On video 5: Gollum’s end

This episode unveils what is, in effect, a lost story by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In 1944, as he was writing of Sam and Frodo’s meeting with Gollum on the road to Mordor, Tolkien rewrote ‘Riddles in the Dark,’ the chapter in The Hobbit in which Bilbo encounters Gollum. The revised version appeared in the second edition of The Hobbit (1952) and today is the only story that anyone can imagine.

Our 5th episode retells and analyzes the original story.

In making this episode we faced the challenge of showing people a story that has become invisible. It is testimony to the power and iconic status of the revised version that still today, when a cheap facsimile of the first edition is readily available, even the most careful and sensitive of readers appear unable to understand what they are reading. Invariably, however many changes in the narrative are noted and analyzed, readers prove unable to see behind the Gollum they know.

Making the video, we began by highlighting the key structural difference in the original story, now told in our second act: in the original the magic ring is Gollum’s stake in the riddle game (which gives a completely unexpected meaning to his last question of what is in his pocket – which is in fact the riddle of the situation). But we soon saw that we would never get people to see that the original story is something in itself (rather than simply the ‘not the later version’ it is now taken as) unless we could illuminate its emotional force.

One way to approach this emotional force is by way of the sequel. As my friend Tom Hillman is artfully investigating in a monograph in preparation, at the heart of The Lord of the Rings is the theme of Bilbo’s pity. You know: –  in an early conversation at Bag-end, Frodo declares it a pity that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance, to which Gandalf declares that it was pity that stayed his hand…

Now, when you read the original story there is no hint of pity on Bilbo’s part. The hobbit is (justifiably) scared of being eaten, and having won the riddle game cheats by getting Gollum to show him the way out – and very relieved to say goodbye to the creature he is too.

But Tolkien’s way of developing his story here is, as so often, by a mirror. The pity that he planted in Bilbo’s heart in the revised story is indeed present in the original – it is there in buckets, the defining characteristic of the story of Gollum’s end, only to see it you have to step out of the hobbit’s point of view (and in this scene the narrator adopts the point-of-view of the hobbit to a greater extent than elsewhere). If you can wrench your perspective away from the hobbit’s and picture the situation that unfolds from neutral ground things look somewhat different.

Put rather crudley, Gollum is minding his own business in his own home (a nasty, wet hole in the ground) when an intruder appears who (unknown to both) has Gollum’s property in his pocket and carries a sword – an armed burglar! As a host, Gollum, who is unarmed, is certainly not very nice (he wishes to eat his visitor), but – as we show in the video – the terms of the riddle game that he proposes are fair – Bilbo’s life for Gollum’s last token of his original identity. But Gollum never has a chance: he is an ultimate victim of fate. He has already lost his birthday present when the hobbit arrives in his hole, and he now loses it a second time in the game of riddles. But he is a stoical victim: on losing he means to pay up, and when he cannot find his present he shows the hobbit the way out instead.

The original story is the story of Gollum’s end. It is almost impossible to understand it today because everyone knows that Gollum subsequently left his hole in the ground to search for the ring – and ultimately meets his end in the fires of Mount Doom. But in the original story this leaving of his hole in the ground is inconceivable. Gollum becomes scared and shaky as he travels the goblin tunnels showing Bilbo the way out. He will never leave; he will continue to live in his dark, uncomfortable hole without the magic ring that was his last connection with the person he once was. Gollum is now doomed to utterly forget any remaining memories of the life he once lived before he ended up in a hole deep under the ground. And Bilbo Baggins is the unwitting agent of this terrible fate of a living death.

To see Gollum’s end is to look at your own future in a fairy-tale mirror of pity.

There is much, much more to be said about the original Gollum. In this video we explain how the idea of life after losing one’s name arose as a fusion of northern ideal with the Jewish idea of a Gollum (normally spelled Golem). In a later video in this series we will explore the imagination of Gollum as a sort of vanishing point of Tolkien’s original sentence – in a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit; but what does it mean to live? And in later videos, when we step from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, we will show how the fading engendered by the One Ring and the idea of a Ringwraith was born out of this originally ‘natural’ image of the human condition: an image of how our own name and our own story will inevitably and naturally fade and vanish – albeit in our case, let us hope, only after our death.

In the meanwhile, watch the video and discover how our family passed the endless summer holidays from school!

2 thoughts on “On video 5: Gollum’s end

  1. tom hillman

    A fascinating observation, Simon, which I like and must think more deeply on. There may be more to it as well, reflecting The Odyssey. As far as I know, people have noted similarities between Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug and Odysseus’ with Polyphemus, but not between Bilbo’s conversation with Gollum and the scene with the Cyclops. This scene I find more similar and meaningfully so since identity is crucial in Riddles in the Dark and in The Odyssey.

    1. simon Post author

      Sounds like the right path to me…

      As a tangential comment, it has seemed to me, thinking on the scene, that there is some resemblance between Gollum and his boat and Charon the ferryman. Bilbo never reaches Gollum’s island, but would have done so if Gollum had taken him home for lunch.

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