Vessels of Mercy: God, Grace, and Gollum

Vessels of Mercy: God, Grace, and Gollum

In preparation for the release of Peter Jackson’s the hobbit, I recently watched all three Lord of the Rings films with a small group of friends. We were all, more or less, big Tolkien fans, and during the 12-hour marathon we had many conversations about themes, characters, and the like. One trend I noticed throughout the day was the exclamation of, “They should have just killed Gollum right there!”

Gollum is certainly one of the most distasteful characters Tolkien ever created. By the time we meet him, he has become a gnarled, ashen, skeletal version of his past self (a sort of Hobbit, in fact). His only desire is to hold the One Ring once more, and he behaves violently, ruthlessly, selfishly, and manipulatively in order to satisfy his lust for the Ring. And while for much of The Two Towers and Return of the King his antics do provide a sort of comic relief, it is always matched with uneasiness and distaste for his darker, more murderous side.

However, in a very stirring scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, Gollum is discussed through the lens of pity.

“It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance,” Frodo muses about Gollum, after learning that the creature is tracking the Fellowship in hopes of stealing back the Ring.

“Pity?” responds Gandalf the Wizard. “It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand.”

Bilbo Baggins had been able to see in Gollum something very important, something that Frodo will come to realize later.

Bilbo, hero of The Hobbit, first meets Gollum in a cave after Bilbo happens upon the Ring without knowing its significance. Gollum, eager to kill and eat the juicy intruder, agrees to play a game of riddles with Bilbo in exchange for Bilbo’s life. Bilbo obviously has every reason to loathe Gollum, but after finding a means of escape, he is able to reflect on the creature with pity.

“[Gollum] was miserable, alone, lost,” writes Tolkien, through Bilbo’s musings. “A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.”

For Gollum discovered the Ring as a young Hobbit and its dark powers drove him to murder, obsession, and an unnaturally long life of many hundred years, all spent wasting away in the dark. Though he had committed unspeakable, treacherous acts, by the time Bilbo met him Gollum was but a shell of the creature he had once been. And this made pity swell within Bilbo, for he recognized that such a life could contain no love, nor foster much of a conscience.

But in the grand scheme of things, why was Bilbo’s pity of such great importance? Why should a perverted creature such as Gollum be looked on with pity? I would vouch that Tolkien used the tragic story of Gollum to remind us of grace, and of God’s greater providence.

Although Gollum’s primary role in The Hobbit is merely to provide a transition to Bilbo as the new Ring Bearer, he plays a far more crucial role in The Lord of the Rings. First, he serves as a guide to Frodo and Sam as they journey to bring the Ring to Mt. Doom, where it can be destroyed. If Bilbo had killed Gollum after the riddle game, as he briefly considered doing, Frodo and Sam would have almost certainly met with death long before they ever made it close to Mordor. Bilbo’s pity had a large hand in the fate of Middle-Earth.

Frodo, the next Ring-Bearer, adopted Bilbo’s pity for Gollum as well, even when others would not, and against his initial desires. Sam especially remained very suspicious and skeptical of Gollum, as was warranted. Many times in the film Samwise is ready to draw his sword and finish Gollum off, if only Frodo would give his consent.

But no, Frodo will not. Because Frodo, dragged down heavily by the increasing weight of the Ring, sees his own pain amplified in Gollum. Frodo understands that to give up on Gollum would be to give up on himself. He doggedly holds to the belief that there must be a purpose to his sufferings, to Gollum's sufferings, and that redemption is still possible for anyone. When it comes down to it, in a story about hope, this is the hope that keeps Frodo going.

And indeed (LotR spoiler alert!), Frodo’s insistence on showing mercy to Gollum is brought to fruition. By the end of their journey, Frodo is nearly delirious with hunger, thirst, and weariness. He slips the Ring on, invisible, and tries to abandon the plan of destroying the Ring. It is only Gollum's reappearance that accomplishes the end of Sauron, for he attacks Frodo, bites off Frodo's finger (and the Ring with it) and falls into the molten volcanic crater.

Gollum had every chance to let the Ring go once It found a new bearer, but he chose to reject that freedom. Perhaps he was handicapped beyond accepting it. And in pursuing the Ring to his death, he ended up saving Frodo from the same awful corruption. Frodo ended up owing not only his life and sanity to Gollum, but also the fate of Middle-Earth.

In the end, and despite his many treacheries, it is for the best that nobody killed Gollum when they had the chance.

Tolkien knew that God gives us all the same choices, the same grace, the same chances to grant mercy. We may look at life circumstances and ask, "How could anything good come of such a situation, or such a person?" But we do not see as God sees. "Even the very wise cannot see all ends," is how Gandalf puts it.

1 Samuel 1:1, David would not kill his enemy Saul, even though it appeared God had delivered Saul into his hands, because he held to the fact that God had anointed Saul King over Israel. Likewise, Bilbo and Frodo assigned God-given value to Gollum’s personhood, realizing how that personhood had become twisted by evil, and refused to take the pitiable creature's life.

We can, every day, apply this lesson from David, Bilbo, Frodo, and The Hobbit. God desires obedience and mercy over sacrifice and judgment. And we can be obedient instruments of that mercy, if we so choose. As Gandalf, again, explains so well on behalf of J.R.R. Tolkien: "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment."

Publication date: December 7, 2012