Of all the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Gollum is one of the most enduring. When first presented to readers in The Hobbit, he is a side character, a blend of comedy and chills. Tolkien significantly expands the character, first named Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings where he becomes arguably one of the most pivotal characters of the trilogy, and the ultimate means through which Sauron’s evil Ring of Power is destroyed.
Constructing the history of Gollum prior to his appearance in Tolkien’s books comes to the reader through Gandalf’s exposition, and in Tolkien’s indices for the trilogy. The young adventuring Bilbo first encounters Gollum when he is already approximately 500 years old. His having been a bearer of Sauron’s ring for a lengthy time period has caused him to warp, twist and grow steadily more evil in mind and body, and he is unrecognizable to Bilbo as a former hobbit. Tolkien did intend for Gollum to be a hobbit ancestor, more closely related to Frodo than to Bilbo. He associates the character with the early Stoors, who colonized part of the Shire and bear relationship especially to the Brandybucks, a tribe to which Frodo’s mother belonged.
This relationship is not happenstance, and Gollum’s longstanding possession of the ring shows how hobbits are capable of bearing the ring without dying for long periods of time. Men tend to become more quickly corrupted by it, and quickly fade or become wraiths under its influence. Hobbits, conversely, can resist this tendency, as Bilbo did for 61 years. Of course, long possession of such an instrument of evil would corrupt anyone, and it almost instantaneously corrupts Gollum, who murders his friend Deagol right after finding the ring. There is a lot of scholarly dispute on whether Gollum was already partially corrupt, since he is so quick to murder to keep what he later refers to as “his birthday present” or “precious.”
After murdering his friend, Sméagol earns his nickname of "Gollum" because of the throat noise he makes that sounds like gulping, and he is turned out from his home, as his evil tendencies grow. Finally, the light of the sun drives him under the Misty Mountains, where he preys on fish and unsuspecting young goblins. He has lived nearly 400 years in the Mountains when Bilbo first encounters him, and has his famous game of “riddles in the dark,” making off with the precious ring in the bargain.
Longing for the ring, which is believed lost forever by the evil wizard Sauron, drives Gollum back out into the world, where he eventually makes his way to Mordor, and under torture reveals the ring still exists. This gives Sauron the impetus to gather his forces and search for the ring, since it would represent certain victory for him, and he learns of hobbits and the name Baggins in the process.
While making his way back from Mordor, Gollum is taken by the Wood Elves of Mirkwood, and held prisoner. He escapes, setting him on a path to Frodo — now the ring bearer — and perhaps setting his feet on a journey that will ultimately earn him redemption. The destruction of the ring is in the end Gollum’s doing, and an important point to remember in analysis of his character.
One of the Tolkien’s greatest philosophical stances in The Lord of the Rings is his concept of pity. When Frodo wishes that Bilbo had killed Sméagol, Gandalf responds, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy ... Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil and escaped in the end because he began his ownership of the ring…with pity.” In another response to Frodo, Gandalf cannot agree that Gollum should be killed, “for even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
In a parallel story to that of Sméagol, Gandalf offers this same pity to Saruman, even after Saruman has caused the deaths of many. Though this mercy is refused, the idea of offering mercy rather than death to even the most evil suggests that ultimate good in Tolkien’s interpretation means never giving up on those who seem to be beyond redemption. It could be, and has been read by some as a cogent argument against execution. This reading suggests that Tolkien is stating implicitly that the wise person cannot ever judge someone as completely lost to hope or goodness.
Other modern interpretations of Sméagol center on the psychological. Some view him as a study in the nature of addiction, while others evaluate Gollum as Tolkien’s apt description of multiple or dissociative personality disorder. The character clearly does have two personalities, though they interact with each other, which isn’t always a feature of this illness. Frodo’s servant, Sam Gamgee later calls the personalities “Slinker and Stinker,” and Gollum makes distinction between himself and his Sméagol personality, one more anxious to please and more hobbitlike.
Frodo, in exercising Gandalf’s pity, refers to the character as Sméagol, at most times, in hopes of drawing out the more desirable personality and reminding him that he was once very much like Frodo and Sam. This point is indeed emphasized by Tolkien who in describing Gollum watching Frodo sleep, suggests he looks like “an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time…” but then when accused of “sneaking” by Sam, he crouches back “spider-like.” There is strong argument that Gollum is split, between an old pitiable object at the winds of fate, and a character full of malice. He even refers to himself as “we” rather than using first person pronouns.
Another psychological reading of the character views him as Frodo’s shadow personality. Should Frodo allow Sméagol mastery, he will become him and be ruled by the ring. But in all Jungian hero interpretations, the way to personality integration is to make use of those shadow aspects of the personality so that the individual controls rather than is controlled by the shadow. In this sense, as Frodo’s shadow, Frodo using Gollum as a guide into the darkness or underworld setting of Mordor, shows personality integration or in Jungian terms, individuation of the self.
A more straightforward approach to reading Sméagol is to merely look at his character progression. From The Hobbit to Rings, he becomes of greater importance. Though he cannot quite find redemption in life, his conflict between his two personalities forces him to develop. He is as much conflicted about his love for Frodo as he is about his desire for the ring. He both aspires toward love and rejects it through choosing evil. Yet it is in his final choice to seize the ring from Frodo just as Frodo chooses evil and dominion over the ring, that Gollum’s character reaches fruition.
In a savage move, Gollum bites off Frodo’s ring finger, and then dances in celebration over regaining his “precious.” This horrific act causes Sméagol to lose his footing, and fall straight into Mount Doom’s fiery lava, and by this act, he destroys himself and most of the evil in the world. It’s a hard redemption, but well justifies Gandalf’s opinion that pity and mercy are more appropriate toward dealing with evil than is aggression.
This is where Peter Jackson’s film version goes seriously astray for many lovers of Tolkien’s works. Gollum’s own act, his choice of evil and his jubilation are self-destructive. Frodo does not push him into the lava, as depicted in the film, but merely stands as a witness to it, and is thus saved from becoming twisted and evil, or from becoming a mere copy of his dark guide to Mordor.
Though Sméagol is serious and important, there is much in him that is also ridiculous and very funny. He appreciates and loves language, as evidenced by his love of “riddles in the dark.” He sings at times, with many readers especially enjoying his “fish” song. Tolkien gives the character an appreciation for sarcasm, enjoyment of jokes, and some of the funniest lines in Rings. The interplay between Sam and Gollum is especially fun to observe. Like Shakespeare, Tolkien realizes that tragedy and darkness require a little comic levity, and he uses his character to this purpose, as much as he uses Merry and Pippin at later and earlier points in Rings.
Complexity of character, character growth, and ability to interpret a character in multiple ways all give Gollum/Sméagol a long-lasting literary importance. What begins as a simple adventure for Bilbo with an odd and malicious creature, ends The Lord of the Rings with a certain majesty and sweep. The character allows for Frodo to stand forth ultimately as a person who exercises mercy to its fullest capacity. Even though wounded and possibly facing death, he says to Sam, “But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him…”