Episode 11: The Tragedy of Sméagol
Today I wanted to spend some time with a character I have a very dear place in my heart for and that character is Sméagol, also known as Gollum.
At first glance he’s just this gangly, wicked, nasty little monster that you may find easy to hate. Maybe you even find yourself, like Frodo, wishing Bilbo had simply killed him when he had the chance and that was the end of it.
And yet when we spend just a little bit of time looking for the humanity within Gollum, we find Sméagol, and we are reminded that he himself is a creature worthy of love and yet desperately broken and lost.
I wanted to start out with a little bit of background information on Sméagol before the Ring.
Sméagol spent his early childhood living with his Grandmother. When he was 33 years old, he was fishing with his cousin Déagol who found a gold ring in the water.
I want to pause just for a second here to mention the importance of that age, 33. It isn’t in the books and I haven’t been able to find an actual source for this but I’ve read it in several places and I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien to choose this age intentionally. So you can take it or leave it, but I thought I’d mention it.
His birth year is listed as Third Age 2430 and then the year he got the Ring is approx. 2463 which would put him at 33. He also referred to the Ring as ‘his birthday present’, although it’s unsure if it it was actually his birthday because Sméagol is such an unreliable narrator.
This age is important for a few reasons. First, 33 is the year when a hobbit is considered officially an adult, they’ve come of age. So Sméagol chose to take the Ring as an adult, not as a child.
Second, Frodo was also 33 when he was given the Ring, on his birthday.
So we were talking about this on twitter and @danielhlogan referred to him in this sense as “Frodo’s Shadow”. Sméagol is, in a kind of way, an inverse of Frodo in the way that he came about possessing the Ring and what followed after. Sméagol takes it by force, where Frodo was given the Ring as a gift.
(Also, drawing from Tolkien’s Catholic influence, 33 is the age of Christ when he was crucified. Just wanted to point that out.)
So almost immediately, Sméagol finds himself obsessed with the Ring and ultimately chokes his cousin to death and takes the Ring for himself. After that, he quickly devolved as the Ring corrupted him, he’s kicked out of his grandmother’s home and finds a home for himself in a cave in the Misty Mountains where he lived for more than 400 years.
Eventually, Bilbo comes across the Ring and ultimately takes it with him home to the Shire, which leads Gollum to leave the mountains and search in vain for Bilbo. He ends up being captured and tortured in the dungeons of Barad-dur, where he reveals to Sauron what he knew about the Ring. After that, he was freed but then captured by Aragorn and brought to Mirkwood. He then escapes with the help of Orcs and continues searching for the Ring, eventually finding the Fellowship in Moria and following them until he is caught by Frodo and Sam and they take him as their guide.
There’s this quote towards the end of his tale -- Book 4, Chapter 8, The Stairs of Cirith Ungol -- in which we are shown the last flicker of light within his heart and it just kills me, just absolutely kills me.
After hours of sneaking around and plotting, Gollum finds Frodo and Sam asleep. Tolkien writes, “Peace was in both their faces.”
“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.”
But at this, Sam immediately wakes up and sort of yells at Gollum, accusing him of sneaking and calling him an old villain. In Letter 96, Tolkien calls this “the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance - but for one rough word from Sam.”
“Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids.”
Tolkien uses the back and forth of the green gleam or glint in Gollum’s eyes from the grey in his eyes to show us the internal struggle going on within Gollum, this turmoil between Sméagol the Hobbit and Gollum the lonely creature he has become, and after this exchange Tolkien writes “the green glint did not leave his eyes.”
After this moment, I would argue, Sméagol’s fate is sealed. We can’t really know what might have happened if Sam might have reacted differently, and even if Gollum would have had a complete change of heart in this moment there’s nothing to guarantee he wouldn’t have given into the overwhelming desire for the Ring once again. But it still makes me wonder.
Can we blame Sam? I don’t think so. Sam is right not to trust him, after all. And given what he’s gone through and the desperate situation he’s found himself in, I don’t think many of us could say that we would have been any kinder.
But despite his cruel words and his general disdain for Gollum, Sam ultimately chooses the same path as Bilbo when given the chance to kill him.
In Book 6, Chapter 3, Frodo and Sam are scrambling up the Slopes of Doom when Gollum finally finds them once again.
“'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.
Sam's hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. 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. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.”
Sam allows Gollum to live, just a little bit longer… and ultimately it is Gollum who brings about the destruction of the Ring.
I find it so fitting and so beautiful that Gollum, most harmed by the Ring, is ultimately the source of its destruction and the world’s salvation from it. It’s a reminder that Providence can work through the most wretched of us to bring about something so beautiful and redemptive.
We are reminded, in the glimpse of his humanity, that even Sméagol was created for goodness— and even though the power of the Ring has caused him to wander so far from his original path, Providence can still work through him to help heal the world.
Gollum carried the Ring for nearly 500 years. And as he carried it, it carried him away from everything beautiful or kind or true he had ever known. When Sméagol took the Ring for himself he entered into his own personal hell on earth, we might say, and he was consumed by it until the last moment of his life.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while: can we hold Gollum accountable for his actions? After all, the power of the Ring is far stronger than the will of any simple Hobbit. Even Frodo himself succumbed to it at the last moment.
Tolkien actually addresses it in Letter 181, and it isn’t the happy answer we might have wished for, but I think it’s better than that, it’s a good answer.
He writes, “Gollum was pitiable, but he ended in persistent wickedness, and the fact that this worked good was no credit to him… I am afraid, whatever our beliefs, we have to face the fact that there are persons who yield to temptation, reject their changes of nobility or salvation, and appear to be ‘damnable’... But we who are all ‘in the same boat’ must not usurp the Judge. The domination of the Ring was much too strong for the mean soul of Smeagol. But he would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean sort of thief before it crossed his path. Need it ever have crossed his path? Need anything dangerous ever cross any of our paths?”
I think, ultimately, we are faced by the truth that although Gollum did not intend to be carried so far away from the light of the world, it was his choice to take the Ring for himself and so the burden of what he became afterward is on him. And I think that should be somewhat alarming for us to recognize in our own selves too!
So what do you think about all of this?
I want to end with another quote from The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, as a reminder that we’re all a part of the same story, the same world. I think often we might be tempted to look at others, maybe those living radically different lives than us, those who believe differently than us, who we disagree with, and we see them as something less than human. And guys, that’s terrible, we can’t do that. Just cut that out immediately. Frodo and Sam and Smeagol, they’re all hobbits, all worthy of love and deserving of mercy.
The choices we make have led us all down our own paths, some deep into the tunnels of the Misty Mountains, some to the dungeons of Barad-Dur, some to the Field of Cormallen… but we’re all a part of the same tale.
“’Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on.
Don’t the great tales never end?’
‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo.
‘But the people in them come, and go when
their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.’”