In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf seems to be particularly sensitive to Gollum's wretched state. When explaining his recent activities to Frodo, Gandalf says things like:

'Unless [the evil part of Gollum] could be cured.' Gandalf sighed. 'Alas! there is little hope of that for him. Yet not no hope.'

and then:

'I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.'

He even seems to regret having to treat him roughly:

'I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh.'

Later, at the Council of Elrond, it is revealed that Gandalf left him in the Elves' keeping in hope of his cure.

Gandalf does not express such empathy for others who have fallen under the enemy's influence. Why does he feel this way about Gollum? Is it because he sees Gollum as a victim of the Ring, instead of a conspirator in its evil?

  • 14
    That was Aragorn at the Council of Elrond, not Gandalf. But a few pages later, Legolas gives another example of Gandalf's concern for Gollum: "We guarded this creature day and night, at Gandalf's bidding, much though we wearied of the task. But Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure..."
    – MLP
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 1:58
  • 1
    Oops, I skimmed that chapter too fast. Corrected. Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 4:42

10 Answers 10


There are several reasons that I see for this being the case.

First of all, Gollum was once a hobbit and, as is evident from the series, Gandalf cares much for the Shire folk. He was changed much through his time with the Ring, and I think Gandalf is hopeful that he will be able to overcome the effects, especially since Gandalf has likely seen the good in him. As the movie portrays excellently, and the books fairly, Gollum has a part of him that is good, and I feel that Gandalf wants to nurture that side, to overcome it.

Lastly, Gollum has really had a hard life, brought by the Ring, and I feel that he wants to help him overcome this life.

  • 59
    Let's not forget that Bilbo has traveled far down the path to becoming like Gollum, and the hope that Gollum can be cured is mirrored in his hope that his friend Bilbo might also have his dependency cured.
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 2:20
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    "As the movie portrays excellently, and the books fairly" -> I would better say "As the books portray subtly and the movies crudely".
    – Flamma
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 16:54
  • To say nothing of how it would suggest that the Ring can be overcome - it would give Gandalf much hope had he seen Gollum restored.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 17:24
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    @DampeS8N - you should make this an answer.
    – user8719
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 20:44
  • Compassion makes most sense considering Gandalf's character. But not for Gollum. As DampeS8N says, it's for hope that Bilbo can be saved. Which is also why Frodo cares for him - his belief that Golum can be saved is what makes him believe he himself can be saved too.
    – user100501
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 4:50

In addition to the other answers provided, Gandalf, as one of the Istari, is aware of the history and power of the One Ring, in particular that it seems to affect the other races (especially Humans) very fast. He also knows that the Ring will need to be destroyed, so if Gollum - of the most resilient race - would completely succumb to the effects of the Ring (remember, Gollum wore the Ring whilst it was dormant), what chances would anyone else have to carry it to the fires of Orodruin (Mount Doom) now that the Ring had been awakened by the return of Sauron?

Furthermore, Gandalf is also the secret bearer of Narya, the Ring of Fire - one of the three rings created by Celebrimbor before the fall of Númenór. I would imagine he was also concerned for himself - a Maia - succumbing to the One Ring - his reaction to Frodo offering him the One Ring and the turning of Saruman could be seen as an affirmation of this fear. When the Vala Yavanna asked Gandalf to accompany Saruman to Middle-Earth, Gandalf first refused because he considered himself weak - a self-image he may have retained up to the end of the Third Age.

Lastly, the Silmarillion tells us that Gandalf, before he came to Middle-Earth and was still called Olorin, was a student of the Vala Nienna in Valinor, who taught him pity and endurance.

  • 2
    Very informative.
    – Janoma
    Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 2:54

Gandalf is concerned about Gollum for two reasons:

  1. Because without Gandalf being so concerned, the cause would have failed.
  2. Because Gandalf himself is inherently moral, as an angelic representation who has not succumbed to temptation (a la Sauron, Saruman).

Tolkien explicitly addresses the former point in his letters:

In this case the cause (not the 'hero') was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted. Gandalf certainly foresaw this. See Vol. I p. 68-9. Of course, he did not mean to say that one must be merciful, for it may prove useful later – it would not then be mercy or pity, which are only truly present when contrary to prudence. Not ours to plan! (Letter 192)

To paraphrase the relevent paragraph as Gandalf himself states, no one can see the future but it's his own gut feeling that Gollum would still be relevent, so killing him or at a minimum treating him reasonably well could be a detriment to their cause:

even the very wise cannot see all ends. ... he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least. (Fellowship of the Ring)

It is shown in the LotR that pity and mercy are key to the success of the quest to destroy the Ring:

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’ ... Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. (Fellowship of the Ring)

Further this saving of the cause by pity and mercy, Bilbo's (not to kill Gollum under the Misty Mountains), Frodo's and Sam's (not to kill Gollum when he was captured in the Emyn Muil) and Gandalf's (the well-treating of Gollum once captured), was explicitly mentioned a number of times in the letters:

at this point the 'salvation' of the world and Frodo's own 'salvation' is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end. To 'pity' him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a 'grace', that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one cd. have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his 'forgiveness', he was saved himself, and relieved of his burden. (Letter 181)


He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy : by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury. (Letter 191)

I also believe, as per the latter point, that this concern gives us some insight into Gandalf's character himself.

We know that pity, mercy and compassion are some of the highest virtues as held by Tolkien, as imbued by his Christian beliefs:

They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God. (Letter 246)

Gandalf is therefore presented as a very moral being (albeit not omniscient), indeed an angel:

I wd. venture to say that he was an incarnate 'angel' (Letter 156)

I think the combination of these two points gives the best explanation of why Tolkien had Gandalf showing Gollum the pity and mercy he did not deserve.

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    For me, this by far the best answer.
    – Joel
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 4:51

One of my favorite quotes relates to this question:

‘But this is terrible!’ cried Frodo. ‘Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’ ‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’ ‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’ ‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in. ‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. 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 judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least. In any case we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched. The Wood-elves have him in prison, but they treat him with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.’

If you pick up the One Ring by accident, it is hardly fair to blame you for falling under the enemy's influence.

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    By accident? Gollum (Smeagol) murdered his brother Deagol for the ring - not exactly an accident. I suppose you could say his being in the area of the ring's influence was an accident, but the point is, he wanted it badly enough to do anything to get it.
    – John C
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 11:32
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    @John C: Smeagol did not set out to search for the Ring. It was found by his friend Deagol. Because the Ring brings out the worst in people, Gandaf seems to forgive Smeagol for the murder to some extent.
    – Andomar
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 12:04
  • 3
    And hey, it turns out that if they had killed him, there's a decent chance Sauron would have won, so points to Gandalf for prophecizing well.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 17:26

I think it is mainly for two reasons:

  1. Gollum is indeed a pitiful creature. Evil, but pitiful. He has suffered as few. Gandalf is merciful, and he wants to believe that Gollum can be cured. Mercy is one of the greatest virtues of Lord of the Rings heroes (a thing that Peter Jackson didn't share), and killing without need such a creature would be very cruel, even for such a despicable individual.
  2. I think that Gandalf had some intuition that Gollum had still some role to play. When he says about leaving Gollum live "For even the very wise cannot see all ends", I think he was thinking about that role.

My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least.

And damn he was right! Here you have, at the beginning of the book he is telling you how it is going to end, in a way.


I wonder whether there is another aspect to it, in that Gandalf seems to know that Gollum will have a part to play in the history of the ring still (I can't remember the reference), and his hope is that the part can be positive, rather than negative. If he can be at least partly cured and brought to the side of good, it might help this leaning. If he is still completely broken and in bondage to the ring, the chances are that his influence will be malevolent.

As it turns out, his role was critical, and malevolently driven, but had a positive effect.

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    I don't think that Gandalf "knows" that Gollum will play a role, I think he's probably just keeping all of his options open, as per scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/6195/what-was-gandalfs-plan
    – TGnat
    Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 17:29
  • Believes maybe, rather than knows. But he has some innate sense of what has to be done, because he is a wizard. He has no real idea what is going to happen. Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 17:39
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    @TGnat: Gandalf guessed at least: "My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end", full quote in my answer
    – Andomar
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 10:49

With regards the part of your question "Is it because he sees Gollum as a victim of the Ring" After telling Frodo, Gollums history of how he found the ring, killed his friend for it and was subsequently expelled from his home and cursed by his family Gandalf commented: "'I think it is a sad story' said the wizard (Gandalf) 'and it might have happened to others, even some hobbits i have known'"

"Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. He had proved tougher than even one of the wise would have guessed - as a hobbit might. There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it"


One reason is hinted in several replies here. The world of Tolkien is bound by fate. There are several references that fate has part of what happens to the ring (e.g it was fate that made Frodo the ring-bearer).

Gandalf realizes that Gollum has a too important part in the fate of the Ring to be slain. This point is besides the point of pity. Pity does not only have a value in itself, but is also a mean to something greater.

Gandalf senses this, although not even the wise can see all ends.

In the end he is proven right. Had Gollum not been spared, Frodo would have succumbed to the power of the ring, and things would have turned out quite differently.


You're right that Gandalf was far away doing research during those 17 years, but he was glad of the distance.

It might help to contrast Gandalf's reaction with Bombadil's. The Ring has no hold on Tom's mind. A bit like the rare individual who is immune during an epidemic, Tom doesn't comprehend what all the fuss is about. Not only is Tom unconcerned about the consequences of Sauron regaining The Ring, Tom is oblivious to the injury others might take from craving The Ring. Why then does Gandalf come to be so intensely saddened by Gollum's plight? Because Gandalf does feel the craving for The Ring. Intensely.

The 17 years starts with Bilbo horrifying Gandalf by using the word Precious. Gandalf warns Frodo not to get too close to it while Gandalf is gone. But why doesn't Gandalf take the thing with him when he leaves? Simply leave Frodo under the impression that Bilbo still has it? For the same reason that Alice Cooper keeps himself far away from alcohol nowadays. And far away from the Shire, as Gandalf researches both Gollum and the Gondorian archives, his fears mount.

Not only is this thing increasingly likely to be THE thing he was sent here to keep Sauron from recovering, it's also a thing perfectly tuned to tempt Gandalf himself. Gandalf was originally a fire spirit. His kind's loyalty was called into question when some of his brethren went over to Melkor and became Balrogs. That's why he instead went to what amounted to a convent in Valinor, trying to bury the desire to conflagrate under the ritual of constant weeping. That's why he was terrified when he was drafted to become a wizard. He always feared that he'd be the wizard who would fall.

That's why Saruman's fall is a complete surprise to Gandalf. That's why, after night after night of lying within arm's reach of The Ring, Gandalf is almost ecstatic at the arrival of his brother fire spirit in Moria. Finally, Gandalf is presented with a socially acceptable opportunity to conflagrate. For three solid days, he revels, gasping in growing exhaustion but thrilled to be using his nature for good. He dies in relief, knowing that he's proved himself honorable.

Both before and after Moria, Gandalf looks upon Gollum with more than pity. As much as he tries to convey to Frodo that Gollum is what Frodo could end up looking like, Gandalf is every bit as aware that Gandalf could trod the same downhill path. Willingly. Eagerly. My Precious.

  • 2
    Again, you've made several claims here which are arguably true. This "post" is a reply to my comment below. Again you've marginally addressed the question, which was "Why was Gandalf so concerned about Gollum?", which in other words can be described as "Why was Gandalf kind to Gollum when he wasn't to all other evil creatures." You however have gone on about how Gandalf is "addicted" to this ring and needs to hide from it. The only connection you make to Gollum is that you claim Gandalf will "go down the same path" which we know from the novels isn't true.
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 7:20
  • @Edlothiad - The answerer's suppositions (and I agree, they are that) would seem to have more to do with have Gandalf believes could happen. The fact that it doesn't actually happen doesn't mean that it couldn't. Still, while reasonable suppositions based on general human nature, not obviously backed up with proof from the source material.
    – RDFozz
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 21:46

When Gandalf looks at Gollum, he sees a kindred spirit. Non-magical, yes. Mortal, yes. Wretched, yes. But Gandalf feels the same temptation from The Ring. That's why he stays away for seventeen years before finally confirming his fears and rushing back. Imagine a drug addict within easy reach of a fix, struggling every second of every day for months not to reach out and claim it. That was Gandalf. That's why being diverted away by the Balrog was actually a relief for him. Gandalf was never physically near The Ring again.

  • 2
    This is simply false. Gandalf didn't disappear for 17 years to "hide" from the ring. Gandalf was researching the histories of magical rings to see if he could confirm whether or not that was in fact the One Ring or just another magical ring. He was scouring the archives of Gondor. Furthermore your answer focuses completely on Gandalf and the Ring, are you suggesting that Gandalf was concerned about Gollum because he had the ring?
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 7:08

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