Originally published May 29, 2014 at Part Time Monster as “Gollum Makes the Story Work.” The whole series is archived here.
I’m reading the One Ring as a character and tracing its interactions with the other characters chronologically to see what it tells us about the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.
Next up is Gollum. I regard him one of the three most important characters in the story. We can’t understand Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam until we get a handle on Gollum. Today I’ll provide an overview of his life as briefly as possible and discuss my general impressions of his importance.
Robert Foster (1) puts Gollum’s birth year at c. Third Age 2430. Gollum dies and destroys the One Ring in the fire of Mount Doom in TA 3019, so he lives nearly 600 years thanks to the influence of the Ring. He is originally named Smeagol, and is a Hobbit of a matriarchal riverland group who live near the Gladden Fields, where Isildur loses the Ring at the dawn of the Third Age.
About 2463, his cousin, Deagol, finds the Ring while fishing. Using his birthday as an excuse, Smeagol demands the Ring, and when Deagol won’t hand it over, Smeagol murders him. Soon after, he’s driven out of his community and hides in the Misty Mountains with the Ring for nearly 500 years. (2)
In 2941, the Ring slips away from Gollum just as Bilbo happens by. Bilbo finds it and pockets it. There’s an exchange in which Bilbo gives Gollum his last name. Bilbo flees, taking the Ring with him. (3) For the next 78 years, Gollum is consumed by his desire to reacquire the Ring and everything he does is motivated by his need to regain it.
Suspecting Bilbo took the Ring, and armed with the name “Baggins,” Gollum leaves the Misty Mountains to look for Bilbo. At some point as he’s following Bilbo’s trail, he associates “Baggins” with the Shire. Decades later, as Sauron is consolidating his power and preparing to launch the War of the Ring, Gollum is captured by agents of the Red Eye, taken to Mordor, and interrogated. This is how Sauron learns the name. The appearance of the Ringwraiths in the Shire at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring is a direct result of Gollum’s interrogation. (4)
Sauron releases Gollum in 3017. Aragorn captures him not long after and turns him over to Gandalf. Gandalf also interrogates Gollum, and learns details of the story of the Ring he’d been unable to figure out on his own from the encounter. He leaves Gollum in the custody of the Elves of Mirkwood. Gollum escapes in June of the following year during an orc attack and goes back to searching for the Ring. (5)
He catches up to the Fellowship outside the west gate of Moria and stays on their trail through Moria and Lothlorien. Frodo and Sam capture him in the hill country above the Rauros Falls after the breaking of the Fellowship.
Gollum swears an oath of service to Frodo and guides the hobbits to the pass of Cirith Ungol, the most lightly-guarded entrance to Mordor. There he betrays Frodo to the monstrous spider Shelob in hope of regaining the Ring after she discards Frodo’s possessions. The plan fails, thanks to Master Samwise.
From there, he trails the hobbits to Mount Doom, where he makes a last, desperate attempt to regain the Ring. He finally takes it after Frodo claims the Ring for himself by biting off Frodo’s finger, and falls with the Ring into the fiery Crack of Doom.
By the end of the journey to Mordor, Gollum is so broken, he has two distinct personalities that talk to one another at times. One struggles to be loyal to Frodo and help keep the Ring away from Sauron. The other plots murder and betrayal to regain the Ring. Samwise calls these two aspects of Gollum’s personality “Slinker” and “Stinker.” (6)