Perhaps alongside Gandalf and Bilbo, one of the most popular characters in Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a slinky, sneaky and “tricksy” creature known simply, as “Gollum.” We are told in The Hobbit that this creature lives deep within the caves of the Goblins, how he got there and how long he lived there, no one can fully recall. He speaks to himself in the third person and dines on fish and the occasional Goblin. He only appears in one chapter of the book, but it is probably the most remembered chapter of the book.
Most characters of great importance show up early on in a story. Sure enough, Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin and the dwarves are all present and accounted for by the end of the first chapter. Gollum isn’t even a supporting cast member to Thorin and company. The dragon takes up considerably more chapters and is a much more pivotal character to the story. After all, the dragon has to be defeated in order for the dwarves to reclaim their home. Gollum poses no serious threat to the story, save his desire to eat Bilbo.
The entire episode only takes up about 23 pages (give or take a few, it depends on what edition you own.) 23 pages out of a 306 page novel. That is not even a third of the story. It is such a miniscule chapter, and at the same time this entire encounter has serious repercussions on the fate of Middle-earth. Because Bilbo meets Gollum he in turn obtains an object of great importance, and in turn sets things in motion for saving the entire world.
Bilbo is separated from the dwarves and he encounters this creature. Gollum is all too eager to eat poor Bilbo, but Bilbo quickly fends him off with Sting, the dagger he received from the plunder of the trolls. Gollum is all too eager not to be stabbed and so proposes a riddle contest. If Bilbo wins he will lead him out, but if Gollum wins, well, Gollum’s ponderings during the contest describe it best:
“Bess us, and splash us, my preciousss! I guess it’s a choice feast; at least a tasty morsel it’d make us, gollum!….Is it nice, my precious? Is it juicey? Is it scrumptiously crunchable?”
His rather alarming eating habits aside, including insisting on eating meat raw and wiggling, Gollum would soon become an important part to the larger part of Tolkien’s saga , The Lord of the Rings. However, actor Andy Serkis, who brought Gollum to life in the films, admitted that,
“I remember Gollum more from The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings. It’s Gollum in the cave, in the boat, riddling with Bilbo: his most famous moment.”
Even the description of the character in The Hobbit immediately grabs the reader and makes them interested in this strange creature.
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum-as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quite quietly on the lake…He paddled it with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make…Gollum lived on a limy island of rock in the middle of the lake…”
Its’ a fair enough assumption to figure that like many authors there is one book Tolkien is known for more then others. Because The Hobbit is a staple of the English Curriculum from junior high on, many readers are all to familiar with Gollum, Bilbo and the Riddles in the Dark. The Riddles themselves are clear, impressive and original; perhaps some of the best since Oedipus conquered the Riddle of the Sphinx. These are not your clever little playground riddles that you’ve heard over and over, these are real brain teasers. Further the stakes are high on this contest, namely Bilbo’s life hangs in the balance. If Bilbo gets an answer wrong, that’s it for him.
However, apart from this classic scene, there is much more to Gollum then meets the eye. As Gandalf tells Frodo many years later, “Smeagol’s life is a sad tale.” This alone is just a small indictor as to the long story of the creature known as Gollum. British film magazine, Empire, named him the 13th greatest character in cinematic history, in no small part due to actor Andy Sekris’s portrayal of the character. The magazine said that,
“Similarly to Yoda, our first fascination with Gollum is with his appearance and his strange speech pattern …. but as the second installment of Lord of the Rings progresses, it becomes apparent that he’s not one person, but two. It’s all galvanized by one fascinating, heartbreaking, classic scene, but Serkis’ performance continues to consistently display the demented Halfling’s highly volatile state.”
Gollum’s only “love” is the One Ring, his precious. Gandalf says of Gollum that he loves and hates the Ring, just as Smeagol loves and hates himself. Andy Serkis likened Gollum’s “love” for the Ring as being like a drug addict, desperate to get another fix. While Tolkien disliked allegory, at least the intentional allegory, he did admit his stories were a myth and therefore applicability is possible. While The Ring has been interpreted as everything from Sin, to the Atomic Bomb, in the case of Gollum and the Ring, Andy Serkis’s interpretation is perhaps the most valid.
Gollum can’t eat, sleep or live without the Ring. He wants to get rid of it, but he can’t live with out it. Because of his long time with the Ring, it causes his him to look like a scrawny, emaciated creature. While he eats, his appetite is grossly distorted to the point he dines on bugs and raw meat. He is willing to lie, cheat, steal and even kill to protect, or even reclaim the Ring. The Ring even drove him away from those he loved. Serkis says that,
“Gollum’s a Ring junky. He craves and lusts after it. He’s such a flawed character, but that’s why, even though people want to hate him, they ultimately find some way of feeling pity for him-even though he’s despicable.”
Frodo Baggins’ best friend Sam Gamgee postulates as he and Frodo are traveling to Mordor if Gollum is a hero or a villain. In the end, perhaps he was neither. He certainly did some villainous things and was very much overcome by evil, and yet at the same time, he helps do his part to save the world. The little creature may not have known it at the time, but he played a similar roll to that of Bilbo and Frodo. He was cut from the same cloth as they in more ways then one.
As Gandalf would later tell Frodo, Gollum’s life is a sad tale. Upon seeing him, Frodo would at last admit that, now that he had seen him, he did pity him. Fordo knew what the Ring was gradually doing to his uncle, what it was going to do to him, and had seen what it had done to Gollum. Gollum was a withered husk of who he should be, and Frodo had to believe there was a chance for him to come back.
Frodo would learn that many, many years before the events of The Hobbit, Gollum was once a Hobbit himself, known by the name of “Smeagol”. Much of his downfall, and transformation into Gollum had to do with one specific moment in his life: the day he found The One Ring. On that day, Smeagol and his cousin Deagol were out fishing. Deagol fell into the water where he retrieved the One Ring.
Smeagol came beside him and insisted that Deagol give it to him, as “it was his birthday”. Deagol informed Smeagol that he already gave him a present, but Smeagol refused to take no for an answer. Whether this was something already inside him, or The Ring corrupting him, Smeagol lashed out and killed his friend, taking the Ring for himself. Because of this he was driven away from his home.
In the prologue for the movie Return of the King, Gollum narrates
“They cursed us. Murderer they called us. They cursed us, and drove us away. And we wept, Precious, we wept to be so alone. And we only wish to catch fish so juicy sweet. And we forgot the taste of bread… the sound of trees… the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.”
There out in the wild, over long years, he transformed. No longer did he look like a Hobbit, but something else entirely. David Day recounts that,
“He lived by dark pools and in deep caverns. His skin became hairless, black and clammy, and his body thin and gaunt. His head was like a skull, yet his eyes grew great like those of fish that flourish beneath the seas; they bulged and yet were pale and his vision as poor. His teeth grew long, like Orc fangs, and his Hobbit feet grew flat…His arms became long and his hands larger …”
The Ring gave him an unnaturally long life. In fact by the time of the events of The Hobbit, Gollum is some 540 years old. There he lived deep with in the depths of the earth, closed off from the rest of the world in his cave, just him and “His Precious.” The only “visitors” he had was the occasional stray Goblin or Orc that he tended to throttle and eat.
In fact upon seeing Bilbo, even from a distance, he is very interested in him. Bilbo is not one of the slimy Goblins or Orcs. He is something else entirely, and he wants to know just what this strange creature is. Largely, this is because Gollum wants to eat Bilbo. He enjoys the taste of meat, however aside from fish and Orcs, his choices are few and far between.
Gollum even admits to himself in the film version of Return of the King, that Orcs don’t always taste very nice. He also has not had visitors in hundreds of years. Gollum, though he won’t mention it, is lonely. He has been living alone for centuries just him and his thoughts. In fact upon Bilbo making his formal introduction and showing Sting to Gollum, Gollum knows this would not be easy prey. He quickly asks if Bilbo will sit and chat with him for a bit and of course if he likes riddles.
These are among the signs that some of Gollum’s former nature as a Hobbit is still intact. Hobbits love riddles and games and gifts. Gandalf even explains as much to Frodo years later. Not only does he see another living creature, but he sees someone not unlike himself at one point. Perhaps to Gollum it was like looking into a mirror into the past, but a past that was long forgotten.
However, what Gollum doesn’t know is that something unexpected had happened. That is until the most unexpected thing happened. The Ring, which had a will of its own, abandoned Gollum in hopes of being reunited with its former master. However that is when something happens that the Ring did not intend. It was found by none other than the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. Thinking nothing of this magic ring, Bilbo placed it in his pocket. It was because of this that Bilbo won the riddle game, by asking the simple question of what he had in his pockets .Thinking it was a riddle, Gollum tried three times to answer and lost.
Since the game was over, Gollum was obliged to lead Bilbo out. He told Bilbo he had to go back to his cave and get something, which was the ring. Bilbo very carefully snuck his hand in his pocket, slipping on the ring and vanished .He then carefully followed Gollum out of the cave where he was reunited with the dwarfs. All the while Bilbo could hear Gollum cursing,
“Curse it! Curse it! Curse it ! Curse the Baggins! It’s gone! What has it got in its pocketses? Oh, we guess, we guess, we guess my precious. He’s found it, yes he must have. My birthday present. … Curse it! How did we lose it, my precious? Yes, that’s it. When we came this way last, when we twisted that nasty young squeaker. That’s it. Curse it! It slipped from us, after all these ages and ages! It’s gone., Gollum….Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”
Gollum soon leaves his cave and begins a desperate search to find ‘His precious” once again. It is years later after much careful study that Gandalf discovers the true nature of this Ring. It is to Frodo that he shares this information and even the story of Gollum. Frodo says of him that it was a pity Bilbo didn’t slay him when he had the chance, and even wondered why Gandalf and the elves let Gollum live as Gollum deserved to die. Gandalf responds.
“Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy, not to strike without need…. Deserves it! I dare say he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you deal it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many, yours included.”
Indeed, Gollum already had played a part in protecting the Ring from Sauron. As soon as he was driven from his home he wandered into the far wild and took the Ring with him into the deepest darkest parts of Middle-earth where Sauron, who was not omnipresent or omniscient, could not find him. Because of the Ring, Gollum could become invisible, and use it to sneak up on Orcs and Goblins when he ate them. This led the forces of Sauron to actually becoming afraid to venture down there.
Rumors were spreading about something, they didn’t know what, suddenly attacking Orcs. There was no way, even if they were bidden by Sauron, that they would go down there to find it. This kept the Ring away from Sauron for centuries, until the very thought of the Ring had slipped beyond all recall. Even before Gollum found the Ring, it had been missing for over 2000 years and was regarded as a legend and a myth, like Atlantis. By the time of The Hobbit, only Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman would have been among the minority who actually knew of the Ring.
Sometime after Gollum finally left his cave to try and recover his precious, he was taken captive by the forces of Mordor were they tortured him to try and get information from him. Sauron was none too happy. In fact,
“When he had learned what he could from him, Sauron released him and sent him forth again. He did not trust Gollum, for he divined something indomitable in him, which could not be overcome by the Shadow of Fear, except by destroying him. But Sauron perceived the depth of Gollum’s malice towards those that had “robbed” him, and guessing that he could go in search of them to avenge himself, Sauron homed that his spies would thus be led to the Ring.”
This indomitable thing in Gollum was his “Hobbit-like” nature that could never be fully broken. Further, Gollum did not trust Sauron as he perceived the Dark Lord as a threat to him, and knew that Sauron would take “The Precious” for himself. As such Gollum was going to do what he can to protect The One Ring from even its maker.
This included sending the forces of Sauron on a wild goose chase. Gollum since he had not been to the Shire, let alone out of his cave in centuries didn’t know where exactly to find the “Baggins”. This led him to tricking Sauron into thinking it was near where Gollum used to live, back when he was still Smeagol. Further Sauron did not hold Hobbits in high regard, so he felt it was just a matter of time before he got the Ring back.
However, Gollum was caught by Gandalf and Aragorn, thus preventing him from leading Sauron’s spies anywhere near the Shire. The two of them took him to Mirkwood where he was placed in the custody of the elves. It was during his time there that Gandalf was able to piece together bits of information from Gollum, information that would eventually help him determine for sure that the ring Bilbo found was in fact The One Ring.
Upon finally overtaking Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, Gollum eventually promised to be good and protect Frodo on “The precious”. Unbeknownst to Gollum this meant he was unwittingly helping them by leading them closer to Mount Doom where Frodo could destroy the Ring. Even in that last moment, Gollum still played a part.
The Ring ensnared Frodo at the last moment and he slipped it on. However Gollum quickly sprung upon him and bit off Frodo’s finger. As he celebrated, Gollum toppled over into the lava, taking his precious with him. As Frodo and Sam escaped the destruction of Mount Doom, the realized Gandalf had been right.
Gollum did in fact have a part to play, and he had played a part in the greater saga of middle-earth. Gollum may not have known it but he was a Ring-bearer, just as Bilbo and Frodo. Like Frodo would do many years later, Gollum kept his precious secret and safe, until it was time for someone else to take the burden.
As Gandalf tells Frodo,
“There are other forces at work, besides the will of the Ring-maker. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, which also means that you were meant to have it. That may be an encouraging thought.”
Gollum, like Fordo and Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. Even if it destroyed him, as it nearly did Frodo and Bilbo, he still played his part in the story. Perhaps that’s why, like Frodo, we can’t help but pity Gollum, and as such he became a such a fan-favorite character.
Day, David. A Guide to Tolkien’s World: A Bestiary. Metro Books Edition 2010
( Film) Jackson, Peter ( Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001 New Line Cinema
(Film)Jackson, Peter. ( Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.2002 New Line Cinema
(Film) Jackson, Peter. (Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003 New Line Cinema.
Nathan, Ian, and Andy Serkis. “Gollum: Andy Serkis On a New, Improved, Sniveling Wretch.” Empire Magazine. Issue 282. December, 2012
Olson, Corey. Pg. 197. Exploring JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012
Sibley, Brian The Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001
Sibley Brian The Hobbit Official Movie Guide Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012
Tolkien, JRR. The Hobbit 1937, 1966, 1981, 2001. Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien JRR. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien, JRR The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien, JRR The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien, JRR: The Silmarillion. 1977, 1999 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkien, JRR: “The Hunt for The Ring” Unfinished Tales 1981. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkien, JRR. The Letters of JRR Tolkien .Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. 1981. Allan and Unwin
Woods, Sean and Andy Serkis. “Riddles in The Dark” The Hobbit: The Ultimate Guide. Special Edition. Rollingstone. December 2012.
This blog is not authorized, endorsed, approved or prepared by any persons involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author and do not in any way reflect the views or ownership of the JRR Tolkien Estate, the Saul Zaentz Company, Houghton Mifflin Books, Warner Brothers Studios, AOL-Time-Warner Inc., New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson or any other persons or parties involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films and books.
Poster of Gollum from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.