Gollum is generally regarded as the most complex character in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Beyond his iconic speaking mannerisms, he is a character of great thematic relevance and psychological depth. Advancing from his simpler and menacing form in The Hobbit, the Gollum of the sequel is darker and more tragic than his previous incarnation. This Gollum is a character torn between two halves, a more humanised persona — called ‘Smeagol’ — that has the capacity to turn to the light and free himself from the evil influence of the Ring, and his darker alter-ego ‘Gollum’, a figure that is both malicious and cruel, and in a constant battle for control over his mind. Through Gollum we see the exploration of mercy most keenly: much of what is accomplished in the story occurs because of the pity Bilbo and Frodo, and eventually Sam, take upon the scheming and desperate being who falls before them at critical points in the journey.
- Origins of Gollum
The reader is first introduced to Gollum in the second chapter of the book ‘A Shadow of the Past’ when Gandalf explains the Ring’s history to Frodo. Gollum is described as once being a hobbit-like being called Smeagol who lived near the Great River and enjoyed a life of fishing and exploring. Smeagol is commonly understood in modern culture through the Peter Jackson adaptations. There he is portrayed in a more Jekyll and Hyde like manner: one half is entirely good, the other entirely evil. The Ring, in Jackson’s interpretation, corrupted Smeagol and provoked him to murder his cousin Deagol. Smeagol, in Jackson’s own words, is a ‘sweetheart’. Tolkien does not offer such a straightforward contrast between the pair of identities, however, and the book Smeagol is already a being with significant capacity for misdeeds.
The Ring of the books does not change someone’s nature completely, nor immediately, but instead manipulates their established character to reach its own ends through. It corrupts over time and, depending on the person’s ambitions towards it, may work more swiftly in some cases than in others. Frodo shows resilience to its corruption as he takes the Ring to hide it and then to destroy it, not to use it. Boromir, by contrast, views it as a martial tool and is thus more easily corrupted.
Through Gandalf’s account of Gollum, we see that there was already a manipulative streak within Smeagol, and that his desires offered a more easily corruptible and malicious way for the Ring to take hold over him:
The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Smeagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.
There is a deep fascination established in him with the underworld, with places dark and hidden. In contrast to the hobbit-ish love of gardens and tilled earth, and the Elven love of trees and starry skies, Smeagol is indifferent to them. His eyes look ‘downward’ until he no longer cares for the world above. This love for the hidden places of the world may be an influence in Smeagol’s susceptibility to the Ring: it offers him increased abilities to aid discovery; his very being becomes hidden from the eyes of the world when the Ring is worn.
Further underlining the original Smeagol’s capacity for darkness is in the fateful moment where he finds Deagol with the Ring. Gandalf describes his motivation for taking it:
‘ ‘‘Oh, are you indeed, my love,’’ said Smeagol; and he caught Deagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. Then he put the ring on his finger
In the context given, it was the Ring’s beauty and Deagol’s refusal to surrender it that provoked him to his murderous rage, suggesting that there was already a substantially developed level of cruelty, greed and violence within him before this encounter. Smeagol’s mischievous nature is again underlined by his use of the Ring. Where Bilbo’s ownership utilises its advantageous offerings, it is always either in aid of his friends and companions — he rescues the dwarves from spiders, Thranduil, and sneaks into Smaug’s lair using the Ring — or as a tool for silly pranks. Gollum, it seems, used it to the harm of his kin and neighbours. Gandalf explains his actions upon discovering his invisibility:
He was very pleased with his discovery and he concealed it; and he used it to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses. He became sharp-eyed and keen-eared to all that was hurtful.
Gollum, it suggests, used the Ring to spy on others and learn their secrets, and for doing other forms of harm to them. His behaviour became so intrusive and officious that he was banished from his home, forced into solitude: finally vanishing into the caves of the Misty Mountains, and spending years fading from his former self into a crooked and dehumanized wretch. The name ‘Gollum’ was a curse given to him, which he adopted as a moniker for his darker and ‘more powerful’ self. Gandalf states:
The ring had given him power according to his stature… he became very unpopular and was shunned (when visible) by all his relations. They kicked him, and he bit at their feet. He took to thieving, and gurgling in his throat.
Smeagol’s use of the Ring reflects a petty vengeance within his personality. He harms his own, and they turn on him, so he harms then even more, until he loses every friend and ally he might’ve had. Including his own grandmother. The Ring claims his former life and forces him into exile, becoming the only thing precious to him. His love of exploration draws him to the Mountains, where he believes he will have plenty to discover. Only, as the years turn to centuries, the joys become less and less until they are gone:
All the “great secrets” under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.
He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.
The weariness of the centuries wear on him, transforming him from a hobbit-like creature to an abominable wretch, taking on animalistic forms. He loses everything he had loved, hating himself and hating the Ring as much as he loved it. He has become enslaved to his possession; a mere vessel for it, one corrupted by its evil nature. His torment at losing it drives him from his cave when it becomes intolerable: he hunts for the Ring and for vengeance against ‘Baggins’. Any potential light in Smeagol has been almost completely devoured by his anger, loneliness and despair in the deep and dank caves far from the light of the world.
II. The Wretched and the Pitiable
The figure of Gollum is aesthetically broken and disturbing. He has long since lost most resemblance of a hobbit-like being. As De Gruyter summarises in Gollum’s Sacredness and the Geopolitics of the Self the Ring is an object of dehumanization, transforming Smeagol into something animalistic and strange:
Having been possessed and obsessed ever since by the Ring, conceived as the objectification of the Dark Lord, the Hobbit is transformed into a disgusting and progressively hybridized being, which loses his former qualities and attributes to acquire the form of a hunting animal
The first significant interaction with Gollum occurs in The Two Towers as Frodo and Sam find themselves stuck in the Emyn Muil hills, a barren and inhospitable land. Gollum has been tracking them, as he has since they came from Moria. Up until now he has been a figure hidden in the background, slinking after the Fellowship, only occasionally daring to approach their camps at night. ‘The Shadow of the Past’ chapter established Gollum’s cruel and vindictive nature: he is, in fact, quite a vile being, having committed a number of heinous acts (including eating human infants as a snack). In person, he is unsightly, reeks, and seems to have lost much of his previous humanity. The Ring has withered his physical form, though not his barbaric strength, as Sam discovers when wrestling him.
Gollum is a desperate figure. He grovels, pleads, cries, and worships. He is a being seemingly torn between two states: the pitiable and desperate Smeagol and the manipulative Gollum. He begs and cries that he is ‘lonely, so lonely’ and pleads not to be harmed. Under the Misty Mountains Bilbo came upon Gollum after he had lost the Ring. He saw both the vindictive and violent side of the creature, but also his incredible vulnerability and brokenness:
Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment…
In the comforts of Bag-End, knowing Gollum was vile and untrustworthy, Frodo struggled to imagine why Bilbo might have spared him: the pity, then, was to not kill Gollum where he stood and put an end to his mischievous ways. When faced with the grovelling, malnourished creature before him, it stirs in him an understanding: that Gollum has been a victim of the Ring as much as he has become a villain of its will. “Now that I see him, I do pity him.” As the power of the Ring grows, so too does Frodo’s understanding of its power and how it warps those to its will.
Gollum has come to expect taunts and abuse. He writhes and screams, seethes and bites. And he appears to hate everyone. The question of his genuine change at Frodo’s mercy and kindness is disputable (Sam is mostly unconvinced) yet he does appear to have a sudden change when Frodo frees him from the rope:
At once Gollum got up and began prancing about, like a whipped cur whose master had patted it. From that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him.
Gandalf suggests back in the second chapter of Fellowship of the Ring that a very human part remains in Gollum, however slight. He suggests that Riddles game that Bilbo played with him was more than manipulation and cunning; that Gollum desired to hear another voice, to probe his memory with familiar comforts and games, and relished, briefly, in not being totally alone for once. Smeagol, at least, appears to develop some fondness for Frodo, expressing desires not to hurt ‘nice master’ in contrast to the mutual dynamic of dislike between himself and Sam. Swearing on ‘the precious’ tethers Gollum to Frodo, and he is driven anxiously to help him, or appear to, always coloured by hopes of getting the Ring back.
The importance of Frodo’s mercy is to offer Gollum the chance to repent, and cast away the evil of the Ring. To let Smeagol return for his final days, if he can. When Frodo suggests they might find his former self again, Smeagol grieves: ‘No, no, never! He’s lost his precious,’ suggesting that Gollum cannot conceive of life without the Ring, highlighting how utterly damaged his mind has become. Smeagol is lost forever from him, he believes, while parts of it bubble under the surface of his anguish and malice.
III. Smeagol and Gollum: Distinctions of Self
The distinction between Gollum and Smeagol can be observed in the way each speaks. Gollum is characterised as the cunning and manipulative side of the character. He plans betrayals and speaks to Smeagol with flattery and promises. Gollum also tempts him to turn against the hobbits by feeding Smeagol the idea of being powerful: “Lord Smeagol” who will make Samwise crawl. Another interesting element to the dynamic between the two halves is that Gollum exclusively addresses himself in third person, whereas Smeagol utilises first person pronouns. Smeagol, at least sometimes, appears to retain his sense of self and individuality, where Gollum is more abstracted. There is a battle between the two halves with Gollum having somewhat more power and influence in their exchanges. As Jane Chance notes in Apartheid and Tolkien: Chaucer and The Lord of the Rings:
In contrast to Gollum, who speaks in sentence fragments and in baby-talk, Sméagol tends to speak in complete sentences, using the first-person pronoun, and to reflect an upwardly mobile and socially aspiring Hobbit self who wishes to bond feudally with his master and “lord,” Frodo.
In moments where Smeagol uses “I” he appears to break away from his maladaptive thought patterns, and develops something of an individuality in his psychology. He expresses himself more honestly, with less manipulation. In-text, Frodo himself acknowledges this:
For one thing, he noted that Gollum used I, and that seemed usually to be a sign, on its rare appearances, that some remnants of old truth and sincerity were for the moment on top.
This is in the context of his denial that he was let out to do Sauron’s bidding. In contrast, when he was trying, earlier, to manipulate Frodo into passing the Ring back to him, he used third person speech, and employed a degree of flattery. “I” represents the brief reclamation of Smeagol’s previous being, a sign of his capacity for change, to repent. Of course, it is not often observed, and this small glimmer constantly seems to be at war with his other sides. Indeed, Sam finds the obsequious ‘Smeagol’ (‘Slinker’ as he calls him) even less trustworthy than Gollum. As the narrative progresses into the final push, the ‘I’ is dropped and Gollum exclusively speaks in either third person or ‘we’. With his capacity to turn away from the evil will disintegrating, Smeagol is lost; he becomes, simply, a slave to his anguish and anger, and the desire to have the Ring again.
Gollum has an interesting relationship with power. As noted, Gollum develops a servant-like posturing around Frodo, praising and fawning over him. Listening to him, cackling at his comments, and cringing if he displeases him. The will to please is a powerful drive in him. Gollum humiliates himself in a way that characters with more nobility and respect would never do: he weeps easily, cowers easily, and throws himself screaming at the feets of others for forgiveness and pity. During their exchanges, Frodo seems to grow where Gollum shrinks. Frodo has power, it seems, elevated by the Ring, whereas Gollum is perennially without: he is pitiable, not respectable.
‘See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than the Wraiths. Lord Smeagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum!’
When Sam has the Ring he is tempted to turn Middle-Earth into a giant garden. He wants to use the power he senses within it to undo the damage of Sauron and war. There we can see how it will weave his gentle intentions, over time, into self-righteous domination. With Gollum, his desires are pettier. He would like to be the Master, to never hide away, to be great — even like a Lord. Gollum promises to raise Smeagol up, to elevate him, or hide him away, from torment and abuse through the Ring. These promises are self-serving and ultimately futile; without the Ring’s destruction, Sauron will find him again understanding, now, that the Ring survived and knowing of Gollum’s role in its history.
However, Gollum also has a perspective on Sauron that none of the other major characters do: he has interacted with him properly, having been his prisoner. He describes Sauron’s physical form — a dark figure with a black hand missing a finger — and pleads not to let Sauron get the Ring referencing what will happen if he does: ‘Don’t take the precious to him! He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world!”
Gollum has perhaps the most direct insight into what Sauron’s purposes for Middle-Earth really are. There’s a genuine terror in him beyond anything Frodo, Sam or the other protagonists display. Only Saruman and Denethor and possibly Gandalf likely share this knowledge. One aims to outplay him, one aims to challenge him, and the other falls into severe depression. But these characters have a status and power that Gollum lacks. They can put up a fight against Sauron. Gollum is the little person. For Gollum, the only solution to Sauron is to hide away from him, and the Precious is the tool to aid him. Gollum is addicted to the Ring, yet he does not understand its nature. He does not understand that it draws evil things to it. Just as it now draws him. His understanding of power is limited, viewing it to only to extract potential petty vengeance on people like Sam — ‘make the nasty hobbit crawl’ — or to use it to hide from the bigger villains.
IV. Ruinous and Wretched.
Smeagol has the opportunity to turn away from his disastrous path, to be somewhat like himself as he once was. The importance of mercy is that Smeagol can potentially play a role for good. The greatest moment of Smeagol’s dance with repentance comes on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, when he looks upon the sleeping hobbits and deliberates on taking them to Shelob. The moment represents the frailty and delicacy on which the divide between these two halves lies.
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.
Gollum is in a genuine dilemma. In this moment the most humanizing of his physical descriptions is used:
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 years that carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
‘Fleeting moment’ emphasises how quickly this return of Smeagol is. But in this deliberation, this moment of reflection and empathy, Smeagol’s entire existence comes into play: he is a victim of this ancient power, he has become unhealthily attached to it, and has lost everything — his friends, family, history, self — and yet still pursues it. He is ‘old and tired’ from centuries of prolonged living. In contrast to the Elves, whose kin live on with them, and who try to hold onto what was in places like Lothlorien through the power of the Rings, Gollum can only hold on to his own continuation. ‘What once was’ for him is gone to time. There is no joy in his existence anymore. Only the Ring remains, keeping him going after the point of losing everything he might ever have valued beyond it.
Further emphasising the delicacy of this moment, and the battle between Smeagol’s wish ‘not to hurt nice Master’ and the desire to claim the Ring and hide away forever, it is Sam’s insensitive accusation that turns him back to his murderous intent. Gollum is hypersensitive, gnawing over his unfair treatment from others. His reclamation of himself hangs in a balance so thin that it can quickly be set off-course again. In contrast to his ‘old and tired’ eyes the mischievous ‘green gleam’ returns. And so too does his plot for the Precious. The importance of this passage, and its placement of the story, shows how slim the chance for Gollum’s repentance is, how lost his sense of self is from all the evil he has done and the long years brooding over the Ring. His chance to do right, his chance to save himself perhaps, is defeated by a moment’s weary pettiness.
On the slopes of Mount Doom, in the final interaction between Sam and Gollum, we see the dependency on which Gollum feels for the Ring:
‘Don’t kill us,’ he wept. ‘Don’t hurt us with nassty cruel steel! Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. ‘Dusst!’ he hissed.
Fear of death has a grip on him. Gollum has endured long and lonely years brooding over the Ring as everything around him changes. He, at the final moments, is entirely devoted to continuing on, through all weariness and emptiness, simply to be prolonged by the Ring. He exists purely for the Ring now. This realisation prompts Sam to finally feel mercy for ‘Stinker’. Much like with Bilbo and especially Frodo before him, he sees how lost Smeagol truly is.
But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.
On the final push, when all hangs in the balance, Sam sees the struggle within Gollum, how this evil has consumed something that was once quite different. He, through his own brief experience of the Ring, comes to vaguely understand how the long years of ownership have destroyed this old hobbit. ‘Forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched’ describes the life of Gollum: a ‘sad story’ as Gandalf once stated; a being who lost everything to the corruption of the evil Will of the Ring, and now the only thing in the world that motivates him is the agony he feels when parted from his tormenting object. Gollum is a tragic character. In his final state he is driven by sheer desperation and anguish; he has faded, through hardship, even more than in his introduction in ‘The Taming of Smeagol’ chapter: ‘… but whatever dreadful paths, lonely and hungry and waterless, he had trodden, driven by a devouring desire and a terrible fear, they had left grievous marks on him’ both Frodo and Gollum have changed in the ascent of Mount Doom. Both are sickly and haggard, yet Gollum more so and the Ring, as Frodo grows closer and closer to claiming it, gives him strength. Frodo’s fall is grand and tragic, at the final point he claims the Ring for himself in a moment of dark power: he is commanding. Gollum, by contrast, claimed it in an act of pettiness and then it gnawed him to near-nothingness.
Gollum is the most psychologically complex character in the book. He can be viewed from several lenses, and directly ties into the thematic core of the book. Beginning as a curious creature that Bilbo played riddles with to bargain his escape, Gollum transformed into an immensely damaged and pitiful being, one as loathsome as he is sympathetic. His relevance in the material stems from his richly layered characterisation, grappling between two distinctive sides, colliding them into a desperate and manipulative antagonist. ‘Forlorn, ruinous, wretched’ is how Gollum is described during his final appearance. A creature wrecked by long years of solitude and obsession, ‘alone’ for so long, yet unwilling and unable to truly let go of the ‘Precious’ object that devours him until his wrathful need for it kills him.