(Click the character infographic to download.)
Note: Before we jump into discussing Gollum in The Two Towers, you might want to take a peek at Gollum's "Character Analysis" for The Fellowship of the Ring for some background.
Ah, Gollum: everyone's favorite sniveling little schemer. Sure, his manners are pretty repulsive, and we'll admit that he's not the best looking of major characters. But Gollum is also a morally complex guy with at least two distinct personalities. He has been through an awful lot. And you can't help but have a soft spot for a creature who sings so dearly of fish (okay, maybe that's just the movie). Come on, what's not to like?
The thing is, Gollum represents one possible future for Frodo. Sure, it's hard to imagine that rosy-cheeked, handsome Frodo could become anything like this twisted, weird, unpleasant little guy. But of course, Gollum was once Sméagol—part of a large family of hobbity people living on the banks of a river in ages long past. Once Sméagol murdered his best friend Déagol to get his hands on the One Ring, his family cast him out and Sméagol began the long, slow, miserable transformation into Gollum. So present-day Gollum is visible proof that carrying the Ring is not good for any hobbit's long term health or mental well being. And he's proof that you can be a nice guy and still be consumed by evil.
(Click the infographic to download.)
On the other hand, Frodo also represents one possible future for Gollum. Sure, Gollum may not be able to go back to the hobbit he once was. But Frodo is also a good example for Gollum of a better kind of Ring-bearer. Frodo didn't murder anyone to get the Ring; it really was a gift from Bilbo to Frodo. And Frodo isn't carrying the Ring because he loves it or wants to use it for his own gain. He's carrying the Ring to destroy it, once and for all. Maybe Gollum can learn a thing or two from Frodo about how to be Sméagol again:
Gollum mutters, "Poor, poor Sméagol, he went away long ago. They took his Precious, and he's lost now."
Frodo wonders, "Perhaps we'll find him again, if you come with us." (4.1.135-6)
And of course, Frodo really wants to believe that Gollum can be saved. After all, if a monster like Gollum can come back from his overall badness, then maybe there is hope that Frodo will still be okay after carrying the Ring for so long during this terrible quest.
We already know that Gollum's major struggle in The Two Towers is between two halves of himself, as he decides what's more important: his loyalty to Frodo, or his love of the Ring. Of course, by the end of the book, he leads Frodo and Sam to the lair of the huge spider, Shelob, in the hopes that they will be killed so that he can steal the Ring from Frodo's dead body. This is pretty good evidence that the bad side of Gollum's nature wins out. But why? After Frodo has spent so much time and effort being nice to Gollum, even saving him from Faramir's crew, why does Gollum remain so, well, evil? Is Frodo's mercy not enough?
The thing is, Frodo's act of mercy says a lot about Frodo as a person, but it doesn't necessarily change Gollum. Gollum still has the freedom to choose to be bad or good—and unfortunately, his free will leads him to be bad, in the end.
But at least part of Gollum's choice to be Evil Gollum instead of Good Sméagol is the result of plain old bad luck. It's bad luck that Faramir's men catch Gollum and put him in chains after Frodo promises to protect Gollum, which delivers an unfair blow to Frodo's trustworthiness. And honestly, we think it's really sad that something as simple as bad timing can turn Gollum against Frodo, and so severely that he starts secretly plotting his once beloved master's nasty death-by-giant-spider.
If you're looking for one more example of Gollum's bad luck in this book, there is a key moment near the end, when Gollum, Frodo, and Sam are resting at Cirith Ungol before facing Shelob. Tolkien himself has identified this scene as the one moment in all of The Two Towers when Gollum comes closest to becoming Sméagol again for real:
If [Sam] had understood better what was going on between Frodo and Gollum, things might have turned out differently in the end. For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the Tale comes in II 323 ff. when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum's tone and aspect. […] Shelob's lair became inevitable. (Source, pg. 330.)
In other words, Gollum has a brief moment just before he leads the hobbits to the giant spider, when he starts to rethink this whole being evil thing. But Sam wakes up at just the wrong time and says just the wrong thing. Gollum gets defensive and angry, and the Shelob incident becomes unavoidable. Here's the scene Tolkien is talking about:
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. […] Then he came back back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of yore, an old starved, pitiable thing.
But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum—"pawing at master," as he thought.
"Hey you!" he said roughly. "What are you up to?"
"Nothing, nothing," said Gollum softly. "Nice Master!" (4.8.82-5)
Way to go Sam. You ruined the moment. Of course who could blame the hobbit of being protective of his best bud. It's pretty tragic, if you think about it. Just before Gollum turns to the Dark Side forever, we suddenly get this sympathetic portrayal of his great age and great loneliness. It's as if Tolkien wants to remind us that evil isn't just, well, bad; it's also really, really sad. Because Gollum keeps forgetting his Sméagol-self and returning to his bad habits, he cuts himself off from possible friends. And the lonelier and more isolated Gollum gets, the more sensitive he is to rejection from unsympathetic guys like Sam.
Let's be clear: we're not saying that Gollum's return to evil is Sam's fault. Not even close. Gollum is the one who chooses to feed his potential friends to a giant spider because he feels insulted by Sam's distrust. That's his choice, and it ironically proves that Sam's lack of trust in Gollum is totally justified. Really, it's one giant, vicious cycle all leading back to that pesky Ring. Gollum found the Ring and succumbed to its evil. Then that evil leads others to mistrust him. But that mistrust makes Gollum all the more evil. Maybe that's just another lesson the book offers us: evil begets evil.
But even if Gollum has brought 99% of his agony down on his own head (with a little help from the Ring, of course), we still feel kind of sorry for him. He's obviously—and this is an understatement—a truly unhappy person. But we also think this pity that we feel at Sam's bad timing and Gollum's bad luck is precisely the point. We are supposed to feel sorry for how things turn out. We feel a lot of compassion for poor, ruined Gollum, even if he is kind of disgusting at the same time, and we can't help but guess that Tolkien would have wanted us to feel this way.