Their relationship must have begun because they were so similar in spirit. For Shelob is consumed with a lust for all life, true daughter as she is of Ungoliant the ancient monster in spider form. This lust is insatiable but it is limited by a need for secrecy and so prey must fall unawares into her lair. Gollum in time past has brought such prey to her. He is her “sneak” as the orcs call him.
Similar in spirit they are but she is so much mightier than he. And so Tolkien tells us, “in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret.”
So it is that Gollum worships his god. She represents to him the embodiment of the principle that shapes and drives him, the desire to eat. Readers may remember the debate between the Gollum and the Sméagol principle that Sam overheard and could not be sure who had won at the end of it. In it the Gollum principle declares: “Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum? Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.” We might allow ourselves a smile at Gollum’s expense but the only difference between him and Shelob or even between him and Sauron is one of degree. Their lust is greater and more all encompassing and their power is greater too but there the difference ends. Sauron is simply a more powerful version of Gollum. Gollum is simply a weaker version of Sauron. Sauron can hurt Gollum but Gollum cannot hurt him.
At least, not yet, for Gollum dreams of the day when he will “pay everyone back!” And when he says, “everyone” he means all those for whom he carries a sense of resentment; and this is so great that all creatures must be punished for the wrong that he believes they have done to him.
And what does worship mean in this respect? It is simply this. That some creatures are more powerful than others and we must bow down to those who are more powerful than we are. As Sweeney Todd declares in Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name, “Because in all of the whole human race… there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one staying put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face.” And so those, like Gollum, in the “proper place”, worship those above them who have their feet in their faces. It is a miserable and servile kind of worship and it is offered in endless resentment. And those who seek such worship must take care never to take the foot away from the worshipper’s face for fear that revenge might be taken.
This is the spiritual universe in which Gollum exists, a universe that he entered on the day he murdered his best friend in order to take the Ring for himself. It is a universe made up of endless lust and endless resentment and from which both regret and light must be expelled for ever. And there lies it’s vulnerability for from the moment that Bilbo first entered it deep below the Misty Mountains and chose, for the sake of pity, not to kill Gollum it has been at risk. Gandalf said that the pity of Bilbo “may rule the fate of many” and it does. This is what it means that Hell is harrowed by the crucified Christ whose words spoken to his executioners are “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. Hell simply absorbs into itself an attack mounted in its own terms of lust and resentment. It falls when the attack is mounted in pity and in mercy and by those who have no desire to rule in Hell.
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.
In last week’s blog posting we thought about the debate between Sméagol and Gollum that takes place in the foul pit just before the travellers reach the Black Gate of Mordor. We saw Sméagol feebly resisting the ravenous Gollum who wishes to take the Ring and so be free of all who might harm him and who might become great and even eat fish from the sea “three times a day”! And we see Gollum overcome Sméagol and begin to crawl menacingly toward Frodo “with long fingers flexed and twitching”.
Sméagol is Gollum’s shadow that he has sought to silence over many centuries. Sméagol is the self who on first encountering Bilbo in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains welcomes the sound of a friendly voice and in playing the riddle game enjoys the memories of the world that he knew before he crawled into the darkness, the world of sunlight and fresh air. But this self is fearful and cringing and Gollum hates him, though, try as he might, he cannot get rid of him.
For that is the nature of our shadow. Like Gollum, we may despise the weakness that it represents or we may be one who carries a shadow self that clings to us despite our longing for goodness or light. What is certain is that we all have a shadow. That is why I chose Hieronymous Bosch’s anguished triptych, The Temptation of St Anthony a theme that the artist often returned to, as the picture that is at the head of last week’s reflection. The saint is unable to get free of the images of his temptation but learns a serenity in their company. Those aware of Buddhist art will call to mind images of the Buddha smiling, poised in perfect balance upon the turtle that represents the world, while surrounded by demons.
Of course there is no serenity for Gollum/Sméagol only endless and unresolved torment and there is little hope that he will ever find it. But there is that within him that has never submitted entirely to the Ring. That is why he is not entirely under the sway of the Dark Lord as are the Ringwraiths. It is why he has some freedom of action in his dealings with Frodo and Sam and is not bound to bring the Ring straight to Sauron when he has it within his grasp and it is in this lingering freedom that some hope for him lies.
Like Sam who longs to be rid of Gollum, the false and treacherous servant, we might long to return to some state of uncomplicated simplicity but we cannot. But we might come to see that our liberation can only come at the end with the aid of the very shadow that we hate, fear and despise. We might learn to ask what it is that the shadow has to teach us that we could not learn without its aid, what pathways we must travel by the shadow’s guidance in order to reach our goal. And as we yearn for our liberation we are thankful for the torment that is the expression of our freedom
The great spiritual battle inside us is a universal human experience. In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote that he did not understand his own actions: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
This is the experience of every person who wishes to do what is right but Gollum or Sméagol has not wanted to do what is right ever since the day he murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring from him. What possible struggle could still continue in the heart of someone who has not willed the good for over five hundred years? That Tolkien could even imagine the possibility of such a struggle in the heart that is so corrupted tells us what he believed about the capacity of the heart to go on fighting, about the greatness of the person. For our greatness lies in our capacity for freedom; either freedom for the good or for the wrong. Does Sméagol still have such capacity?
There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings that suggests that he has at least a remnant of the capacity for such a struggle even as Gandalf once hinted that he might. It takes place as the hobbits draw close to the Morannon the Black Gate that forms the only way into Mordor upon its northern border. They camp in a pit that is “cold and dead” even as the land about them is also. As Frodo sleeps Sam overhears a strange conversation in which Sméagol talks to himself, or rather to Gollum. It would appear that they know each other for there is a kind of familiarity in their speech with each other that suggests that they have been doing this for a very long time indeed. Gollum is angry and cruel, seeking to regain the Ring, seeking to make those who have hurt him pay for what they have done. Sméagol, on the other hand, is a cringing, whining creature. Do we have here something of a hint of the creature that lived before he took the Ring? Was Sméagol a weak creature who immediately desired the Ring seeing it as something that might help him overcome his own weakness? Was Gollum the persona that he developed in his own spiritual battle? For the one who wishes to do right the battle is always against that within themselves that does what is wrong. It is a battle that they lose again and again but they keep on fighting. For Gollum it is the weak and miserable Sméagol that must be overcome if he is to survive. For Gollum the Ring must be regained if he is to defeat his own weakness as well as those who are his enemies. For such a person the shadow is goodness understood as weakness.
But whoever wins out it is clear that both Gollum and Sméagol are small, unhappy creatures. The limit of Gollum’s ambition is to become strong, to become “Gollum the Great”. And his greatness will be expressed by eating fish “every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.” Perhaps before we smile at this we might want to examine what we wish for when we are tempted to be great. In what manner would we express our greatness? In what does true greatness lie if it does not lie in our fantasies?
We have already spoken of greatness not as the desire for power over others as Gollum, Sauron or Saruman would have us believe but as the desire for goodness. We have seen that those who desire goodness will have to fight throughout their lives against that within themselves that will do wrong. It is the battle that expresses greatness. It is the battle that declares that we are free people. As Paul puts it later in his letter: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”