frodo in the end. I suppose it can also make you wonder about the Ring's power as "creator" in a religious context?
    ~KeCa

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  9. The story of Smeagol and his rapid descent to Gollum-ness has always been especially creepy to me, especially as Smeagol occasionally reemerges during the journey to Mordor. I agree with previous assertions that Gollum is not a monster in the same category as Shelob, and his human-ness is clearly extremely unnerving. Every time Smeagol reappears I get curious as to what he must have been like as a Hobbit. We know little of Smeagol’s original character, and I can’t imagine this was accidental on Tolkien’s part.

    Despite Frodo’s attempts to draw out the Smeagol in Gollum, it is important to note that whatever Smeagol is left has been around, painfully and madly, for far longer than any Hobbit is ever supposed to be. Even if Smeagol were genuinely evil before acquiring the Ring—something I cannot pretend to know—the leftover creature is just as pitiable as the above passage suggests. The Ring has perverted his character, whatever it was at the beginning, but the creative power it seems to possess is a testament to the evil of false shadow-creation described in the above comments. Gollum is an example of how the Ring seems to operate outside of time, perverting the mind (perhaps instantly) and stretching the body, ultimately bringing something twisted and pitiable out of someone that was probably fairly ordinary in the beginning.

    -AS

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  10. This is just a point that I find interesting and didn't seem to be addressed here. When Frodo and Sam first encounter Gollum, he tries to kill them and take the ring for himself, but Sam and Frodo are eventually able to subdue him. They are only able, initially, to ensure that he will not kill them in their sleep by making him swear on the ring. The ring is the only thing in the world which Gollum can value and that will hold Gollum to his word. Yet as they continue in their journey, Gollum starts to split, and his past self as Smeagol begins to reemerge. My first instinct was that it was Frodo's kindness and pity towards Gollum that allowed his more "human," or possibly more accurately, his more "hobbit" nature to come back out. But since Smeagol was himself once a hobbit, I just wonder how much of it was simply being in the presence of hobbits again. Being exposed to the ring corrupted him and turned him into Gollum, so is it possible that being in the presence of creatures of the same race he had once been reignited that part of him that had once been the same as Frodo and Sam? It seems almost as if Gollum simply has a weak will, so when he is exposed to the ring he cannot fight it, yet when he is exposed to the hobbits, part of his hobbit nature returns, perhaps in emulation of Frodo and Sam. This seems to be supported by the fact that when Sam is cruel to him, his Gollum side gains power and becomes more prominent. It would seem that Gollum is merely reacting to his environment in kind.

    C Carmody

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  11. @ C Carmody:

    I agree that Frodo's kindness and pity towards Gollum allowed Smeagol to reemerge, but I also think that simply being in the presence of Hobbits again is a necessary first step towards this transformation. In The Hobbit, Gollum asks Bilbo if he likes riddles, and this simple exchange with the hobbit brought back images of his former life as a hobbit. Even though Bilbo was not acting kindly towards Gollum throughout the Riddle Game, “Gollum brought up memories of ages and ages before, when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank by a river” (“Riddles in the Dark”, The Hobbit). When Gollum is under the supervision of the Elves, the Elves are very kind to him, but we hear no mention of the reemergence of Smeagol while he is with them. In the world of Middle Earth, there is something important about being with your own people, and I think that, coupled with Frodo’s kindness, is what allowed for the taming of Gollum.

    - BLS

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