The Small, Slimy Creature: A closer look at Gollum

In “The Lord of the Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien contrasts two ways of thinking, two ways of living. Tolkien’s benign characters live in a world of “unforced, unhurried activity, practical and creative.”1 Living in peaceful societies such as Lothlórien or the Shire, they enjoy “the happiness of grateful contemplation of beauty,” and exhibit an intellectual curiosity with regard to the wider world. 2 In contrast, the focus of the malign characters is on the aggrandisement of the self and the negation of others. 3

Straddling both worlds is Gollum, one of the most psychologically complex characters ever created by Tolkien.

The author’s physical description of Gollum leads the uninitiated reader to wonder what kind of creature he is. When we first meet him in “The Hobbit”, he is described simply as a small, slimy creature. Later, this description is expanded (in both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”) to include a wealth of detail, both humorous and repulsive. Gollum has six teeth, and has distinctive eyes that glow in the dark like “green lamps.” 4 He apparently possesses the ability to switch his luminous eyes on and off at will. 5 He runs “with bent back and with hands near the ground, like a beast,” although he is “not of beast-shape.” 6 He is a skilful swimmer and climber. He is thin and emaciated, but surprisingly strong. 7

Gollum the Hobbit

Having heard a description of this creature, it therefore comes as a shock to Frodo when Gandalf reveals, at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, that Gollum was originally a hobbit.

“I can’t believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,’ said Frodo with some heat. ‘What an abominable notion!” 8

Right from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien emphasises that Gollum, repulsive as he might be, still has a connection with the world of the benign hobbits, as that is where his origins lie. Gollum is a hobbit severed from his people by centuries of loneliness, and Gandalf tells Frodo that when Bilbo met him, Gollum was “not wholly ruined.”

“There was a little corner of his mind [says Gandalf,] that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past. It was actually pleasant, I think, to hear a kindly voice again, bring up memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things.” 9

Gandalf also describes to Frodo the huge effect that the One Ring has had on Gollum over his many years of possession.

“The thing was eating up his mind … and the torment had become almost unbearable.

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.” 10

As the story progresses, Frodo begins to understand the torment that Gollum has gone through. For the Ring begins to work on his own mind in much the same way. Tolkien, in one of his letters, explains that Gollum represents the long-term effect of the Ring on one such as Frodo.

“Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ … is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith.” 11

As Frodo travels across Middle-earth with the Ring, he becomes painfully aware that Gollum is no alien creature. He represents what Frodo himself might become. Now that Frodo possesses it, the Ring begins to work its evil on Frodo’s mind as it once worked on the mind of Gollum, despite the fact that Frodo’s moral sense is strong, and Gollum’s moral sense has, from the first, been weak.

The effect of the Ring has little to do with the morals of the ringbearer. Tolkien, in his draft of a letter to Miss J. Burn writes that “There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power.” 12

The effect of the Ring is an assault on the mind comparable to that described in George Orwell’s 1984, and Tolkien compares the suffering of a ringbearer to that of “those who now issue from prison ‘brainwashed,’ broken, or insane, praising their torturers…”13

Thus Gollum’s connection with the hobbits is not simply to do with his origins. In common with the ringbearers, Bilbo and Frodo, he, too has suffered the effects of the Ring. “Three precious little Gollums in a row we shall be, if this goes on much longer,” 14 thinks Sam in the Dead Marshes, painfully aware of the fact that Gollum once was a hobbit, and also represents what a hobbit could become.

Andy Serkis, actor of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, has his own interpretation of the bond between Gollum and Frodo:

“I started to think of Gollum… as a sufferer of a serious terminal illness in its latter stages of development, whilst Frodo is just coming to terms with having contracted the same disease.”15

Gollum and the dark

Although he has a connection with the benign characters, Gollum has a lot in common with the malign characters, too.

Unlike Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, whose curiosity regarding the wider world arises out of a sense of wonder, Gollum’s curiosity is from the first directed to the gaining of advantage over others.16 “…he used [the Ring] to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses… he took to thieving….”17

Like Sauron’s Orcs, Gollum is drawn to darkness and shuns light.

Unlike the hobbits, who take pleasure in finely cooked food, or the elves, who create elegant meals, Gollum’s diet is “the diet of the uncivilised, even bestial carnivore…raw meat, raw fish, raw fowl … ‘worms or beetles or something slimy out of holes’…and (if Sam’s conjectures and the rumours of the Woodmen are well-founded) hobbits… and even long dead bodies.” 18 Sam, in contrast, carries his cooking gear all the way to Mordor, and is heartbroken when he is finally forced to throw it away. 19

But Gollum differs from the hobbits in another, more positive way. The hobbits are often described as being physically clumsy. For instance, when Haldir, an elf of Lothlórien, expects the hobbits and the other members of the Fellowship to cross the Celebrant on a rope, Legolas tactfully explains that “I can walk this path…but the others have not this skill.” 20 Unlike the hobbits, Gollum is extremely athletic. When Haldir notices Gollum climbing up a mallorn, he says to Frodo that this creature “seemed… to have some skill in trees, or I might have thought it was one of you hobbits.” 21 Later, Faramir’s soldier Anborn remarks that Gollum shows “a pretty mastery” of the craft of diving. 22

Gollum and humour

Apart from the good and bad qualities that Tolkien’s characters possess, the critic Brian Rosebury draws our attention to a third category – the “peri-ethical” qualities that cannot be classified as good or evil, but serve to make the characters more interesting to readers. “…qualities such as humour, learning, curiosity, creativity, and delight in life, which are ultimately related to the more centrally moral qualities…”23

Tolkien’s hobbits are presented to the reader in a humorous manner and humour is the peri-ethical quality that is most closely associated with them. Unlike the dignified elves, who evoke awe and respect, the hobbits invariably raise a smile. The villains, however, noticeably lack this quality. Sauron and the Nazgûl are presented with a seriousness that makes them somewhat disturbing. But (with the exception of the occasional orc,) Gollum is the only villainous character closely associated with humour.

Gollum’s very name raises a laugh, and Tolkien’s letters reveal that he derived a lot of amusement out of Gollum’s unique speech patterns, with their hissing sibilants and childish grammatical constructions. While checking the proof of the 1961 Puffin edition of “The Hobbit”, Tolkien noticed an error in one of Gollum’s utterances, and wrote to Rayner Unwin that “I suppose Gollum was regarded as ‘without the law’ and immune from the dictates of dictionaries or ‘house-rules’…”24 In another letter to Rayner Unwin, Tolkien explores the possibility of sharing his Gollum impersonation with the public: “…I do a very pretty Gollum and Treebeard. Could not the BBC be interested?” 25

Although Gollum has qualities that clearly identify him as one of the malign characters, the author’s humorous presentation of him is an indication that he is meant to be viewed differently from the other villainous characters of “The Lord of the Rings”.

Gollum and mercy

Another indication that we are meant to view him differently is the fact that throughout the book, the act of showing mercy to Gollum is treated as a virtue. This clearly distinguishes Gollum from all the other villains. The act of being kind to someone like the Witch-King, for instance, could hardly be viewed as a virtue.

Gollum, in his passage through Middle-earth puts many of the good characters to the test, just as Frodo tests them with his Ring. Frodo, the ringbearer, tests their capacity to renounce the power that the One Ring would confer on them. Gollum tests their capacity for mercy – more specifically, their capacity to be merciful to an undeserving creature, without the expectation of any reward. And every one of them passes Gollum’s test – Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn, the elves of Lórien, Faramir’s men, Faramir himself, and even Sam resist the temptation to murder Gollum when an opportunity presents itself for them to do so. Although they are under no illusion that Gollum will return the favour to them in any way, they are all rewarded for their acts of mercy when Gollum finally saves Middle-earth for them by inadvertently destroying the One Ring.

But did Gollum deserve their mercy? After all, the destruction of his “preciouss” was an accident: Gollum had no intention at all of being helpful to them in any way.

There are several indications in the text that Gollum was capable of responding to kindness. Keeping watch in a rocky gully on the way to the Dead Marshes, Sam falls asleep out of sheer weariness and wakes many hours later to find that he and Frodo are still “alive and unthrottled.” 26 Gollum has resisted the temptation to kill them although he has had the opportunity to do so.

As he travels with Frodo, Gollum increasingly begins to recover, in response to Frodo’s kindness, and his “good” side becomes stronger and stronger until he is on the verge of repentance. Sadly, this moment passes due to Sam’s misinterpretation of Gollum’s motives:

“And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean, hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of his youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing that he saw was Gollum – ‘pawing at master,’ as he thought.

‘Hey you!’ he said roughly. ‘What are you up to?’”27

There are many readers who do not attribute much significance to this scene, (including the film director Peter Jackson, who in his film adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings”, replaces it with a scene in which a cunning, scheming Gollum slyly causes a bitter rift between Frodo and Sam). But Tolkien himself considered this scene to be a very significant one :

“But now, (when the work is no longer hot, immediate or so personal) certain features of it, and especially certain places, still move me powerfully. The heart remains in the description of Cerin Amroth…but I am most stirred by the sound of the horses of the Rohirrim at cockcrow; and most grieved by Gollum’s failure (just) to repent when interrupted by Sam : this seems to me really like the real world in which the instruments of just retribution are seldom themselves just and holy ; and the good are often stumbling blocks…”28

Tolkien’s emotional investment in Gollum is revealed in these words. The creator of Gollum cared so deeply for him that he seems to have wished for Gollum to be saved, and years later, is still grieved that Gollum missed his chance. But although Gollum was not saved, the scene of Gollum’s near–repentance still has a significant message for the reader. The profound effect on Gollum of Frodo’s kindness is proof to the reader that (in Tolkien’s world at least,) no act of kindness is ever wasted.

by PV


1 Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: A Critical Assessment (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) p.50
2 Ibid. p.50
3 Ibid. p.40
4 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (London: HarperCollins, 1999) pp. 69-83
5 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 2003) p.375

6 Ibid. p.340
7 Ibid. p.375 (swimmer), pp.336, 598 (climber), p.600 (physique & strength)
8 Ibid. p.53
9 Ibid. p.53
10 Ibid. p.54
11 Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (Eds.) Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981) p. 286
12 Ibid. p.252
13 Ibid. p.252
14 LOTR, p.614
15 Andy Serkis, Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic (London: Collins, 2003) p.90
16 Rosebury, p.46
17 LOTR, p.52
18 Rosebury, p.47
19 LOTR, p. 916
20 Ibid. p.337
21 Ibid. p.336
22 Ibid, p.669
23 Rosebury, p.42
24 Letters, p.313
25 Ibid. p.164
26 LOTR, p.609
27 Ibid. p.699
28 Letters, p.221