“‘But this is terrible!’ cried Frodo. . . . O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began the ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’
‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. “I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’
‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.
‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo, ‘. . . He deserves death.’
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when it comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
If you have read or watched The Lord of the Rings, you are undoubtedly acquainted with these famous words. In the book, Gandalf has just told Frodo about Gollum’s history with the Ring and how Sauron (the creator of the Ring) has heard of the Shire through Gollum. Frodo immediately wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum, but Gandalf reminds him of the importance of pity.
Frodo does not feel pity for Gollum until he meets him and sees him in his wretched state:“For now that I see him, I do pity him.” I think that Frodo’s decision to spare Gollum’s life plants the seed of self-worth in Gollum. Surely, if someone thinks he is worth sparing, there must be some good in him yet. Without Frodo’s show of pity, Gollum may have never considered this. Frodo is well aware of Gollum’s malicious side, as he says to him upon their first encounter,“you’re full of wickedness and mischief, Gollum.” But, Frodo still sees him as deserving of pity, and of life. The further Frodo travels with the Ring and Gollum, the more he begins to understand Gollum. Frodo’s pity turns into empathy as his own duality surfaces from the suffering instilled by the Ring. As the evil of the Ring imparts more and more suffering onto Frodo, and begins to destroy him, Frodo must believe there is still good in Gollum. He must believe Gollum can be saved, if he is to be saved as well. In their first encounter, Frodo also reminds Gollum that “one good turn deserves another.” This places Gollum in a position of debt, but moreover shows him that someone believes he is still capable of good. Having gained Frodo’s trust and belief, Smeagol (Gollum’s good side) is able to gradually take control of Gollum (his evil side, initially brought out by the Ring) and eventually chase him completely away. It is only in the Forbidden pool scene when Smeagol mistakenly thinks Frodo has betrayed him, that Gollum comes back. The treatment Gollum believes he receives (whether by mistake or not) is imperative to which side of his character surfaces. I believe this is further exemplified by Sam’s relationship with Gollum.
For most of the series, Sam has no pity for Gollum. Through no fault of his own, he is not in touch with the experience of the Ring and the torment it produces. He cannot understand Gollum or Frodo’s plight completely, but must trust what he sees before him. He knows of Gollum’s mischief, but not of his inner struggle. Frodo puts his complete trust in Gollum, which I think he does because if he cannot trust Gollum, a being bound to the Ring, how can he trust his now-bound –to-the-Ring self? Frodo trusts and believes in Gollum all the way to the edge of Mordor, at which point Gollum betrays him by delivering him as fresh food for the giant spider Shelob.
Conversely, Sam is continually suspicious of Gollum and his motives. It is clear that Gollum struggles with himself; he can be simultaneously motivated by his desire to be accepted and his desire for the Ring, he can be both disgusted by and proud of himself. I think that Sam’s doubt of Gollum magnifies Gollum’s struggle because he is never able to fully gain his trust, as he is able to with Frodo. Gollum knows that Sam is aware of his evil intentions, and this knowledge confirms for Gollum the fact that in him resides evil. Gollum is resentful of Sam because Sam doubts him and this resentment in turn fuels Gollum’s evil motives. I am not suggesting that Sam’s doubt is responsible for Gollum’s evil, but rather that it does not encourage the victory of Smeagol over Gollum, as Frodo’s trust does.
At the very end, Sam does find pity for Gollum. When Frodo and Sam are taking their final steps up Mount Doom they are ambushed by Gollum. While Frodo escapes, Sam stays back to fight Gollum. His mind is “hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.” Sam cannot bring himself to kill Gollum now that he has understood in part the torment of the Ring (keep in mind that Sam bears the Ring significantly longer in book than in the movie, and even wears it). Pity stops him, where it would not have before. And we are lucky it did, or Gollum would not have survived long enough to bring about the Ring’s destruction.
At the end of the book, I was conflicted by my reaction to Frodo. I still loved Frodo, but I was disappointed that he was unable to see the task through after bearing the burden for so long. He was so close, he was supposed to be the good guy, after all that struggle, how could he cave at the last moment? How could I be denied the beautiful ending when I had been invested in it all these pages? I was frustrated because I had so wanted Frodo to succeed. It was not hate for Frodo, but frustration that Frodo’s good was not enough to defeat the Ring. And then I realized that I pitied him- he had all this pressure on him, had suffered so much for an enormous cause, and he caved in one moment. He is not worthy of disappointment, but of forgiveness as he himself gives to Gollum. In the end, when the Ring has been destroyed and Sam is lamenting the loss of Frodo’s finger (bitten off by Gollum), Frodo remembers Gandalf’s words and acknowledges that “But for him [Gollum], Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.” Frodo forgives Gollum, and in doing so allows us to forgive him for having succumbed to the temptation of the Ring in the final moment. Frodo’s pity kept Gollum alive, which in the end, in events no one could have forseen, led to the destruction of the Ring. So I gave my pity and forgiveness to Frodo too.
Forgiving Frodo for caving at the last moment was very important to me because in a sense it allowed me to take part in the story. The story did not end for me when I read the last sentence. It ended when I forgave Frodo and resolved my internal conflict with his moment of weakness. As cheesy as it may sound, the power of pity and forgiveness let me come to terms with the book. I think the fact that I was so invested and absorbed in the story to need such a reconciliation makes Lord of the Rings a truly exceptional piece of literature.
I am by no means a Lord of the Rings expert, but I do love what an enriching story Tolkien tells. I do plan on re-reading the books eventually and perhaps writing some more about it, because I am always discovering new facets of his fascinating literature!
Disclaimer- All of this is my interpretation; I am making no claims as to what Tolkien thought or intended.