Is Pity for Gollum Misplaced?

Posted December 29, 2016 by Stephanie in Tolkien / 7 Comments

The beginning of The Return of the King is my least favorite part. It’s a little gross and I don’t particularly like watching Smeagol kill his friend. The thought crossed my mind though, why would the Ring have such an immediate and drastic impact on Gollum? The answer is probably rather simple and obvious, but I think we’re usually so focused on the Ring in this situation that it’s easy to gloss over.

We know that the Ring is powerful and has the ability to greatly influence those near it. However, we have several people whose immediate reactions to the Ring were nowhere near as drastic.

Response to the Ring

We have the hobbits, right? But we already know that they don’t suffer from an attraction to the Ring as easily as everyone else. Gandalf didn’t dare touch it for fear that the first touch would be too much of a temptation. So let’s go to our prime candidate: Boromir.

Just about his entire reputation among readers and viewers alike is based on his struggle with the Ring. Boromir is infamously known for trying to take the Ring from Frodo. Even taking his struggle into account though, his immediate reaction wasn’t to kill everyone within sight to take the Ring. Sure, it could be argued that the first time he saw it was at the Council of Elrond and it would have been a death sentence. But there were plenty of times he could have killed Frodo in his sleep along the road and taken the Ring. He never did though. This depicts two things: despite his flaws Boromir is an inherently good person and it reminds us that the Ring’s influence requires action on the part of those tempted by it.

So this brings us back to the question of the day. Why was Gollum’s reaction to the Ring so violent? My answer: Gollum’s reaction wasn’t completely based off of the Ring’s temptation. A person’s reaction to the Ring is connected to who the person already is. At his heart, Boromir was a good person who wanted to protect others. Frodo was a hobbit who only wanted a simple life.

But what of Gollum? We don’t know much about his life before the Ring, but we do know that he was somewhat isolated from his friends and family. So now we enter a point of complete conjecture, because I haven’t been able to locate actual text as proof.

Upon seeing the Ring, Gollum’s initial reaction was to strangle Deagol (who was probably his only friend) and hide the body afterwards. To me, this shows that Gollum’s prior character must have been questionable at the least. Of course, I use the word “questionable” very loosely. I would say that he likely had spiteful tendencies. When he realized that no one in his family could see him while he was wearing the Ring, Gandalf says:

He was very pleased with this 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 for all that was hurtful. The ring had given him power according to his stature. (The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 58)

The Technicalities

Now, perhaps you’re thinking, Gollum had the Ring for hundreds of years – much longer than Bilbo. But Gandalf tells us that Gollum was expelled from his family by his grandmother due to the above behavior. Therefore, I believe we can safely assume that even if he had the Ring for the same amount of time as Bilbo, Gollum’s behavior cannot simply be boiled down to the Ring’s influence. The Ring definitely exacerbated already existing qualities, but his aptitude for naturally resisting the Ring is probably about the same as Bilbo’s. Gandalf assumes that Gollum’s family “were of hobbit-kind.” That aside though, even if his natural ability to resist the Ring were the same as a human’s, it still isn’t much of an excuse. Gollum’s violent reaction and the immediate impact of the Ring must have been directly proportionate to the already-existing inclinations in his heart. It drastically intensified feelings and characteristics that likely already existed.  (The same can be said for Bilbo.)

I recognize that this thought implicates poor Boromir, but for him I would remind you that he was influenced by desperation and fear. Those two qualities can lead people to do things they regret all on their own. Therefore, I find excusing his attempt to take the Ring from Frodo more logical and deserving.

If we assume all of the above, then it makes me wonder if perhaps our cast’s pity for Gollum was a bit misplaced. The Ring is certainly an evil object, but his reaction to it wasn’t tainted by fear – loneliness perhaps, but I believe mostly by his malicious desires.

It’s easy to villainize Gollum; it’s more difficult to pity to him. To be clear, I’m not asking whether or not Frodo, Gandalf, and co. should have killed Gollum. I don’t think I could ever definitively say that because on the one hand the Ring wouldn’t have been destroyed without him; on the other hand, Gollum is vile and human enough that I find it difficult to say despite his evil.

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. (The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Gandalf definitely has some valid points, but does that mean that Gollum necessarily deserves pity? Is it misplaced after all of his wrong doings?

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. (The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. (The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien)

I thought I would have an answer by the end of this, but I’m still torn on the subject and find myself leaning toward Sam’s attitude. Sam didn’t try to trust Gollum. He never gave him the benefit of the doubt. He stood in front of Gollum with both eyes open. He called Gollum out on exactly what he was doing and he did so despite the danger. With all that said though, Sam did have the least bit of pity for Gollum’s misfortunes. I think the difference between his pity though and the pity we usually think of is that Sam never pretended that Gollum wasn’t the reason for his circumstances. I think his pity was more akin to him thinking that it was sad that someone would choose a life like that.

As we can see, I’m torn on the subject. I really do think that Gollum is horrible but does that mean we shouldn’t feel the least bit bad for him? Overall, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to pity him because I believe our ability to do says that we are human in the best of ways. But the question is should we?

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7 responses to “Is Pity for Gollum Misplaced?

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  2. I think that it is interesting to consider why Smeagol immediately murdered for the Ring while others didn’t. It’s hard to read the hidden motives of characters. I think, though, that while you’re right to point out that characters like Boromir clearly had some sort of integrity that prevented them from turning to murder so easily, they also may have had their reasons for waiting. Boromir might still be holding out hope that he can convince Frodo to give him the Ring or to travel to Minas Tirith rather than to Mount Doom. He also may be aware that he can bide this time, try to convince Frodo to give it up, or overpower Frodo as a last resort. Simply, Boromir doesn’t need to murder Frodo to get what he wants. Smeagol, however, doesn’t have the opportunity to play a long end game so he just grabs the Ring as soon as it seems to be slipping out of his grasp.

    I think we are meant to pity Gollum, though, since it’s Frodo’s pity that ultimately saves both him and the world. In Tolkien’s world, you defeat evil by choosing good even when your choice seems stupid. Frodo succeeds in his mission because he didn’t succumb to hatred or judgment. And I think we are meant to see Gollum as redeemable. I have always interpreted Gollum as ready to become Smeagol again–until Sam’s constant suspicion and meanness destroys him. Basically he seems to think, “Well, I might as well be what Sam thinks I am rather than what Frodo thinks I am.”

  3. I think you raise a good point that Smeagol was apparently never a particularly kind or moral person. Aside from the murder of Deagol, however, which I think we’re meant to attribute in large part to the overwhelming power of the Ring, his crimes seem to have been petty ones. I think we are meant to pity Smeagol for this, as well. In some sense, it’s just sad to live your life by digging up the secrets of others and revealing them with malice. Even without the Ring, Smeagol’s life seems as though it would have been a tragic waste. We can be sad for what Smeagol could have been but never was, his wasted potential.

    But I also think we’re meant to pity him because, even though he was petty and malicious, perhaps he didn’t fully deserve what the Ring did to him. Were his transgressions worth being tortured for? Destroyed for? Haunted for decades? I don’t think so. Yes, he’s awful, but it seems as those the punishment may have been worse than the crimes.

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