28 May 2015

Swanships and Swanroads in Tolkien and Beowulf

From the earliest days of the legendarium the swanships were present.  In 1917 (or so) Tolkien wrote in The Book of Lost Tales, Part One1:
Now do the Solosimpi take great joy of [?their] birds, and of the swans, and behold upon the lakes of Tol Eressëa already they fare on rafts of fallen timber, and some harness thereto swans and speed across the waters; but the more hardy dare out upon the sea and the gulls draw them, and when Ulmo saw that he was very glad.  For lo! the Teleri and the Noldoli complain much to Manwë of the separation of the Solosimpi, and the Gods desire them to be drawn to Valinor; but Ulmo cannot yet think of any device save by help of Ossë and the Oarni, and will not be humbled to this.  But now does he fare home in haste to Aulë, and those twain get them speedily to Tol Eressëa, and Oromë was with them, and there is the first hewing of trees that was done in the world outside Valinor. Now does Aulë of the sawn wood of pine and oak make great vessels like to the bodies of swans, and these he covers with the bark of silver birches, or .... with gathered feathers with the oily plumage of Ossë's birds, and they are nailed and [?sturdily] riveted and fastened with silver, and he carves the prows for them like the necks of upheld swans, but they are hollow and have no feet; and by cords of great strength and slimness are gulls and petrels harnessed to them, for they were tame to the hands of the Solosimpi, because their hearts were so turned by Ossë.
(BoLT 1.124)
And though Tolkien never wrote more than a few scraps and notes of Eärendil's tale, he nevertheless had at least one detail of his ship clear in his mind. It was 'shaped as a swan of pearls' (The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, 263).  Tuor, Eärendil's father, had a boat just like those of the Elves of Tol Eressëa, 'with a prow fashioned like to the neck of a swan' (BoLT 2.151), and he was subsequently guided by swans on a path that led him in time to Gondolin, where he adopted the swan's wing as the sign of his house (2.152-160).2  In his later years, after Gondolin had fallen, Tuor built a ship called 'Swanwing' in which he sought to sail to Valinor (2.253-55, 260, 263, 265), on whose shores was Alqualuntë (later Alqualondë), 'Swan-Haven,' where the ships of the Solosimpi were berthed (BoLT 1.163-64). 

In Tolkien's painting of Taniquetil from the 1920s, we can glimpse just such a ship

in the sea at the foot of the mountain:

Nor does Tolkien abandon the swanships as Middle Earth develops.  The one in which Galadriel comes to bid farewell to the Fellowship is only the most famous example from The Lord of the Rings (FR 2.viii.372-73):
They turned a sharp bend in the river, and there, sailing proudly down the stream toward them, they saw a swan of great size. The water rippled on either side of the white breast beneath its curving neck. Its beak shone like burnished gold, and its eyes glinted like jet set in yellow stones; its huge white wings were half lifted. A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven skill in the likeness of a bird.... 
Aragorn stayed his boat as the Swan-ship drew alongside.... 
The Swan passed on slowly to the hythe, and they turned their boats and followed it.
In the song Bilbo sings at Rivendell he can still say of Eärendil's ship: '[h]er prow he fashioned like a swan' (FR 2.i.234); and the banner of the Prince of Dol Amroth bears 'a white ship like a silver swan upon blue water' (RK 5.viii.871; cf. 6.iv.953). We can also find swans and swanships in The Silmarillion (61, 238), and the link between these birds and Tuor is maintained in the lengthy fragment Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin in Unfinished Tales (25-28). 

So clearly the images of the swans and the swan-ships had an abiding appeal for Tolkien, but where the swanships come from is a question that to my knowledge has not been answered.  There are a number of possibilities, and though I incline more to one than the others, it is not implausible or unlikely that several influences combined to produce the swanships.

The first is simple, and might seem ridiculous.  Indeed it might be ridiculous, but that in itself does not rule it out.  When I first read of the swanship of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, I found it odd, but I could visualize it immediately.  At that time I was a little boy spending my summers in a small beach town adjacent to Asbury Park, NJ, and in the lake between the two towns there was a swan-boat:

As I was considering this, and actually inclining to dismiss it, the latest issue of The Tolkien Society's newsletter, Amon Hen (253), arrived in my mailbox.  Inside, by chance, was a request from one member, Mr Anthony Roland Clent, to contact him if anyone remembered 'the "Swan" boats at Hinksey boating pool' at Oxford in the 1940s and 1950s, which he saw as a possible source of inspiration for Tolkien. And while I don't consider chance-if-chance-you-call-it an adequate basis for scholarship, it made me think twice.  Now the swan-boats at Hinksey Park cannot be the inspiration for the swanships themselves, since the park did not exist until the mid 1930s,3 and both The Book of Lost Tales and the painting of Taniquetil predate this. It's quite possible, however, that the boats at Hinksey influenced Tolkien's description of them in The Lord of the Rings.4 As the gentleman from The Tolkien Society put it in his reply to my email:
I cannot but think that Tolkien used the idea of these two boats at Hinksey for his Swan boat of Galadriel. The description is uncannily similar to how I remember them, with their "white wings half lifted", and I guess Tolkien must have seen them if he ever walked down that way. They were not, alas, propelled by two elves clad in white, using black paddles....
For a medievalist and a man of his time like Tolkien inspiration might also be found in the tale, first found in the late 12th century, of the Knight of the Swan and more recently in Wagner's Lohengrin.  In sum, a mysterious knight arrives in a boat drawn by a swan to rescue a woman in peril. Here there clearly seems to be a link to the passage of The Book of Lost Tales I quoted above, which describes the swans pulling the rafts on the lakes of Tol Eressëa.

Lohengrin Postcard ca. 1900

17th Century Woodcut

But while this might explain the swans drawing the boats in the lakes, it does not explain the swanships themselves.  For this we must look elsewhere.  Fortunately an answer seems to be ready at hand, in a source that will surprise no one.
                             Hét him ýþlidan
gódne gegyrwan;   cwæþ, hé gúþcyning
ofer swanrade        sécean wolde
mærne þéoden,      þá him wæs manna ðearf.

(Beowulf  198-201)
                             He ordered his ship built,
A great wave-walker, and said he would seek
Over the long sea, the swan's road,
that well-known king needing brave new men.

(transl. Williamson)
Swanrad, the swan-road, as the context makes clear, is a kenning for the sea, much like the better known hronrad, the whale-road (Beowulf 10). But there's something odd about it.  Swans may be water fowl, but they are not seabirds.  That Tolkien perceived this is evident: in the lakes of Tol Eressëa swans pull the rafts of the Elves; but in the salt sea petrels and gulls are harnessed to the swan-ships.  Robert Woodward resolved this oddity by pointing out that swanrad is in fact a double kenning, in which swan is itself first a kenning for ship, and then is joined to rad to become a kenning for the sea.5 And it's only a few lines later, as Woodward notes, that the poet likens the 'neck' of the ship to a bird's:
Gewát þá ofer wægholm    winde gefýsed
flota fámiheals    fugle gelícost,

(Beowulf  217-18)
Over the scending sea, driven by the wind,
Went the ship, foamy-necked much like a bird,

(transl. mine)6 
Heals, the second element in the adjective fámiheals, means both prow and neck, and the poet plays ably on both these senses in fámiheals fugle gelícost.  Birds don't move fast enough through the water to make the sea foam around them, but ships do; and ships don't have necks, but birds do. 'Its foamy prow so like a bird's neck' catches, I think, the double sense of it, but loses the poem's eloquent compression. Nevertheless, the poet evokes the image of a bird here to describe Beowulf's ship, and it can hardly be an accident that seventeen lines earlier he had chosen to use swanrad when he could just as easily have used hronrad,7 but instead of the whale he conjured the swan, whose neck curves so like the prow of a ship of this era.

The famous Oseberg ship, built ca. 820
And Tolkien's close attention to this passage could not be more clear.  He chose these very lines (210-228) to illustrate his explanation of the workings of alliterative verse in his essay On Translating Beowulf (61-71), in which he also already discussed swanrad, though the meaning of rad was his subject there (51-52). We have three separate renderings of fámiheals fugle gelícost by him: in verse as 'foam-throated, like a flying bird;' in prose as 'with foam at the throat most like unto a bird;' and a literal prose version in the Old English word order, 'foamy-neck (to) bird likest.'8 

If, moreover, we turn back for a moment to consider Galadriel's swan-ship, 'wrought and carved with elven skill in the likeness of a bird,' we can see an interesting progression in Tolkien's description of it.  When the members of the fellowship first see it, they take it to be a proper 'swan.' Then they realize that it is in fact a 'swan-ship.'  And finally it becomes a 'Swan.'  From 'swan' to 'swan-ship' to 'Swan,' it's like watching the birth of a kenning.  If Tolkien did not recognize the swan in swanrad as itself a kenning for ship, he turned it into one here.

Now Old English possesses a second word for swan, ilfette/ilfettu, which establishes another link to the swanships and the Elves in The Book of Lost Tales.  In a marginal gloss on the words 'Kópas Alqualuntë, the Haven of the Swanships,' Tolkien wrote Ielfethyþ. This word, Christopher Tolkien explains,
is Old English, representing the interpretation of the Elvish name made by Eriol in his own language: the first element meaning 'swan' (ielfetu), and the second (later 'hithe') meaning 'haven, landing place.'
(BoLT 1.164)
As Christopher Tolkien's note indicates, ielfethyþ is his father's coinage through the character of Eriol, the seafarer who finds his way to Tol Eressëa and learns the stories told in The Book of Lost Tales (1.13-27). Why use ielfethyþ when swanhyþ would have worked just as well? Not to conceal one connection by choosing the less obvious synonym, but, I would argue, to suggest another by echoing ilfe, the Old English for elves, the entry for which directly precedes ilfette in Bosworth Toller.9

Hyþ, the second element in ielfethyþ, also has echoes in this connection since 'hithe' is used by Tolkien only to describe the landing place where the swan-ship of Galadriel lands; he spells it 'hythe' in an archaic manner evocative of Old English; and the three times the word 'hythe' appears here are the only three times the word appears in The Lord of the Rings (FR 2.viii.371, 373, 377).  Except for Christopher Tolkien's note above, it also does not appear, in either spelling, in The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, or Unfinished Tales.  In an author so careful of his words, so knowledgeable about them, and so inclined to archaic words in the right context, the fact that he uses 'hythe' three times here and nowhere else indicates great deliberateness in choosing it.  It was not merely an old word that meant 'landing.'

On balance then there seems to be ample evidence for tracing Tolkien's inspiration for the swanships to the combination of swanrad and fámiheals fugle gelícost. Other influences are not to be ignored for other aspects of the swanships, like the Knight of the Swan and the likelihood that Tolkien saw swanboats at Hinksey Park. Michael Martinez has summarized still other likely reasons for the imagery of swans in Tolkien.  But the ships themselves first sailed the swanroad.


1 For those not familiar with The Book of Lost Tales, a couple of quick observations may be useful. First, it contains early versions of many stories that we later see in The Silmarillion, but these stories often differ greatly in emphasis, tone, style, names, and characterization (to name a few). Some find these differences as surprising as The Silmarillion itself is to those who have known only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Book of Lost Tales, however, is as interesting a work in its own right as it is as a precursor to the later tales. Second, Christopher Tolkien performed heroic work on chaotic manuscripts to come up with a publishable version, reading nearly unreadable handwriting set down in faded 70 year old pencil on paper that had sometimes held older versions which had been erased and overwritten. No doubt an electron microscope and a palantír would have come in handy.

For the date see The Book of Lost Tales, Part One (Boston 1984) 1.203; The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two (Boston 1984) 2.146-47; Unfinished Tales (1981) 4-5.

2 At BoLT 2.160 Tuor names himself as being 'of the house of the Swan.' He seems to have taken this description to himself rather than inheriting it: 'This [dwelling] by slow labor [Tuor] adorned with fair carvings of the beasts and trees and flowers and birds that he knew about the waters of Mithrim, and ever among them was the Swan the chief, for Tuor loved this emblem and it became the sign of himself, his kindred and folk thereafter' (2.152).

3 Hinksey Park was built on the grounds of the former Oxford Waterworks, which were purchased for this purpose in 1934.  See here.

4 I contacted the gentleman who had placed the notice in Amon Hen by email, to which he was kind enough to reply as quoted.  Unfortunately he did not have a photograph of his swan-boats, and I have so far been unable to find one.

5 Robert H. Woodward, 'Swanrad in Beowulf,' Modern Language Notes 69 (1954) 544-46.  He also identifies parallels in Old Norse using svan.

6 I supply my own translation here because I think a more literal rendering is necessary to the point being made. I also think Williamson's otherwise excellent translation of Beowulf stumbles on fámiheals fugle gelícost, for which he gives us 'the foam-necked floater.' To be sure flota is a rather colorless word for ship, but the super-literal 'floater' conceals more than it reveals. And revelation is what we seek here.

7 On hronrad see Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014) 141-43, where he argues that "'whale road'-- which suggests a sort of semi-submarine steam engine running along submerged metal rails over the Atlantic" is not quite the right translation for this word.

8 The poetic and the literal prose translations come from On Translating Beowulf, 63 and 69 respectively, reprinted in in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London, 2006), and the prose from Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (New York 2014).

9 What the difference may be between swan and ilfette is unknown to me. Hexam. 8 suggests that to some there was one: sume fugelas beóþ langsweorede swá swá swanas ond ilfette. 'Some birds are long-necked like swanas and ilfette. According to Bosworth Toller, in Icelandic svanr, the cognate of swan is only poetical, while alpt/alft, the cognate of ilfette, was the normal word for swan, but it does not appear from the citations in Bosworth Toller that Old English maintained so neat a distinction.

17 May 2015

Gollum before The Taming of Sméagol (III)

A Long-Expected Party and The Shadow of the Past paint a very ugly portrait of Gollum.  The one thing that runs counter to this is Gandalf's attempt, fiercely resisted by Frodo, to draw a line from one hobbit to the next, from Sméagol to Bilbo to Frodo, all linked inexorably by the devouring corruption of the Ring.  Gollum's is a 'sad story...and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits I have known' (FR 1.ii.54). By whom of course the wizard means Bilbo, but his concern is not limited to him alone. For years now he has been concerned for Frodo, since what might have happened to the elder Baggins may yet befall the younger (FR 1.ii.49). What saved Bilbo, Gandalf has no doubt, was the pity he showed Gollum, and so for Frodo's sake -- not solely but in particular: 'the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many -  yours not least' (emphasis added) -- he tries to evoke the same pity from him (FR 1.ii.59).

Yet Gandalf fails. Frodo neither feels pity nor wishes to.  Even his concession that Gandalf may not be wrong about Bilbo's not killing Gollum is hedged about with qualifications: 'All the same...even if Bilbo could not kill Gollum...' (FR 1.ii.60).  All the same?  Even if?  Could not? That's a bit of a dodgy retreat from '[w]hat a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!' (FR 1.ii.59, emphasis added).  Frodo's fear of Sauron and loathing of Gollum prevail.  The Tale moves on, and the subject of Gollum vanishes from it for a long time.  Six months pass in narrative time, and 190 pages (FR 1.ii.60; 2.ii.249), before anyone mentions him again. In the press of events his image fades from the reader's mind.

Since, however, pity will prove to be of the greatest importance, we will do well to give it a moment's thought before we move on.  In our world pity often comes as the harbinger of rationalization.  'Sad stories' like Gollum's are adduced to argue that the villain is also a victim whose own sufferings mitigate in some degree his guilt and fitness for punishment. Not so here.  In this Tale, the Pity that really matters is not the kind that compassion beclouds or disgust taints -- of both of which we will see examples.  Gandalf recognizes Gollum's crimes and admits the justice of Frodo's assertion that Gollum 'deserves death' (FR 1.ii.59).1  In the eyes of the wizard, it seems, all acts, just and unjust, are balanced against each other.  If one cannot save from death those who do not deserve to die, it may be better to withhold the punishment of those who do not deserve to live.  This is so even when the most his pity can say is that, because of the evil and malice within Gollum, there is little or no hope that he might be cured (FR 1.ii.55, 59).  It is the pity of a clear vision undeceived. But it, too, will seem as forgotten as Gollum by the time he is next mentioned in The Council of Elrond.

There, in Rivendell, Bilbo speaks of him, and in doing so reminds us of the effect the Ring has had on them both.
'Very well,' said Bilbo.  'I will do as you bid.  But I will now tell the true story, and if some have heard me tell it otherwise' -- he looked sidelong at Glóin -- 'I ask them to forget it and forgive me.  I only wished to claim the treasure as my very own in those days, and to be rid of the name of thief that was put on me.  But perhaps I understand things a little better now.  Anyway, this is what happened.' 
To some there Bilbo's tale was wholly new, and they listened with amazement while the old hobbit, actually not at all displeased, recounted his adventure with Gollum, at full length.  He did not omit a single riddle,  He would have given also an account of his party and disappearance from the Shire, if he had been allowed; but Elrond raised his hand.
(FR 2.ii.249)
How different Bilbo is now from the night of his birthday party, seventeen years earlier in narrative time. Then, as we saw, he revealed much about Gollum by acting and speaking like him.  He was full of the rationalizations which he now disavows -- that the Ring was his very own and he had not stolen it -- and of a rather savage willingness to defend his ownership, by murder if necessary.  Now he complies with Elrond's bidding with a readiness, and apologizes to Glóin with a grace, that bear little resemblance to his behavior his last night in Bag End, when he accused Gandalf of wanting his Ring for himself and set his hand to the hilt of his sword.  The difference is that now he is free of the Ring. The song and the laugh with which he left Bag End signaled more than a momentary relief.

His saying '[b]ut perhaps I understand things a little better now' also has a wider application than to his own days as a ringbearer.  For it was only the night before that he saw and understood what the Ring was doing to Frodo:
'Have you got it here?' he asked in a whisper. 'I can't help feeling curious, you know, after all I've heard. I should very much like just to peep at it again.' 
'Yes, I've got it,' answered Frodo, feeling a strange reluctance. 'It looks just the same as ever it did.'  
'Well, I should just like to see it for a moment,' said Bilbo.
When he had dressed, Frodo found that while he slept the Ring had been hung about his neck on a new chain, light but strong. Slowly he drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him. 
The music and singing round them seemed to falter and a silence fell. Bilbo looked quickly at Frodo's  face and passed his hand across his eyes. 'I understand now,' he said. 'Put it away! I am sorry; sorry you have come in for this burden; sorry about everything. Don't adventures ever have an end? I  suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story. Well, it can't be helped. I wonder if it's any good trying to finish my book? But don't let's worry about it now – let's have some real News!  Tell me all about the Shire!' 
Frodo hid the Ring away, and the shadow passed leaving hardly a shred of memory.  The light and music of Rivendell was about him again.  Bilbo smiled and laughed happily....
(FR 2.i.232)
Since the scene is told from Frodo's perspective, we can only speculate on what Bilbo saw in his face in that moment.  Perhaps a reflection of himself seventeen years earlier, perhaps of Gollum sixty years before that.  But he seems to guess what Frodo is experiencing, from a telltale gesture: Frodo pulls his hand suddenly back rather than let Bilbo touch the Ring, almost the same movement Bilbo had made the very last instant he held it and was in the act of trying to let it go (FR 1.i.35).

What we don't need to speculate about is that, as Bilbo has grown less like Gollum through freedom from the Ring, possession of it has made Frodo resemble him more.  He is at first reluctant to let Bilbo even see the Ring, but the instant Bilbo tries to do more than 'just peep at it again' and stretches out his hand to touch it, Frodo sees him as a 'creature' -- precisely what he had called Gollum (FR 1.ii.59) when he wished Bilbo had killed him -- Bilbo, whom he now sees as a threat, and feels the urge to strike.2 In fact the vision he sees of Bilbo, 'with a hungry face and bony, groping hands,' resembles no one so much as Gollum, though the first time reader of The Lord of the Rings who has not read The Hobbit does not know this yet.3

It is a moment of darkness in the House of Elrond, the last place we would expect it, but that only reveals more clearly the shadow the Ring casts over its bearer.  As the music and light seem to die around them, the lesson we saw in A Long-Expected Party is repeated and extended.  Not only will the ties of trust and old friendship fail if the ring-bearer feels the Ring is threatened, but so will the bonds of kinship and love. Pity saved Bilbo, just barely; murder doomed Sméagol, almost certainly. Frodo, who held it a pity that Bilbo had shown mercy, is somewhere in between. This not only bodes ill for Frodo, but indirectly helps to maintain the ugly portrait of Gollum we have already been shown.  Putting both of Bilbo's statements together we may also see that his new understanding reaches all the way back to his earliest moments in possession of the Ring. It comprehends both his own behavior (even last night when he asked just to see the Ring, then reached for it at once), and Frodo's, which is so like his own, and evidently also Gollum's.4

When Elrond cuts Bilbo off, the old hobbit has just returned to the point in his tale where A Long-Expected Party begins. Perhaps it is no accident that the tale of Bilbo gives way to the tale of Gandalf and Aragorn's hunt for Gollum at this point rather than any other.  For Bilbo is now as free from the Ring as he can ever be.5  It is time, as he put it to Frodo in the passage just quoted above, for 'someone else...to carry on the story.'  For the reader Bilbo has come full circle back to the kindly and jocular character we met before he put on the Ring at the party and vanished, revealing the 'creature' who threatened Gandalf with a sword (FR 1.i.34) and whom Frodo thought he glimpsed just last night.6

It is also no accident that when Aragorn tells his part of the tale, he describes a Gollum we have seen before, in Gandalf's description of him to Frodo (FR 1.ii.52-55), head always down, eyes always down, 'nosing about the banks,' precisely what he was doing before Déagol found the Ring and he killed him for it.
'At once I took my leave of Denethor, [said Gandalf,] but even as I went northwards, messages came to me out of Lorien that Aragorn had passed that way, and that he had found the creature called Gollum. Therefore I went first to meet him and hear his tale. Into what deadly perils he had gone alone I dared not
'There is little need to tell of them,' said Aragorn. 'If a man must needs walk in sight of the Black Gate, or tread the deadly flowers of Morgul Vale, then perils he will have. I, too, despaired at last, and I began my homeward journey. And then, by fortune, I came suddenly on what I sought: the marks of soft feet beside a muddy pool. But now the trail was fresh and swift, and it led not to Mordor but away. Along the skirts of the Dead Marshes I followed it, and then I had him. Lurking by a stagnant mere, peering in the water as the dark eve fell, I caught him, Gollum. He was covered with green slime. He will never love me, I fear; for he bit me, and I was not gentle. Nothing more did I ever get from his mouth than the marks of his teeth. I deemed it the worst part of all my journey, the road back, watching him day and night, making him walk before me with a halter on his neck, gagged, until he was tamed by lack of drink and food, driving him ever towards Mirkwood. I brought him there at last and gave him to the Elves, for we had agreed that this should be done; and I was glad to be rid of his company, for he stank. For my part I hope never to look upon him again; but Gandalf came and endured long speech with him.'
(FR 2.ii.253)
From beginning to end Strider's loathing for Gollum is made clear.  Nothing in it inclines us to disagree with him; and all we have learned of Aragorn so far tells us to trust what he says.  With his first hand account, he corroborates Gandalf's damning assertion that Gollum had been to Mordor and was on his way back, on some errand of mischief as the wizard thought (FR 1.ii.59).  The time Aragorn spent with Gollum on the way to Mirkwood was 'the worst part of all my journey,' worse, that is, than 'walk[ing] in sight of the Black Gate, or tread[ing] the deadly flowers of Morgul Vale.' And after Gollum bit him, Aragorn began to treat him as if he were an animal, using a 'halter' to 'drive' him, and using hunger and thirst to 'tame' him.7 The harshness, indeed the brutality, of Aragorn's treatment of Gollum is surprising, but such is the opinion that the narrative has given us of him and of Gollum that there seems scant room for doubting that Gollum deserved what he got.8

There also seems little room for anything resembling pity, but again Aragorn surprises us.  When Boromir comments that Gollum is 'small, but great in mischief,' and asks 'to what doom you put him,' Strider replies:
'He is in prison, but no worse,' said Aragorn. 'He had suffered much. There is no doubt that he was tormented, and the fear of Sauron lies black on his heart. Still I for one am glad that he is safely kept by the watchful Elves of Mirkwood. His malice is great and gives him a strength hardly to be believed in one so lean and withered. He could work much mischief still, if he were free. And I do not doubt that he was allowed to leave Mordor on some evil errand.' 
'Alas! alas!' cried Legolas, and in his fair elvish face there was great distress. 'The tidings that I was sent to bring must now be told. They are not good, but only here have I learned how evil they may seem to this company. Sméagol, who is now called Gollum, has escaped.' 
'Escaped?' cried Aragorn. 'That is ill news indeed. We shall all rue it bitterly, I fear. How came the folk of Thranduil to fail in their trust?' 
'Not through lack of watchfulness,' said Legolas; 'but perhaps through over-kindliness. And we fear that the prisoner had aid from others, and that more is known of our doings than we could wish. We guarded this creature day and night, at Gandalf's bidding, much though we wearied of the task. But Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure, and we had not the heart to keep him ever in dungeons under the earth, where he would fall back into his old black thoughts. 
'You were less tender to me,' said Glóin with a flash of his eyes as old memories were stirred of his imprisonment in the deep places of the Elven-king's halls.
(FR 2.ii.255)
Like Gandalf, Aragorn can see the suffering Gollum has endured.  Perhaps he would even call it 'a sad story' as Gandalf has done, but he is also in no way deceived about the 'malice' that drives and strengthens him, and the evil he could yet do. Just as Gandalf did in The Shadow of the Past Strider mentions Gollum in close connection with Sauron.  In his eyes, Gollum's suffering at Sauron's hands and black fear of him made him more than just a prisoner. To some extent he had become a servant of Mordor, set loose for an evil purpose.  And the statement Aragorn makes, finding the source of Gollum's strength in his malice, echoes words that Gandalf had only just uttered about The Dark Lord himself: '[this Ring is] the treasure of the Enemy, fraught with all his malice, and in it lies a great part of his strength of old' (FR 2.ii.254).

Nor should we neglect Strider's rebuke of Legolas in lofty, formal language as part of the portrayal of Gollum.  Though it might come as a surprise, given Tolkien's love of words native and archaic, 'rue' is a word he uses sparingly, reserving it for matters of serious regret.  The word appears only three more times in The Lord of the Rings, and not again after the present scene until The Return of the King. Speaking of the forlorn defense of Osgiliath, Faramir says: 'Today we may make the Enemy pay ten times our loss at the passage and yet rue the exchange' (5.iv.816). The Rohirrim on the Field of Pelennor, when they believe that Éowyn is dead, tell Prince Imrahil: '...we knew naught of her riding until this hour, and greatly we rue it' (5.vi.845). And Beregond, as he contemplates the body of the porter at the Steward's Door, states: 'This deed I shall ever rue...but a madness of haste was upon me, and he would not listen, but drew sword against me' (5.vii.855).

But the sting is in the tail. 'We shall rue it bitterly, I fear' expresses disappointment and the expectation of evil.  But '[h]ow came the folk of Thranduil to fail in their trust?' is not merely an archaic way of saying 'oh, no, how did this happen? And after all the trouble I went through to catch him?'  It's a reproach, and a demand for accountability.   It reveals just how dangerous Aragorn thinks Gollum is.

And a significant part of this peril -- but one easily missed at this point because we have not seen him yet ourselves --  is the cunning with which Gollum tries to use the misery of his life to play upon the hearts of those inclined to pity him.  We have seen hints of this in Gandalf's account of him to Frodo (FR 1.ii.54-57), and we will see it throughout Book 4. Here he treacherously uses the 'over-kindliness' of the Elves against them, who, hoping for his cure, allow him outside under guard.  While there he somehow manages to contact spies of the Enemy and is rescued by Orcs in a bloody affray.

As if being rescued by Orcs weren't telling enough, two details are of particular note here.  First, the notion that Gollum likes to climb trees in daylight and feel the breeze is almost wholly at odds with the portrait of him given by Gandalf.  It is rather 'roots and beginnings' that interested him, and the secrets buried in darkness beneath the mountains (FR 1.ii.53-54).  Second, Legolas' statement that by letting Gollum out of his dark cell the Elves were trying to keep him from 'fall[ing] back into his old black thoughts' (FR 2.ii.255), suggests that Gollum had shown improvement: 'fall back' makes no sense otherwise. But Gollum has that within which passeth show: an 'evil part' that would only become 'angrier' if any of this apparent change for the better in him were real (FR 1.ii.55).  The details of Legolas' story make it seem far more likely that Gollum was telling the Elves what they wanted to hear in order to cozen them, but his character, as Book Four will reveal, is so complex that we cannot rule out the flicker of hope amid the darkness that Gandalf allowed for.

The final element here is Glóin's rebuke, which bookends Aragorn's, and by scornfully stressing the 'tenderness' of the Elves' treatment of Gollum underlines both the folly of pity beclouded by compassion and the hideous treachery of Gollum, who will twist the kindness of others to his own ends.  That he might do so even when that kindness has had some positive effect on him is part of the dark complexity of his character. It has been suggested before. Consider Gandalf's statement that meeting Bilbo might have stirred pleasant memories for Gollum, memories of a time before the Ring (FR 1.ii.55).  Yet he was ready to kill him to regain it (FR 1.i.34).  Consider also how Bilbo acts towards Gandalf, with whom he has been friends for over sixty years, when he feels the Ring is threatened (FR 1.i.33-34), and Frodo's reaction when Bilbo tried to touch the Ring the night before this council.  In their behavior we see reflections of Gollum's.9

In The Council of Elrond we see the portrait of Gollum begun in the first two chapters enlarged by added emphasis on his cunning and his treachery, on the strength his malice bestows upon him, on his links to the Enemy, and on the penalty one may have to pay for 'overkindliness' to a creature so corrupt. That Gollum is so clever he made fools of the Elves and escaped them must have come as a bit of a shock to Frodo, who was incredulous at the idea that the Elves had not put him to death.10   Another reliable witness with first hand experience of Gollum comes forward in Aragorn, to confirm what Gandalf has already said about him.  Again, as in A Long-Expected Party we see Gollum's character illuminated by comparison with the changes in Bilbo, and now, too, Frodo.

If anything, the portrayal has grown darker since A Long-Expected Party and The Shadow of the Past. In a sense this is entirely fitting since Gollum first nears the stage in the darkness of Moria, to which we shall next turn our attention.


1 Cf. Faramir's attitude towards Gollum: TT 4.vi.689-93.

2 'Creature' is a word used of Gollum far more often than of any other being in The Lord of the Rings. See Again That Vile Creature, With A Special Appearance by Grendel.  Frodo has a similar experience with Sam in The Tower of Cirith Ungol (RK 6.i.911-912).

As I discussed elsewhere, the portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings must stand on its own merits. Nor can we assume that the first time reader will have read The Hobbit or even the parts of the prologue that mention Gollum.  I will be discussing The Hobbit and the Prologue in Gollum before The Taming of Sméagol (V) later this year.

4 Does his understanding here reach back to his moment of pity for Gollum, which began with 'a sudden understanding' (The Hobbit 97)?

5 Even near the end, after the Ring has gone into the fire, Bilbo is not finally and wholly free of the it. He again expresses a desire to see it when Frodo stops in Rivendell on his way back to the Shire (RK 6.vi.987).

In The Shadow of the Past (FR i.ii.48-49) Gandalf says that Bilbo felt better as soon as he gave up the Ring and that he stopped worrying about him once he did so. He also points out, however, that 'a lot of time' would have to go by before he could safely look upon it, and that Bilbo's giving up the Ring of his own free will made a crucial difference.  Obviously Gollum did not do so, nor in the end will Frodo. This does not augur well for their chances of recovery.

7 That he says he 'tamed' him is interesting in view of Frodo's later attempt to do the same in Book Four.  As the testimony of Legolas will reveal, Aragorn, like Frodo, never did more than subdue him.

8 I have always taken the words 'I was not gentle' to imply that he beat Gollum, since they seem to describe his immediate response to being bitten rather than to look forward to what he did later. With '[n]othing more did I ever get from him....' Aragorn seems to begin a new thought. Marching someone hundreds of miles, bound and gagged, and withholding food and water to make them compliant is extremely harsh treatment.  Gollum had no fond memory of Aragorn (TT 4.iii.643).  For more on this journey, described as 'not much short of nine hundred miles, and this Aragorn accomplished with weariness in fifty days,' see UT 342-43. With weariness indeed.

9 As Gandalf clearly suggests when Bilbo calls the Ring his Precious: 'It has been called that before...but not by you' (FR 1.i.33).  For discussion see here.

10 'Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live after all those horrible deeds?' (FR 1.ii.59).  Note how the commas set off and emphasize 'and the Elves' by introducing the pause of incredulity.