A Scene which Caused Tolkien to Weep as He Wrote It

As Frodo and Sam take a final rest of peace before they seek to enter Mordor Gollum returns. He has been making final preparations for the betrayal of the hobbits that he has guided since falling into their hands at the foot of the Emyn Muil; a betrayal that he hopes will enable him to regain the Ring. His desire for the Ring, The Precious for poor Sméagol, as Sam put it, has shaped his very being ever since he lost it to Bilbo Baggins in the tunnels deep beneath the Misty Mountains. Indeed the Ring has dominated every waking thought and every dream since he first caught sight of it as his friend, Déagol, held it aloft by the waters of the Gladden Fields long ago. This desire, overcoming him, caused him to murder his friend and has come to separate him from all companionship and  all affection.

But not quite…

“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 youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”

As Tolkien wrote this scene, this all too fleeting moment of grace, he did so with tears in his eyes. Gollum may have been corrupted by his desire for the Ring but there remains a part of his heart that has not been entirely vanquished by evil. This part of his heart awoke when he played the riddle game with Bilbo and images of wind, of rain and of sunshine entered his prison and it awakes again as he gazes upon the sleeping hobbits. Gandalf was able to recognise it during his long and wearisome interrogations of the miserable creature and Frodo recognised it when pity awoke within him at the moment when he captured Gollum. It was not just the unconquered part of Gollum that awoke this pity. It was the realisation that they too could be corrupted. Gandalf saw this possibility in the fall of Saruman, the greatest of his order and Frodo saw it in a fellow hobbit, the humblest of creatures. True pity, not the pity of one certain of their own moral superiority but the pity of one who knows their own capacity for corruption, is one of the truest marks of a great soul. But even the most profound pity cannot save another. A moment after longing is awoken within him Sam’s suspicion drives him back into hatred and a determination to do murder.

In a letter, Tolkien wrote this of Gollum:

“By temporising, not fixing the still not wholly corrupt Sméagol-will towards good in the debate in the slag hole, he weakened himself for the final chance when dawning love of Frodo was too easily withered by the jealousy of Sam before Shelob’s lair.”

Tolkien remembers the debate between Gollum and Sméagol that Sam overheard and notes that it was never resolved. Sam could not tell who had won. In saying this we must believe that it was possible for Sméagol to win and to become a willing ally in the destruction of the Ring and in his own liberation from its power. And in saying this we must believe that it is possible for each one of us to be freed of all that will keep us from our own freedom.

33 thoughts on “A Scene which Caused Tolkien to Weep as He Wrote It

  1. Oh Stephen! Just catching up with your posts after a distracted week

    I really love this scene – how could one not? – and what it says of Love and Pity and Hope

    And thank you for your words, drawing out from that.

    It reminds me of something my brother often says… with scriptural roots … That he who loves most has often been forgiven the most. It’s often in recognition of our own weakness and journeys and burdens or shadows that we reach out to the glimmers of hope and light in others.

    I really believe so much that *all* is redeemable – that there is always that Hope. Doors open to moments of Love continuously. We are never completely outside the opportunity for reaching through: it seems so apposite in advent especially… that waiting with outstretched hands. And it is well to be reminded, too, of the fragility of that moment.. Sam’s suspicion – founded partly in love and protection – tips the balance back again at that time.

    There’s so much we can learn from this scene and much for thought…

    It has always been a sad moment for me the way Gollum ultimately only brings about the Ring’s Destruction through a dark moment…. Although I guess even dark’s self destruction may bring Light … I shall look forward to your reflection when we get there!

    Thank you, as ever, for these reflections

  2. It’s this complication, or series of complications, actually, that make Gollum one of my favorite, though agonizingly tragic, characters in Lord of the Rings… not because he’s admirable (he most certainly isn’t) or because I like his personality (not much to like, really,) but because I know him in myself and he makes me cry. I recognize him as mine, if that makes sense. My blood and bone and frailty. Like his distant hobbit cousins, he’s very human, though he shows just how degraded without being entirely hopeless we can become.

    And you’re right, it isn’t a pity of moral superiority. I don’t know how Tolkien managed to write this character with such perfection unless he was guided by the Divine Hand. In my literary experience, Gollum is unique. It’s hard to even find words to describe him. But you do it very well, here. And of course, as you know, I’ve been thinking on these questions lately.

    “And in saying this we must believe that it is possible for each one of us to be freed of all that will keep us from our own freedom.” Amen.

    • Jubilare, thank you …. you captured there that at which I aimed, and missed, in my attempt. It is exactly that recognition of ourselves in Gollum that makes him such a powerful character. We weep for him, and for ourselves, and we see that glimmer of Hope and we hold it, tightly.

      I like what Stephen says, though, that it’s important to recognise this battle is in *all* of us… And thereby, perhaps, to find a common humanity… And solidarity in our journey.

      • “We weep for him, and for ourselves, and we see that glimmer of Hope and we hold it, tightly.” If you missed it before, you captured it here more succinctly and beautifully than I did.
        You touched on something else, too, though. That in his darkness, he saved Frodo from Frodo’s darkness, and accidentally saved the world through his own destruction. Years after reading that for the first time, I am still working to understand it.

        I know this seems like shameless self-promotion, but I love conversations about these things, so I’ll link this, here: https://jubilare.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/fallenwriter/
        Stephen’s read it, but it ties into this post about Gollum and about the fact that the space between heroes and villains is, in a fallen world, narrower than we like to think.

      • Thank you to both of you for this conversation. I think it is a mark of Tolkien’s greatness that he goes deeper than our understanding so often and as you have both shown that is definitely true with the story of Gollum.

    • The way in which Andy Serkis portrayed Gollum in Peter Jackson’s films was one of its greatest triumphs. Serkis is a very humble artist who is willing to hide himself within the character that he seeks to present. In a sense he wears the mask that actors wore in classical Greek theatre. Gollum is both pathetic (in the sense of an embodiment of pathos) but also entirely self-obsessed. Sam cannot be entirely wrong to depict him as Slinker and Stinker and Aragorn found him to be a great weariness when he captured him near Mordor.

  3. This was always one of my favorite scenes in the novels. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been visually portrayed in the films, maybe one day several years down the road that may change. For the moment I’m happy that this little gem is in there for book readers only. It’s a special moment in the book and is very touching, especially amidst all the chaos transporting around them.

    • I wonder why Jackson left the scene out of the film when the way in which Andy Serkis portrayed him seemed to lead to it as a climax. Sadly it seems that Jackson wanted to keep the scene in which Gollum tricks Frodo into sending Sam away. Maybe it was an easier way to tell the story and does not ask so much of the audience.

      • I think it is something that in another format (like a mini-series) it would work really well. It would be contained in its own episode and people would be talking about it but it wouldn’t get in the way of the larger story.

        I think with the way ROTK was shaped and paced that we already got to see a happy smeagol and what good he’s capable of and have already come to terms with how he’ll end up.

        So yes, it was probably an easier way to tell the story.

      • You mean that Jackson shows Smeagol as “winning” the debate against Gollum? The key moment in that telling of the drama would be Gollum’s belief that Frodo betrayed him to Faramir.

      • Exactly, and sorry for the late response. I think Gollum/Smeagol’s story already came and went in the Two Towers movie. And most definitely Smeagol is lost after the Frodo betrayal.

        That kind of bugged me too because it seemed sort of forced. Faramir didn’t have to be such a jerk. I guess the argument could be made that he still felt like he could be dealing with Mordor spies (not that Gollum’s appearance helped). But a little more tact would’ve been better.

        Here’s hoping one day we get to see that scene in the book visualized 🙂

  4. I love the conclusion – that we can all be free of the things we feel have power over us, even parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Even though it didn’t turn out, I love thinking that Gollum had in him the glimmer of redemption. Beautiful post.

    • It’s great to hear from you again, Michelle and I hope you and your husband enjoyed a joyous Christmas. Thank you for your comment. Interestingly I was in a social gathering this morning in which a neighbour declared that our characters are set by our mid twenties and that after that we cannot change. Most of the rest of us disagreed. Was my neighbour arguing for determinism? Or were the rest of us being romantically optimistic? I think Tolkien argues that we can change but also that we are responsible for our failure to change.

      • Thank you! The same to you and yours!

        That’s an interesting topic. I recently learned a little about the difference between “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” and how believing in growth can actually allow growth to happen. I don’t have any details on the study, and the context was mostly about learning objectives, but it’s worth looking into. I think in Tolkien’s case, I agree he would likely have believed in the potency of redemption, but also in our own responsibility to actualize it. Gollum, unfortunately, did not actualize his potency. Maybe he was too far gone.

      • Yesterday evening I watched “An Unexpected Journey” on British TV with my family. I thought I would give it a second viewing despite having been disappointed at the first. I had to promise not to express my irritation out loud which meant that a lot of tongue biting took place while I watched. One scene impressed me greatly, though, and that was the scene in which Bilbo and Gollum play the riddle game. I was struck by the way in which Andy Serkis used the Smeagol character to take some pleasure in the game while using the Gollum character to want only one thing and that was to do murder. This made the moment when Bilbo chose not to kill Gollum in order to escape the more believable. He cannot kill Smeagol just as when Frodo captures him he also says, “Now that I see him I do pity him.” Sam, on the other hand can only see Slinker and Stinker and dislikes both.

      • There’s something in there about the importance for Tolkien of seeing the good in people, even when it is difficult to forgive, and that there are some cases where mercy can teach as much as discipline.

  5. re-reading this, I was struck by this: “True pity, not the pity of one certain of their own moral superiority but the pity of one who knows their own capacity for corruption, is one of the truest marks of a great soul.”

    I have friends who recognize only “pity” in the superior-looking-down sense, and so lump it all together. But you make the distinction so well, here. That true pity is a form of kinship.

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