“It Was Pity That Stayed His Hand” (Guest Post by Anne Marie Gazzolo)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!


As Bilbo Baggins crawls along the goblin tunnels in total darkness, he happens upon a small ring. He puts it in his pocket without much thought and continues on until he hits water. With no way to tell how deep or far across it is, he stops. He does not know he is under surveillance by an unsavory creature. That is, not until he hears it speak of how delicious he would be to eat. So meet two small beings who play such crucial roles in the fate of the Ring. Bonniejean Christensen observes:

J. R. R. Tolkien’s fallen hobbit, Gollum, is an interesting character in his own right, but the changes in his character that Tolkien made between the first edition of The Hobbit in the 1930s and second edition in the 1950s make him one of his most fascinating creations.

. . .

In The Hobbit he is one of a series of fallen creatures on a rising scale of terror. In The Lord of the Rings he is an example of the damned individual who loses his own soul because of devotion to evil (symbolized by the ring) but who, through grace, saves others. (9, 10)

In an earlier draft of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo of Gollum’s pitiable state before he met Bilbo:

“Don’t you realize that he had possessed the Ring for ages, and the torment was becoming unendurable? He was so wretched that he knew he was wretched, and had at last understood what caused it. . . . Half his mind wanted above all to be rid of the Ring, even if the loss killed him. But he hated parting with it as much as keeping it. He wanted to hand it on to someone else, and to make him wretched too.” (Treason 24-25)

The wizard goes on to say Gollum would not give the Ring to the goblins. After Bilbo comes, the creature sees his chance. Gandalf hints at the other Power at work in his mention both Bilbo and Frodo were singled out as the Ring’s guardians. Through this, Gollum’s life remains safe. If anyone other than Bilbo found the fell object, it would have likely meant the wretched being’s death (Treason 25).

Gollum challenges Bilbo to a high-stakes riddle-game which reveals their respective worldviews. The hobbit speaks of life, light, and beautiful things. In retaliation, Gollum focuses for the most part on death, darkness, and decay. Bilbo likewise counters the wretched creature’s despair with hope. With the hobbit’s life in immediate peril, he cannot think as clearly as he would otherwise. But he need not, as grace provides some of the answers without his conscious thought.

Well into the game, Gollum says his visitor must ask him a question. Bilbo cannot think of anything until he feels the ring. He wonders out loud, “What have I got in my pocket?” (Hobbit 97). Gollum thinks the hobbit addresses him and protests about a breach in the rules. But he opened the door himself in his request for a question. Bilbo sticks to his inadvertent
obedience and accepts the creature’s demand for three attempts to answer. After four incorrect guesses, Gollum finally cedes victory to his opponent.

The first edition of The Hobbit tells a different version of the well-known aftermath of the game. Originally, Gollum promises Bilbo an unspecified gift if the hobbit wins. After Bilbo does, he asks Gollum to hold up his end of the bargain. The wretched creature searches hard for the ring he means to give. He finally comes back empty-handed. Bilbo states he will let Gollum out of his promise on the condition the creature guides him out of the tunnels. Gollum does so until he is too afraid to go any further. The hobbit then continues on his own. John Rateliff notes:

. . . we should . . . give [Gollum] his due: having lost the contest, he is pathetically eager to make good on his debt of honour (‘I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s pardon’), offering a substitute reward (‘fish caught fresh to eat’) in place of the missing ring. Remember too that Gollum had not yet specified what the ‘present’ was; a less scrupulous monster might have been tempted, upon discovering the ring’s absence, to substitute some other prize, such as the fish, for the unnamed prize – but not Gollum. We are thus faced with the amusing depiction of a monster who is considerably more honourable than our hero. For Bilbo soon realizes that he already has Gollum’s treasure but goes ahead and demands a second prize (being shown the way out) in addition to the one he has quietly pocketed – a neat parallel to Gollum’s earlier trick of ‘working in two answers at once’ on that final attempt to answer the last question. The narrator, moreover, applauds his duplicity . . . with spurious logic that sounds so much like special pleading that Tolkien eventually decided it was just that: Bilbo’s own attempt, in writing this scene for his memoirs, to justify his claim to the ring. . . . (167)

After Tolkien discovered the ring Bilbo found was the Ring and learned of its terrible hold on its bearers, he knew Gollum would not willingly part with it. To correct what the hobbit transcribed in his diary, Tolkien published a second edition.

In this new and improved version, despite the fact “the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat,” Bilbo considers it likely Gollum will (Hobbit 98). After the creatures loses, the hobbit demands Gollum adhere to the agreed upon terms and show him the exit. He is quite right to think the creature’s insistence he must retrieve some gear is an excuse to disappear. The wicked being has every intention to do this and then attack the hobbit while invisible.

After Gollum slips off to his secret island, Bilbo hears him raise a great lament. “Utterly miserable as Gollum sounded, Bilbo could not find much pity in his heart . . .” (Hobbit 101). The creature asks again what the hobbit’s pocket contains. Even though Bilbo sees no reason not to answer at this point, he refuses out of irritation with Gollum’s dilly-dallying. The creature belatedly divines the answer is in fact the object “in whose shining symmetry is encased Gollum’s dark soul” (O’Neill 61). He rushes back, now completely intent upon his meal.

Bilbo flees. Gollum chases him and comes as close as he dares to the goblin’s back door and fulfills Bilbo’s hope his would-be murderer will show him the way out. But then the creature stays the hobbit’s victory even as Bilbo reaches out to grasp it. Gollum stops and block his prey
from moving further. Gollum detects Bilbo is near, even though still invisible. A terrible desire to kill his adversary surges through the hobbit.. Susan Ang notes:

The prose of the first few sentences, with its jerky ragged rhythms, manages to suggest the panicked workings of animal instinct. This is not the mind in control, but the conscience-free surgings of adrenaline urging survival at any price. While the survival instinct is dominant, Gollum is an ‘it’, a ‘thing’. However, the rhythm then eases into reflectiveness. Gollum is given a name in Bilbo’s thoughts and becomes ‘he’, a person, whose ‘otherness’ and difference, even strangeness, are suddenly comprehended, the gulf between the two is momentarily erased as Bilbo knows what it is to be Gollum. There is no need to put out his eyes; Gollum’s days are already lightless. And so Bilbo refrains from killing him. This is a moment of immense compassion, both in the modern meaning of this word and in its original (Latin) sense: compassio, ‘I suffer with.’ (55)

The Ring provides unwitting aid here. Joe Kraus notes Bilbo’s “invisibility gives him a glimpse into another’s humanity. The power to see and not be seen . . . liberates him and allows him to show mercy in a way that . . . proves essential to Sauron’s downfall” (246). Of course, Bilbo has no foreknowledge of the profound effects his mercy will have. His conscious mind is unaware Ilúvatar guides and guards him. Such permeates his soul, though, and inspires his will to freely choose to act in concert with his Creator’s plans. He knows Gollum intends to murder him and even enables this possibility by his mercy. But rather than give into fear of what might happen or even is likely to happen, the hobbit knows he cannot, must not strike. Upon this knife edge a most critical point in the history of the Ring and of all Middle-earth pivots. Louis Markos notes:

The pity that stays Bilbo’s hand is a pure expression of caritas that is born out of Bilbo’s ability to move out of himself (out of his fear, hatred, and disgust) and feel a sympathetic (even empathetic) connection with the loathsome and deceptive Gollum. . . . Gollum . . . does not, in any human sense, deserve pity, love, or mercy. But then the pity that wells up within Bilbo at this decisive moment is not human but divine. In a flash of what can only be described as divine insight, Bilbo is enabled to see Gollum’s misery though Gollum’s eyes, to experience vicariously, and therefore understand, the horror of his dark, hopeless condition. It is that insight that allows him to love Gollum as a suffering thing in need of grace. . . . Bilbo takes pity on Gollum, not because he deserves pity but because Bilbo allows himself to be a conduit of a higher pity. (136-137)

Shortly before there was little pity in Bilbo’s heart for Gollum’s misery. The empathy that blossoms now is a moment of grace that blesses not only Gollum but in the end the whole world.

Decades later, to Frodo’s great alarm, he learns Gollum is responsible for Sauron’s knowledge of who has the Ring and where this person lives. The hobbit wishes his uncle took advantage of his opportunity to kill the loathsome creature. Gandalf places a different emphasis on pity than the younger Baggins does. It saved Bilbo and Gollum. The wizard admonishes Frodo for his desire for the wretched being’s death. No one sees all the possibilities the future
may hold. Faint though the hope may be for Gollum’s rehabilitation, it remains one of the possibilities death would cut off. The wizard says there is something the creature is yet to do because Bilbo showed pity. This is likely to have a great impact on Frodo and many others. These words the hobbit does not forget, even though he cannot understand yet why Gandalf advocates for Gollum.

After Frodo encounters Gollum himself, he speaks aloud to the absent and, as far as the hobbit knows, deceased, Gandalf to assure him pity has entered his heart, and Gollum is safe with him. Tolkien noted, “To ‘pity’ [Gollum], to forbear to kill him, was piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time” (Letters 234).

Frodo is quite aware of Gollum is up to no good. He has far greater knowledge of the creature’s villainy than Bilbo did, but just as Bilbo did, he judges his potential adversary on the basis of concrete, present reality rather than nebulous, future possibility. Just because Gollum might harm them is not enough for the Ring-bearer to condemn him. He refuses to give into his fear and makes the same conscious decision to withdraw his hand from striking the creature down, as Bilbo did. Ilúvatar allows Gollum’s path to cross with Frodo’s, so they both learn the wretched creature is not past redemption. Frodo earnestly works to reach the suffering hobbit trapped within the horrid being and to desire Sméagol’s cure. He starts by calling him by his given name. So begins his “gradual education to the nobility of service to the unlovable and of perception of damaged good in the corrupt” (Tolkien, Letters 329).

This perception extends later to Saruman, who receives Frodo’s pity as well. After the defeat of the ruffians who invaded the Shire, the Ring-bearer and his companions go up to Bag End to settle matters with the Chief. In Frodo’s choice not to take Merry’s advice to be harsh with Sharkey, he teaches another powerful lesson on compassion and mercy. Saruman appears at the entrance of Bag End and gloats about the destruction he brought to the hobbits in payment for his loss of Isengard. Frodo sorrows for the ruined wizard.

The Ring-bearer commands the fallen Maia to leave. Some of the other hobbits cry for his death instead. Saruman counters their wrath with a threat the Shire and any hobbit who dares assault him will be forever ruined. Frodo calls the corrupt wizard’s bluff and forbids any retribution against the fallen Maia. He knows the folly of vengeance will not solve anything. He again commands Saruman to leave. As the wizard begins to obey, he attempts to murder the hobbit, but the mithril coat foils the effort. It almost costs Saruman his own life, as other hobbits push him down, and Sam readies to slay him.

Rather than react with like violence, Frodo orders his enraged gardener not to avenge the attack. The Ring-bearer exhibits once more the spiritual discernment of souls he showed with Strider and Sméagol. He sees the grace and light Saruman once possessed and responds with honor and respect for the Maia’s lost greatness. He knows he cannot help him regain it, but he wants him to have the opportunity to seek it elsewhere. “[Frodo] will not deal out judgement in death, knowing that if Saruman dies in such rage his life as a wizard will have indeed come to nothing—and perhaps worse than nothing . . .” (Wood, “Frodo’s Faith”). One knows even if the corrupt Maia succeeded in his assault and Frodo’s lifeblood poured out, the hobbit’s last words would still forbid retribution. Stephen C. Winter adds:

Frodo’s own story has been one of profound self discovery and he has learned the pity of which the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich speaks when she tells us of the God who “looks upon us with pity, not with blame”. He remembers the horror of Boromir’s transformation through his lust for the Ring, of the first encounter with Gollum when he realises what he would become if he gave into it and the journey through Mordor in which he tastes the endless living death that is the hopeless end of all its slaves. (“Saruman”)

Rather than accept Frodo’s grace and mercy as intended, it enrages Saruman. The wicked wizard understands the terrible wounds evil inflicted on the hobbit did not embitter him or turn him to darkness. His endurance of them filled him rather with the grace and light the fallen Maia himself already abandoned. As he before rejected the antidote to evil Gandalf and Galadriel offered, Saruman refuses Frodo’s and responds with his bitterest hatred yet. He detests the hobbit for taking away the pleasure of harming the Shire. As one who once held great power, who is an incarnate angel, Saruman cannot abide he lives because a mortal stays the hands of those who would harm him. Jigyasa Mishra observes, “. . . Frodo defeats him, not by any weapon, . . . but by his kindness and courage. . . . We cannot expect Saruman to heed any other’s hobbits words” (“Hero”).


Works Cited

  • Ang, Susan. Master of the Rings: Inside the World of J. R. R. Tolkien. Totem Books, 2002. Christensen, Bonniejean. “Gollum’s Character Transformation in The Hobbit.” A Tolkien Compass. Edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, 9-28.
  • Kraus, Joe. “There and Back Again: A Song of Innocence and Experience.” The Hobbit and Philosophy. Edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, John Wiley and Sons, 234-249.
  • Markos, Louis. On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. Moody Publishers, 2012.
  • Mishra, Jigyasa. “Who do you think is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. How is your choice different for the movies (if at all).” Quora, 15 Apr. 2018. http://www.quora.com/Whodo-you-think-is-the-true-hero-of-The-Lord-of-the-Rings-How-is-your-choice-differentfor-the-movies-if-at-all. Accessed 14 Jun 2018.
  • O’Neill, Timothy R. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the Archetypes of Middle-earth. Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
  • Rateliff, John D. The History of The Hobbit Part One: Mr. Baggins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Illustrated by Jemima Caitlin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
  • —. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
  • —. The Treason of Isengard: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part 2. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
  • Winter, Stephen C. “Saruman’s Long Years of Death are Finally Revealed in His Corpse.” Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings, 16 Jul 2018, stephencwinter.com/2018/07/16/
    sarumans-long-years-of-death-are-finally-revealed-in-his-corpse/. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.
  • Wood, Ralph C. “Frodo’s Faith.” Religion Online, http://www.religion-online.org/article/frodos-faith/. Accessed 14 Jun 2018.

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About the Author

Anne Marie Gazzolo is the author of Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Rings, Chosen: The Journeys of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, and The Long Way Home, a collection of poems centered about a heroic quest and its aftermath. This is excerpted from Chosen. Visit her at ofagespast.com.

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