Originally posted at Part Time Monster on July 17, 2014 as “The Taming of Smeagol.”
This is the eleventh post in a series about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You can find the first ten installments here. We’ve arrived at the point where Gollum emerges as a full-fledged character. Up to this point, we’ve only heard his footfalls in the distance and caught glimpses of him. In this chapter we get an up-close-and-personal look at him and he swears an oath. This is a pivotal episode, and it provides lots of evidence to support my argument that Gollum makes the story work.
On the day Boromir is killed and the Fellowship is broken, Frodo and Samwise strike off across the Emyn Muil, the rocky badlands above the Rauros Falls, and wander for three days. After a harrowing descent from those highlands on January 29, the Hobbits spy Gollum sneaking after them:
Down the face of a precipice . . . a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out. Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could have ever seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind. And it was coming down head first, as if smelling its way. (1)
This is one of the most memorable pieces of characterization I’ve ever read. The ease of Gollum’s descent stands in stark contrast to the difficulties Frodo and Sam experienced descending the same cliff. Gollum is coming down head-first, using his limbs the way an insect (or, say, a giant spider) uses its limbs. That adds a whole new layer of creepiness and dread to this whole episode. There’s no question at this point that an encounter is eminent, especially since the chapter title gives us a big clue about that.
Tolkien reinforces the bug metaphor a page later, when Gollum can’t find a handhold and falls the last dozen feet:
. . . suddenly with a shrill whistling shriek he fell. As he did so, he curled his legs and arms up round him, like a spider whose descending thread snapped. (2)
Considering how the story plays out in the next few chapters, this could very well be foreshadowing. I am inclined to think not, though. I read it more as a convenient turn of phrase for an author who obviously understands how monsters work in stories.
Having seen Gollum in ample time to position themselves at the foot of the cliff, Frodo and Sam are waiting. Samwise springs at once, but Gollum gets the better of him, and the physical part of the contest ends with Frodo catching Gollum by the hair, putting the blade of Sting to his throat, and threatening to do him in. (I’ll look at this in more detail when we get to Frodo).
Gollum grovels and pleads. Here’s a single line of his which is very telling:
Don’t let them hurt us! Don’t let them hurt us, precious! (3)
I think it’s clear from his use of “us” that Smeagol and Gollum are already disassociated to the point that there are two characters here. It doesn’t really come to the fore for another chapter, but it’s pretty obvious. And the second sentence seems to be addressed to the Ring. Gollum uses “precious” for himself and for the Ring at times, but this line is clearly delivered by Smeagol, and I believe he is pleading his case to the Ring. I’m reading this as more evidence to support my argument that the Ring is a full-blown character.
I can’t possibly cover every part of this chapter in detail. Here’s a summary of the next few pages.
- Frodo and Sam discuss killing Gollum right in front of him, but don’t do the deed, because Gollum is subdued and grovelling. Frodo decides Gollum must travel with them, and help if he can (Frodo knows Gollum’s been to Mordor).
- Frodo and Sam pretend to go to sleep, Gollum tries to escape, and they catch him.
- They tie him up with an Elven rope. This rope carries a very useful enchantment, and Gollum’s reaction confirms for us that it is not your average rope. He reacts as though it’s burning him, but describes the sensation as cold and biting. (4)
Finally, Frodo and Smeagol strike a bargain, and Smeagol agrees to swear an oath. Smeagol (or perhaps Gollum) wants to swear on the Ring. Frodo insists that Smeagol swear by the Ring, because he knows better than to allow this monstrous creature, pitiable or not, to see or touch the Ring. Frodo even warns Smeagol to mind his words, because the Ring will use the words to bind him, and possibly twist them. Here is the oath:
We promises, yes I promise! said Gollum. I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Smeagol, gollum, gollum! (5)
Oaths are serious business in Tolkien. Sometimes, in Middle Earth, oathbreakers fare worse than murderers. Sometimes oaths simply cannot be broken. Every word of the vow matters. And it’s clear that Frodo is not the master of the Ring — he is only the ringbearer of the moment. The Ring has one master, and we all know who the master is. I hope to show you that Gollum is true to this oath, at the end, but not by his own choice. There are still a few twists and turns to navigate before we get there, though. We still have the Dead Marshes, Minas Morgul, and Cirith Ungol to talk about.
I’ll try and cover those in the next post, then finish up this arc at Mount Doom.