“I’m re-reading Tolkien,” said my son.
“Cool. How far have you got?”
“The riddles in the dark bit.” That made me smile, as we’d taken inspiration from that chapter for the December workshop.
“What do you reckon… when Gollum says ‘my precious’, is he talking to the ring or himself?”
“I asked myself the same question when I first heard that story.” Our teacher, Miss Bedford, had read The Hobbit to a class full of ten-year-olds, sitting silent and enrapt on the library floor. I remember quite vividly being struck by that anomaly, even then. “Both.”
“Hmm…” said my son, settling back with his morning tea. “Elaborate…”
The character of Gollum is a moral tale all on its own. Greed and desire cost him his home and his place amongst his people. He murders his best friend to obtain the ring and is driven to slink away invisible, into the roots of the mountain. There, under the cloak of darkness, his only company is the ring and himself; his personality fragments, with the Gollum aspect taking precedence over the lonely Sméagol. Falling ever further away from his origins, he feeds on raw fish…or whoever else he can catch… and considers the more civilised idea of frying fish as ‘spoiling’ it. He is, in every way, an outcast from his own kind… and from himself, for deep down, Sméagol remembers another way of living.
The name, Gollum, always intrigued me. Given the magical background against which I was raised, I was already aware of the Jewish tradition of the golem… a man-form made of clay, animated and controlled by another will, usually via a magical charm. There is a theory that Mary Shelley drew upon this tradition when she created Frankenstein and the monster… and I have often wondered whether Tolkien too found inspiration in the tale. The tradition carries echoes of the biblical creation of Adam and it is not dissimilar from our own earth-born state, animated by the living soul via the intermediary of heart and mind.
It is an interesting concept. Some see the creation of a golem as representing hubris; bypassing both the natural process of generation and the spiritual aspect of creation. Some have seen it as an attempt to eradicate the role of Woman… though they still cannot dispense with Mother Earth if clay is needed. Others see it as Man setting himself as equal to his God. While Dr Frankenstein uses a more scientific method for the creation of his monster, he still robs the earth of her dead for the components of his creation. The role of the mother may be disguised, but She still plays an integral part in the generation of life. And while science seeks to deny the role of deity, even Frankenstein relied upon an unseen force to animate his creation… a force whose effects are known but whose nature remains a mystery.
Sméagol, through his own actions and desires, is all but consumed by the Gollum aspect of himself and, in turn, Gollum becomes little more than a golem… animated by the will of the Dark Lord through the medium of the ring. He no longer sees himself as independent of the ring… calling both himself and the golden shackle his ‘precious’. He identifies with the ring and in doing so, he is lost.
Identification, in the psychological sense, means to be transformed by taking on qualities, property or attributes from another. As we grow from infancy, through childhood and into adulthood, this kind of identification contributes to how our personalities are formed. We observe, learn from and emulate those around us and react to circumstance. It is a natural process, though it is easy to see how a dominant character or traumatic event may skew what we absorb and change the way we are growing. When the ring called out to Sméagol, something within him was ripe to answer…but we do not know the story of his early years or what made his character fertile ground for corruption. Knowing that would not excuse his actions…but it might explain them; bullies are usually weak characters who have themselves been damaged by the actions of others.
We can identify too with inanimate things… like the roles, the labels, the societal expectations that are imposed upon us, or which we choose to impose upon ourselves. If we define ourselves by our roles, we become subservient to them and, like Sméagol, we are lost to ourselves.
Yet, by the end of the story… when the ring must be destroyed, it is not the apparent hero of the tale who is able to act. Although he knows best the destructive power of desire, he too has fallen prey to the lure of the ring. Even the best can be corrupted and twisted by the illusion of power. It is a battle of wills, the triumph of despair, that inadvertently saves the day. Gollum’s life is forfeit… as is Frodo’s ring-finger; an interesting bit of symbolism in itself.
And the Dark Lord? So complete was his identification with, and investment in the ring that its destruction brings about his utter annihilation.
The real hero, I have always thought, was Sam… the simple gardener whose loyalty and quiet courage cared for Frodo, every step of the way. At the end of the tale, it is he who, exhausted, carries both Frodo and the ring the final steps of the journey… and he who comes home to heal the ravaged Shire. Sam had no desire for the ring, though he had both witnessed and felt its power. His heart was in the green earth and the woods of the Shire. Love for another set his feet on the road… and love carried him home.