Last week I provided an overview of Gollum’s life. This week I’ll discuss just one event – Smeagol’s acquisition of the Ring and his murder of Deagol. The only account we have in the text of LOTR is from Gandalf, so we don’t get the story straight from Gollum himself. However, it’s told from start to finish in Gandalf’s own words. Gandalf is the most trustworthy character when it comes to truth and facts, but this story is brief . It’s only about a page-and-a-half long. (1)
Smeagol (Gollum) and his friend Deagol, two hobbits, take a boat down to the Gladden Fields, where Isildur lost the ring almost 2,500 years earlier. Deagol fishes in the boat, Smeagol noses around on the bank. Deagol hooks a fish so large it pulls him into the river. He spies the Ring and retrieves it. Smeagol sees him “gloating over it,” demands it, and an argument ensues. Smeagol strangles Deagol, hides the body, and returns home with the Ring. (2)
Once home, Gollum discovers the power of the ring, and uses the invisibility to learn peoples’ secrets and use them in all kinds of malicious ways. This, of course, causes his family to shun him. “He took to thieving, and going about muttering to himself, and gurgling in his throat.” His grandmother, apparently a wealthy and powerful matriarch, banishes him from the community to restore the peace. (3)
From there he wanders in the wild until the ring corrupts him to the point that he can’t stand the sun, so he retreats into roots of the Misty Mountains. He lives there in the dark, eating raw fish and who knows what else, until Bilbo encounters him almost 500 years after the murder.
Last week I said Gollum isn’t absolutely evil, and that’s true, but this passage suggests that he was something of a bad seed before he ever encountered the ring. This is the most interesting part of the entire passage to me:
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 followers opening in the air. his head and eyes were downward. (4)
He was already like this on the day he took the Ring. It explains why he was so easily corrupted, and why he used the power of the Ring to do evil things from the very beginning. The sort of curiosity described in this passage is malignant when it become an obsession. I read Smeagol as obsessed here, because he spends so much time burrowing into the roots of things he forgets to appreciate the rest of the world.
This passage also echoes Melkor’s original obessession with the power of creation at the Beginning of the Silmarillion:
He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for his desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Iluvatar took no thought of the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Iluvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren. (5)
The “Flame Imperishable” is the fire of creation. The power to give Being from nothing and to bestow life. Smeagol is smaller and less powerful than Melkor, but there’s an important similarity here. Melkor and Gollum are both obsessed with things they don’t have. In Gollum’s case, it’s knowledge of the beginnings of things. In Melkor’s, it’s power that is invested in the Creator alone. The root of the problem is the same. This sort of deisire, in Tolkien, always sets characters on the path to evil if it’s not checked.
I’ll point out two parallels I see to works other than Tolkien here. I don’t have space today to quote them and discuss them, but I find them interesting, and I would like to come back to them once I’m done with this series. Gollum’s obsession with the roots of things makes me think of the young Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with life and death; and the murder and subsequent ostracism of Gollum makes me think of the story of Cain and Able in Genesis Chapter 4.
Observations: The Ring
I see four pieces of evidence in this passage to support my argument the Ring has enough agency to be read as an independent character rather than a mere artifact:
- It hasn’t moved very far. It’s practically right where Isildur dropped it,
- It hasn’t been swallowed by a fish or discovered by a marine mammal,
- And, most covincingly of all, it’s been lying on a riverbed for two and a half millenia, and for some reason, it isn’t buried beneath three feet of muck.
- I hinted in an earlier post at the possiblity that the Ring attracted the Orcs who ambushed Isildur. It’s also possible that the Ring had something to do with the fact that Deagol hooked a huge fish instead of a normal-sized one.
It’s also interesting to compare Deagol’s discovery of the Ring to Bilbo’s, both for their differences and for their similiarites; that would add an extra 500 words to this article, and is more appropriate to a discussion of Bilbo, so it will have to wait. (6)
This is the eighth in a series on The Lord of the Rings. You can find links to previous installments and to my other writing on Tolkien here.
1. “The Shadow of the Past,” in The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 62-63. For a discussion of just who the third person narrator of LOTR might be, see this explainer.
2. Quote from p. 62. Last week I said Deagol and Smeagol were cousins. Gandalf’s account says only that they were friends; but Foster calls them cousins in his Middle Earth A to Z, p. 217, and there’s evidence in Tolkien’s letters to indicate that he viewed them as related, though I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference.
3. Quote from p. 63.
4. p. 63.
5. Ainulindale, in The Silmarillion, p. 16.
6. See “The Shadow of the Past, p.62; and “Riddles in the Dark,” in The Hobbit, p.76, respectively.
Ring Image by lucasmt/DeviantArt