The Wisdom of the Shire

Neatorama is pleased to present an excerpt from the book The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life by Noble Smith. The Wisdom of the Shire is a guide to life based on the lessons contained in JRR Tolkien's tales of Hobbits and their adventures.

We all have someone in our lives we can’t stand. Maybe it’s a relative who drives us crazy, or a boss or teacher who seems to want to suck the souls right out of our bodies. It might even be a spouse or child or a pet that sends us to the edge of despair. They are masters of exasperation.  

That’s your own personal Gollum.*

Gollum  wasn’t always called by that nasty name. At one time he was a decent sort of creature— a kind of ancestor of the Hobbits. And his name was Sméagol. He had friends, and liked to fish and tell riddles. But the power of the ring destroyed his soul, turning him into a wicked and odious wretch.

When Gandalf first tells Frodo the account of Gollum’s story—several years after Bilbo has left the Shire— the Hobbit’s initial reaction is disgust. He wishes his uncle Bilbo had killed Gollum in the creature’s cave in the Misty Mountains all those years ago. The wizard, however, admonishes Frodo for being so quick to pass a judgment of life or death. Gandalf thinks Gollum still has a part to play in the story. And he pities the pathetic creature and how he’s been corrupted and tormented by the Ring.*

Sam and Frodo have very different reactions to meeting Gollum for the first time. Sam thinks Gollum is unredeemable and nearly everything the creature does sets his teeth on edge. As a defense mechanism he calls Gollum names like “stinker” and “sneaker.” But Frodo, like Gandalf, takes pity on Gollum, recognizing how the power of the One Ring has infected Gollum’s mind. He orders Sam to treat Gollum with kindness. This odd trio is forced to survive together on the long march to Mount Doom where, ultimately, Gollum betrays the Hobbits.

One of my own personal Gollums was a dog. His name was Zonker, a canine Sméagol if ever there was one. I was twenty-six years old when I rescued him from an abusive owner. Zonker was a dog who came with a lot of baggage. He snapped and snarled at children and attacked the neighbors’ cats (whose poop I would catch him gnashing on like it was chewing gum). He tore apart my favorite books and barked insanely at the slightest outside noise at night, waking us from a dead sleep with the power of an electric shock. Like Gollum he skulked and cringed when he was reprimanded, and made you feel instantly guilty for your wicked cruel words. When you put a leash and collar on him he choked and gagged ( just like Sméagol with Sam’s Elven rope wrapped round his neck), and I could almost hear my own poor Zonker saying, “It bites us the precioussss!”

Zonker could also be incredibly affectionate and so strangely human with his big brown eyes, and his uncanny skill at performing endearing tricks. And like Gollum he was unintentionally funny sometimes— adorably brain-dead. And so my wife and I kept him and cared for him and let him drive us crazy and rule our lives for ten long years. But we loved him and treated him like our child.

Gollum acts a lot like a dog. He runs on all fours and bites when he’s angry and gobbles his meat raw. Tolkien describes Gollum as looking like a dog when he whines and snuffles at Frodo’s feet. Frodo’s relationship with Gollum starts out with mercy, and the kindly Hobbit cares for Gollum like a benevolent dog-owner taking custody of a savage (but hopefully redeemable) pet that’s been treated cruelly. But then their relationship becomes a twisted codependency based on their mutual love/hate relationship for the Ring. Gollum has a big hole of want that can only be filled by one thing. And when he can’t get his “precious”, the longing for it drives him mad.

Sam hates Gollum because he knows the creature is treacherous. Besides that Gollum is spiteful, crass and terribly needy. He’s always there, like one of those annoying people who’s constantly popping up unwanted. And he drives a wedge between Sam and Frodo’s friendship. Nothing will ever be good, says Sam, where “this piece of misery” is around. Gollum is the antithesis of someone from the Shire. He has no manners, or sense of humor or kindness; he is completely disconnected from the world of nature, disgusted by vegetables and growing things, cursing the very sun for its light.*

When Faramir, the heroic brother of Boromir, meets Gollum, he sees right through to the withered heart of him. He tells Frodo to part ways with Gollum because the creature is wicked and cannot be trusted and begs the Hobbit to leave Gollum behind on their journey. The courageous Faramir would rather brave any danger alone than with such a “wretched gangrel” thing alongside. Trusting him is unwise and he warns against it. Frodo  doesn’t listen, of course. His fear of the unknown makes the fear of Gollum less potent. And he keeps thinking that he might be the one to change Gollum and bring him back to the light. Gandalf had said there was a spark of goodness left in Gollum, but that makes the evil Ring-controlled side of Gollum’s personality more determined to snuff it out.

Tolkien knew Hebrew and was most likely familiar with the Jewish version of the zombie myth and the creature called a “golem.”* Tolkien’s Gollum was like a zombie— one of the undead. He has not yet “paled” like a Ringwraith, but like them he is under the control of the menacing might of Sauron. The origin of the name Sméagol also tells us something about his character. It comes from the Old English for something that “creeps.” And that’s Gollum, a creeping, skulking, sneaking lump of misery. Gollum is an example of the Jungian “shadow self,” a character trait the famous psychoanalyst believed was present in everyone’s personality: our repressed weaknesses, instincts and the cravings of the subconscious mind. Oftentimes the flaws we hate the most in others are the ones we know are lurk ing in ourselves.*

* The “golem” of Jewish lore was created from dust or mud and animated by inscribing a special word in Hebrew on its forehead, or by writing the word on a piece of paper and putting it in its mouth.

* The Ringwraiths (or Nazgûl) were ancient kings who had been tempted by Sauron with the gift of magical rings, binding their spirits to him even after they died. They had to do what ever the Dark Lord commanded; and he in turn was helpless without them. They  were Middle- earth’s ultimate codependents.

Of all the bad traits Gollum possesses, the worst of them are jealousy, lack of empathy and self- obsession. These are the hallmarks of a narcissistic personality disorder. The narcissist feels threatened and rejected all the time, and retreats inside a shell of false humility (think of Gollum groveling and submissive), while in their own mind they feel a warped sense of entitlement (“Nasty tricksy Hobbitsses!”). This particular disorder is also characterized by the psychological concept of narcissistic rage: a constant anger directed at someone  else, and another layer of hatred directed at oneself. Andy Serkis, the actor playing Gollum in Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings, captured this split anger perfectly in the famous Gollum/Sméagol monologues.*

So what do we do when we have to deal with someone like this in our own lives— these psychic vampires who suck the life and air out of every room they enter? Do we treat them with forbearance and mercy like Frodo does with Gollum? Do we keep giving them chances until they finally— and hopefully only metaphorically— bite off our ring finger? Or do we regard them with Faramir’s distrust and avoidance? Or Sam’s ridicule and severity? How do we function with another person who has a great big hole of want and is demanding we help fill it, making our lives miserable?

The tale of my crazy dog Zonker was a humorous example of my own experience with a personal Gollum. But I’ve had many others— the human kind— in my life. And those relationships  were of a far more serious nature. Stories of relationships fraught with peril are familiar and archetypal: the teacher who seems to be out to get you; the unsympathetic boss who apparently takes delight in overlooking your fundamental needs; the family member who evidently wants to hurt your feelings time and time again.

Gollums are addicted to your negative attention. They want you to lash out at them and become angry. They’re looking for a reaction, and so one must think of a positive action to counteract their intent. Create a red herring for your personal Gollum— throw them a stinky fish. Go on the offensive with a barrage of positive distractions. Try to get inside their head and know what they’re thinking before they do. Just remember, you’ll need an entire bag of stinky fish with a personal Gollum because they’re ravenous.*

* The blind fish living in Gollum’s subterranean pond were his favorite food. But he also ate young goblins he caught and strangled, calling them “squeakers.”

Frodo is good at this technique. He praises Gollum constantly by calling him “clever Sméagol” and this mollifies the creature’s bloated ego and humanizes him by giving him a proper Hobbitish sort of name. Sam’s method of insulting and threatening him just adds fuel to the fire of Gollum’s rage.

In the end Gollum cannot be changed. Even Gandalf, the stoical and thoughtful wizard, couldn’t stand to be around the tiresome creature for very long (having captured and interrogated him at one point). Gollum ultimately betrays Frodo, but it’s the Hobbit’s compassionate and patient treatment of Sméagol that brings about the provident and happy ending of the story, and the unintentional destruction of the One Ring. Frodo fails in the quest, but does not lose his humanity by slaying Gollum. The Hobbits learn the meaning of compassion the hard way.

If we  can’t change our own feelings about our relationship with our own personal Gollums, perhaps we need to allow ourselves the luxury of parting ways with them. In his book Unfinished Tales, Tolkien wrote that the Dark Lord Sauron, having captured Gollum, detected a profound and indomitable will in the skulking and crazed little creature. A will that even Sauron could not fully comprehend, even though the Dark Lord knew what was driving  Gollum’s single-mindedness was his obsession with the Ring— that great hole of want that nobody could ever fill.*

So in the end we might not have any way of controlling or altering these relationships with our own personal Gollums, but we can master how we react to them: with forbearance, self-control, mercy, distraction and, sometimes, by going our separate ways and finding peace of mind without their company.*

* Aragorn— whom Gandalf calls “the greatest traveler and huntsman of this age”— was the one who finally tracked Gollum down and captured him. According to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, Aragorn led Gollum nine hundred miles to the Elven- king’s home in Mirkwood. The journey lasted fifty days, making Aragorn the dubious winner of the “I spent the most time with Gollum” award.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us...  “Pity the self- obsessed Gollum in your life, for they are miserable wretches; but do not allow them to lead you on the narrow and desolate road to ruination.”

Noble Smith an award-winning playwright, video game writer, documentary film executive producer and narrative designer. He also runs the blog Shire Wisdom for Middle-earth fans. In addition to The Wisdom of the Shire, check out his novels Sons of Zeus and Spartans at the Gates.

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