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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

And:

[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:

  1. Redemption was necessary, so he was evil, or something close to it.
  2. Redemption was possible, so he may not have been inherently evil.

Did Tolkien say anything else about this issue?

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    This has nothing to do with Tolkien specifically but you concluded: Redemption was possible, so he may not have been inherently evil. I thinks this leads us to the philosophical question if there even is such as thing a inherently evil. I think this might have been the question that moved Tolkien when he thought about Gollum. Also, drawing form your quotation Tolkien said: he would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean son of a thief before it crossed his path. Which I think means he wasn't always evil and the chain of events could have been different. – Sebastian_H May 22 '15 at 23:53
  • @Sebastian_H - in the real world, inherent evil does not exist. Even Hitler wasn't evil from birth. In Tolkien's universe, it absolutely does - there are not only inherently evil individuals, but even inherently evil races and species - Orcs, trolls, and whatever Shelob and Ungoliant are, for example. In his later years, Tolkien struggled with, perhaps even regretted, his earlier decision to create inherently, irredeemably evil races/species, especially the Orcs, who were relatively intelligent, self aware, and humanoid. – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 0:22
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    True, Tolkien himself describes inherently evil beings. That doesn't necessarily include Gollum however. And like you said, he might have struggled with it later on. I personally think that Gollum is actually the great divider. The one who in theory is redeemable but eventually still fails. Personally I think he's the embodiment of human struggle. There is just the hint of nobility to him but eventually he fails and succumbs to the allure of evil. But maybe this is just the lesson I learned from Lord of the Rings. – Sebastian_H May 23 '15 at 0:49
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    Exactly my point. Gollum's easy to dislike but Gandalf (who's a Maiar and thus more than a mortal and as such is to be considered a higher authority) reminds us not to judge him easily. To me this speaks of a humans ability to see evil but also to see beyond it. Nothing is truly inherently evil and many things can be redeemed. Personally, I choose to believe that this is what Tolkien meant when he described things that we would consider evil but that can at the same time be redeemed by their actions. To me Gollum is mankind's potentials to overcome their weakness only to eventually fail. – Sebastian_H May 23 '15 at 1:35
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    The difference between Gollum (and Orcs for that matter) and Shelob is that one was always dark and the other was not. Shelob and Melkor are beings of a totally different kind. Gollum is described as being one of the river-folk not unlike the half-lings before he became Gollum. He is one turned to something different. Not one created by evil. Just one who has become evil. That is what truly makes him different, I think. Both Orcs and Shelob had not much choice I think. They were both born to be evil. – Sebastian_H May 23 '15 at 1:59
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Tolkien never outright calls Gollum "evil"; he was a little cagey on the point, as you might expect from a God-fearing man. As far as Tolkien is concerned, the ultimate judgement of "good" or "evil" belongs not with him but with God. However, reading his writings on the subject, it's hard to defend the position that Tolkien thought Gollum was, in any real sense, "good"; from Letter 181, for instance:

Into the ultimate judgement upon Gollum I would not care to enquire. This would be to investigate 'Goddes privitee'1, as the Medievals said. Gollum was pitiable, but he ended in persistent wickedness, and the fact that this worked good was no credit to him. His marvellous 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'. Their 'damnability' is not measurable in the terms of the macrocosm (where it may work good). But we who are all 'in the same boat' must not usurp the Judge. 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 thief before it crossed his path.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 181: To Michael Straight (Draft). January or February 1956

The context for saying that Gollum was a "mean son of thief" is expanded in Letter 214:

[Earlier sections of the letter are required for context, but are too long to quote in a concise answer; suffice to say that Hobbit birthdays involve giving gifts as well as receiving them]

A trace of this can be seen in the account of Sméagol and Déagol – modified by the individual characters of these rather miserable specimens. Déagol, evidently a relative (as no doubt all the members of the small community were), had already given his customary present to Sméagol, although they probably set out on their expedition v. early in the morning. Being a mean little soul he grudged it. Sméagol, being meaner and greedier, tried to use the 'birthday' as an excuse for an act of tyranny. 'Because I wants it' was his frank statement of his chief claim. But he also implied that D's gift was a poor and insufficient token: hence D's retort that on the contrary it was more than he could afford.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 214: To A. C. Nunn (Draft). 1958/1959

And in a footnote on the letter:

There is no mention of Sméagol's presents. I imagine that he was an orphan; and do not suppose that he gave any present on his birthday, save (grudgingly) the tribute to his 'grandmother'. Fish probably. One of the reasons, maybe, for the expedition. It would have been just like Sméagol to give fish, actually caught by Déagol!

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 214: To A. C. Nunn (Draft). 1958/1959

While Gollum was unquestionably unpleasant, I hesitate to call him evil; I'd rather say that he was ultimately self-interested, and his self-interest drove him to do evil things.


1 This phrase means something along the lines of "the mind of God". The meaning of the entire sentence should be obvious

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    I'll confess to being unsatisfied with this answer; it's a lot of words that come down to "shrug". Unfortunately, it's about the best I can do – Jason Baker May 22 '15 at 23:57
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    You're much too hard on yourself. Like all your others, this answer is fantastic. A lack of definitive evidence from the only guy capable of giving us a clear answer is not your fault. +1. I'll wait a little while before I accept it, but I doubt anyone can improve upon what you've written. You never disappoint. – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 0:28
  • Would you agree with my comment to Sebastian (below my question), that inherently evil characters - and even inherently evil races/species (orcs, trolls, giant spider monsters) - exist in Tolkien's world, but he came to question his earlier decision to create inherently evil races/species towards the end of his life - perhaps even to regret having created them? (irredeemably, inherently evil people is a pretty un-Christian idea) – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 0:31
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    @WadCheber That's a long discussion probably worthy of its own question, and I've not researched this at all, but off-hand I'd say you've got the idea right but the specifics wrong. Tolkien didn't believe rational creatures could be inherently evil, and in the end I would argue that none of them (even the ones you pointed out) are. What I think he regretted more was the lack of sufficient detail to make it clear that they weren't inherently evil – Jason Baker May 25 '15 at 12:01
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    It is hard to believe that Shelob wasn't inherently evil. – Wad Cheber May 25 '15 at 18:17

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