401 – The Taming of Smeagol

The Taming of Smeagol

In this chapter, Tolkien breaks his normal rule: the chapter title tells us what is about to happen.  From The Shadow of the Past, we already know that Gollum was originally Smeagol.[A]

I think the title is also the only place where the narrator uses the older name.  Frodo accepts him as Smeagol, but Sam later learns that this is a split being.  The original and far-from-virtuous personality of Smeagol co-exists with another and much worse personality.  This arose in his long years as an underground eater of goblins, and lacks the shreds of decency that Smeagol kept from his original life. But this ‘Shadow of a Shadow’ is introduced by stages.  We start with Frodo and Sam making a painful way towards Mordor.

For the first time since leaving The Shire – which Frodo at least knows well from long walks with Bilbo or alone – they are without a guide.  And the path is not easy.  They must make a painful way through hills, and occasionally in circles:

“It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, as far as they could tell: they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before. Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could find a way to the outer edge of this strange twisted knot of hills. But always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassable, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.”

Sam sums it up neatly, as they see Mordor in the distance:

“`That’s the one place in all the lands we’ve ever heard of that we don’t want to see any closer; and that’s the one place we’re trying to get to! And that’s just where we can’t get, nohow. We’ve come the wrong way altogether, seemingly. We can’t get down; and if we did get down, we’d find all that green land a nasty bog, I’ll warrant.”

Frodo sees it as Destiny, but wishes he had separated earlier

“`Mordor! ‘ [Frodo] muttered under his breath. ‘If I must go there I wish I could come there quickly and make an end! …

“’It’s my doom, I think, to go to that Shadow yonder, so that a way will be found. But will good or evil show it to me? What hope we had was in speed. Delay plays into the Enemy’s hands-and here I am: delayed. Is it the will of the Dark Tower that steers us? All my choices have proved ill. I should have left the Company long before, and come down from the North, east of the River and of the Emyn Muil, and so over the hard of Battle Plain[B] to the passes of Mordor. But now it isn’t possible for you and me alone to find a way back, and the Orcs are prowling on the east bank. Every day that passes is a precious day lost.”

Gollum later advises that he would have been caught by orcs or men serving Sauron, had he gone that way.  He is in fact having some good luck, but does not know it.  The despair that is part of the deepest evils is influencing him as Ring-Bearer, and he no longer expects to succeed.  Yet he will keep his word and do what he can.

They also know Gollum follows them.  Frodo had seen him when they were on the river, and learned that Aragorn also knew of him.  Now they have seen him again – Sam for the first time, it seems:

“`Grrr! Those eyes did give me a turn! [said Sam] But perhaps we’ve shaken him off at last, the miserable slinker…

“`I don’t know how he followed us; but it may be that he’s lost us again, as you say [said Frodo].

‘Slinker’ will be Sam’s name for the less evil half of Gollum, along with ‘Stinker’ for the worse, when he discovers the creature is split-minded.

For now, they can’t understand how Gollum can know where they are.  Frodo at least should realise that the One Ring draws him, just as it drew the Nazgul.

Making slow progress, they finally come to a place where they can climb down.  Feeling the need for haste, Frodo tries it in the dark.  Possibly Sauron notices something: for certain there is thunder, lightning, and a blast of wind.  And then the cry of a Nazgul, which they recognise from hearing it back in The Shire.  Terrified, Frodo loses his grip and slips

“The hurrying darkness, now gathering great speed, rushed up from the East and swallowed the sky. There was a dry splitting crack of thunder right overhead. Searing lightning smote down into the hills. Then came a blast of savage wind, and with it, mingling with its roar, there came a high shrill shriek. The hobbits had heard just such a cry far away in the Marish as they fled from Hobbiton, and even there in the woods of the Shire it had frozen their blood. Out here in the waste its terror was far greater: it pierced them with cold blades of horror and despair, stopping heart and breath. Sam fell flat on his face. Involuntarily Frodo loosed his hold and put his hands over his head and ears. He swayed, slipped, and slithered downwards with a wailing cry.”

But he slides rather than falling.  And only now does Sam remembers he brought a rope.  It brings hope amidst the evil, and also saves them at a mundane level:

“Are you trying to tell yourself you’ve got some rope in your pocket? If so, out with it!

“`Yes, Mr. Frodo, in my pack and all. Carried it hundreds of miles and I’d clean forgotten it!’

“`Then get busy and let an end down!’

“Quickly Sam unslung his pack and rummaged in it. There indeed at the bottom was a coil of the silken-grey rope made by the folk of Lorien. He cast an end to his master. The darkness seemed to lift from Frodo’s eyes, or else his sight was returning. He could see the grey line as it came dangling down, and he thought it had a faint silver sheen. Now that he had some point in the darkness to fix his eyes on, he felt less giddy. Leaning his weight forward, he made the end fast round his waist, and then he grasped the line with both hands.

“Sam stepped back and braced his feet against a stump a yard or two from the edge. Half hauled, half scrambling. Frodo came up and threw himself on the ground.

“Thunder growled and rumbled in the distance, and the rain was still falling heavily. The hobbits crawled away back into the gully; but they did not find much shelter there. Rills of water began to run down; soon they grew to a spate that splashed and fumed on the stones, and spouted out over the cliff like the gutters of a vast roof.

“`I should have been half drowned down there, or washed clean off,’ said Frodo. ‘What a piece of luck you had that rope!’

“`Better luck if I’d thought of it sooner,’ said Sam. ‘Maybe you remember them putting the ropes in the boats, as we started off: in the elvish country. I took a fancy to it, and I stowed a coil in my pack. Years ago, it seems. “It may be a help in many needs,” he said: Haldir, or one of those folk. And he spoke right.’

“`A pity I didn’t think of bringing another length,’ said Frodo; `but I left the Company in such a hurry and confusion. If only we had enough we could use it to get down.

Sam then attaches the rope to a stump.  First he and then Frodo descend.  Sam trusts it entirely, but Frodo uses it only when he must.

“[Frodo] had not quite Sam’s faith in this slender grey line.”

Sam expresses regret at having to abandon the rope, and maybe letting Gollum use it.  Then unexpectedly the rope comes free.  Frodo blames Sam, who however knows he used good knots.  Sam is sure it is magic

“My beautiful rope! There it is tied to a stump, and we’re at the bottom. Just as nice a little stair for that slinking Gollum as we could leave. Better put up a signpost to say which way we’ve gone!…

“He looked up and gave one last pull to the rope as if in farewell.

“To the complete surprise of both the hobbits it came loose. Sam fell over, and the long grey coils slithered silently down on top of him. Frodo laughed. `Who tied the rope? ‘ he said. `A good thing it held as long as it did! To think that I trusted all my weight to your knot!’

“Sam did not laugh. `I may not be much good at climbing, Mr. Frodo,’ he said in injured tones, `but I do know something about rope and about knots. It’s in the family, as you might say. Why, my grand-dad, and my uncle Andy after him, him that was the Gaffer’s eldest brother he had a rope-walk over by Tighfield many a year. And I put as fast a hitch over the stump as any one could have done, in the Shire or out of it.’

“`Then the rope must have broken – frayed on the rock-edge, I expect,’ said Frodo.

“`I bet it didn’t! ‘ said Sam in an even more injured voice. He stooped and examined the ends. `Nor it hasn’t neither. Not a strand!’

“’Then I’m afraid it must have been the knot,’ said Frodo.

“Sam shook his head and did not answer. He was passing the rope through his fingers thoughtfully. `Have it your own way, Mr. Frodo,’ he said at last, `but I think the rope came off itself – when I called.’ He coiled it up and stowed it lovingly in his pack.”

He actually keeps the rope to the end, apart from cutting off a length of it to serve Frodo as a girdle in Mordor.  He trusts and values the elven magic, rather more than Frodo now does.

All this has a wider meaning.  Frodo knew of elves long before Sam met them: but it is Sam who trusts the elven rope and Sam who is convinced that the rope came untied thanks to elven magic.  Is this part of Frodo being corrupted by the One Ring, so that everything good or beautiful ceases to have meaning for him?

Regardless, they are cheered by the thought that Gollum will not be able to follow.  But to their dismay, they see him do so:

“’It’s that Gollum!’ [says Sam].  ‘Snakes and adders! And to think that I thought that we’d puzzle him with our bit of a climb! Look at him! Like a nasty crawling spider on a wall.’”

Sam wants to ambush him, ignoring Frodo’s warning that Gollum is more dangerous than looks.  And for the first time since Bilbo met him in the Hobbit, we hear his curious babble:

“`Ach, sss! Cautious, my precious! More haste less speed. We musstn’t rissk our neck, musst we, precious? No, precious – gollum!’ He lifted his head again, blinked at the moon, and quickly shut his eyes. `We hate it,’ he hissed. `Nassty, nassty shivery light it is – sss – it spies on us, precious – it hurts our eyes.’

“He was getting lower now and the hisses became sharper and clearer. ‘Where iss it, where iss it: my Precious, my Precious? It’s ours, it is, and we wants it. The thieves, the thieves, the filthy little thieves. Where are they with my Precious? Curse them! We hates them.’”

As it happens, this is a harder way down and Gollum has to drop the last twelve feet.  Sam takes advantage of this, but finds that Gollum is indeed dangerous, and stronger than he is:

“Sam was out of his hiding in a flash and crossed the space between him and the cliff foot in a couple of leaps. Before Gollum could get up, he was on top of him. But he found Gollum more than he bargained for, even taken like that, suddenly, off his guard after a fall. Before Sam could get a hold, long legs and arms were wound round him pinning his arms, and a clinging grip, soft but horribly strong, was squeezing him like slowly tightening cords; clammy fingers were feeling for his throat. Then sharp teeth bit into his shoulder. All he could do was to butt his hard round head sideways into the creature’s face. Gollum hissed and spat, but he did not let go.

“Things would have gone ill with Sam, if he had been alone. But Frodo sprang up, and drew Sting from its sheath. With his left hand he drew back Gollum’s head by his thin lank hair, stretching his long neck, and forcing his pale venomous eyes to stare up at the sky.

“`Let go! Gollum,’ he said. `This is Sting. You have seen it before once upon a time. Let go, or you’ll feel it this time! I’ll cut your throat.’”

But what now?  Gollum acts like a typical minor villain, suddenly denying he meant any harm.  Acting as if he doesn’t properly realise that he speaks his own thoughts and these have been heard.

This, incidentally, is probably borrowed by J K Rowling for the house-elf Kreacher, who keeps muttering his disloyal thoughts, and seems unaware he can be heard:

“‘Master always likes his little joke,’ said Kreacher, bowing again, and continuing in an undertone, ‘Master was an nasty ungrateful swine who broke his mother’s heart -‘…

“‘Keep muttering and I will be a murdered!’ said Sirius irritably as he slammed the door shut on the elf.

“Sirius, he’s not right in the head,’ Hermione pleaded, ‘I don’t think he realises we can hear him.'”  (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 6.)

The pathetic little house-elves are one thing that show the independence of her thinking from Tolkien.  But she had borrowed a few things that are not part of the common pool of ideas about magic.

Facing Gollum, vastly more dangerous than Kreacher, Sam wants to tie him up.  Frodo knows this is wrong, but is also reluctant to kill a helpless creature:

“Gollum collapsed and went as loose as wet string. Sam got up, fingering his shoulder. His eyes smouldered with anger, but he could not avenge himself: his miserable enemy lay grovelling on the stones whimpering.

“`Don’t hurt us! Don’t let them hurt us, precious! They won’t hurt us will they, nice little hobbitses? We didn’t mean no harm, but they jumps on us like cats on poor mices, they did, precious. And we’re so lonely, gollum. We’ll be nice to them, very nice, if they’ll be nice to us, won’t we, yes, yess.’

“`Well, what’s to be done with it? ‘ said Sam. `Tie it up, so as it can’t come sneaking after us no more, I say.’

“`But that would kill us, kill us,’ whimpered Gollum. `Cruel little hobbitses. Tie us up in the cold hard lands and leave us, gollum, gollum.’ Sobs welled up in his gobbling throat.

“`No,’ said Frodo. `If we kill him, we must kill him outright. But we can’t do that, not as things are.”

He can pity Gollum, having wished that Bilbo had killed him back when Gandalf told him the whole story:

“Poor wretch! He has done us no harm.’

“`Oh hasn’t he! ‘ said Sam rubbing his shoulder. `Anyway he meant to, and he means to, I’ll warrant. Throttle us in our sleep, that’s his plan.’

“’I daresay,’ said Frodo. `But what he means to do is another matter.’ He paused for a while in thought. Gollum lay still, but stopped whimpering. Sam stood glowering over him.

“It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

“I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

“Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

`Very well,’ he answered aloud, lowering his sword. ‘But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.’”

This is a normal human reaction – to wish an enemy killed when you do not see them is a lot harder than when they are in front of you.  And when you have to do it yourself.

Some Moral Philosophers claim the two things are the same.  They are blatantly not the same.  Ideally you should feel the same revulsion when the issue is distanced, but for most people the distancing count.  Only sociopaths seem immune, not moved by pity or sympathy.

It must also help that Frodo himself felt what the One Ring can do.

He now comes up with a sensible solution – Gollum must stay with them and guide them:

“Gollum lifted his head.

“’Yess, wretched we are, precious,’ he whined. ‘Misery misery! Hobbits won’t kill us, nice hobbits.’

“’No, we won’t,’ said Frodo. `But we won’t let you go, either. You’re full of wickedness and mischief, Gollum. You will have to come with us, that’s all, while we keep an eye on you. But you must help us, if you can. One good turn deserves another.’

“’Yess, yes indeed,’ said Gollum sitting up. ‘Nice hobbits! We will come with them. Find them safe paths in the dark, yes we will. And where are they going in these cold hard lands, we wonders, yes we wonders? ‘ He looked up at them, and a faint light of cunning and eagerness flickered for a second in his pale blinking eyes.

“Sam scowled at him, and sucked his teeth; but he seemed to sense that there was something odd about his master’s mood and that the matter was beyond argument. All the same he was amazed at Frodo’s reply.

“Frodo looked straight into Gollum’s eyes which flinched and twisted away. `You know that, or you guess well enough, Smeagol,’ he said. quietly and sternly. `We are going to Mordor, of course. And you know the way there, I believe.’

“`Ach! sss! ‘ said Gollum, covering his ears with his hands, as if such frankness, and the open speaking of the names, hurt him. `We guessed, yes we guessed,’ he whispered; `and we didn’t want them to go, did we? No, precious, not the nice hobbits. Ashes, ashes, and dust, and thirst there is; and pits, pits, pits, and Orcs, thousands of Orcses. Nice hobbits mustn’t go to – sss – those places.’

“`So you have been there? ‘ Frodo insisted. `And you’re being drawn back there, aren’t you?’

“`Yess. Yess. No! ‘ shrieked Gollum. `Once, by accident it was, wasn’t it, precious? Yes, by accident. But we won’t go back, no, no!’ Then suddenly his voice and language changed, and he sobbed in his throat, and spoke but not to them. `Leave me alone, gollum! You hurt me. O my poor hands, gollum! I, we, I don’t want to come back. I can’t find it. I am tired. I, we can’t find it, gollum, gollum, no, nowhere. They’re always awake. Dwarves, Men, and Elves, terrible Elves with bright eyes. I can’t find it. Ach! ‘ He got up and clenched his long hand into a bony fleshless knot, shaking it towards the East. ‘We won’t! ‘ he cried. ‘Not for you.’ Then he collapsed again. ‘Gollum, gollum,’ he whimpered with his face to the ground. ‘Don’t look at us! Go away! Go to sleep!’

“`He will not go away or go to sleep at your command, Smeagol,’ said Frodo. `But if you really wish to be free of him again. then you must help me. And that I fear means finding us a path towards him. But you need not go all the way, not beyond the gates of his land.’”

Gollum delays, claiming he fears the moon.  Apparently he does, but when it sets he tries to escape.  Frodo and Sam had expected that, and catch him:

“`The big lights hurt our eyes, they do,’ Gollum whined. `Not under the White Face, not yet. It will go behind the hills soon, yess. Rest a bit first, nice hobbits!’

“`Then sit down,’ said Frodo, `and don’t move!’

“The hobbits seated themselves beside him, one on either side. with their backs to the stony wall, resting their legs. There was no need for any arrangement by word: they knew that they must not sleep for a moment. Slowly the moon went by. Shadows fell down from the hills, and all grew dark before them. The stars grew thick and bright in the sky above. No one stirred. Gollum sat with his legs drawn up, knees under chin, flat hands and feet splayed on the ground, his eyes closed; but he seemed tense, as if thinking or listening.

“Frodo looked across at Sam. Their eyes met and they understood. They relaxed, leaning their heads back, and shutting their eyes or seeming to. Soon the sound of their soft breathing could be heard. Gollum’s hands twitched a little. Hardly perceptibly his head moved to the left and the right, and first one eye and then the other opened a slit. The hobbits made no sign.

“Suddenly, with startling agility and speed, straight off the ground with a jump like a grasshopper or a frog. Gollum bounded forward into the darkness. But that was just what Frodo and Sam had expected. Sam was on him before he had gone two paces after his spring. Frodo coming behind grabbed his leg and threw him.”

They tie him, but the elven rope hurts him.  Frodo will not let him go until he makes a promise.  Gollum then offers to swear by the One Ring

“Tie one end to his ankle, and keep a grip on the other end.’

“He stood over Gollum, while Sam tied the knot. The result surprised them both. Gollum began to scream, a thin, tearing sound, very horrible to hear. He writhed, and tried to get his mouth to his ankle and bite the rope. He kept on screaming.

“At last Frodo was convinced that he really was in pain; but it could not be from the knot. He examined it and found that it was not too tight, indeed hardly tight enough. Sam was gentler than his words. ‘What’s the matter with you? ‘ he said. `If you will try to run away. you must be tied; but we don’t wish to hurt you.’

“’It hurts us, it hurts us,’ hissed Gollum. `It freezes, it bites! Elves twisted it, curse them! Nasty cruel hobbits! That’s why we tries to escape, of course it is, precious. We guessed they were cruel hobbits. They visits Elves, fierce Elves with bright eyes. Take it off us! It hurts us.’

“`No, I will not take it off you,’ said Frodo, `not unless’ – he paused a moment in thought – `not unless there is any promise you can make that I can trust.’

“’We will swear to do what he wants, yes, yess, said Gollum, still twisting and grabbling at his ankle. `It hurts us.’

“`Swear? ‘ said Frodo.

“’Smeagol,’ said Gollum suddenly and clearly, opening his eyes wide and staring at Frodo with a strange light. ‘Smeagol will swear on the Precious.’

“Frodo drew himself up, and again Sam was startled by his words and his stern voice. ‘On the Precious? How dare you? ‘ he said. ‘Think!

“One Ring to rule them all and in the Darkness bind them.

“Would you commit your promise to that, Smeagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!’

“Gollum cowered. ‘On the Precious. on the Precious! ‘ he repeated.

“`And what would you swear? ‘ asked Frodo.

“`To be very very good,’ said Gollum. Then crawling to Frodo’s feet he grovelled before him, whispering hoarsely: a shudder ran over him, as if the words shook his very bones with fear. ‘Smeagol will swear never, never, to let Him have it. Never! Smeagol will save it. But he must swear on the Precious.’

“’No! not on it,’ said Frodo, looking down at him with stern pity. ‘All you wish is to see it and touch it, if you can, though you know it would drive you mad. Not on it. Swear by it, if you will. For you know where it is. Yes, you know, Smeagol. It is before you.’

“For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds. Gollum raised himself and began pawing at Frodo, fawning at his knees.

“’Down! down! ‘ said Frodo. `Now speak your promise!’

“`We promises, yes I promise!’ said Gollum. ‘I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Smeagol, gollum, gollum!’ Suddenly he began to weep and bite at his ankle again.

“’Take the rope off, Sam!’ said Frodo.

Sam’s vision resembles the one he has later at the foot of Mount Doom.  Frodo is growing in power, but also being corrupted.  We see him through the eyes of the loyal Sam, who cannot think ill of him.  But after appearing as a god-like creature when threatening Gollum, he then goes on to fall to the corruption and refuse to destroy the One Ring.

Here, he risks showing mercy to Gollum.  Who does indeed seem to change:

“At once Gollum got up and began prancing about, like a whipped cur whose master has patted it. From that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him. He spoke with less hissing and whining, and he spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. He would cringe and flinch, if they stepped near him or made any sudden movement, and he avoided the touch of their elven-cloaks; but he was friendly, and indeed pitifully anxious to please. He would cackle with laughter and caper, if any jest was made, or even if Frodo spoke kindly to him, and weep if Frodo rebuked him. Sam said little to him of any sort. He suspected him more deeply than ever, and if possible liked the new Gollum, the Smeagol, less than the old.

“’Well, Gollum, or whatever it is we’re to call you,’ he said. ‘now for it! The Moon’s gone. and the night’s going. We’d better start.’”

But Smeagol the Water-Hobbit or Stoor has kept some of what he once was.  He knows a path across the marsh that the orcs do not.  He is perhaps more observant, more careful, and not at odds with the land,

“’Yes, yes,’ agreed Gollum, skipping about. ‘Off we go! There’s only one way across between the North-end and the South-end. I found it, I did. Orcs don’t use it, Orcs don’t know it. Orcs don’t cross the Marshes, they go round for miles and miles. Very lucky you came this way. Very lucky you found Smeagol, yes. Follow Smeagol!’

“He took a few steps away and looked back inquiringly, like a dog inviting them for a walk. ‘Wait a bit, Gollum!’ cried Sam. `Not too far ahead now! I’m going to be at your tail, and I’ve got the rope handy.’

“’No, no! ‘ said Gollum. ‘Smeagol promised.’

“In the deep of night under hard clear stars they set off. Gollum led them back northward for a while along the way they had come; then he slanted to the right away from the steep edge of the Emyn Muil, down the broken stony slopes towards the vast fens below. They faded swiftly and softly into the darkness. Over all the leagues of waste before the gates of Mordor there was a black silence.”

We now see the benefits of mercy shown to the unworthy Gollum.  Had he been killed or kept prisoner, Frodo and Sam would probably not have got across the marsh, faring no better than they had in the stony hills.

Frodo shows himself moral in freeing Gollum.  Takes a known risk in trusting Gollum, but he is almost vindicated.  Tolkien in his letters explains that Gollum might have sincerely repented later, when Sam spoils it.[C]  Had Gollum truly changed, he could have confessed to his planned betrayal of them to Shelob and found another way.

And without him, however treacherous, perhaps there was no way.  Aragorn might have got safely into Mordor, but could he have withstood the growing temptation?

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.

[A] Better written as Sméagol, but I do not use accents or other diacritical marks.  In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see ‘ASCII – an Unhappy Legacy for Computers‘.

[B] “hard of Battle Plain” is what the book says.

[C] The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: Letter 165 and Letter 246.