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.