Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 11

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.

  1. 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).
  2. Frodo and Sam pretend to go to sleep, Gollum tries to escape, and they catch him.
  3. 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.

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My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 10

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “Gollum the Footpad.”

I’m doing a reading of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a series of encounters between the One Ring and the other characters. I’ve given an overview of Gollum’s life, talked about the murder of Deagol, and discussed his loss of the Ring to Bilbo Baggins. We’ve arrived at his first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring, nearly 80 years after his encounter with Bilbo in The Hobbit.

Gollum’s path intersects that of the Company of the Ring in Moria on January 13, TA 3019. He’d GollumFinalescaped the custody of the elves of the Woodland Realm the summer before and disappeared without a trace in August. Apparently, he found his way into Khazad-dum from the east and was lurking in the vicinity of the West-gate when the company entered Moria. (1)

Here’s the first hint that Gollum has arrived. This is on the night the Company enters Moria:

Yet Frodo began to hear, or to imagine that he heard, something else: like the faint fall of soft bare feet. It was never loud enough, or near enough, for him to feel certain that he heard it; but once it had started it never stopped, while the Company was moving. But it was not an echo, for when they halted it pattered on a little all by itself, and then grew still. (2)

I like this introduction. Even though we know, if we’ve been paying attention since chapter 2, that this must be Gollum, we don’t see him. And monsters are always at their most disturbing when they are present, but unseen. Then there’s the fact that Frodo hasn’t made the connection yet, and wonders at first if he’s just imagining things. This is very good for building suspense. It’s reinforced a few pages later:

As the road climbed upwards, Frodo’s spirits rose a little; he still felt oppressed, and still at times he heard, or thought he heard, away behind the Company and beyond the fall and patter of their feet, a following footstep that was not an echo. (3)

Now we’re sure that someone is following – there can be no doubt. This is the last we hear of Gollum until after the fateful encounter at the bridge and the escape from Moria. Somehow, though, Gollum exits Moria himself and picks up the trail of the Fellowship very quickly.

Frodo catches his first real glimpse of Gollum the night of the escape from Moria. The Company has covered so much ground, the Hobbits are exhausted, and they’ve had to stop and take a look at Frodo’s and Sam’s wounds. They’ve eaten, and are listening and watching for signs that the Orcs are pursuing them.

Frodo did not answer. He looked at Sting, and the blade was dull. Yet he had heard something, or thought he had. As soon as the shadows had fallen about them and the road behind was dim, he had heard again the quick patter of feet. Even now he heard it. He turned swiftly. There were two tiny gleams of light behind, or for a moment he thought he saw them, but at once they slipped aside and vanished. (4)

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 9

– Originally posted at Part Time Monster as “. . . Thief! Baggins! We hates it . . . we hates it for ever!” The whole series is archived here.

We’ve covered Gollum’s backstory and his acquisition of the Ring. Now we’ve arrived at his first appearance. “Riddles in the Dark,” chapter five of The Hobbit, is one of the single most fateful GollumFinalencounters in all of Tolkien, though you’d never know it just from reading that book. Had Bilbo taken a different turn, the entire history of the late Third Age would be entirely different.

This is one of my favorite episodes. I enjoy it as much as I enjoy Gandalf’s encounter with the Balrog and Frodo’s meeting with Faramir. This post focuses on Gollum; I’ll return to this chapter when I discuss Bilbo. (1)

Synopsis (Here Be Spoilers)

The synopsis is simple. After an underground encounter with goblins (as orcs are referred to in The Hobbit), Bilbo is separated from the rest of the party and knocked unconscious. He comes to in darkness, discovers the Ring as he’s fumbling around, and pockets it with barely a thought. Eventually he recovers his wits. With the aid of the pale glow of his Elven dagger, he gets moving again and comes to a lake at the roots of the Misty Mountains.

There he encounters Gollum, who’s curious and wary at first. Gollum decides Bilbo would make a tasty meal, but Bilbo is armed and wants Gollum to show him the way out of the caverns. A high-stakes game of riddles ensues. If Gollum wins, he gets to eat Bilbo; if he loses, he has to show Bilbo the way out. Technically, Bilbo wins, but his last riddle isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the game, which is portrayed as an ancient and sacred tradition.

Gollum decides to eat Bilbo anyway and makes an excuse to go and retrieve the Ring from his secret hiding place. He discovers he’s lost it, and very quickly he begins to suspect that Bilbo has it. Bilbo flees with Gollum close behind. Bilbo puts his hand in his pocket, the ring slips on his finger, he stumbles, and Gollum passes him in the tunnel. Hijinks ensue. Eventually Gollum inadvertently reveals the Ring’s power of invisibility to Bilbo and leads him to the exit. (2)

Observations

Gollum

  • Even though Gollum is usually portrayed in visual media as having green, froglike skin, his skin is black according to this chapter. (3)
  • It’s clear that Gollum came to the underground pool before this particular band of goblins made their home under the mountains and that he strangles and eats goblins from time to time with the help of the ring. (4)
  • His appetite is voracious. He’s already eaten a goblin on the day he meets Bilbo, and he’s ravenous by the time the riddle game is done. (5)
  • Gollum has a little boat that he uses to paddle around in the lake by hanging his feet over the side. Since he’s been here centuries by the time Bilbo arrives, I’ve always wondered how he came by the boat. (6)
  • The riddle game is Gollum’s idea. It’s “the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago . . .” This line is interesting, because it suggests that Gollum doesn’t even remember what sort of creature he was before he took the Ring. (7)
  • Gollum never refers to the Ring as his “precious” in this chapter. “Precious” is a name he uses for himself. He refers to the Ring throughout as his “birthday-present.” His shift to also referring to the Ring as “precious” in The Lord of the Rings suggests he’s so consumed by the Ring, he conflates the Ring’s ego with his own after he loses it. (8)

The Ring

  • I’ve suggested that the Ring possibly summoned the Orcs that attacked Isildur at the Gladden Fields, and that it may have somehow selected the fish that drug Deagol into the river. I find the idea that the Ring orchestrated this encounter beneath the Misty Mountains a bit far-fetched, though. The action of the previous chapter plays out over too much time and space, and involves too many individual characters, for me to regard that theory as viable. I don’t think it brought Bilbo to Gollum’s lake.
  • This brings up an interesting question: How did the Ring know to slip off Gollum’s finger at the exact time and place for Bilbo to stumble upon it? I think the only answer is that at minimum the Ring has the power to see what’s going on for some distance – a mile perhaps, or a league? It may even have some limited form of prescience, and from this point on, I’m looking for evidence to support this theory.
  • The Ring obviously slips onto Bilbo’s finger, slips off again once he escapes Gollum, then slips on again at the end of the chapter when the guards at the cavern exit see Bilbo. The language of the text is clear about this. In none of these instances does Bilbo act upon the Ring. The Ring acts on Bilbo. The Ring obviously wants out of the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo is its best bet for that. (9)

That’s all for this installment. This chapter is 20 pages long, so no way to cover it all in a few hundred words. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m interested to know if I missed anything in this passage that’s important to understanding Gollum.

This is Part 9 of an ongoing series. You can find links to previous installments here.

Notes

1. “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” in The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 344-45 and “The Forbidden Pool” in The Two Towers, pp. 292-302.
2. The Hobbit, pp. 76-95.
3. “As dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes . . .” p.79.
4. The goblins discovered the lake when they were widening caverns and connecting them with tunnels; they seldom go to the lake because they sense something lurking there, and they ended their underground road at the lake. p. 79.
5. p. 88
6. p. 79
7. pp. 80-81
8. The first reference I can find of Gollum referring to the Ring as “precious” is in “The Shadow of the Past,” The Fellowship of the Ring,  p. 64. But curiously, this first reference is in a line from Frodo: “Surely the Ring was his precious, and the only thing he cared for?”
9. “The ring was cold as it quietly slipped on his groping forefinger,” p. 88.  The passage at the exit, p. 94, suggests that the Ring might have slipped off as a “last trick” before it “took a new master.” Two sentences later Bilbo sticks his hands in his pockets, and it immediately slips back onto his finger.