Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gollum, Monsters, and Redemption

What is a monster?  This question was at the heart of our discussion, and yet the answer seemed to elude us.  First, I wish to review some of the basic conclusions we arrived at.  In class, we made the distinction between three types of monsters: dragons, spiders, and fiends, with orcs and trolls falling into the last category.  One of the few conclusions that we were able to come to was that monsters are fundamentally not us.  Monsters often possess traits found in humans (or elves, dwarves, or hobbits), yet singularly and exaggeratedly so.  Dragons are cleverer than us; spiders are driven by an overwhelming hunger that echoes Ungoliant, and fiends are either slow and stupid by nature or made so by virtue of their mindless obedience.  Furthermore, there is undeniably some sort of fundamental interdependence between heroes and the monsters they kill.  In some strange way, they define each other.  Despite this, we noted that, in many of the sources Tolkien drew from, the monsters always win.  However it might be more accurate to say, the dragons always win.  Even in death, Glaurung still manages to drive Túrin and his sister to suicide.  Ancalagon’s death contributed to the destruction of Beleriand, and likewise, in his death throes, Smaug destroys Esgaroth.  Spiders and fiends are slightly kinder to the heroes in death.
As part of our readings on Monsters, we were assigned a section of Riddles in the Dark,” yet we did not have enough time to discuss Gollum in class.  As a result, I began thinking about how one would go about categorizing Gollum.  Gollum is an interesting anomaly, for he is one of the few characters who could arguably fill the roles of both a monster and a hero, and, as a result, is in the unique position to shed light on the definitions of both.  In the intervening years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Gollum undergoes a curious transformation.  In The Hobbit, he is presented as a monster.  This is evident in his description as “a small slimy creature,” who is “something unpleasant” that makes goblins nervous, and his strong desire to eat Bilbo (which is of course another characteristic of monsters) (Hobbit, 82).   Yet what type of monster is Gollum?  It might be tempting to call him a fiend due to his humanoid shape, yet no fiend would engage in a contest of riddles.  Instead, in Gollum we find all the characteristics of the three types of monsters packed into one small, physically unassuming package.  Like the dragons, he is a clever, but like the spiders, he is ruled by his hunger. And just as orcs are a mockery of elves and trolls a mockery of Ents, Gollum is a mockery of a Hobbit.
But if he possesses so many monstrous characteristics, why can we not accept Gollum as a monster?  I would argue that it is due to two simple lines: “Gollum brought up memories of ages and ages before when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank on a river…they reminded him of days when he had been less lonely and sneaky and nasty” (Hobbit 85).  This is what else sets Gollum apart from other monsters: the capacity for change.  Consider Frodo and Gandalf’s exchange in Book I of The Lord of the Rings.  Frodo says, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance.”  And Gandalf responds, “Pity?  It was Pity that stayed his hand…I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it” (LotR 59). 
With monsters, there is a certain understanding that they are not “evil” because of the actions they took and the choices they made, but simply due to a fundamental part of their nature.  Unlike villains, they have no origin stories, no “descent into evil.”  They simply are.  And without a fall, there can be no redemption.  That is not to say that all villains have the capacity for redemption, merely that we would not necessarily fault the hero for trying.  Those two lines in The Hobbit lay the groundwork for Gollum’s subsequent development in The Lord of the Rings.  As soon as we learn of Sméagol, there is an integral shift in Gollum’s character.  And while I’m sure that each of us has our own opinions on the inner goodness of Gollum, it is undeniable that, whether hero or villain, Gollum is not a monster.  
 From this exploration of Gollum, it is clear why monsters are crucial to hero-tales.  Heroes, by their very definitions, need to be “the good guys.”  Heroics do not leave any room for moral ambiguity.   The glory of heroism fades if we are left with a niggling doubt as to whether the hero might not have taken a different route, whether the villain really had to die.  Monsters provide the moral certainty that a hero requires.  Monsters present a black-and-white contrast between good and evil.  Because monsters are unambiguously evil in ways that villains are not, they confer this certainty onto the hero that they are in conflict with, making the hero who fights monsters an unambiguous force for good.  To conclude, I would like to also argue that villains become monstrous after they are given a chance to reform and fail to take it.  Melkor and Sauron are both offered and both refuse this opportunity.  Hence, the wars waged against them are free from moral quandary and, as a result, we are free to view those who fought against them as heroes.

--Estelle O.


  1. Your discussion of Gollum/Sméagol’s status in Tolkien’s legendarium, as monster or hero, is very interesting. He does seem to reflect the parallel we discussed in class that heroes and monsters must exist in a relationship, that we cannot have one without the other. Gollum/Sméagol has internalized this parallel because he is both the “slimy creature” you cite from The Hobbit and the humanoid being that maintains his vague memories of life before evil. In fact, like many other monsters we encountered in discussion the other day, such as Grendel and Glaurung, Gollum began his life as a human being, or more closely related to hobbits, and over time while in possession of the Ring, he transformed into a monster. This is where I hesitate to agree with your argument: change does prove that this monster is not naturally evil, yet it also proves that the choice can be made to abandon goodness. Is this not monstrous to do?

    Furthermore, Gollum in the end is seen not to have changed or achieve redemption. While his evil deed of possession saved the success of the Quest to destroy the Ring, Gollum remained monstrous in his actions and desires. So, can it be said that the individual remains a monster until redemption is achieved? Can we say that Gollum died a monster after showing goodness briefly to Frodo? Like you, I would rather believe in the Sméagol side that was only a victim to manipulations, but it is also difficult to believe that monstrous, evil creatures just “are,” as you say.

    K. Beach

  2. Hmmm. So what Estelle was getting at is that monsters do not have this choice to abandon goodness - they are by their fundamental nature evil - or, at least, presented in opposition to the hero and its good qualities.

    That there is a Smeagol to the Gollum would mean, by this reckoning, that Gollum is not a monster. His choices may be malicious, or he may become monstrous-like through the influence of the Ring. But he is not himself a monster.

    I'm actually convinced by her post - I don't find it too hard to buy in to the idea that monsters just "are," because as she implies, "monsters" and "evil creatures" are not interchangeable terms. Non-monsters have the opportunity and capacity for evil - monstrous deeds, as you would say. But even if their evilness is alienating or difficult to comprehend, it is not incomprehensible. In giving Gollum this backstory, Tolkien provides the reader with the tools to empathize and to pity. Gollum is, to hearken back to our discussions about choice, culpable but I think ultimately forgivable.

    Meanwhile, though I find myself feeling for Smaug on occasion, I ultimately feel he deserves what he gets. Why? Because it is so written, because he is a monster, an "other," with no descent from a creature of good and of choices. Smaug is fundamentally some other thing with some other mind - monstrous, as in he is literally a monster - and I can empathize only insomuch as some of his motivations may resemble those in humans (or elves/dwarves/hobbits/races with the capacity for good and for evil). In being inherently evil, or opposed to the hero, monsters are culpable and unforgivable, in the sense that there is nothing to forgive. It is in their nature.

    Did that ... make any sense at all? Here's hoping!

    1. Oops, that should have been in reply to Katie's comment. Doing great.

      Also - I meant to say, Estelle, thanks so much for this post. I thought it was really interesting that we were assigned Gollum's passages in the Hobbit as well because he didn't seem to fit our working definitions of monsters, but we didn't get to that in class and it was bugging me!

  3. I was struck by a question while reading your, very good and convincing, post. If monsters like Smaug or Shelob are inherently, fundamentally evil, does this raise questions about the fundamental goodness of Eru's creation? In other words, what would it mean if Smaug and the rest were *created* evil? I'm not sure it's something that Tolkien ever really deals with, perhaps the greatest example being his rather unsatisfactory account of Ungoliant's back story (and indeed Ungoliant might be the most interesting case here, dragons are, I believe, suggested to have been bred by Melkor). Somehow there's this vastly evil other out there, radically distinct and terrifying even to Melkor. It's interesting that even in a legendarium as mapped out and developed as Tolkien's there are still, like in many myths and legends, these odd figures seemingly without explanation that turn up from time to time.

  4. I find it fascinating that your monster/villain dichotomy includes an element of how the physical manifests. The monsters are all creatures with no biological similarity to something recognizably similar to the Homo sapiens species-- Smaug, Shelob...

    I therefore wonder if there is a correlation that reflects both the assumptions on Tolkien's part and the expectations on ours? The arguably humanoid characters (or, those displaying sufficient characteristics of humanity that they might pass for human, like Melkor/Sauron) are all depicted as villains with a history of a fall from grace, and the potential for redemption. Conversely, the physically extremely distinct characters are monstrous; their natures, so devoid of humanity, are reflections of their foreign exteriors.

    I have no clearcut answers, but what does this say about how we perceive the monstrous? Perhaps more importantly, what does this say about how we perceive our fellow humans, and of the humanity within any one person's nature? And how justified are these assumptions?

    Carol Ann Tan