Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 14

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Remarkable Mr. Invisible Baggins.”

I’m focusing on the relationships between the One Ring and the other characters, with reference to The Hobbit and The Silmarillion as needed. Because the construction of Tolkien’s narrators is so complex, I’m reading the books as historical documents first, and as a fictional narrative second. I have two goals.

image by lucasmt

image by lucasmt

  • To establish that it is valid to read the Ring is an independent character rather than merely an appendage of Sauron; and
  • To examine how various characters interact with the Ring and the consequences of those interactions with an eye to developing a better understanding of the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.

Isildur connects the narrative of LOTR to the events of the First Age chronicled in The Silmarillion. Gollum makes the story work. Without Gollum to drive the personal conflicts that are actually depicted on the page, LOTR would be a brilliant piece of constructed history, but it would not be a well-developed novel.

Meet Bilbo

Bilbo is not central to the plot of LOTR, but he is as significant a historical figure as Isildur and Gollum. He brings the Ring back into the light of day after two-and-a-half millenia of darkness and is profoundly changed by its influence. Isildur and Gollum tell us much about the nature of evil in Middle Earth, but Bilbo is the touchstone for Tolkien’s concept of good.

Bilbo is born in the Shire in TA2890. His adventure to the Lonely Mountain with Thorin and Company takes place over the course of about a year in 2941-42, and he returns to the Shire with the Ring in the same year Sauron returns secretly to Mordor. He leaves the Ring to Frodo and departs the Shire for Rivendell in 3001, where he lives for the next two decades before sailing into the West with Frodo and the three keepers of the elven rings in September, 3021, at the age of 131. (1)

Here is a timeline of important events of the late Third Age to help you place Bilbo’s life in the larger historical context. By the time Bilbo is born, Osgiliath has been left to decay and Mordor unguarded for twelve centuries. The Nazgul have held Minas Morgul for almost 1000 years, and Sauron has been in Mirkwood for nearly 2000.

Of the characters who possess the Ring for an appreciable amount of time, Bilbo is corrupted the least, and he is the only one who gives it up willingly. I think there are three reasons for this.

  1. He he has a good heart to begin with. There is no question about this. It’s clear from he very beginning of the Hobbit, and it begins with the hospitality he shows the Dwarves in “An Unexpected Party.” (2)
  2. He doesn’t use the Ring often, given the length of time he possesses it. This is interesting, because it suggests that he’s just less susceptible to its temptations than the other ringbearers.
  3. Once he returns from his journey with the dwarves, he uses it only for innocuous reasons – mostly to hide from unpleasant relatives. He does not use it even once to gain peoples’ secrets on purpose, or to make himself more powerful. It’s a last resort for getting out of jams.

As a stand-alone text, The Hobbit reads as a simple, episodic adventure story with both comic and tragic elements. But when you look at it in the context of the Tolkien’s larger work and start to ask questions about how the Ring changes Bilbo’s life, there’s quite a lot to talk about. I almost revisited “Riddles in the Dark” for the next post, but I think I’ve said everything I have to say about that one.  (3)

Since I am trying to understand Bilbo now, rather than Gollum, I am looking at the journey through Mirkwood. Do stay tuned! (4)

Notes

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 13

– Originally posted at Part Time Monster as “Gollum Dies.”

This is the 13th in a long series about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the final post on Gollum. You can find previous installments of the series on my Tolkien page at Just Gene’O.

After his confrontation with Samwise outside Shelob’s Lair, Gollum is absent from the story for awhile. The hobbits survive several ordeals without his assistance and arrive at Mount Doom on March 25. By the time they reach the final leg of their journey, Frodo is so exhausted and the Ring is so heavy Sam is forced to carry him. As Sam is struggling up the steep path toward the Crack of Doom with Frodo in his arms, we learn that Gollum has managed to follow the hobbits across Mordor and has found an opportune vantage from which to ambush them. Gollum drops on them from above and attacks. (1)

By the time Sam recovers his feet, Gollum and Frodo are so entangled, Sam can do nothing but watch. Frodo finds the strength to fight, and Gollum has been weakened by the journey:

He [Frodo] fought back with a sudden fury that amazed Sam, and Gollum also. Even so things might have gone far otherwise, if Gollum himself had remained unchanged; but whatever dreadful paths, lonely and hungry and waterless, he had trodden, drive by a devouring desire and a terrible fear, they had left grievous marks on him. He was a lean, starved, haggard thing, all bones and tight-drawn sallow skin. A wild light flamed in his eyes, but his malice was no longer matched by his old griping strength. Frodo flung him off and rose up quivering. (2)

Frodo looms over Gollum, clasping the Ring, and we see its power manifested one last time:

” . . . Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than a shadow of a living thing . . . a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire . . .

‘Begone, and trouble me no more! if you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’ (3)

Considering the way things play out in the next few pages, that last line has the ring of prophecy. I find it interesting that Frodo tells Gollum exactly what’s going to happen. I wonder if Frodo’s warning is an unwitting curse enabled by the power of the Ring.  After this confrontation, Frodo leaves Sam to deal with Gollum and continues toward the Crack of Doom.

Gollum does what he is wont do when he’s forced to deal with sword-brandishing Hobbits: He grovels and begs Sam to spare his life.

‘Don’t kill us,’ he wept . . . ‘ Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into dust.’ (4)

I wonder if this is true. It’s plausible to me that Gollum might actually be so transformed by the Ring at this point that he could literally crumble to dust were the Ring to be destroyed. We’ll never know, and have no way of judging whether Gollum actually believes it or not, but it’s an interesting idea. It makes the recovery of the Ring a matter of survival for him. Sam’s empathy overcomes his anger and his survival instinct here, and he allows Gollum to live. After Sam turns to go after Frodo, Gollum predictably follows.

Samwise catches up with his master at the Crack of Doom just as Frodo is overcome by the Ring, claims it as his own, and puts it on his finger. Before Sam can so much as utter a word, Gollum hits him from behind and he blacks out after the fall. I love that Sam goes unconscious here because this final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum is seen from Sam’s point of view and we have no idea how long he is unconscious. It could be a minute or 15, and we have no idea what’s done or said while Sam is out. It can’t be an extremely long time, though, because we learn in the next couple of paragraphs that Sauron is aware of the location of the Ring and the Nazgul are racing toward Mount Doom. (5)

Sam comes to his senses after a space break and sees Gollum struggling with the invisible Frodo right at the edge of the precipice above the fires of doom. Finally, Gollum bites off Frodo’s Ring finger and is so gleeful at recovering the Ring, he forgets where he’s standing.

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 12

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “Shelob’s Lair.”

This is the 12th in a series on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You can find links to previous installments here.

The action of Book Four, the section of The Two Towers that covers the Hobbits’ journey toward Mordor, culminates in an encounter with the ancient spider-creature Shelob high in the Mountains of Shadow on the approach to the pass of Cirith Ungol. Shelob is not a creature of Sauron. She is more ancient than the realm of Mordor. She has supernatural abilities and is driven entirely by insatiable hunger. Shelob is oblivious to the Ring and the war. It is Gollum who precipitates this encounter, and the plot builds toward it practically from the moment Frodo and Sam capture him. (1)

After Gollum swears his oath to Frodo, he leads the hobbits through the Dead Marshes. This episode makes it clear that Gollum is still quite intelligent despite his corrupted state, and that he’s been this way before. He warns the hobbits not to look at the corpse-lights below the surface of the water, lest they be drawn in and become corpses themselves. (2)

On the fourth day of their travels together, just after the crossing of the marshes, Samwise awakes to find Gollum arguing with himself. This episode is an important turning point in the story. It shows us clearly for the first time that Smeagol and Gollum have diverged into two entirely separate personalities. Smeagol wishes to keep his promise and help Frodo. Gollum twists the words of Smeagol’s promise and urges him to find a way to take the Ring for himself, but both respect the fact that they are outnumbered by armed hobbits. This passage also contains the first reference to Shelob:

‘We wants it But’ — and here there was a long pause, as if a new thought had wakened. ‘Not yet, eh? She might help. She might, yes.’

‘No, no! Not that way,’ wailed Smeagol.

‘Yes! We wants it! We wants it!’

Each time that the second thought spoke, Gollum’s long hand cret out slowly, pawing towards Frodo, and then was drawn back with a jerk as Smeagol spoke again. (3)

Though we  don’t realize yet who “she” refers to, it’s clear that Gollum is hatching a plot. Smeagol is going to be hard-pressed to keep his promise. And if you look closely at this passage you will see that when Gollum is speaking, GollumFinalGollum has control of the body. Smeagol is barely containing Gollum.

The second hint we get comes in “The Forbidden Pool.” After the hobbits find the Black Gate too well-guarded to attempt, they turn south into Ithilien, a wild, unpopulated region of Gondor which has not yet fallen under the shadow of Mordor. There they encounter Faramir, brother of Boromir, leading a party of soliders from Gondor to ambush a regiment of Harad who are marching up from the south to join Sauron. Gollum eludes these men, but they make Frodo and Sam their “guests” for the night so Faramir can interrogate them and decide what to do with them. (4)

During the night, Gollum trespasses too closely to the men’s secret hideout. Frodo helps Faramir capture him to prevent the men from killing him outright. Gollum naturally reads this as betrayal on Frodo’s part, which only strains their already tenuous relationship. (5)

Faramir turns out to be a very discerning man. He eventually allows the three to continue their journey, but  warns Frodo to be wary of Gollum and counsels him against attempting the pass of Cirith Ungol:

But I do not think you are beholden to go to Cirith Ungol, of which he tells you less than he knows. That much I perceived clearly in his mind. Do not go to Cirith Ungol! . . . But there is some dark terror that dwells in the passes above Minas Morgul. If Cirith Ungol is named, old men and masters of lore will blanch and fall silent. (6)

This gives us more details and heightens the suspense. It raises the possibility that the “she” Gollum refers to in his argument with Smeagol is this unnamed horror even the wise will not speak of.

Despite Faramir’s warning, Frodo presses on because he sees no other way to enter the dark land without being captured. The pass of Cirith Ungol is the least-guarded way into Mordor, but it’s still quite treacherous. Reaching it requires four dangerous trials.

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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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