Once known by the name Smeagol, Gollum is an infamous and troubled trickster seen throughout the fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Featuring a sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality split, Gollum became who he is as a result of the corruption of the One Ring.
The ownership, and more so the use, of the Ring is a most severe temptation. Not only was the cursed object purchased with blood, but Gollum deifies it, raising the Ring to the utmost level of importance in his life. He loves it as he loves himself, fondly referring to it as his precious.
In writing Gollum’s character the way he has, J.R.R. Tolkien supplies the reader with a sturdy archetype to a specific dimension of sin: addiction. The Ring is certainly a temptation, just as the forbidden fruit was in the primeval garden, pleasing to the eye and comforting to the touch. But after its initial use, it has taken hold of Gollum’s will power, progressively weakening it into a degenerate state. His judgment is warped.
The pitiful, murderous creature turns time and again to using the Ring. Gollum becomes tied to a mere object, constantly drawn in by the allure of power promised by the Ring — power which becomes corrosive and which comes with a price. He would find life without the Ring unbearable. This is an addiction plain and simple.
The attractive luster of the Ring might perhaps be compared to an addiction to pornography, the impure habitual practice which degrades the addict’s opinion of the human person, lessening the level of dignity for others as well as for self, reducing personhood exclusively to the body and eliminating the existence of the immortal soul and its faculties.
Gollum’s own life becomes swallowed up in his intense preoccupation with the Ring. He loses sight of those elements that are important and true in his life, supplementing all for a lust for power. For Gollum, life — all life — has lost its meaning, its dignity, its merit. He sees his own life — and the lives of the creatures situated at an equal level of dignity as himself — as nothing in contrast to the supreme importance of the Ring.
As we read in The Hobbit, based on the slightest of suspicions, Gollum accuses Bilbo Baggins of burglary. He skips a questioning session and proceeds to condemn the hobbit. Suddenly, for Gollum, what little purpose there was in keeping the hobbit alive has vanished.
In a blind fit of anger, the loathsome creature sees Bilbo’s life as forfeit for his only concern is for the safety and personal ownership of the One Ring. Just as jealousy had driven Smeagol to kill for the Ring in the first place, so the antiquated yet unforgotten lust returns, beckoning Gollum to reclaim the object of his desire and do so at all cost.
“Bilbo could not guess what had maddened the wretched creature, but he saw that all was up, and that Gollum meant to murder him at any rate. Just in time he turned and ran blindly back up the dark passage down which he had come, keeping close to the wall and feeling it with his left hand…The hiss was close behind him. He turned now and saw Gollum’s eyes like small green lamps coming up the slope. Terrified he tried to run faster, but suddenly he struck his toes on a snag in the floor, and fell flat with his little sword under him” (“Riddles in the Dark,” The Hobbit).
The chase has ensued and continues. To give some credit to Gollum, his deductions are logical, though primitively simple. What’s more, his suspicions become a bit more grounded once he realizes there is someone moving around the passageways who possesses the characteristic of invisibility. However, this does not make Gollum’s murderous, hateful reactions permissible. This brings us to the subject of what might be the most self-destructive attribute of addiction — of all sin really. It is the diminishing of the will and intellect.
As with all serious vices, addictions become an enslavement, a heavy burden, a chain. Many addictions, such as those involving alcohol, drugs, or other substance abuse, have this dual effect of depleting both the addict’s will and intellect. The will’s function is to love and to choose. The will can not work to its fullest potential when the possessor of the will has, of his own accord, chosen to love what is good to the point of excess or to love what simply is not good.
The result is that one’s free will is sapped, easily allowing the person to become a true addict, even to descend to the depths of graver sins. In Gollum’s case, repeatedly wearing the Ring — like regularly returning to overabundant drinking — progressively demolishes free will to the point that Gollum can’t always be held responsible for his actions.
His insanity, his crippling addiction, associated with the Ring lessens the amount of culpability he has in doing the horrible, erroneous things he does. Nevertheless, sin has been committed, and Gollum shall have to answer during judgment for his actions in some portion at least. The reason for the partial accountability in Gollum’s case is linked to the fact that long ago, before the addiction formed, Gollum employed his free will to make a decision. He had a choice: enter into an addiction, or continue living his life in the peace that comes from not bearing the weight of such a handicap. Unfortunately, he chose the former, taking on an existence of misery.
Gollum’s loss of free will is one of the aspects that prompts pity from the likes of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. In addition to disorienting the will, addictions commonly cloud the intellect, the power of the soul which allows one to know the truth. The intellect supports the mind in rational thinking and comprehension. However, once someone is under the influence of alcohol or psychedelic drugs, for instance, they lose control of what they see and how they see it. Their perception of what’s really in front of them become distorted.
Similarly, Gollum’s obsessive addiction to the One Ring blinds his intellect. It is his mad dismissal of truth and the sullying of his intellect that bring about his downfall which comes to pass in The Lord of the Rings.
In 1968, William Ready wrote, “Gollum once was of the Hobbit kind; Smeagol was his name. There is the very mystery of Damnation in the poor wretch. His plight contains the whole crux of the theological matter and of Tolkien’s. Smeagol falls, is plunged into Hell, and not of his own volition. The weakness that the Ring bared in Gollum was bared in all the others too, but good company and rearing, a part of the human condition, saved them” (Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, 90).
William Ready hints at the real reason the symbolic character of Gollum is not redeemed in his mortal pilgrimage. Ready suggests it is due to his lack of closeness, or perhaps of even a search for: the true, the good, and the beautiful — all of which are fulfilled in Christ. Gollum is as far away from LOTR‘s Christ figures (eg: Gandalf, Aragorn) as any character might be. The sinner who does not come to Christ penitent and in search of His aid, who does not remain in a close relationship with Him, is surely doomed.
On the bright side, more upright characters like Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee (who follow Gandalf’s council and go together) are able to triumph over temptation. If we heed Christ’s counseling and call for His protection, we shall finally find ourselves being swept off to heavenly heights, escorted by noble winged messengers.