Go Forth & Nerd! Ep. 37 - Gollum
origin of an iconic characters
Welcome back to Go Forth & Nerd! This is Jesse Bray, also known as Mr. Bray and I am your resident nerd. Today I want to talk about the creature Gollum.
Disclaimer: we're going talk about some potentially graphic and scary stuff in this podcast so if you're listening with your kiddos perhaps preview this one beforehand.
Back to Gollum. Most of us are aware of the character Gollum: from the technical CG marvel, performed by Andy Serkis in the films to the Hobbit and the Lord of The Rings to the books. However I want to talk about the potential influences and origin of this creature. I'm a huge lover of origin stories. It's often why I think many first superhero films are the best tellings. Some heroe’s beginnings are just so much more intriguing than their adventures. Except Wolverine, I love anything Wolverine. Nonetheless the “how” and the “why” is an art form.
Continuing on with Gollum, I'll be making several references to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, however I'll do my best to not assume you're aware of all the nuances beyond the movies. The Hobbit encompasses the story of Bilbo Baggins whose on a journey with a band of dwarves to reclaim a mountain of lost treasure guarded by a dragon and he discovers a magical ring which he won from a creature named Gollum.
Now, the author of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe was inspired by the tale from the classic story, Beowulf.
Beowulf is a marvelous and heroic work! It could be argued as a Scandinavian equivalent to Homer's Odyssey. Many characters, events and locations were inspired from truth.
Now the Beowulf myth begins like this: there once was a king and his kinsmen that were being tormented by a creature named Grendel. This creature was a grotesque and animalistic beast, attacking at night in the great halls by violently consuming and dismembering sleeping patrons. However one night after the arrival of Beowulf the creature Grendel attacked the great hall again. Beowulf, awaiting the monster, confronts Grendel in battle. Beowulf mortally harms the creature by severing its arm. Grendel soon flees away and eventually dies of its wounds. Not long after, Grendel's mother seeking revenge for the loss of her child, retaliates on the townsfolk. Beowulf, asleep in another castle, awakes to the carnage and mayhem left by Grendel's vengeful witch-monster mother. Beowulf immediately takes off to track down Grendel's mother. In an epic duel, Beowulf - almost killed - eventually defeats Grendel's mother. Fast forward 50yrs later and Beowulf is now a king of a kingdom. Suddenly a dragon begins to terrorize the city. The dragon, aroused from its lair by a thief that stole a cup from the dragon's treasure horde. Beowulf of course defeats the dragon in a super hero-like fashion, cutting the dragon in two. The tale of Beowulf is an intensely brutal and epically exciting story!
You might have already seen some of these images that Tolkien borrowed from Beowulf just in my simple retelling. But to break this down a bit more: In the Hobbit, the book that is, Bilbo being the company’s burglar, accidentally awakes Smaug the dragon by stealing a cup from his treasure trove. Paralleling Gollum - the creature Grendel and his mother in the text were called descendants of Cain. This image here takes a few more rabbit trails to illustrate but before I get too side tracked, remember this, Tolkien was a master of linguistics: he invented whole languages for his characters. The original text of Beowulf calls Grendel's mother “modor,” meaning mother. It’s likely Tolkien just simply added an another letter "R" changing modor to mordor. Now back to the Beowulf text that says Grendel and his modor were decadents of Cain. If you're unfamiliar with this story, according to the biblical story, Cain is the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, the first humans. However Cain, in a jealous rage, killed his brother Abel. Cain is considered history’s first murderer.
Jumping to the Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Rings (the book), we read the origin of Gollum. Gollum, long ago before he was corrupted by the Ring, was named Smeagol and he spent most of his time with his dear friend Deagol. However, like in both the books and the movies, Smeagol, upon his immediate lust for the Ring, kills his dear friend Deagol. This parallels Cain as the first murderer. The Ring driving Smeagol to slay his “brother” out of jealousy, so to speak.
Now you might think this is a bit of a stretch for Tolkien, but it's an important thing to note that Tolkien was a devoted Catholic and much of his writings reflect Catholic imagery and ideas in some cases even purgatory, but that's for another podcast. Tolkien was also very dear friends with the theologian and writer C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and the Screwtape Letters (a personal favorite of mine). So it's not a far-reaching thought to assume his religious thinking played part in the inspiration.
However I also have a further theory - Tolkien being a fan of literation and the idea that if Grendel and his mother were descendants of Cain, it seems logical to follow the Cain story, Cain's father was Adam. Now according to Jewish folklore Adam was considered a golem being made from the dust of the field before God breathed life into him. The name Gollum and Golem is similar in spelling and sound. And Tolkien was the king nerd for words.
But what is a golem? A golem is different than say a homunculus or zombie. A homunculus was a primitive human that was grown in an alchemist laboratory, a precursor to say, Frankenstein's monster. And well a zombie is usually a necrotic corpse brought back from death via some virus or black magic. However a golem is a creature made from clay like Adam in the biblical story that is brought to life by holy powers. Typically a golem is told to come to life when a rabbi has either etched a mystical letter or phrase in Hebrew on the Golem's head or inserted a piece ofparchment with mystical texts into the statue’s mouth. At this point the golem comes to live in sole obedience to the sacred writing, often times to a literal fault like in the tale the Golem of Prague, where a rabbi created a golem to protect a village but it goes awry. Tolkien would have been aware of this myth, and perhaps a possible cross pollination of ideas happening here with a mix of Adam the first golem, Cain the first murder and Grendel from Beowulf birthed the creature Gollum/Smeagol.
Just because I want to geek out on the details, Tolkien also loves the number 50. In the books both Frodo and Bilbo are 50yrs old when they start their adventures. Side note: Why are we so afraid to cast older people as heroes in film? Societal commentary aside, Gollum is a fascinating creature. He's both a villain and his own worse enemy.
One of my most favorite scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies is when Gollum/Smeagol is arguing with himself. You see this imaginary, yet real conflict. A true identity crisis. However as I got to thinking deeper about my affinity for Gollum and his imaginary arguments with himself it reminded me about my own imaginary friend I had as a child.
Between the age of 6-8yrs old I used to have an imaginary friend. Now by imaginary friend I don't mean like having tea parties with someone who isn't in the room or going on physical adventures on playgrounds wearing capes and fighting crime in your bedroom. Nothing like Hulu's brilliant comedy Moone Boy by Chris O'Dowd. No, my imaginary friend only appeared to me in my dreams. He never spoke and he always wore the same outfit. A black hat, a mask covering his eyes and a long trench coat that touched the ground. He would show up in my dreams but mostly in my nightmares to rescue me. I know this is probably strange or peculiar but so is the imagination of children. I came to refer to my imaginary friend as just The Man. And all I had to do in my dreams was to think of him and he would appear then opening his trench coat, inside was made of stars and he would wrap me in it and then we would be magically teleport from whatever nightmare I was having. Now I'm not sure how well other people remember their dreams let alone nightmares from when they were children but I remember many of them quite vividly. You see I had three reoccurring nightmares when I was a kid. Well to put it better I had three reoccurring monsters that haunted me in my dreams. This is a common thing for kids to be afraid of the dark or to think there's a monster under the bed. I remember an episode of Sesame Street where I think Ernie or Cookie Monster keeps seeing strange shapes in the dark that turned out to just be shadows. Nonetheless back to these reoccurring monsters. Their were three of them. The Ostrich, The Face and the most terrible of them all The Kitchen Man.
The Ostrich would try to reach down your throat and steal your voice.
The Face was a disembodied head that would place you inside an inky black windowless and doorless room. The only thing you could see was an eyeless and scarred face leaping forward at you.
Then lastly there was the Kitchen Man. The Kitchen Man was made of refrigerator parts and would steal children inside his chest cavity. When he walked you could see the faint silhouette and light of children screaming from inside him.
These three monsters haunted my dreams as a child, however my imaginary friend would rescue me from them time and time again. Eventually he defeated these creatures, perhaps I'll share how in another podcast, but it was my imaginary friend that was one of my earliest heroes. Then when I was 8yrs old I got a concussion and I remember seeing my imaginary friend one last time as if to say goodbye. I was never haunted by those three monsters again. Obviously this is a sorta strange correlation to Gollum arguing with himself in the dark or the moonlight. But it got me thinking, be it heroic or villainous, it all seems to start in the mind. Our thoughts can twist us or straighten us and while Gollum is a invention of fiction just like my imaginary friend, there's a temptation and perhaps I'm not alone in this, but a temptation to be reclusive and let your mind run wild. And maybe even be your own worst enemy.
One of my favorite jokes from Futurama, episode titled Jurassic Bark, Fry is talking to his dog Seymour and says, “What I like about you best is you're not constantly judging me.” Like a dog is people watching condescendingly. Maybe there's a little self-hate in all of us like the poor miserable Gollum or perhaps there's an inner hero like my imaginary friend The Man.
So today I want to ask you what's your Gollum or your Smeagol? I know it's silly to personify this stuff but today I want to challenge you to give your Gollum a name if it doesn't already have one. And let's chat about it. Feel free to send me an email or message me on Instagram if you'd like to chat. Also am I alone on my imaginary friend story? Is there any personal stories you would like to share about your own imaginary friend? Let me know I'm not alone in my experiences.
Thank you all so much for listening and remember to take care and Go Forth and Nerd!