Bilbo, Deagol, Edgar Allen Poe, Frodo, Gandalf, Gollum, Isildur, Lon Chaney Sr., London After Midnight, Peter Jackson, Pity, Smeagol, The Lord of the Rings, The One Ring, The Phantom of the Opera, The Shadow of the Past, Tolkien, twins, William Wilson
Welcome, as always.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “William Wilson”, (1839) the protagonist is haunted by a double—not a genetic twin, but a kind of look-alike opposite—who acts upon the behavior of the debauched original. (He eventually murders the “twin”, only to discover that, in a sense, he’s murdered himself.)
In this posting, we want to think about a relationship which, born in The Hobbit, grows over time until it, too, appears almost to be a pair of mirror opposites—who sometimes exchange their roles…
” ‘Gollum!’ cried Frodo. ‘Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!’ ” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Shadow of the Past”).
This is the moment in which Gandalf is beginning to explain the history of the Ring, first to Frodo, and then, in more detail, in the Council of Elrond.
When Gandalf reveals that a major force in that history has been Gollum, Frodo is both surprised and appalled.
Gandalf is not. In fact, he shows a kind of sympathy for Gollum which flickers throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings and which might be best described as pity. When later in this chapter Frodo exclaims, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab the creature when he had the chance”, Gandalf replies:
” ‘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.’ ” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Shadow of the Past”).
This, of course, is in contrast to what happened when Gollum found the Ring– because, in fact, he didn’t, and he murdered his friend Deagol, who did.
Sauron, we are told, has put much of his power—and himself—into the Ring. That power is often talked about in The Lord of the Rings, but it seems abstract—power to do what? One aspect of Sauron’s personality—a deep greed—is easily seen, however, reflected in how the Ring brings out that same feeling in others, even to the point of violence. Yet, as Gandalf says:
” ‘The murder of Deagol haunted Gollum, and he had made up a defence, repeating it to his “Precious” over and over again, as he gnawed bones in the dark, until he almost believed it.’ ” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Shadow of the Past”).
[Is there a hint of cannibalism here? When we first meet Gollum, the narrator says of him: “He liked meat too. Goblin he thought good, when he could get it…” (The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”) Whose bones might Smeagol have gnawed first?
“No one ever found out what had become of Deagol; he was murdered far from home, and his body was cunningly hidden.” ]
We might wonder, thinking of “William Wilson”, if Smeagol and Deagol were, in a sense, twins?
“He had a friend called Deagol, of similar sort, sharper-eyed but not so quick and strong.” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Shadow of the Past”)
And Smeagol’s torment has as much to do with the symbolic killing of the “good” self as it does the murder of a friend?
There may be a moral element here, as well, and it’s interesting to think that, although infected with Sauron’s greed, this potential for knowing right from wrong remains, at least temporarily, in Gollum, making him lie to himself and to others about how he acquired the ring. Bilbo must have felt this, too, even if he gained the Ring through non-violent means, this need for self-justification. And so he lies, but, to someone with a deeper knowledge, such behavior is all-too-transparent, as Gandalf says:
“Then I heard Bilbo’s strange story of how he had ‘won’ it, and I could not believe it. When I at last got the truth out of him, I saw at once that he had been trying to put his claim to the ring beyond doubt. Much like Gollum with his ‘birthday-present’. The lies were too much alike for my comfort.” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Shadow of the Past”).
Gandalf has seen the lie, but he has also seen something else, a kind of pattern in that lying and a worrying link between the liars, which he expresses in his response to Frodo’s disgust at the thought of Gollum with the Ring:
“ ‘I think that it is a sad story,’ said the wizard, ‘and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.’ “ (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
Gandalf has also seen a deeper similarity between the two. When Frodo says that he can’t believe that Gollum has any connection with hobbits, Gandalf says:
“ ‘It is true all the same…About their origins, at any rate, I know more than hobbits do themselves. And even Bilbo’s story suggests the kinship. There was a great deal in the background of their minds and memories that was very similar. They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an Orc, or even an Elf. Think of the riddles they both knew, for one thing.’ “ (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
This connection is not just with Bilbo—Frodo, too, appears to share it, as we see later in the story:
“For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds.” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 4, The Two Towers, Chapter 1, “The Taming of Smeagol”)
But this is the behavior of a hobbit as the “good” twin, when he has the Ring and believes himself in control. Below it always lurks Sauron’s greed, and it can bring the “bad” twin to the surface very easily, as Frodo imagines when Bilbo says:
“ ‘Have you got it here?’ he asked in a whisper. ‘I can’t help feeling curious, you know, after all I’ve heard. I should very much like just to peep at it again.’
‘Yes, I’ve got it,’ answered Frodo, feeling a strange reluctance. ‘It looks just the same as it ever did.’
‘Well, I should just like to see it for a moment,’ said Bilbo.
When he had dressed, Frodo found that while he slept the Ring had been hung about his neck on a new chain, light but strong. Slowly he drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 2, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)
[Here we have included a second image which is, to our eyes, strikingly like the first. This is a picture of Lon Chaney, Sr., as Inspector Edward C. Burke of Scotland Yard, in the lost 1927 silent film London After Midnight. Chaney was a remarkable frightening presence on-screen, doing his own make-up, as in the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, based upon Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same title—]
Of course, one might ask here, was this really Bilbo Frodo was seeing through that shadow, or was it Sauron’s greed, distorting Frodo’s vision? Certainly, this happens again, when in “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”, Sam offers to carry the Ring and Frodo thought that:
“Sam had changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth.” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, The Return of the King, Chapter One, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)
And then, just at the moment before the Ring’s final destruction, it’s Frodo who changes before Sam’s eyes:
“Then Frodo stirred and spoke in a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ “ (The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, The Return of the King, Chapter Three, “Mount Doom”)
At this moment, it seems horribly appropriate that he put on the Ring and disappear, as the Frodo who has gone through such terrible hardship has disappeared, replaced not by Gollum as twin, but, it seems, by Isildur, who, when urged by Cirdan and Elrond, that the Ring “should have been cast then into Orodruin’s fire nigh at hand where it was made”, refused, saying “This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother…” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 2, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Council of Elrond”)
But Gollum does appear and fulfills Gandalf’s near-prophecy to Frodo of long before:
“…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.” (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter Two, “The Shadow of the Past”)
Removing the Ring by removing the finger, Gollum continues the image of Isildur, who had done the same to Sauron to gain the Ring, and, at the same time, he releases Frodo from its spell, even as he falls to his death in the fires of Mount Doom. At the same time, Gollum also breaks the image of twins—and, unlike William Wilson, with the Ring gone and the bond, Frodo is maimed, but whole—and alone.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.