The Ciftci Case: Is Gollum Good or Evil?
Almost 80 years after Gollum appeared in The Hobbit, and 60 years after Frodo first suggests that it may have been better if Bilbo had killed Gollum when he first had the chance, the question is once again rising in a Turkish court – is Gollum good or evil?
If you aren’t familiar with the case, this certainly deserves some explanation.
In October, Dr. Bilgin Ciftci was expelled from the Public Health Institution of Turkey after sharing a Facebook meme that compared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his facial expressions to Gollum.
Unfortunately for Dr. Ciftci, Turkey doesn’t treat insults to the head of state with a sense of humor, and after he was reported to authorities by one of his Facebook “friends,” Ciftci lost his job and could reportedly face up to two years in prison if convicted. But Ciftci’s lawyer has argued that the comparison is not insulting because Smeagol, who extends his life but also sees his soul corrupted by the One Ring of Power, is ultimately a good character.
As those familiar with the books know, Gollum was once a good hobbit named Smeagol, but when he and a friend were fishing and his friend discovered the One Ring, Smeagol killed him to acquire the new discovery. Over many, many years, Smeagol is transformed into Gollum, who calls the ring his “precious,” and is willing to kill to retrieve it after it slips from his finger and is recovered by Bilbo.
Throughout the books, Gollum serves as a foil to Frodo. Twisted by the One Ring, he serves as a reminder of what can happen should Frodo use the ring too often. While he isn’t purely evil, he serves as an example of what the forces of evil can do to those who lack the strength of character and the will necessary to combat them. By the time Bilbo runs into Gollum beneath the Misty Mountains, Smeagol has already been consumed by the ring:
“What has it got in its pocketses?” The sound came hissing louder and sharper, and as he looked towards it, to his alarm Bilbo now saw two small points of light peering at him. As suspicion grew in Gollum’s mind, the light of his eyes burned with a pale flame.
“What have you lost?” Bilbo persisted.
But now the light in Gollum’s eyes had become a green fire, and it was coming swiftly nearer. Gollum was in his boat again, paddling wildly back to the dark shore; and such a rage of loss and suspicion was in his heart that no sword had any more terror for him.
Nonetheless, Tolkien offers hints throughout The Lord of the Rings that Gollum is not totally without hope. At one point, Gollum seems as though he’s about to repent and offer himself fully to Frodo’s service when Sam intervenes and insults Gollum yet again. Later, as Frodo and Sam sleep, Gollum becomes Smeagol again and feels the weariness of his old age and the burden of being the Ring’s slave.
Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings movies, was joined by fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phiilippa Boyens in providing Ciftci their support, noting that Smeagol and Gollum are actually distinct characters – Smeagol the innocent, friendly character, while Gollum is the dastardly alter ego.
“If the images below are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: None of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Smeagol,” they said in their statement.
“Smeagol is a joyful, sweet character. Smeagol does not lie, deceive, or attempt to manipulate others. He is not evil, conniving, or malicious – these personality traits belong to Gollum, who should never be confused with Smeagol.
“Smeagol would never dream of wielding power over those weaker than himself. He is not a bully. In fact he’s very loveable. This is why audiences all over the world have warmed to his character.”
Ciftci’s lawyer says she will include this statement in the case file.
Meanwhile, the judge in the case says he has not watched the entire film series (or presumably read the books) himself, and has called in a group of experts consisting of two academics, two behavioral scientists or psychologists and an expert on cinema and television to provide a character analysis of Gollum.
Gollum’s nature is touched upon at several points in the books. In describing Bilbo’s first encounter with Gollum, Gandalf says, “Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. … There was a little corner of him mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark. … It was actually pleasant, I think, to hear a kindly voice again bringing up memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things. But that, of course, would only make the evil part of him angrier in the end – unless it could be conquered. Unless it could be cured.”
Frodo wonders aloud to Gandalf why Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance, as surely the creature deserves death. Gandalf replies, “Deserves death? Many that live deserve death, and many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too quick to deal out death in punishment, for even the wise cannot see all ends.”
Tolkien seems to be making a statement regarding capital punishment, but as a Roman Catholic, Tolkien also believed that God plays a role in each human life. To Tolkien’s perspective, Bilbo’s mercy in not killing Gollum demonstrates God’s grace, and allows Gollum to play a key role in the series’ conclusion, ultimately – though inadvertently – helping Frodo destroy the One Ring. Frodo is obviously the hero of the story, overcoming trials and tribulations to reach Mount Doom, but it requires God’s grace, or fate, for Frodo to destroy the Ring and avoid the creation of a new Dark Lord. If Gollum had not fought Frodo for the ring at the top of Mount Doom, the Ring would never have been destroyed and either Frodo would have become the new Dark Lord or Sauron would have captured Frodo and consumed the world in darkness.
Despite this, I think it’s hard to describe Gollum as a “good” character. He may be a sympathetic character at times, and he may ultimately have played a key role in the series’ happy conclusion, but Gollum certainly never intended to fall into the flames of Mount Doom. Given the opportunity, he would have stolen the ring and eventually been captured by Sauron. The Ring’s control over him means Gollum is doomed to perpetual wickedness. His desire to be good at times makes him a complex character, but ultimately, he proves time and time again that he is ruled by the ring in a way that Frodo overcomes until he reaches Mount Doom.
The next hearing in Ciftci’s case is scheduled to take place in February, and how helpful the experts’ analysis of Gollum will be has yet to be seen. It’s a bizarre case, and has me wondering what will happen to the Turkish courts if these sort of memes become popular. What if you compare Edrogan to Boromir? Or Jorg of Ancrath? Elric of Melnibone? What about Tyrion Lannister?
Seems like an opportunity for fantasy readers to make some extra cash as expert witnesses, waxing poetic about the complexities of their favorite antiheroes…