The Lord of the Rings: The Taming of Smeagol

This is the eleventh post in a series about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You can find the first ten installments here. We’ve arrived at the point where Gollum emerges as a full-fledged character. Up to this point, we’ve only heard his footfalls in the distance and caught glimpses of him. In this chapter we get an up-close-and-personal look at him and he swears an oath. This is a pivotal episode, and it provides lots of evidence to support my argument that Gollum makes the story work.

"Gollum in Moria" by SiriusArtWorks/DeviantArt
© SirusArtWorks

On the day Boromir is killed and the Fellowship is broken, Frodo and Samwise strike off across the Emyn Muil, the rocky badlands above the Rauros Falls, and wander for three days. After a harrowing descent from those highlands on January 29, the Hobbits spy Gollum sneaking after them:

Down the face of a precipice . . . a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out. Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could have ever seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind. And it was coming down head first, as if smelling its way. (1)

This is one of the most memorable pieces of characterization I’ve ever read. The ease of Gollum’s descent stands in stark contrast to the difficulties Frodo and Sam experienced descending the same cliff. Gollum is coming down head-first, using his limbs the way an insect (or, say, a giant spider) uses its limbs. That adds a whole new layer of creepiness and dread to this whole episode. There’s no question at this point that an encounter is eminent, especially since the chapter title gives us a big clue about that.

Tolkien reinforces the bug metaphor a page later, when Gollum can’t find a handhold and falls the last dozen feet:

 . . . suddenly with a shrill whistling shriek he fell. As he did so, he curled his legs and arms up round him, like a spider whose descending thread snapped. (2)

Considering how the story plays out in the next few chapters, this could very well be foreshadowing. I am inclined to think not, though. I read it more as a convenient turn of phrase for an author who obviously understands how monsters work in stories.

Having seen Gollum in ample time to position themselves at the foot of the cliff, Frodo and Sam are waiting. Samwise springs at once, but Gollum gets the better of him, and the physical part of the contest ends with Frodo catching Gollum by the hair, putting the blade of Sting to his throat, and threatening to do him in. (I’ll look at this in more detail when we get to Frodo).

Gollum grovels and pleads. Here’s a single line of his which is very telling:

An image of the One Ring by lucasmt of DeviantArt.
© lucasmt/DeviantArt

Don’t let them hurt us! Don’t let them hurt us, precious! (3)

I think it’s clear from his use of “us” that Smeagol and Gollum are already disassociated to the point that there are two characters here. It doesn’t really come to the fore for another chapter, but it’s pretty obvious. And the second sentence seems to be addressed to the Ring. Gollum uses “precious” for himself and for the Ring at times, but this line is clearly delivered by Smeagol, and I believe he is pleading his case to the Ring. I’m reading this as more evidence to support my argument that the Ring is a full-blown character.

I can’t possibly cover every part of this chapter in detail. Here’s a summary of the next few pages.

  1. Frodo and Sam discuss killing Gollum right in front of him, but don’t do the deed, because Gollum is subdued and grovelling. Frodo decides Gollum must travel with them, and help if he can (Frodo knows Gollum’s been to Mordor).
  2. Frodo and Sam pretend to go to sleep, Gollum tries to escape, and they catch him.
  3. They tie him up with an Elven rope. This rope carries a very useful enchantment, and Gollum’s reaction confirms for us that it is not your average rope. He reacts as though it’s burning him, but describes the sensation as cold and biting. (4)

Finally, Frodo and Smeagol strike a bargain, and Smeagol agrees to swear an oath. Smeagol (or perhaps Gollum) wants to swear on the Ring. Frodo insists that Smeagol swear by the Ring, because he knows better than to allow this monstrous creature, pitiable or not, to see or touch the Ring. Frodo even warns Smeagol to mind his words, because the Ring will use the words to bind him, and possibly twist them. Here is the oath:

We promises, yes I promise! said Gollum. I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Smeagol, gollum, gollum! (5)

Oaths are serious business in Tolkien. Sometimes, in Middle Earth, oathbreakers fare worse than murderers. Sometimes oaths simply cannot be broken. Every word of the vow matters. And it’s clear that Frodo is not the master of the Ring — he is only the ringbearer of the moment. The Ring has one master, and we all know who the master is. I hope to show you that Gollum is true to this oath, at the end, but not by his own choice. There are still a few twists and turns to navigate before we get there, though. We still have the Dead Marshes, Minas Morgul, and Cirith Ungol to talk about.

I’ll try and cover those in the next post, then finish up this arc at Mount Doom.

@Tolkien fans:  It’s been an awesome summer, but the dog days are almost upon us. If you decide this is a good week to give me a little feedback on this series, I will not take it amiss 😉

Notes

1. The date and time-frame are from “The Tale of Years,” in The Return of the King, p. 373.  Quote from “The Taming of Smeagol,” in The Two Towers, p. 219.

2. “The Taming of Smeagol,” p. 220.

3. “The Taming of Smeagol,” p. 221.

4. “The Taming of Smeagol.” It’s clear that the rope is enchanted during the Hobbits’ descent from the Emyn Muil, pp. 216-217. It gives Sam the confidence to make the climb, and it frees itself once the descent is over when Sam tugs on it, despite the fact that Sam is very good with knots and made certain it was fast when he tied it. For the discussion of killing Gollum, see p. 221. The escape attempt is on p. 223.

5. “The Taming of Smeagol,” p. 225.

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15 Comments

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  1. I like the way that Tolkien forces us to sympathize for gollum. At the end when he takes the ring… we know without a doubt that the ring has consumed him already and that his actions are uncontrollable. We feel glad as he topples into the lava and reaches for the ring even as he meets his end. Yet at the same time we feel pity for him and end with the feeling of relief… his long torture is finally over and although it is a sad end for him, the ring too is destroyed along with its hold on gollum and all things. He will not become a wraith, enslaved to it forever. Hence we find a sense of relief for him as well. Tolkien truly was a literary genius and one of the greatest storytellers of all time.

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  2. Keep up the good work Gene’O. I look forward to the point when you move to Tolkien’s other works. I would love character analyses of the more obscure characters in the Silmarillion.

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    1. Thanks! And that is a good idea. This is a long, structured series, is why it comes in such fits and starts. I’m going to have to put it on hold for a bit once I finish Gollum to work on Doctor Who for a bit, but I can’t not blog about Tolkien in all that time, so I’m thinking less detailed, less well-cited posts about this and that. Bombadil and Beorn are both on my list. But now you have me thinking about some characters like Eol, Maeglin, Mablung and Ecthelion. There’s just so much goodness in Tolkien. It’s inexhaustible.

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  3. Great article. The ring has strong characteristics and was created by magic… but a character? It’s influence is like that of money on the mind of those who love it, yet don’t have it and therefore it burns within them and is always as the forethought of their minds. They believe that with more money they will be able to do anything… it is power. But, money itself is not a character.

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    1. Thanks! and so I haven’t made my case, eh 🙂

      I’d argue that what’s going on with the Ring is more than simply people lusting after it for its value. It does things like change its size to slip off peoples’ fingers. It induces specific behaviors (anger and conflict, mainly). Of course, you don’t have to buy it, but I think the Ring is sentient.

      Thanks for stopping by! I love talking about this stuff, whether I’m onto something or whether I’m just wanking.

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      1. Lmao! You’re not just wanking. It’s good to see things from a unique perspective. It adds so much to discussion and your arguments are as valid as anyone’s is.

        I like the idea of personalizing the ring. Tolkien did, when he said, the ring has a mind of its own. You should have used that as your counter argument… Don’t give up so easily! 😀

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  4. I always took the description of Gollum’s movements as a reference to things to come, if not exactly foreshadowing. Or perhaps that he learned the ways to move about from spiders if not from the one he befriended, if you can call such a relationship a ‘friendship’.

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    1. Yeah. My line of thinking is similar, but I didn’t want to give too much of the next post away, and I’m not sure how much of that characterization is conscious and how much is just an intuitive understanding of horror. It would almost be cooler if it WEREN’T intentional, but I guess we can never really know unless there’s a reference to it in his letters somewhere.

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        1. That’s a good point. And their are giant spiders in Mirkwood during the Hobbit era, which is when Gollum came out of the Misty Mountains to search for Bilbo. He could have encountered them there, too.

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  5. Well, remembering Tolkien’s homeground to be the Bible, another message sent along with swearing being serious business might be the notion that swearing and oaths basically are at the ground of everything, starting with the oath of becoming part of a covenant with god, or the creator. The knowledge of such powers still dwindle, as they already did during the time of Tolkien. Thus, this could serve as another reminder not to underestimate promises, bonds, and contracts anymore.

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    1. hmmm. Thinking about that.It is very thought-provoking.

      I’ll allow that these are Christian texts (I think of them as Catholic texts, specifically), but amd not sure at all that I’d locate the homeground in the Bible in quite the way you seem to be using it here, though it’s certainly a primary influence. There’s too much other stuff mixed in. Plus, contracts, even divine ones, occur in plenty of pre-Christian and non-Christian traditions. I view the keeping of promises as a human thing, and I think it’s because relationships require trust to function properly.

      I do like your larger point, though. The entire narrative of the main part of The Silmarillion is driven by an absolutely horrific oath that entangles all of creation in a web of conflict. And the Silmarillion is even more clear than LOTR when it comes to the divine order rewarding good and punishing evil.

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      1. In my opinion we have to take into consideration two levels, here. One being the human one, contracting to other humans, and the second, spiritual one, which connects creator and creation.

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