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)
- Gollum is the character that makes the story work. He connects Isildur and Mordor to the Shire. He moves the plot. The Hobbit and The Simarillion are part of this story, too. Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum in The Hobbit gives him what he needs to actually BE a burglar instead of just pretending, and it’s not just about the Ring. Bilbo is changed by the chance encounter of “Riddles in the Dark,” and Gollum is given motivation. Those are important.
- He is not absolutely evil. He struggles to overcome the corruption of the Ring for most of LOTR. He’s sympathetic at times.
- He is the only character who falls completely under the sway of the Ring at first sight. More on that when I discuss the murder of Deagol.
- The murder and subsequent ostracism from his community are important. Kinslaying is one of the worst sins a person can commit in Middle Earth and for the most part, it’s irredeemable. The consequences nearly always entail exile from society, years of suffering, or both. Gollum’s life from the moment he takes the Ring gives us important clues about the morality of Middle Earth and the theology that underlies it.
- It’s interesting to compare the effect the Ring has on Gollum to its effect on Bilbo. Gollum bore the Ring much longer and lived for centuries in the dark; but even so, the differences in the way the Ring affects them suggests that the Ring’s effect would vary from person to person.
- Age doesn’t seem to catch up to Gollum once he loses the Ring as it does to Bilbo when he leaves it to Frodo. Gollum is much the same, physically, at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. Bilbo, on the other hand, is already so wizened he can barely stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time during the Council of Elrond.
- The differences in the way Sam and Frodo view Gollum are also interesting. Sam views him with disgust and extreme distrust. Frodo views him with pity and tries to be as merciful as he can. Frodo even convinces Faramir to spare Gollum’s life, despite the fact that this is serious breach of Gondor’s military code and places a secret outpost at risk of discovery.
- I think Sam’s view of Gollum is due to the fact that Sam’s primary concern is Frodo’s safety, and Gollum makes him feel threatened. Frodo treats Gollum as he does because he understands that the Ring is a burden, he’s been wounded by a agents of Mordor himself, and he’s had the benefit of Gandalf’s wisdom.
The Late Third Age in Bullet Points
I don’t have the space to discuss these today, but here’s a series of events that are important to understanding the Third Age of Middle Earth. If you want to know the world Gollum is born into and the scale of the struggle he’s caught up in, this timeline is essential.(7)
- The Wizards appear in Middle Earth around Third Age 1000, sent by the Valar to counteract Sauron, and given very strict rules of engagement. Gandalf is the only one who truly follows orders.
- The realm of Angmar is established in 1300 by the Lord of the Nazgul. It destroys the successor kingdoms of Arnor over the next 700 years. Its power is finally broken by Gondor at the Battle of Fornost in 1975, but the Witch-king escapes to Mordor.
- The Dwarven kingdom of Moria falls in 1980 due to the awakening of the Balrog.
- Minas Ithil, the tower of Isildur, is taken by the Nazgul in 2002 and becomes Minas Morgul.
- Sauron openly declares his return to Mordor in 2951.
- The last meeting of the Council of the Wise – at which Saruman convinces his colleagues that the Ring must have been washed into the sea to buy himself time to search for it – occurs in 2953.
That’s all for today, and it’s great to have this series rolling again. In the next installment, I’ll look at the murder of Deagol.
- This is all written from memory with the aid of “Gollum,” in Foster’s Middle Earth A to Z, pp. 217-18, and Tolkien Gateway’s Gollum page, which has a more detailed account of Gollum’s abilities, the etymologies of his names, etc.
- According to Gandalf. “The Shadow of the Past,” in Fellowship, pp. 62-63.
- “Riddles In the Dark” in The Hobbit, pp. 76-95
- “The Tale of Years,” In The Return of the King (App. B), p .371
- “The Tale of Years,” pp. 371-72
- The arc from Moria to Mount Doom summarizes a quarter of LOTR in ten sentences. There are too many events there, scattered across too many pages, to reference in the overview. I’ll discuss most of them in subsequent posts with close reading from the texts; some will be covered when I write about Frodo.
- I’m reading these texts as historical documents written by several people. For an explainer on when various parts were written and by whom, see the section of The Death of Isildur that discusses evaluating LOTR as a historical source.