So-called real life can be much weirder than fantasy fiction, and nothing is stranger than the spectacle of powerful tyrants afraid of fictional characters. In February, 2016, a Turkish physician will stand trial for comparing President Erdogan to Gollum; if the comparison is found to be an insult, the defendant will be jailed. To settle the question, the judge has summoned a group of expert witnesses, including Tolkien scholars and psychologists, to testify to Gollum’s goodness or badness. I don’t know what will happen if it becomes clear in this high-stakes literary debate that Gollum is neither good nor bad, or both, but I do hope that the trial will be filmed and screened throughout the world. Obviously from this prosecution alone Erdogan comes across as more like Sauron or Saruman, but since he has turned the question into a public one, let’s begin to address it here: Is it positive or negative to be compared to Gollum?
To answer this we have to look carefully at the origins of Gollum as Smeagol in The Fellowship of the Rings, mainly through the account by Gandalf. The rich particularity and resonances of Gandalf’s language in the Gollum passages go to the very core of the book, much more so than the flat, leaden portrayals of both human and elvish warriors; and indeed as we read these passages it is important to bear in mind that the story of Smeagol is being filtered to us through the imagination of Gandalf, who could not possibly have known directly some of the things he describes, and who might understand some aspects deeply but others not at all.
Long after, but still very long ago, there lived by the banks of the Great River on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people. I guess they were of hobbit-kind; akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors, for they loved the River, and often swam in it, or made little boats of reeds. There was among them a family of high repute, for it was large and wealthier than most, and it was ruled by a grandmother of the folk, stern and wise in old lore, such as they had. 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 flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward. (51-52)
This passage is interesting for its overtones: There is an innocuous Wind in the Willows feel to the prose, such that one almost expects it to turn funny and charming; the Stoor hobbits sound a little like river otters, and the reed boats evoke the fishing folk of the Euphrates and the Nile. The connotations are of an ancient, peaceful, busy people, at home with nature. The “grandmother of the folk” is an unusual figure in Lord of the Rings: a matriarchal elder in a largely patriarchal world, but one “wise in old lore” — which might mean tales, arts of healing or making, philosophy, almost anything. The suggestion is that she is an authority by virtue of sternness or wisdom, not physical strength or fighting prowess; and “grandmother” makes her primarily a maternal and familial hub, unlike “queen.” There is no mention here of Smeagol’s parentage, as if his character-bond to the wisdom-figure of the crone is more significant than the immediate biological bond. Indeed, Smeagol here is a type of both natural scientist and philosopher (the name Smeagol itself contains Old English words meaning “burrow, creep” as well as “investigate”), a creature who will not cease until beginnings and first principles are discovered. He is tireless in this quest, and in this there is both nobility and peril: nobility, because unlike most hobbits he will not settle for comfort, either physical or intellectual; and there is peril, because in the world of this book Smeagol’s impulse is that of the demystifier, the demythologizer, the one who digs behind the radiance and the glory. He is like Thersites in the Iliad, and similar in several ways to Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov: a modern being, potentially a reducer, an exposer. This is why “his head and his eyes were downward.” He is the anti-Sam, an enemy to the fraud of heroism and also to the dream of transcendence; he is also the anti-lyric, not even noticing things like leaves or flowers. These tendencies are present in him even before he sees the Ring.
The Wind in the Willows tone changes subtly to luminous fairy tale prose, in which the Ring arrives in Deagol’s hand through magical destiny involving the archetypal elements of boat, fishing, large fish, and near drowning :
On a time they took a boat and went down to the Gladden Fields, where there were great beds of iris and flowering reeds. There Smeagol got out and went nosing about the banks but Deagol sat in the boat and fished. Suddenly a great fish took his hook, and before he knew where he was, he was dragged out and down into the water, to the bottom. Then he let go of his line, for he thought he saw something shining in the river-bed; and holding his breath he grabbed at it.
Then up he came spluttering, with weeds in his hair and a handful of mud; and he swam to the bank. And behold! when he washed the mud away, there in his hand lay a beautiful golden ring; and it shone and glittered in the sun, so that his heart was glad. (52)
The passage is elevated at the end by delicately modulated King James phrasing: “and he swam to the bank. And behold!…and it shone and glittered in the sun, so that his heart was glad.” It is as if we are somewhere between fairy tale and Old Testament, in an otherworldly past, at the crossing of some spiritual threshold. Then when Smeagol sees and requests the Ring the prose achieves another modulation, becoming more jagged and abrupt in its rhythm:
“…I found this, and I’m going to keep it.”
“Oh, are you indeed, my love,” said Smeagol; and he caught Deagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. Then he put the ring on his finger.” (52)
In one sentence everything changes, with two “ands” and one “because.” The instantaneousness and simplicity of the act are chilling, as if of course one would do this just because “the gold looked so bright and beautiful.” The my love adds to this — not because it expresses ironic malice, but because in some sense Smeagol does love Deagol as well as hate him at that moment. The sentence itself operates with a perverse, sudden logic, as if something very natural were erupting from inside Smeagol but not from any intention or agency that can be called his own. Presumably the gurgling in his throat is then some kind of guilt-transference from the strangling, because he loves Deagol. In this one sentence Smeagol becomes Gollum.
Now the narrative takes on another set of overtones; fairy tale is replaced by the darkness that follows the primal crime of killing a brother (for Smeagol and Deagol, although only friends, are brothers in rhyme and now “in blood”). The crime is the kind of thing that he would never have imagined himself doing; in our attachment to an unblemished self-image, we are all basically incapable of imagining how we could betray someone we care for, but when we do it it always comes as a surprise. While great books about wars usually come riddled with betrayals, The Fellowship of the Ring has very little of it, because none of the noble characters can see themselves betraying anyone, and our primary hobbits seem too innocent for it. Gollum is the one who has fallen. Thus he is cursed and outcast like Cain, but also made to be a foot-biter like the serpent of the Book of Genesis:
“…it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
They kicked him, and he bit their feet. He took to thieving, and going about muttering to himself, and gurgling in his throat. So they called him Gollum, and cursed him, and told him to go far away; and his grandmother, desiring peace, expelled him from the family and turned him out of her hole. (52)
As described by Gandalf and other nobles, he is demonized as both Cain and the devil: “Gollum is a liar,” (55) says Gandalf, echoing Jesus’ comment in John 8.44: the devil “was a murderer from the beginning…he is a liar…” Those of epic aspiration and lofty ideals who describe Gollum — Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn — may speak of him with pity but cannot conceal their distaste for him. But even Gandalf recognizes that there is something of the old Smeagol in Gollum that cannot be killed, that cannot be vanquished, even by Sauron:
“Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. He had proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed — as a hobbit might. There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past.” (53)
This little corner that lets in light is related to the innocence and naivety that all hobbits seem to have, a fundamental simplicity that cannot ultimately be eradicated. Smeagol is simple in his hunger for secret truth; it is a whole-hearted idealism unsoiled by other motives. For him the Ring holds out the promise of getting at great secrets:
The roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.(53)
But even when in his degradation the promise shows itself as hollow, it is his very simplicity that brings him utter misery and desolation. Unlike most human beings, he does not settle comfortably into the empty night by putting a lamp or two in the room, but he dwells in his anguish, hating a life that means nothing any more:
All the ‘great secrets’ under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all…He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. (54)
Gollum is a character broken essentially from within, by his own impulses, because the Ring only has power when there is something inside us that can hear it. From the beginning of the story, he is the one who knows the Ring best and has experienced it most intimately; he has committed the great transgression, not only against Deagol but against himself, and now he must live with it, knowing that joy and brightness are now beyond his reach. All the other characters have not yet broken from within; even Boromir and Sauron imagine that they will not buckle and have talked themselves into some image of nobility. Elrond in his long life might have seen failure many times, but he has never known it from the inside. Because of all this, Lord of the Rings without Gollum would be a shallow book, with no depth of soul. It is Gollum who knows that the great war is really in the deadly struggle with oneself, which takes place in the dark, where no one sees; and it is a war that cannot be won. The external war is only the war undertaken to prevent this state of soul from becoming universal.
It is a masterstroke to have Gollum introduced to us by Gandalf and others who cannot fully understand him, and by having the protagonists sense or glimpse him only as a flicker in the shadows. By presenting him in this way Tolkien preserves his mystery, and allows us to enter into him by chewing over all the details of Gandalf’s description. When we understand that inside a Gollum there is a Smeagol at war, we can hardly bear Aragorn’s description of
“…making him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, until he was tamed by lack of drink and food…” (Aragorn, 247)
Would President Erdogan be comforted by this interpretation of Gollum? He probably wouldn’t understand it, even though in this reading Gollum is far from a bad character, and close to a magnificent, richly interesting one. He is the beating heart of the book, but — like Poor Tom in King Lear — a heart torn out and exposed to the cold.