01 May 2016

Gollum Could Have Been Even More Appalling -- HoMe VI.264

'The wood was full of the rumour of him, dreadful tales even among beasts and birds. The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles.'
(FR 1.ii.58)
So says Gandalf to Frodo, speaking of Gollum in the published text of The Lord of the Rings. It's a grim and damning description to be sure. More importantly, however, it forms part of Gandalf's attempt to get across to Frodo how very dangerous the Ring is, how it can turn even hobbits, like Smeagol, or Bilbo or Frodo, into murderers.[1]  Without excusing any of his crimes, Gandalf pities Gollum and holds out the meager hope that a cure might still be possible: 'I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it' (1.ii.59; cf. 'not no hope' on 1.ii.55).

Yet as horrific as this description of Gollum's appetites is, it might have been worse, as a glance at an earlier draft of this chapter makes clear:
'Yes - I followed him there: he had left a trail of horrible stories behind him, among the beasts and birds and even the Woodmen of Wilderland. He had developed a skill in climbing trees to find nests, and creeping into houses to find cradles. He boasted of it to me.'
(HoMe VI.264, emphasis added)
Shortly thereafter we get the first reference to the possibility of a cure, but for those familiar with the later version of this scene the word 'hope' is conspicuously absent -- 'I do not think much can be done to cure him: yet even Gollum might prove useful for good before the end' (VI.265). Gandalf's tone here is of resignation, not hope. In this connection another important touch missing from the earlier draft is the suggestion that Gollum found it 'pleasant [...] to hear a kindly voice, bringing up memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things' (FR 1.ii.55), a notion with important links back to the Riddle Game and the pity of Bilbo (Hobbit 86, 97).

Clearly this perspective on a cure is also far more consonant with Gollum's boasting about his cleverness in finding new ways to eat babies. It reveals a far more evil Gollum than, as it turned out, Tolkien decided he wished to portray.  Consider the difference between the two passages. The published version sounds like a ghost story.  It's creepy, touched with horror, but it's a story about a shadow, almost a bogeyman.  But in the earlier version the story gives way to proud confession. It's personal, and that makes it appalling.

What has such a Gollum to do with hope?

Thus, as the notion of the hope of a cure, or redemption, entered the stage, the bragging had to go. But we can also see Tolkien choosing the path that an essential part of his story would take. As he begins early on to fashion a Gollum who is very dark indeed, but then pulls him back a just a bit closer to the light, so that there could be 'a little corner of his mind that was still his own' that took pleasure in memories of the distant past before he killed to possess the Ring. Only in this way could there be 'not no hope' for his redemption (FR 1.ii.55). Only in this way could Gollum's blighted repentance on the stairs of Cirith Ungol touch us so (TT 4.viii.714-15).


[1] While Bilbo chooses not to kill Gollum, that does not mean he is out of the woods, so to speak. For on the night he leaves Bag End he threatens Gandalf with his sword when he feels that his possession of the Ring is threatened (FR 1.i.33-34). Something similar happens with Frodo, who momentarily wishes to strike Bilbo for reaching out to touch the Ring (FR 2.i.232), with which we must compare his reaction to Sam's offer to help him bear the Ring (RK 6.i.911-12). And of course it is Gollum's attempt to take the Ring from Frodo which, in the end, is 'probably the only thing that could have roused the dying embers of Frodo's heart and will' (RK 6.iii.943). It is also quite probably the thing that pushes him metaphorically over the edge to: 'The Ring is mine.'


  1. Very nice close observations - thanks. As for the last sentence of the footnote, I suppose you also mean us to notice that "the thing that pushes [Frodo] metaphorically over the edge" sort of segues right into the thing that takes Gollum literally over the edge...