A guest blog by David Heyman.
When I learned that this month’s theme was memorable characters, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings grabbed my imagination just as surely as if it was the One Ring itself. His was the first name in my head, arriving independent of any thought process or reasoning.
But why Gollum? Initially, even I wasn’t sure.
Sure – he’s a great character, as I’ll discuss below. He’s hardly my Favorite Character from Literature of All Time though. Heck, he’s not even my favorite character from The Lord of the Rings! (That would be Sam, and I have a soft spot for Gimli as well.) To discover why Gollum was my first choice, I ended up on a journey of my own- -and I learned quite a bit.
At the age of 8 or so I was first handed a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring by my grandfather. I was probably too young for the story at that point, but I dove in anyway. I’m pretty confidant I glossed over a lot of the songs and longer meetings, but I was still sufficiently enthralled to check out The Two Towers from the library and continue the story. Along the way, I had been assigning ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ tags to the various characters, taking a particularly strong liking to Frodo, Sam and Strider. There were hints of Gollum in that first book- -whispered mentions of a threat, enough so that I knew he would be a problem for our heroes when he arrived. I was prepared to hate him, the way I hated Sauron and Saruman and all the bad guys.
By the end of The Two Towers though, I found that not only did not hate Gollum, I kind of liked him. I felt sorry for him, I found myself hoping Frodo would find a solution to his problem that didn’t force Gollum (and Smeagol) to lose. This gave me my first real clue as to why Gollum was my go-to character choice. He was my first complex character as well as my first likable villain.
For my pre-adolescent brain, this was a game changer. Gollum was a bridge to more adult stories and motivations. He was the first step on a path that led me out of children’s books and into increasingly complex fantasy stories.
(As an aside, the timing for this could not have been better. I first read Lord of the Rings after I had seen Star Wars, but before Empire Strikes Back came out in theatres. Gollum sufficiently prepared me to accept and relish the more complex character Darth Vader becomes in the second movie.)
Gollum is an antagonist for Frodo, but he cares not a whit for the machinations of the main villains like Sauron and Saruman. In one sense, his motivation is much simpler and easier to understand: he simply wants has precious. Gollum’s love of the Ring to me is heartbreakingly pure: even as it destroys and corrupts him, he wants nothing from life other than to possess it, to look at it and appreciate it. To everyone else in the story the Ring is either a burden or a Tool. It may be part of his essence, but even Saruon needs the Ring in order to accomplish larger goals. Gollum alone seems to value to Ring for itself.
This made him fascinating to me as a new reader encountering this type of character for the first time. Because his motivation was both simple but also independent from the main story, he felt like a much more direct threat to Frodo and Sam. He was unpredictable, murderous and chaotic, not to mention clearly quite mad. Yet he was also sad, pathetic and at times even capable of kindness. Was it all a ruse? Was he really just a slave to the Ring, or was Gollum truly capable of redemption, of becoming Smeagol again? As a reader, Gollum kept me on edge because he was impossible to predict. He served his own agenda, his own master and whenever he was on the page, anything might happen.
In preparing for this blog post, I realized that Gollum has greatly influenced me as both a reader and a writer. I have a strong preference for ‘grey’ characters with complex motivations. I like my villains to be a bit tragic, to have some kernel of good inside them as well as having their actions come from a place of pain rather than greed or lust for power. I adore antagonists who operate outside the main plot, who serve no master other than their own needs. Even on the hero side I like a little dark edge there, some place deep inside where they resemble the villain more than they care to admit.
All of this creates more tension through unpredictability, which leads to experiences I like to read about as well as write.
I realize now all of that started for me with Gollum, once a simpler creature who found a most extraordinary present on his birthday- -a present that would transform him into a character for the ages, and my personal guide into more complex characters.