This week’s Lenten Lesson is on Sin and comes courtesy of Gollum, who is well acquainted with the subject.
Now, Gollum is an interesting case because he isn’t what springs to mind when one thinks of evil. He’s actually, at times, a charming character in his own way, and certainly pitiable. Yet, he is also, when it comes down to it, a character wholly consumed by sin.
It was part of Tolkien’s genius that he was able to show his villains as loathsome, unimpressive creatures compared to his infinitely more interesting and exciting heroic characters (frankly, he’s practically unique in being able to pull this off; in most works of fiction, the villain is the really interesting one). Gollum is a good example of this. He’s dangerous, cunning, and malevolent for sure, but he’s also pathetic, emaciated, and miserable.
Gollum started life as Smeagle; a small, Hobbit-like creature who lived on the banks of the Great River. From the little we learn of his life, he was already a greedy, selfish piece of work, but things really went wrong for him when, one day, his friend Deagle fished the Ring out of the riverbed. Smeagle, enticed by the beauty of the Ring, demands that Deagle give it to him, and when he refuses, Smeagle kills him for it.
Discovering that the Ring turns him invisible, Smeagle (nicknamed ‘Gollum’ by his relatives for the noise he makes in his throat) uses it to play tricks, spy, and steal. He causes so much trouble in his community that his grandmother (the matriarch) casts him out. Cursing his lot, Gollum goes on his way and eventually seeks refuge under the mountains, where he expects to find ‘great secrets,’ but actually only finds endless night and cold and hunger.
Gollum serves as a remarkably apt example of the effects of sin on a person. He is driven by the desire for one specific thing (the Ring), which has never brought him any good, and which, deep down, he knows will never make him happy. Yet, when he’s separated from it, he dwells on fantasies on how it might solve all his problems if he could only lay hold of it again: he would keep it safe from Sauron. He would use it to become a new Dark Lord and never be hungry again. He would pay back everyone who had ever ‘wronged’ him.
All these are, from our perspective, obviously lies. The idea that Gollum could hide from Sauron, or that he could even grow powerful enough to challenge him, is laughable. But Gollum can’t help but listen to these ideas, and they pull him back into his evil ways.
Gollum, therefore, lives in a state of perpetual temptation; the Ring calls to him every minute of every day, enticing him with grandiose lies to come back to it. But, of course, neither the Ring nor its master gives a hoot about Gollum; they only see him as a possible tool to reunite them.
A particularly interesting effect that the Ring has on Gollum is that it inspires him to loathe good things: the sun, the moon, family, good food, friendship, etc. It’s implied that he already had some dislike of some of these things to begin with, which helped the Ring ensnare him, but once he gave himself wholly over to it, they became intolerable to him. Thus he complains that the sun burns him, that his family had mistreated him, and that cooking food ‘ruins it.’ But at the same time, he can’t actually like what the Ring brings him in return; darkness, loneliness, and cold fish. They simply aren’t things that can be liked. He has lost his ability to love things that can be loved, so he has no choice but to prefer the unlovable. As Gandalf says, he hates the dark, but he hates the light more.
This inability to enjoy the good is a mark of sin. We see it today in men who are so wrapped up in their pornography addictions that they prefer the porn to their actual wives. Or in people who have spent so much time listening to rotten music that they can’t even enjoy good music when they hear it. Spend enough time in the dark, and the light becomes nothing but blinding (slight detour into The Dark Knight Rises there).
Gollum spent hundreds of years alone in the dark with himself, so that when he finally emerged he was a wreck of a creature; emaciated, insane, and amoral. His loathing of goodness was by now such that he couldn’t even bear to touch anything made by the elves.
One more point about how Gollum has been ruined. He now is almost incapable of looking beyond himself and his own desires. Something like generosity, or altruism, or sacrifice would be totally alien to his mind (this is symbolized by the fact that he almost always talks to himself rather than to the other characters directly). He complains about how the sun burns him, or how hungry he is, or how cruelly he has been treated, but he never offers comfort or seriously inquires after the other characters. In short, as far as he’s concerned it’s all about him and his precious self.
But, at the same time, for all the above, it’s repeatedly stressed that he might not be completely without hope. Gandalf describes to Frodo how the murder of Deagle had haunted Gollum’s conscience during his long years alone, and how Gollum had made up a lie to justify himself, which he had repeated until he almost believed it. In the same conversation, Gandalf points out that Gollum was almost pleased to meet Bilbo, after going so long without hearing a friendly voice, and to bring up long-lost memories of sun and grass and family (though Gandalf explains that this only made him angry in the end).
Indeed, Gollum actually does come very close to repenting at one point. Seeing Frodo and Sam asleep together, looking so peaceful, Gollum is briefly struck by the beauty of their friendship and, cautiously, makes the first step towards repenting…when Sam wakes up and kills the moment with a harsh word.
Gollum is fittingly one of the most striking, memorable, and haunting figures of The Lord of the Rings. He repulses us in his treacherous natures, yet also invites our pity because he is so miserable, and because his lot seems so unfair. He teaches us four main things about Sin:
1. Sin Subsumes Us in an Overwhelming Desire.
Sin is very much the opposite of Piety. Piety is losing ourselves in the desire for Christ, but Sin is losing ourselves in the desire for something else. Gollum loses himself to the Ring, and we lose ourselves to, say, pleasure or power or ‘self-identity.’ The difference is that Christ gives us ourselves back, good as new. Sin takes ourselves and never gives them back.
2. Sin kills the Desire for Good
In our desire for whatever leads us into sin, we eventually lose our desire for things that are actually desirable, leaving us miserable and angry at everything around us and with no apparent way out.
3. Sin is Self-Centered
Sin ultimately comes down to choosing ourselves over everything else; it becomes all about what I want, what I need. Now, this may seem to contradict number 1 above, but actually they’re two sides of the same point. By chasing after something to satisfy ourselves, we lose ourselves, because that’s not what we were meant for. “He who would save his life will lose it.”
4. All Sin is Redeemable
While Gollum tragically is unable to complete his repentance due to a harsh word from Sam, the fact that he came so close, that almost succeeded shows that even he, after his long, long years of misery, still had the chance to be saved. It’s a reminder to us that no matter what we’ve done, God can call us back. It is also a cautionary reminder to be gentle with others, even those who may seem unredeemable, because you never know when you might close the door of Grace that has suddenly been opened to them and might not be opened again.