(Click the character infographic to download.)
It's funny – Gollum is such a huge part of the later two books of the Lord of the Rings series that we expect to see him creeping around every dark corner in this book, too. But Tolkien is amazing at creating suspense. So even though we have already met Gollum in The Hobbit, he barely appears in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien saves up this slimy little guy for The Two Towers.
Gollum's Origin Story
In The Hobbit, we get to know Gollum underneath the Misty Mountains, where he lives to eat blind cave fish and the occasional young goblin. He seems like a classic boogeyman in that book: gross, difficult to see in the dark, and very dangerous. He also keeps muttering about his "precious." Yep, that would be Sauron's One Ring of Power. The greatest single magical object in Middle-earth has been stuck underground with a weird little slippery guy for who knows how many years. We almost feel sorry for the Ring!
(Click the infographic to download.)
This also makes Gollum is the original Hobbit (or at least, Hobbit-ish) Ringbearer. So Gollum is a very, very scary example of what can happen to a Hobbit when the Ring gets too much of a hold on his mind. Is this what awaits Frodo at the end of his quest? Certainly, Peter Jackson plays up the possibility in his film – we can't help but notice that Gollum is the only other character in that movie with eyes as giant and blue as Frodo's own.
How does Gollum get the Ring? Many years before The Hobbit (like, hundreds of years), Gollum (called Sméagol then) went fishing with a good buddy of his, Déagol, in the Gladden Fields. What these Hobbit-ish guys did not know is that they were fishing at the site where Isildur (remember, Elendil's son and the man who took the Ring from Sauron in the first age?) died. The Ring had been sitting in this marsh ever since Isildur's death. So Déagol falls into the water and spots something golden on the river floor. Dun dun dun!
Of course, it's the One Ring. Déagol brings the Ring up out of the water and Gollum murders him for it. With this murder, Gollum takes possession of the Ring, sure. But he also gives the Ring an automatic hold on his mind. Gollum's family drives him out of their community, and he goes to live by himself in the dark under the Misty Mountains. It's there that Bilbo meets Gollum and finds the Ring, and the rest is history.
Not As Different As They Might Like
We can't deny it: as disgusting as Gollum is, there is some clear overlap between him and Bilbo. On the plus side, Gollum and Bilbo are both tough little buggers who resist the Ring surprisingly well. Gollum holds on to the Ring for centuries but still keeps at least some of his free will. Gandalf points out, "Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. He had proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed – as a Hobbit might" (1.2.107). Gollum's resistance to the Ring proves that Hobbit-ish folks do not give in easily to the Ring's power.
But on the minus side, Gollum and Bilbo also talk about the Ring in similar ways. The fact that Bilbo starts calling the Ring "precious" is a big warning sign that he might, eventually, turn into something like Gollum if he doesn't give up the Ring right away. Luckily, he has a friendly Wizard to help him let the Ring go. But it's disturbing to see a character who we like so much beginning to get Gollum-y right in front of our eyes. Clearly, good nature and kindness are not enough to stop the influence of the Ring on a person's mind forever.
What makes the difference between Bilbo's and Gollum's response to the Ring is how they each got a hold of it. Gollum strangled his friend with his bare hands to get the Ring. That's not a good way to come by anything, let alone an evil Ring just waiting for an opportunity to twist your mind.
By contrast, Bilbo finds the Ring on the ground in the dark of the Misty Mountains. And while he and Gollum do not trust each other at all, Bilbo decides not to kill him when he has the chance. Bilbo is sorry for Gollum. (Honestly, once you start thinking about the horror of what it would be like to spend years underground, with nothing but an evil Ring for company, you can't help but feel a little bad for the guy.) So even though Gollum is hunting Bilbo – and would eat him if he got the chance – Bilbo lets Gollum go. Bilbo's pity for Gollum leaves Bilbo mostly free of the Ring's power, at least at first.
Gollum and Bilbo represent two distinct paths for a Ringbearer: twisted by the Ring's power, or mostly free of its influence. We don't know yet which path Frodo will take, though we are keeping our fingers crossed that he will take after his uncle.
Stay Tuned for More
We mostly see Gollum in flashback during The Fellowship of the Ring. But never fear! He'll be joining the party soon. Frodo hears Gollum's footsteps following him through Moria, to Lothlórien, right to the Great River Anduin. Therefore, Tolkien strongly foreshadows that we're going to be seeing a lot more of Gollum in the later books of the series.
(And Don't Forget Déagol)
This unfortunate fellow is Sméagol/Gollum's friend. That friendship does not stop Sméagol from strangling Déagol to steal the Ring, which Déagol has found in the marshes and ponds of Gladden Fields. This murder of Déagol for the Ring not only changes Sméagol's destiny, but also the destiny of all of Middle-earth. Déagol's murder gives the Ring an immediate hold on Sméagol's mind, since the Ring's power thrives on greed.Timeline