On leaving Gollum alive

I am not a Tolkien person, whatever that means, but I’ve been reading The Hobbit to my kids out loud (for the second time now). Last night we read the chapter about Bilbo and Gollum’s contest of riddles. They have made a deal: if Bilbo tells a riddle Gollum can’t answer, Gollum will show Bilbo the way out of the cave; if Gollum thinks of a riddle Bilbo can’t answer, Gollum gets to eat Bilbo. Bilbo wins, Gollum decides to renege on his promise, and then Bilbo quite by accident puts on Gollum’s magic ring and becomes invisible. In panic and fury, Gollum runs to the exit, thinking that Bilbo has gone that way. Bilbo follows. Gollum then sits down, blocking the exit. Bilbo, invisible and armed with a small sword, is right behind him.

Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. 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, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.

(Just to be clear, he leaped over Gollum and ran away.)

Tolkien served in World War I, and this passage from The Hobbit reminds me of other things I’ve read from those who went through the Great War — the profound recognition that bloodshed comes at a terrible cost, even when the enemy is evil (as here) or wants you dead (as here) and you have the strategic upper hand, or at least you have what appears to be the perfect opportunity to rid yourself of this threat forever.

Note that the compassion that Bilbo feels and the restraint he shows do not have a transformative effect on Gollum. It’s not like Gollum even realizes that Bilbo has spared him or that Bilbo has had an empathetic insight into Gollum’s suffering and loneliness. Rather, when Gollum realizes that Bilbo has leapt over him he is enraged and screeches: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!” And then Gollum devotes himself to recovering the magic ring, which makes trouble for the hobbits and others down the line.

Yet (spoiler alert!) it is precisely because Gollum survives and makes all this trouble that, eventually, the world is saved. In this fable, “saving the world” equals “destroying the magic ring.” Destroying this ring is pretty challenging, to put it mildly. It takes the combined but not always cooperative efforts of everyone, including bad-intentioned and wicked Gollum, to get it done.

There is something so beautiful and true here about tolerance, about patience, about the need we all have for each other even when our mutual existences are and/or seem threatening somehow. Not paternalism, not “bleeding heart” liberalism, not utopianism, but instead a respect for others and a humility about the limits on our own understanding of what should be and who is capable.

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