Some of the questions I've read here recently have discussed Gollum, his behavior, the nature of the Gollum/Smeagol dynamic, and his manner of speech, among other things. But though many of these questions and answers come close to dealing with the issue of Gollum's personal nature, none address it directly.
And thus I have to ask the question myself.
According to Tolkien- in The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, his letters, or whatever other sources you can find- was Gollum/Smeagol evil, either inherently, or after some point in his life? Or was he simply weak, and therefore easily corrupted by the Ring, but not truly evil?
I know Tolkien addressed this issue, and specifically said that Gollum had a chance at redemption. This chance came just before he led Sam and Frodo into Shelob's lair. For those who don't remember, Frodo is asleep, his head in Sam's lap; Gollum had wandered off alone some time earlier. Gollum returns, sees the two hobbits sleeping, and his expression changes drastically. His eyes lose their menacing gleam, his face softens, and he is overcome with emotion. He gently reaches out and affectionately strokes Frodo's knee. Frodo murmurs in his sleep, and Sam jerks awake and roughly scolds Gollum, accusing him of some unknown wrongdoing.
Note: All emphasis in the following quotes is mine. Also, Tolkien seems to use the word "mean" in its original sense - cheap, selfish, miserly - rather than the more common sense of an unpleasantly hostile person.
If [Sam] had understood better what was going on between Frodo and Gollum, things might have turned out differently in the end. For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the Tale comes in II 323 ff. when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum's tone and aspect. 'Nothing, nothing', said Gollum softly. 'Nice master!'. His repentance is blighted and all Frodo's pity is (in a sense) wasted. Shelob's lair became inevitable.
This is due of course to the 'logic of the story'. Sam could hardly have acted differently. (He did reach the point of pity at last (III 221-222) but for the good of Gollum too late.) If he had, what could then have happened?
...I think that an effect of his partial regeneration by love [of Frodo] would have been a clearer vision when he claimed the Ring. He would have perceived the evil of Sauron, and suddenly realized that he could not use the Ring and had not the strength or stature to keep it in Sauron's despite: the only way to keep it and hurt Sauron was to destroy it and himself together – and in a flash he may have seen that this would also be the greatest service to Frodo.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 246: To Mrs. Eileen Elgar (Draft). September 1963
[Gollum's] marvelous courage and endurance, as great as Frodo and Sam's or greater, being devoted to evil was portentous, but not honourable. I am afraid, whatever our beliefs, we have to face the fact that there are persons who yield to temptation, reject their chances of nobility or salvation, and appear to be 'damnable'...
The domination of the Ring was much too strong for the mean soul of Sméagol. But he would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean son of a thief before it crossed his path. Need it ever have crossed his path? Need anything dangerous ever cross any of our paths? A kind of answer [could] be found in trying to imagine Gollum overcoming temptation. The story would have been quite different! By temporizing, not fixing the still not wholly corrupt Sméagol-will towards good in the debate in the slag hole, he weakened himself for the final chance when dawning love of Frodo was too easily withered by the jealousy of Sam before Shelob's lair. After that he was lost.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 181: To Michael Straight (Draft). January or February 1956
Tolkien's statements in these letters come close to saying that Gollum is evil, but never quite do so; in fact, they say he was NOT completely corrupted. The one place where he uses the word "evil" in the second quote doesn't describe Gollum himself as evil, it simply says that his "courage and endurance" were "devoted to evil"; later he says that some people, including Gollum "appear to be 'damnable'." Appearing to be damnable is not quite the same thing as being damnable.
The passages I quoted at length also imply two things, both stemming from the claim that Gollum had a chance at redemption:
- Redemption was necessary, so he was evil, or something close to it.
- Redemption was possible, so he may not have been inherently evil.
Did Tolkien say anything else about this issue?