In Defence of Gollum
1. In Defence of Gollum
Sam does not think very highly of Gollum, and as Frodo falls more and more under the Ring's influence, the Red Book becomes a recollection of Sam's experience. So it isn't very surprising that we don't see Gollum in a positive light during the trek across Mordor, when Gollum does his worst deeds.
Gollum appears in only one chapter of The Hobbit: the fifth chapter, "Riddles in the Dark". Here Tolkien gives us this description of Gollum:
"Deep down here by the water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don't know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum -- a dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. [...] He paddled [his boat] with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make. Not he. He was looking out of his pale lamp-like eyes for blind fish, which he grabbed with his long fingers as quick as thinking. He liked meat too. Goblin he thought good, when he could get it; but he took care they never found him out."
On a first reading, Gollum may seem like the kind of monster that populates every B-rated horror films. But let us look a little closer:
Physically, Gollum is described small and slimy. However, we should remember that he has been living in an underground lake for nearly five hundred years. Anyone who has spent so much as an afternoon swimming in an above-ground lake will tell you that your skin comes out feeling slimy. Millions of microscopic aquatic life find their way into every nook and cranny of your body. Now, imagine that you could not take a hot shower to rinse off all this muck but instead had to live in it for centuries. It is not surprising that Bilbo thinks Gollum looks slimy. (Gollum's rock is also described as slimy, but no one would think this abnormal for a rock in the middle of a lake.)
Tolkien also writes of him, "[he was] dark as darkness except for two big round pale eyes". This may seem a little eerie, but it is actually quite natural for a subterranean or nocturnal animal to have large eyes. If there is not much light availble, evolution will favor creatures with larger eyes, since such eyes can capture more of what little light is available. (For example, see this picture of a lemur.) Even within a single individual, eyes can dilate to take in more light if they are in a dark area for even a few hours. Think of how bright the lights may seem after you come out of a dark cinema. This is because your eyes have adjusted to the dark by dilating, and must re-adjust to the brighter light.
In the passage quoted above, Gollum is also described as secretive: "He paddled [his boat] with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make. Not he. [...] Goblin he thought good, when he could get it; but he took care they never found him out." However, anyone would be careful when they live in a goblin-den, and Gollum has the ability to be more quiet than most. His people are related to the Stoors, a type of hobbit (more on this below), and in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings Tolkien writes,
"Though they [hobbits] are inclined to be fat and do not hurry unnecessarily, they are nonetheless nimble and deft in their movements."
In "Roast Mutton" Tolkien states that hobbits are more stealthy than dwarves, even though dwarves could also move very quietly:
"But at any rate hobbits can move quietly in woods, absolutely quietly. They take a pride in it, and Bilbo had sniffed more than once at what he called 'all this dwarvish racket', as they went along, though I don't suppose you or I would notice anything at all on a windy night, not if the whole cavalcade had passed two feet off. As for Bilbo walking primly towards the red light, I don't suppose even a weasel would have stirred a whisker at it."
The Ring may also have helped Gollum be more secretive:
"[I]f he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eyes of the dark power that rules the Rings." ("The Shadow of the Ring", The Fellowship of the Ring)
I don't think Tolkien intended Gollum to have faded entirely. After all, he is still visible, and at one point Tolkien states explicitly that a corner of Gollum's mind was still not possessed by the Ring. However, it is possible that his long possession of the Ring enables him to blend in more with the shadows. There are several natural explanations for Gollum's ability to "sneak" that do not call for him to be an evil creature allied to the Dark Lord.
The morality of Gollum's unwillingness to help Bilbo unless he won a riddle game is an interesting one, but it is not really pertinent to this essay. Even if this one deed of Gollum's was evil, it certainly doesn't mean he is fundamentally evil. At this point Gollum is living among goblins and other creatures that do not help each other. He has every reason not to trust a strange trespasser.
No one would claim that Gondor's law ordering Faramir to "slay all whom I find in this land without the leave of the Lord of Gondor" ("The Window on the West", The Two Towers) is evil. It is possible that this law allowed some Gondorians to kill a stranger where that death might be avoided, but given the danger they live in and the fact that Ithilien is at this point also claimed by Mordor, this law is certainly justifiable. Similarly, Gollum's unwillingness to risk his safety for someone who has never met (and who has just threatened him with his sword!) does not necessarily prove that Gollum was a bad person.
River-people and Hobbitses
In "The Shadow of the Past", when Gandalf is telling Frodo about the history of the Ring, he says:
"Long after [Isildur lost the Ring], but still very long ago, there lived by the banks of the Great River on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people. I guess they were of hobbit kind; akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors."
We learn in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings that the Stoors are one of three strains found in hobbits around the time the Shire was similar to hobbits. Given Gollum's short height and his knowledge of riddles similar to those asked by hobbits,, it is likely that his people lived in one of the many hobbit settlements outside the Shire that Tolkien refers to. (Bree is another such settlement.) At the very least, the River-people are closely related to these hobbits outside the Shire.
Still sceptical? So was Frodo:
"'I can't believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,' said Frodo with some heat. 'What an abominable notion!'
"'It is true all the same,' said Gandalf. 'About their origins, at any rate, I know more than hobbits do themselves. And even Bilbo's story suggests the kinship. There was a great deal in the background of their minds and memories that was very familiar. They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an orc, or even an Elf.'" ("The Shadow of the Past", The Fellowship of the Ring)
What does this mean for Gollum's character? It means he is one of the free people of Middle-earth. He is not an orc, or a troll, or a warg, or some other creature that has been tortured until it has no choice but to serve evil. In fact, hobbits are especially resilient to such influences, as Gandalf says:
"Soft as butter they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the Wise would believe." ("The Shadow of the Past", The Fellowship of the Ring)
The Same Story
Gollum would be a difficult-to-like character even without the movie's influence. However, as with many elements of the books, Peter Jackson's treatments of the scene on the stairs to Cirith Ungol has led many people to view Gollum in a way that is not in keeping with what Tolkien wrote. This scene is in my opinion the crucial key to understanding Gollum's humanity.
The scene in question begins when Sam and Frodo stop to rest, and they realise that Gollum has disappeared. Sam thinks he has snuck off to find some orcs; Frodo believes Gollum only left to hunt for food. (In fact, Gollum is meeting with Shelob.) The two hobbits go on to talk about how they will be remembered after the Quest. After their conversation, Frodo falls asleep and Sam says he will stay awake to keep watch. Unfortunately, Sam also falls asleep and wakes up just in time to see Gollum "pawing" at his master.
But back up a second. What exactly is Gollum doing, in the books?
"Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grye, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, 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 and pitiable thing.
But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum -- 'pawing at master,' as he thought." ("The Stairs of Cirith Ungol", The Two Towers)
Gollum here nearly repents of his evil deeds. Perhaps if Sam had not been so harsh with him when the former awoke, Gollum might have told them about Shelob. Or perhaps not; the point is, Gollum feels remorse. There is a part of him that regrets doing what he is about to do. Some part of him is not controlled completely by evil, and so he cannot be considered unredeemable in the same way that many of Sauron's servants are.
What about in the movies? The first part of this scene is rendered fairly faithfully at the end of The Two Towers, just before Gollum decides he will take the hobbits to "Her". The second part, however, is very different. On the stairs to Cirith Ungol, Gollum steals the last of the hobbits' lembas, spreads some crumbs over Sam, and discards the rest. Sam then awakes and accuses Gollum of "sneaking". In the books, Sam asks the same question, but in the movies it's actually the truth: Gollum has been sneaking, trying to blame Sam for the missing lembas.
Furthermore, by separating it from the earlier conversation about stories, this scene is not connected to hopes and wishes. When a book reader sees Gollum described as "an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years" they are reminded of Sam's and Frodo's speech just a few paragraphs earlier. Gollum also becomes a hobbit who had hopes for the future at one point, but whose future was taken away by the ring. This is not to say that Gollum is wholly good, but neither is he wholly evil. In the movies, he is just framing one of our noble heroes, with no redeeming characteristics. It isn't surprising that an audience more familiar with the movies might see Gollum as a monster. In Tolkien's story, however, this simply isn't true.
One of the biggest criticisms of Gollum's character is how quickly he succumbs to the Ring. Bilbo and Frodo both wear it for years before they fall to its power. Sam only takes it reluctantly. Gandalf and Galadriel both refuse it (though after some struggle on the latter's part), as do all of the Fellowship members except for Boromir. And even Boromir travelled with the Ring for months before he tried to take it.
It is easy to forget how little time Boromir probably spent just with Frodo. In Rivendell and Lothlórien he probably spent most of his time with the other hobbits; on the road all of the Fellowship probably did not wander too far from the group, in case they were attacked. Amon Hen may have been the first time Boromir was able to talk to Frodo alone.
It is easier to do something as part of a group than as an individual. History is full of examples where people do things as part of a mob that they never would have done individually. Consider for example Nazi Germany. If you had asked an average German in 1937 whether they would kill millions of Jews in the gruesome style the Nazis later used in the death camps, most of them would have said no. Even if they would not be prosecuted by their government or shunned by their neighbours. Similar examples could be found in communist North Korea, the KKK in the American South, or any number of attrocities. People simply find it easier to do evil as part of a group than to do the same thing individually.
I would also argue that it is easier to do good as part of a group. Boromir was able to resist the allure of the Ring for so long because he was surrounded by people who he presumably respected, who also were resisting the lure of the Ring. Gollum did not have this advantage; he was alone with Déagol when the Ring was found.
We don't know precisely how Déagol died. Here is Tolkien's account of the incident:
"Sméagol got out and went nosing about the banks but Déagol sat in the boat and fished. Suddenly a great fish took his hook, and before he knew where he was, he was dragged out and down into the water, to the bottom. Then he let go of his line, for he thought he saw something shining in the river-bed; and holding his breath he grabbed at it.
"Then he came spluttering, with weeds in his hair and a handful of mud; and he swam to the bank. And behold! when he washed the mud away, there in his hand lay a beautiful golden ring; and it shone and glittered in the sun, so that his heart was glad. But Sméagol had been watching him from behind a tree, and as Déagol gloated over the ring, Sméagol came softly up behind.
"'Give us that, Déagol, my love, said Sméagol, over his friend's shoulder.
"'Why?' said Déagol.
"'Because it's my birthday, my love, and I wants it,' said Sméagol.
"'I don't care,' said Déagol. 'I have given you a present already, more than I could afford. I found this, and I'm going to keep it.'
"'Oh, are you indeed, my love,' said Sméagol; and he caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. Then he put the ring on his finger.
"No one ever found out what had become of Déagol; he was murdered far from home, and his body was cunningly hidden." ("The Shadow of the Past", The Fellowship of the Ring)
We don't know much about Déagol's death besides the fact that Gandalf termed it a "murder". Déagol might have fought back. The murder does not appear to be premeditated, and it's likely that Sméagol was so intent on claiming the ring that he ceased to consider what was right and wrong. There might have been extenuating circumstances that Tolkien simply did not include because Sméagol's innocence is not a real issue at this point. (For what it's worth, in the movie scene it appears that Sméagol and Déagol are both trying to kill each other.)
I'm not trying to excuse the murder of Déagol. The killing of anyone, especially of a friend, is a heinous act. However, remember that even basically good people can do evil things occasionally. It's entirely possible that Gollum was so tempted by the Ring that his desire overwhelmed everything else in his character that would have tempered his actions.
Sméagol was in a fairly unique position. Bilbo found the Ring, and Frodo inherited it. Isildur claimed it as weregild for his father's death; to our knowledge no one else in the immediate area did the same. Sméagol, on the other hand, saw Déagol with the Ring and had a chance to take that Ring by killing him. The murder was certainly wrong, but it does not necessarily taint his whole character.
But Don't Ask Me...
If this were a late night info-mercial, this would be the part where I would bring out the "satisfied customers", so you could see it's not just my opinion that you should buy the product I'm trying to sale. And while I won't tell you how "Gollum changed my life" ;) I do think it's important to consider what other characters in The Lord of the Rings thought of him.
Bilbo did not seem to particularly like him, but he also did not kill him when he would have been justified to do so. Sam hated him quite intensely, and so did Frodo at the beginning. However, through the course of the Quest Frodo came to sympathize with Gollum, admonishing Sam for calling him Slinker/Stinker. He vouches for Gollum to Faramir, and even does not seem overly concerned when Gollum disappears on the border of Mordor.
Aragorn is less sympathetic; he does not seem to like Gollum at all:
"Along the skirts of the Dead Marshes I followed it, and then I had him. Lurking by a stagnant mere, peering in the water as the dark eve fell, I caught him, Gollum. He was covered with green slime. He will never love me, I fear; for he bit me, and I was not gentle. Nothing more did I ever get from his mouth than the marks of his teeth. I deemed it the worst part of all my journey, the road back, watching him day and night, making him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, until he was tamed by lack of drink and food, driving him ever towards Mirkwood. [...] For my part I hope never to look upon him again." ("The Council of Elrond", The Fellowship of the Ring)
Neither Aragorn nor Gollum likes the other, and they both have good reason. Aragorn had to search for Gollum for months, at a time when he did not have the time to spare. Gollum was gagged, not given adequate food and water, forced to go where he did not want to go by a person he did not know just after having escaped Mordor. Their animosity is very understandable.
The Elves of Mirkwood
From the report Legolas gives at the council of Elrond, it seems that the Mirkwood elves are very humane toward Gollum:
"'Alas! alas!' cried Legolas, and in his fair elvish face there was great distress. 'The tidings that I was sent to bring must now be told. They are not good, but only here have I learned how evil they may seem to this company. Smeagol, who is now called Gollum, has escaped.'
"'Escaped?' cried Aragorn. 'That is ill news indeed. We shall all rue it bitterly, I fear. How came the folk of Thranduil to fail in their trust?'
"'Not through lack of watchfulness,' said Legolas; 'but perhaps through over-kindliness. [...] We guarded this creature day and night, at Gandalf's bidding, much though we wearied of the task. But Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure, and we had not the heart to keep him ever in dungeons under the earth, where he would fall back into his old black thought.'
"'You were less tender to me,' said Glóin with a flash of his eyes as old memories were stirred of his imprisonment in the deep places of the Elven-king's halls." ("The Council of Elrond", The Fellowship of the Ring)
It seems that the Wood-elves treated Gollum better than they did Thorin's dwarves (who were not themselves treated that cruelly). And it should be noted that the Woodelves of all people had a right to be angry with Gollum, as Gollum had stolen their babies:
"Through Mirkwood and back again [Gollum's trail] led them, though they never caught him. The wood was full of the rumor of him, dreadful tales even among beasts and birds. The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles." ("The Shadow of the Past", The Fellowship of the Ring)
Mirkwood is hardly free from evil creatures, so it is possible that something beside Gollum was doing this. However, the fact that these doings are talked about suggests they weren't always done. Either Gollum or some other creature that passed through at roughly the same time did these things. Whether Gollum was innocent or not, the Wood-elves probably suspected him, and so they had every right to be angry. Yet they treated him with mercy.
Gandalf is probably the most generous toward Gollum of any character. At Bag End he tells Frodo that Gollum is related to hobbits, and that Frodo might come to pity him eventually. (Gandalf was right in this matter, as he was in most things.) He also insists that, while Gollum might deserve death, Bilbo was not wrong to let him live. Later, it is he who insists that the Woodelves do what they can to rehabilitate. him.
Gollum was certainly not perfect. He murdered Déagol, stole from and blackmailed his family members, and was expelled from his grandmother's hole, all soon after he took the Ring. But we should be careful not to label him as a monster. He made mistakes, some small and others much more significant, and I am not trying to ignore these. However, it is important to remember that he was not fundamentally evil in the same sense that Sauron or one of the creatures he had twisted to serve him were.
Thanks very much to Gwynnyd, Lyllyn, and Tanaqui for discussing this essay with me. They provided many of the quotes, in addition to helping with other aspects of the writing of this essay.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.